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  • Modernity and Its Other: The Encounter with North American Indians in the Eighteenth Century by Robert Woods Sayre
  • Bryan C. Rindfleisch
Robert Woods Sayre, Modernity and Its Other: The Encounter with North American Indians in the Eighteenth Century. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017). Pp. 468. $34.98 paper.

Robert Woods Sayre demonstrates how Euro-Americans observed the profound socio-economic transformations to British North America during the late eighteenth century—or the transition to "modernity"—and the role that the Native Peoples of North America played, involuntarily, in that process. First published in French in 2008, this book features well-known eighteenth-century authors like William Bartram, St. John de Crévecoeur, Philip Freneau, Jonathan Carver, and John Lawson, in addition to lesser known individuals such as Moreau de Saint-Mery and Alexander Mackenzie, who illustrate how Euro-Americans wrestled with the onset of a commercial world, and utilized the Indigenous Peoples of North America as either a reflection or a commentary of that process. It is through these authors that Sayre imagines a "decisive historical moment" in which the "modernity" of British North America "clashed radically with the 'premodern' Native American cultures with which it was in close contact," a "watershed…in a process of evolution toward capitalism and modernity" (4). By the turn of the nineteenth century, though, with the emergence of a market economy in the United States, this Indigenous parallel to Euro-American "modernity" faded into the romanticism of the "Noble Savage" stereotype and was replaced with the triumphal narratives of American progress that were embodied in the writings of George Catlin. Altogether, Sayre finds that the transition to a capitalist modern world—in the Weberian sense of the word—occurred at this critical juncture in the late eighteenth century, and proved intimately connected to, and inherently in tension with, the Native Peoples of North America.

Sayre's book is divided into two parts: the "View of Modernity" by Euro-American authors during the eighteenth century, and their "Views of the Other," or "Travels in Indian Territory." In part one, Sayre compares and contrasts the writings of Crévecoeur, Freneau, and Saint-Mery to pinpoint the "onset of modernity in the English colonies through the eyes" of both famous and obscure writers. From the Letters from an American Farmer and The Rising Glory of America, to [End Page 141] Saint-Mery's little known treatises, Sayre uses such texts to demonstrate capitalist mentalities—or the primacy of a "profit motive"—and commercial structures throughout British North America, which deviated from the agrarian foundations of the colonies (88). When Native Peoples were mentioned, which was rather infrequently by these authors, they were a tool to critique the new "modernity" (75). One of the most intriguing insights by Sayre is his analysis of Crévecoeur's "Distresses of a Frontier Man," in which the narrator contemplates "escaping his predicament [when faced with "modernity"] by going to live in an Indian village where he is known and feels sure to be welcomed," thereby inverting Indigenous Americans as a source of comfort, nostalgia, and identity for the frontiersman (53).

In part two, Sayre uses the writings of French and English authors—beginning with the Baron de Lahontan and Francois Xavier de Charlevoix, followed by Lawson and Carver, then Bartram, and lastly the fur traders Mackenzie and Jean-Baptiste Trudeau—to better explore how Euro-American writers understood their interactions with the Native Peoples of North America within that transition to modernity in the eighteenth century. These authors' observations varied from the expected, such as by defining Indigenous Peoples as premodern (complete with the value judgments that reflected the authors' predispositions to modernity), to the unexpected, such as Bartram's "passionate identification with the Other…[who] expresses a romantic revolt against the modernity that he was convinced had drawn away from the authentically human" (234). This conflagration of modernity and Other reveals what Sayre calls a "radical paradox" exhibited by all of his Euro-American authors: a "unanimity of praise" for Indigenous Peoples and cultures (and in some cases their moral and cultural superiority), but at the same time equating those peoples and cultures as antithetical to modernity...


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pp. 141-143
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