- Cherokee Sister: The Collected Writings of Catharine Brown, 1818–1823 by Catharine Brown
Sometimes scholastic work is an achievement simply because it was accomplished, because some poor academic slogged through the impossible—and a survivor emerged. Theresa Strouth Gaul should be commended for the Herculean task she has completed: assembling, cataloging, and exhaustively transcribing the extent materials of Catharine Brown. Brown is deserving of this historical attention because she was the first convert at the American Board’s mission to the Cherokee; in her short life, Brown was the poster child for the antebellum American missions movement, and in her death she became its martyr. Strouth Gaul is likewise a saint. Her transcription is more meticulous than anyone could demand, listing every underline, stricken word, and superscript. Since antebellum letters were often heavily contextual, outside references in Brown’s texts are helpfully paired with explanatory footnotes that provide the appropriate background information. In short, Cherokee Sister perfectly captures what a scholastic collection of archival papers should be.
Strouth Gaul’s introduction is exceptional. She ably lays out the basic ways to understand antebellum Indian missions and provides a short biography of Catharine Brown. A nonspecialist could pick up this text and come away with a good feeling for what antebellum missionary literature looks like. Perhaps because of her disciplinary background, Strouth Gaul is strongest when discussing current academic theory. She expertly describes the framing conventions of missionary epistolography and the contested editing and publishing of Brown’s letters, paying close attention to the various audiences to which Brown wrote. Strouth Gaul should also be commended for including an extended bibliography, chock-full of useful primary and secondary sources. And to her further credit, Strouth Gaul heavily relies on the interpretations of indigenous scholars.
The generic structure of the book review requires an examination of any weaknesses in the text. So, while trying to avoid a disciplinary squabble, and recognizing that there are dozens of books written on the Cherokees and their missionaries, I believe that Strouth Gaul could provide more information on Cherokee life and the Cherokee mission itself during [End Page 120] this era. While she ably covers the underlying theoretics at work, Strouth Gaul’s treatment of the history and immediate context of the Cherokee mission itself is cursory.
The papers of Catharine Brown will probably only ever interest specialists—say, historians studying the Cherokee in the pre-removal period, or scholars of indigenous or antebellum women’s literature. This is not a criticism of Strouth Gaul, or of Catharine Brown, whose prose is well within the mainstream of pre–Civil War female letters. Rather, it is the larger truth that the sanctimonious and often boilerplate prose of antebellum female epistolography simply does not play well to readers of the twenty-first century. A more realistic hope for Strouth Gaul’s text is that it would expose up-and-coming scholars to the meanings hidden underneath the surface of even the most grandiloquent missionary literature or antebellum epistle. The task of assembling and publishing Catharine Brown’s papers is now complete: the task of fully integrating her work within our knowledge of antebellum culture has just begun.
University of Missouri