Welcome to the first of what will be a series of short essays on the present and future(s) of American Literature that I’ll be writing during the last week of each month during my tenure as Director of Anglophone/American Literature for the Northeast Modern Language Association (NEMLA). These essays are meant to give members of NEMLA a better sense of my scholarly background and outline the direction I hope to take the Anglophone/American literature division while serving as director. They are also an opportunity for members of this NEMLA division to share their own thoughts on American literature either through submitting comments, quotations for me to insert into the writing, or through guest posts.
In this first essay, I’d like to focus mostly on introducing myself to the members of the NEMLA Anglophone/American Literature division. My interest in American Literature developed out of a fascination with United States history. As a child I spent most of my summers with my grandparents and my grandfather and uncle Paul (who lived with him) had a sizable collection of books. Among them were illustrated volumes on the history of the U.S. Civil War and stories written by explorers of the western states. (The journals of Lewis and Clark are still among my favorite things to read.) I pored over those narratives and spent hours staring at the pictures in each book. Both spurred my imagination about what life must have been like for people living in the United States during the nineteenth century.
Coming from this background, it would have been natural for me to pursue a degree in history, but the social and cultural history that now dominates that discipline today was not yet common on the college campuses to which I applied. History programs in those schools seemed dominated more with facts and figures than the stories of ordinary people and the ways in which they understood their world (often at odds with the facts). As luck would have it, the English department at both the graduate and undergraduate schools I attended encouraged students to explore narrative as an extension of the self and the world that writers inhabit. I found a writer that interested me in the first semester of my graduate studies, John William De Forest, and the rest is part of my own history. That author and the method of literary study I had pursued since early on as a student would lead me to write a book that exemplifies my historically influenced approach to the study of literature, New Men.
A fascination with the context of literary production remains a constant in my scholarly life, but the topics I research are diverse. There are many veterans in my family and my grandfather’s obsession with military history shaped my reading habits from an early age. This led me first to essays and a book on veterans in the nineteenth and early twentieth-century United States. Growing up in Vermont also made me very much attuned to the environment and I’m currently conducting research for a new book on farming practices in the nineteenth-century United States and how those practices often clashed with the mythology of farming that many small farmer’s had imbibed from an early age. I suppose if there is any link between this new avenue of inquiry and the prior one, it is in the personal connection that stirred the desire to research the topic. There are also meaningful links here between the mythology of war and the warrior and that of the farmer. Few images seem quite as “American” as the citizen-soldier and the family farmer.
The courses I teach also serve as grounds for me to explore other areas of interest. These have included at various times: detective fiction, Westerns, Chicago literature, historic preservation, ecology, urban planning, and so on…. None of these interests have developed into a book (yet), but I have sent nearly a generation of students out the doors of my classrooms more attuned to these issues. I am especially proud to have introduced to hundreds of undergraduates the uncanny significance of space when it is re-crafted for human needs(often referred to as human geography). Few of my students ever look at their environment in quite the same way again after having attended my class. One even wrote me a few semesters ago with a story about a poorly designed pedestrian mall in their hometown.
Some might argue that my eclectic research interests explain why I remain a non-tenure eligible faculty member (i.e. a Lecturer rather than an Associate Professor). Perhaps that’s true, but the glory of humanities research is not in the categorization. Instead it is in its ability to break and reshape categories. I guess that explains my recent fascination with Digital Humanities, which probably won’t save the humanities as a whole but certainly will force us to rethink the dominant paradigms shaping our various fields of study. Who knows, maybe someday what I’m writing now will be considered an essay and not simply a “blog post” (insert disdainful noises here) by the academic establishment.
Anyway, this is who I am dear NEMLA members. Passionate about what I do and quirky as hell. It’s a pleasure to meet you all virtually and I look forward to seeing many of you in person in Hartford, Connecticut.
