Saturday, January 29, 2011


A review of Jill Lepore's The Name of War: King Philip's War And The Origins of American Identity (1999)

(Rating 3 of 5)

In my last post I described how a short while ago, I decided to do a straight reading up on the history of my country. Not by a series of biographies or of any particular event; but a simple march through the ages exploring all the eras of the United States of America. The first challenge is to find books that try their best to explore from multiple perspectives avoiding just one narrow view, without at the same time surrendering a general narrative that is both readable and enjoyable. The second challenge is determining where to start. I suppose I could start at the American Revolution or all the way back to Mesopotamia. I finally decided to start with A History of England by Clayton and David Roberts. After getting done with the mother county I moved on to this book by Jill Leopre, generally because of Leopre’s reputation of exploring history with memory. Her book deals with early English colonists and how they related to and fought with Native American tribes. Lepore’s dealing with both points of view (colonist and Native) during the colonial era surrounding the events leading up to, during, and aftermath of King Phillip’s War.

Jill Lepore's book is about one of earliest wars in American history and how the conflict would shape the identity of both sides involved. Lepore writes of colonists that left England for the purpose of religious separatism yet are always concerned about losing their Englishness due to the Natives' presence, and also the Native tribes willingness to explore this relationship while it benefited them balanced with their concern about losing their tribal and cultural identity due to the presence of the English. This fear of loss of identity would be one of the primary reasons for the conflict that ironically would change the culture of both dramatically, making the English 'Americans' and the various tribes 'Indians'.

(Philip A.K.A. Metacom)

Lepore's work is very academic in tone and a very difficult narrative to at times follow. Each chapter has about a page and a half of narrative and the rest is analysis. I found the most interesting parts of the book to be the introduction, preface, and final chapter. Those sections contained fascinating insights to how war is interpreted down the generations.

“Clearly, literacy is not an uncomplicated tool, like a pen or a printing press. Instead literacy is bound, as it was for New England's Indians, by the conditions under which it is acquired; in this case at great cost. To become literate, seventeenth-century Indians had first to make a graduated succession of cultural concessions—adopting English ways and English dress, living in towns, learning to speak English, converting to Christianity. But these very concessions made them vulnerable. Neither English nor Indian, assimilated Indians were scorned by both groups and even were subject to attack. Because the acquisition of literacy, and especially English-language literacy, was one of last steps on the road to assimilation, Indians who could read and write placed themselves in a particularly perilous, if at the same time a powerful position, caught between two worlds but fully accepted by neither.” p.27

I would recommend this book to advanced readers who would like an introduction into one of America's least understood conflicts, but I think the causal readers would best be served by looking somewhere else because this book does border on the technical side. Nevertheless, this work does a great job at exploring the conflict from many angles and explaining the context for which the war was fought.

{Video from the PBS series We Shall Remain, Jill Lepore herself is interviewed.}

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