domingo, 10 de abril de 2011

The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity

The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity (Vintage, 1999)
by Jill Lepore
USA, 1998

Badmouthed in a number of unintentionally funny Amazon 1-star reviews for being not linear, "not scholarly," "post-modern" and (my favorite) "stridently anti-Christian," Harvard historian Jill Lepore's 1999 Bancroft Prize winner The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity is quite simply one of the most provocative and compelling pieces of history writing that I've come across in the last couple of years.  Great stuff.  Taking a thematic rather than a chronological approach to her topic, Lepore looks at the bloody 1675-1676 conflict between Algonquian Indians (headed by the Wampanoag leader "King Philip") and British colonists in New England to wrestle with the idea that the war of words in the event's telling and retelling was just as important as the atrocity-ridden war itself in terms of defining a new colonial identity.  Although I was surprised by how much I ended up enjoying what occasionally reads like a disquisition on cruelty, I probably shouldn't have been given Lepore's skill at interrogating her sources and the vibrancy of her prose.  Ironically, in a work in which the primacy of language takes center stage throughout--from Increase Mather's soul-searching May 1676 question "Why should we suppose that God is not offended with us when his displeasure is written in such visible and bloody characters?" (69) to distraught colonist Edward Wharton's assertion that the war's ravages had left English lands "a burdensome and menstruous cloth" (73) and on to a lengthy discussion about how colonial leaders were eventually able to rationalize a policy of extermination or enslavement against "inhuman" native neighbors they had once wanted to "save"--one of Lepore's most potent sequences is visual rather than language-oriented in nature: the revelation that the vanquished Philip's head was left to rot atop a flagpole in Plymouth for decades after the war.  Whether that be your idea of Christian justice or not, I found The Name of War to be a fascinating and complex look at a confrontation model that would be repeated again and again in later U.S. history and just an exhilarating example of close reading by an historian at the top of her game.  Bring it.  (

Jill Lepore

5 comentarios:

  1. Amazon reviews can be hilarious and even better and more entertaining than the book itself. Right now, a perfectly good one-star review of Glenn Beck's "thriller" The Overton Window is getting innumerable comments from an irate Tea Partier with apparently way too much time on his hands.

  2. Haha, I also frequently enjoy Amazon reviews :) In any case, this book sounds really fascinating! I've gotta get my hands on this one...

  3. *E.L. Fay: I, of course, agree about the Amazon reviews being a great source of humor. However, you seem so well informed about Glenn Beck's "oeuvre" that I dare say it's beginning to make me a little nervous!!!

    *Emily Jane: I particularly like reading the comments to the really ill-informed Amazon reviews--takes me back to the punk rock fanzine days when letters to the editor were just a complete free for all! And Lepore's book is awesome, as evidenced by the caliber of the criticisms launched at it. A "not scholarly" Bancroft Prize recipient? Whatever!

  4. Ugh, don't get me started on the rationale that any book relating how supposed Christians perpetrated atrocities is perceived as "anti-Christian" even if those actions are historically verifiable. I suppose we're all just supposed to pretend that CHRISTIAN people have always been loving & caring to everyone else and damn the historical record. :-P

    In any case, Lepore's book sounds fascinating. I've recently read (& read about) a number of non-chronological histories, and they can be incredibly effective in my opinion. Love that Lepore examines the aftermath of the war as historical artifact / ideological weapon in addition to merely recounting its events.

  5. *Emily: Yeah, I think it's more than a bit telling that some people get more bent out of shape about hearing about crimes committed by Christians (and/or any other religious adherents) rather than being upset about the crimes themselves. And it's not like this book doesn't make it abundantly clear that there were atrocities on both sides. One of the more nuanced chapters in Lepore's history actually concerns the moral dilemma Puritan religious leaders faced in determining what biblical precedence there was for killing Philip's 9-year old son for his father's crimes rather than just enslaving him or otherwise punishing him after the war. That people would actually find this kind of intelligent adult discussion "stridently anti-Christian" just boggles the mind, but I guess those are the sort of people who find the expression "Happy Holidays" religiously offensive as well. Weird...