Until next time…
Digital Humanities (DH) is often understood in grand terms as a project to build and maintain electronic archives or software capable of the “distant reading” (called for by Franco Moretti) of vast bodies of texts. However, for most scholars in the humanities what counts as DH is learning how and how not to use digital texts in the classroom. This roundtable invites proposals for short presentations (5-10 minutes) that examine the ways that digital texts have entered our classrooms, particularly those of faculty who teach general education courses and surveys of American literature. Presentations might cover such issues as: determining what counts as an “authoritative text” in a digital medium, problems of access for students and faculty both in and out of the classroom, methods of teaching digital texts, theories of reading as they apply to digital texts in American literature, and distinctions between teaching digitized versus digital born texts.
Please submit an abstract and short bio at:
Deadline for submissions is September 30.
Disability Studies provides a shining example of how interdisciplinary scholarship at its best might operate. Yet within literary studies this mode of analysis still struggles to gain pride of place. One reason for this is the fear of disability. Unlike most forms of identity, the markers of disability (a loss of bodily and/or mental integrity) are permeable and someday might be applied to any person. Additionally, able-bodied members of society are unsure how to interact with the disabled in a way that will not cause offense. Both of these fears help marginalize what otherwise would be a valuable tool for analyzing creative expression. This session will explore how these fears of disability are represented in American fiction across time periods, genres, and media. Papers are sought that cover topics such as the “gaze” of the able bodied upon the disabled, representations of disability as “monstrous” or “grotesque,” projections of societal anxieties upon the bodies of disabled persons, disabled figures at the margins of stories not commonly seen as addressing the topic of disability, and analysis of narrative forms used to discuss the concept of disability. Other topics will also be considered provided they address issues of representing disability in American fiction.
Please submit an abstract for your paper (250-300 words) as well as a brief bio at:
Deadline for submissions is September 30.
2016 Call for Papers
Northeast Modern Language Association
47th Annual Convention
March 17-20, 2016
Hosted by the University of Connecticut
Abstract Deadline: September 30, 2015
In spring 2016, the Northeast Modern Language Association (NeMLA) will meet in Hartford, Connecticut, for its 47th Annual Convention. Every year, this event affords NeMLA’s principal opportunity to carry on a tradition of lively research and pedagogical exchange in language and literature. The convention will include a full array of sessions, workshops, literary readings, film screenings, and guest speakers.
Hartford features some of the most significant historic and cultural sites in New England: the adjacent and interconnected Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe Houses; the artistic and cultural collections at the Wadsworth Atheneum; classic and contemporary performances at the Hartford Stage, Theater Works, and the Bushnell Center for Performing Arts; archives and research opportunities at the Connecticut Historical Society and Connecticut State Library and State Archives; unique and offbeat museums for kids and families such as the Connecticut Science Center and the CRRA Trash Museum; and much more. Both Adriaen’s Landing (the newly completed area around the convention center) and the historic downtown feature a variety of restaurants, shops, and parks.
Please join us for this convention, which will feature approximately 400 sessions, dynamic speakers and cultural events. Interested participants may submit abstracts to more than one NeMLA session; however, panelists can only present one paper (panel or seminar). Convention participants may present a paper at a panel and also present at a creative session or participate in a roundtable.
Full information regarding the 2016 Call for Papers may be found on our website:
Summertime generally finds me with a large stack of books on my living room floor waiting to be read. This summer is no different. Now that classes are done for the semester I’ve been digging into that pile and pulled out two devastating gems that read like a hand grenade dropped into the soul. The first is Kevin Power’s novel The Yellow Birds (2012) and Phil Klay’s collection of short stories Redeployment (2014).
