Jill Lepore’s The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity argues that all wars are contests for meaning, and that the peculiar characteristics of King Philip’s War, especially that it was a frontier war between literate and non-literate peoples, make it a critical moment in the formation of a uniquely American identity.
King Philip’s War was a frontier conflict between Native Americans and colonists in what is now New England between 1675 and 1678. Also called Metacom’s Rebellion, King Philip’s War was the deadliest per capita battle on American soil. Lepore reconstructs this battle by reading accounts of it from the perspectives of both colonists and Indians, and as a result the book is a much larger study of a war between two cultures, literate colonists who fight with words, and Indians, both literate and illiterate, who write in “blud not ink.” The book is also an analysis of the ways in which these binaries break down in war, so that sometimes colonists take pleasure in torturing Indians instead of trying to translate pain into language, and sometimes Indians make their frustrations legible by destroying property or stripping and scalping colonists in a kind of symbolic, rather than pleasurable, “denuding,” or erasure of the social meaning the colonists had given the land and themselves. Further, in theatrical representations of this war in the 1800s, the roles switch, so that Americans are playing Indian and representing Philip as a noble savage, and Native American tribes go through American legal channels to preserve their identity. American identity is thus intimately connected to language, to the frontier warfare early colonists fought, and to the Native Americans themselves.
Throughout The Name of War, Lepore is careful to anchor her analysis of “text” in the material world of bodies and landscape, actions and objects; the book is thus both a part of the discursive turn and a reaction to it. It is also thoroughly interdisciplinary in both source and method, as much a work of literary analysis as a work of history. I don’t feel like this kind of sustained, thorough engagement with both texts and the material bodies and spaces and actions that produced them happens nearly as often as it should.