- Through an Indian’s Looking-Glass: A Cultural Biography of William Apess, Pequot by Drew Lopenzina
by Drew Lopenzina
University of Massachusetts Press, 2017
through an indian’s looking-glass is a tour-de-force re-visioning of one of Native literature’s most enigmatic figures. Building upon foundational work by Barry O’Connell, Maureen Konkle, Lisa Brooks, Jean O’Brien, Robert Warrior, and others, Lopenzina leverages an extensive array of materials and a wide range of approaches to begin filling in some of the gaps in Apess’s story. Opening with Walt Whitman’s call for a “terrible negative voice” capable of capturing the “truth” of American experience, Lopenzina presents Apess as precisely such a figure. For Lopenzina, “to engage in negative work” from an Indigenous standpoint “means to stand in the path of history itself and imagine its alternatives—to intellectually challenge the static identity carved out in colonial manuscripts” and “to offer something affirmative and meaningful concerning a people and a history of a people that has been so effectively unwitnessed” (6). The book tracks in detail how Apess consistently works to disrupt colonial tropes of erasure and exceptionalism; to re-presence Native communities in the narratives and geographies of the Northeast; and to hold multiple audiences accountable for historic and ongoing settler-colonial violence.
As noted in the introduction, arriving at this story was no easy task. Aside from his four most well known texts, very little exists of Apess’s family history outside of his own work and almost nothing of what must have been an extensive corpus of writings from one of the period’s most prolific Native figures. Combined with “archival negligence” and “historical disinterest” (111) on the part of scholars and local historians, discourses of noble savagery and tragic vanishing produce a series of “archival vanishing points” (41) that effectively “unwitness” figures like Apess, and Indians more broadly, from the historical record. For Lopenzina, this is perhaps nowhere more evident than in Apess’s erasure from the local histories of his birthplace of Colrain, Connecticut. If one aim of the book is to provide a more complete scholarly account of Apess’s life, of equal importance is to re-presence Apess in the local geographies and vernacular histories of the region.
As a method, cultural biography allows Lopenzina to explore adjacent contexts that likely informed Apess’s experience and to speculate about the [End Page 148] possible avenues his life might have taken. I am most struck by what this approach offers for the story of Apess’s life prior to his better-documented career as a minister, writer, and intellectual. Chapter 1 historicizes the gendered dynamics of labor, exchange, and violence that informed Native women’s experiences in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as contexts for Apess’s estrangement from his mother and his contentious relationship with his grandmother. Framed by the rhetorical dynamics of historical erasure, chapter 2 reconstructs Apess’s kinship networks in the region and situates the ruptures of those relations as a function of mixed-race precarity in an environment where slavery and dispossession constituted daily threats. Chapters 3 and 4 track Apess’s military service in the War of 1812 and his postwar travels prior to his return home. The former contextualizes Apess’s commentaries on the violent absurdities of war through variously allied Indigenous contemporaries; the latter considers Apess’s sojourn through Haudenosaunee country and the ceremonial structures of condolence that may have provided Apess a trans-Indigenous framework to make sense of his own life. Chapters 5 and 6 document Apess’s return home, his reconnection with his relations, and his “spiritual rebirth” into a Pequot-influenced Methodism informed by relationships with influential Pequot women.
It is the speculative possibilities of Lopenzina’s approach, along with his rigorous historicism and insightful close readings, that I find most provocative. This is perhaps nowhere better demonstrated than in the conclusion, which refigures Apess’s final years from a narrative of tragic decline into an energetic pursuit of a life’s work advocating for the rights of Native peoples...