Power’s narrative is written in the first person and follows the experiences of 21 year old Private John Bartle and 18 year old Private Daniel Murphy as they join the U.S. Army and are sent to fight in Al Tafar, Nineveh Province, Iraq.The story is not chronological but jumps back in forth through time and space. We begin with scenes of battle from Al Tafar in September of 2004 and then jump back to Fort Dix, New Jersey in December of 2003 and see Bartle’s experience following enlistment but prior to deployment. This discontinuous method of narration makes the story hard to follow at times but clearly reflects the first person narrator’s state of mind. Private Bartle is caught between Iraq and the United States, between 2009 (the most recent date in the novel) and 2004 (his deployment to Iraq). The only consistent element in the story is the older-brother-like relationship Bartle forms with Daniel Murphy, mostly at the insistence of Private Murphy’s mother and Bartle’s Sergeant who’s not convinced that Murphy will survive the war. As you might imagine, things don’t end well for Murphy. I won’t tell you how, you’ll need to read the book. Bartle, however, manages to survive and can’t help but think as he stares out a window that “beyond the tree line the dull world that ignored our little pest of a war rolled on” (Powers, 216) while he is stuck reliving each day the things he saw and did on the streets of Iraq.
Phil Klay’s collection of short stories is even more fractured in narration than Power’s novel as he shifts to radically different characters and settings for each piece. Essentially Redeployment is 12 distinct narratives that are only loosely connected by the war and its effect on the characters represented. Readers meet enlisted men and non-commissioned officers as well as company level officers, the key players in most war fiction, but they also meet a foreign service officer tasked with rebuilding Iraq and an Marine chaplain struggling to hold on to his faith as the battles unfold. We see this vast range of characters experience everything from the death of friends in battle to the death of a family pet at home and the sympathy of friends and family as well as their inability to figure out what to say to soldiers coming home beyond “thank you for your service.” One of the few elements that ties these stories together is a recurring emphasis on storytelling as a key part of war and the public perception of veterans. Returning to base after a mission, the Marine grunt who narrates the story “After Action Report” remarks that
“every time I told the story [i.e. about the attack], it felt better. Like I owned it a little more. when I told the story, everything was clear. I made diagrams. Explained the angles of bullet trajectories. Even saying it was dark and dusty and fucking scary made it less dark and dusty and fucking scary. So when I though back on it, there were the memories I had, and the stories I told, and they sort of sat together in my mind, the stories becoming stronger every time I retold them, feeling more and more true” (Klay, 35).
Learning how to tell stories is part of the task of becoming a veteran that Klay describes but also views with a caustic eye worthy of Ambrose Bierce. In the story “Psychological Operations,” a former psychological warfare specialist struggles to fit in while attending classes at Amherst College in Massachusetts. He admits to readers that “I tended to play the world-weary vet who’d seen something of life and could look at my fellow student’s idealism with only the wistful sadness of a parent whose child is getting too old to believe in Santa Claus. It’s amazing how well the veteran mystique plays, even at a school like Amherst, where I’d have thought the kids would be smart enough to know better” (Klay, 170).When a student asks him “should I thank vets for their service…or spit on them, like Vietnam,” he tells her “I reserve the right to be angry at whatever you do. It’s all phony. When the war started, almost three hundred congressmen voted for it. And seventy-seven senators. But now, everybody’s washed their hands of it” (206).Because he is a former psychological warfare soldier, it is hard to know how much of the narrator’s words we can trust. At the moments quoted above, however, he seems to be genuine with the reader and (moreover) to hint at the author’s own perspective towards how U.S. citizens view those sent off to fight in this “Pest of a War.” Why are we thanking veterans for their service while at the same time making no effort to understand the war in which they fought?
This problem is not unique to the Iraq War and carries on throughout most of U.S. history. It is easy to forget that World War Two and Vietnam are not the norm for the American soldier. More often than great praise or public scorn, soldiers returning home from U.S. wars are met with indifference. Greeted by a public who has long forgotten that a war is even going on. Powers and Klay are among the vanguard of what promises to be a large collection of writing, both fiction and nonfiction, on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. One supposedly ended (for the second time) and the other still going on. At this point it is too early to tell how these wars will be remembered but I have a suspicion that future generations will remember these wars in a way much closer to the “small wars” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in places like Cuba, Nicaragua, China, and the Philippines. Trained to find and destroy the enemy soldiers of an opposing state, our army is just as ill-prepared today as it was over a hundred years ago to serve as politicians, policemen, engineers, and teachers. What we have in our time, I’m afraid, is another “savage war of peace” started by men who have no interest in learning from history and chose to let other men relive it for them. A sad and sobering thought like this I carry with me as I enter this Memorial Day weekend and prepare to honor the dead of all the U.S. wars.
