"Each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice." Jill Lepore uses this observation of Montaigne's to introduce "The Name of War," an elegant study of the ferocious war between Algonquian Indians and English settlers in southeastern New England in 1675 and 1676.
Her subject is how each side saw the other (as far as we can know), what each said about the conflict (again, as far as we can know) and what echoes of the war persist to this day.
The qualifications are necessary because, since few Indians (Lepore's appellation) could write, all the history and nearly all the then-contemporaneous commentary were recorded by the English settlers. Drawing upon what they said, though, Lepore paints a powerful picture of New England in the 17th century, with shrewd glimpses of a later America in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
"As far back as the Reformation," Lepore writes, "the English had measured themselves--their civility, their piety, their humanity--against other Europeans, especially the Spaniards, whom they condemned for their cruelty to Protestants during the Spanish Inquisition.
"And, after the first European ventures to the New World, the English continued to measure themselves against the Spanish, whom they again condemned for cruelty against the Indians during the conquest of Mexico."
But soon the English opened themselves to the same accusation. Although the first settlers in what is now Massachusetts dealt peacefully with the local chief, Massasoit, they quickly found themselves engaged in a brutal war against the Pequots.
The war that is the subject of this book began with a murder, that of a Christianized Indian, John Sassamon, after he had warned the English that Massasoit's successor, Metacom (who called himself Philip), was planning to wage war against them. The English hanged two of Philip's friends for Sassamon's murder.
When that happened, Philip fell upon English settlements, and for the next 14 months war raged across New England. The English were pushed back to the coast, and hundreds of them died. But the Indians suffered more. Thousands of them died, and the first step was taken in the long march through time that would push the Indians ever westward, away from their ancestral homes.
The English were horrified by the tortures that the Indians inflicted on their captives, but the English attempted to sell many of their own captives into Caribbean slavery.
The two cultures were hopelessly at odds. The English believed in personal property; to the Indians, the woods and fields belonged to the great spirit and to everyone.
Lepore argues, most plausibly, that as a result of this war the colonists had to depict Philip as a barbarous villain to defend their own conduct because they were desperately afraid of " 'degenerating' into Indians" on this strange and hostile shore.
Lepore dexterously analyzes the competing narratives of the war written by Puritan clergymen, Increase Mather and William Hubbard. For another angle, she brings in Mary Rowlandson's "The Sovereignty and Goodness of God," an account of her three-month captivity by the Nipmucks during the war. The title reflects the Calvinist view that all affliction is a cause for spiritual reflection and, potentially, for redemption.
The war ended with the death of Philip, but it and he lingered in American memory. During the Revolution, preachers and writers raised the memory of the war, Lepore writes, as a "propaganda tool" against the British and cast the settlers as American patriots and the Indians in the role of the redcoats.
In the 19th century, Washington Irving wrote a tale with Philip as the hero, "nobler than the noblest of the noble savages," Lepore says. James Fenimore Cooper produced a novel about him titled "The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish." The actor Edwin Forrest toured the country with a vastly popular melodrama called "Metamora."
Lepore points out the irony of these literary artifices even as the nation was deliberately forcing the Native Americans to the margins of American territory and American life; a place from which, even now, some are seeking to return.