- Modernity and Its Other: The Encounter with North American Indians in the Eighteenth Century by Robert Woods Sayre
In the eighteenth century, the developing British colonial economy centered on land speculation and the fur trade, both of which were dependent on the dispossession of North American indigenous people. The new market economy [End Page 420] in the North American colonies flourished and expanded at a rapid rate over the century. In Modernity and Its Other: The Encounter with North American Indians in the Eighteenth Century, Robert Woods Sayre analyzes the journals of European and Euro-American travelers, fur traders, soldiers, and captives, as well as novels focusing on the perspectives of the colonial writers. Sayre is interested in the responses of the writers to the advent of a modern capitalist economy in colonial settler societies as it confronted the premodern indigenous communities, or the "other." Sayre's monograph, which has been translated from his 2008 French publication, draws on two fields of study—"the socioeconomic history of the European colonies and the ethnohistory of indigenous peoples"—to examine eighteenth-century literature as a collective memory to show the overlap of the fields (p. 1).
Sayre divides Modernity and Its Other into two parts. The first part concentrates on "Views of Modernity" by analyzing three views of American modernity before, during, and after the American Revolution. Sayre argues that the authors Saint-John de Crèvecoeur, Philip Freneau, and Moreau de Saint-Mery assessed the development of an American capitalist society in their writings. Each author questioned the new American modernity in terms of the erasure, removal, or civilization of indigenous people.
Part 2 of Sayre's monograph analyzes the accounts of Euro-American travelers in Indian territory or the eastern frontier. The traveler narratives that Sayre focuses on include those by baron de Lahontan, Jesuit priest Charlevoix, John Lawson, Jonathan Carver, William Bartram, and fur traders Alexander Mackenzie and Jean-Baptiste Trudeau. Sayre examines these accounts in terms of how each author wrote about modernity in Indian territory.
Sayre's compelling examination of Bartram's account, which was originally published in 1791, analyzes the traveler's thoughts on modernity and its negative effects on southeastern Native social structure. Bartram traveled from Philadelphia through the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, and west to the lower Mississippi River area between 1774 and 1777. Bartram, who was a radical Quaker, had a favorable predisposition toward the Native people in the region and harshly criticized the modern world as immoral, unnatural, and damaging to Native society. Sayre argues that the original ideals of radical Quakerism, such as egalitarianism and oneness with the human and natural communities, isolated Bartram from the profit-driven Philadelphia Quakers. The tension between the two types of Quakerism drew Bartram closer to the Native communities he regarded as having "true morality" (p. 211). However, despite his affinity for the indigenous people he encountered and his criticism of the market economy, Bartram nevertheless supported the civilization plan and hoped that the program would resolve the differences between the two cultures.
Scholars have used much of the travel literature in Modernity and Its Other to learn about the cultures and lives of Natives during the colonial period. Sayre takes a fresh look at the heavily used documents through the lens of modernity, which pitted a British market economy, the accumulation of wealth, the use and transformation of natural resources, and unlimited expansion against the "other"—Native North Americans. Sayre's study does silence the perspectives of Native people and what they thought about modernity. However, the book [End Page 421] is a worthy read in terms of examining eighteenth-century literature from the perspectives of Europeans and Euro-Americans, investigating their thoughts about modernity and their views on how modernity influenced the lives of indigenous Americans.