Luxurious is the first word I’d use to describe my experience in Toronto at this year’s NEMLA both spatially as well as intellectually. Taking place at the historic Royal York hotel, I had the opportunity to spend time in a location once visited by Queen Elizabeth and filled with oddly beautiful and yet disconcerting traces of empire.
The first session I attended, on the self-made man in the plays of George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde (5.21), was held in the Quebec Room, which featured a full length mural on one wall of explorers discovering the city in their dug out canoes. An appropriately theatrical setting for a pair of authors who toyed with treasured assumptions of the middle class British male.
Following this session I attended one focused on meeting the needs of our students with flexible teaching methods (6.6). Two of the presenters were interested in the use of fully online or blended courses. Their experience with them sounded mixed. One presenter on the panel focused on the support services available at her school for transitional students who had dropped out of high school prior to attending university or had not imagined themselves as being college material. The final pair of presenters described attempts at their university in Sweden (Uppsala) to shift undergraduate teacher education with a new form of thesis research that emphasized projects that could be used in the classroom to teach students while at the same time encouraging teachers in training to reflect on their teaching practices. My lack of knowledge of the Swedish language prevents me from telling you much about the content of the student theses examples the presenters passed around, but the images suggested that each project was interested in creating an active learning environment for students. Two thumbs up in my book.
The presenters from Sweden had my particular attention in this session as they seem to have found an effective way to close the gap between theory and practice in their discipline. This dilemma has always been one of interest to me, in part motivating the creation of this blog. What good is knowledge when it is hidden in a format that only a small number of people can see and use? These students were learning the most important thing a teacher can learn. Make learning accessible in both literal and metaphorical terms.
From this session on flexible learning I went to a panel presentation on the use of digital tools for learning (7.3). One of my colleagues, Mary Hale, gave an excellent talk on her own suspicions about the digital turn and its limitations for the teaching of literature. The other speakers showed methods of digital pedagogy they had used in the classroom, primarily to contextualize the materials being examined. My favorite approach was the bio-regional one taken by Ken Cooper from SUNY Genesco who with the help of librarian Elizabeth Argentiari created interactive maps and web pages (using OMEKA) that documented the layers of history underlying cultural representations of the Genesee valley. I’ve always been a regionalist at heart and love projects that make students go outside into the landscape (rural or urban) and learn from the people and the land in addition to their textbooks.
One comment on the location for this panel, the Banff Room had clearly been a guest room at some point and was turned into a makeshift presentation space. The old, yellow, peeling, and musty wall paper couldn’t help but remind me of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Hands down this was the creepiest conference room I’ve ever been in! But I guess the nineteenth-century feel was appropriate for a nineteenth-century literature and culture panel.
After that stimulating session on the use of digital technology, I took a break to eat, going outside to buy a hot dog from a surly street food vendor. For a moment I thought I was in New York. Then I went back inside the hotel for a panel on postwar Italian representations of World War II (9.2). To my regret, the first presenter, Daniele Pipitone, was unable to attend the conference. I was very much looking forward to learning more about the imagery of the war published by Italian popular magazines in its aftermath. The three presenters I did have the pleasure to hear were very engaging. I especially enjoyed Silvia Ross’s paper on the lack of Italians in the landscape of Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient and Nicole’s lively discussion of counter-factual history in relation to Quentin Tarantino’s film Inglourious Basterds.
The only sour note in the series of panels I attended greeted me on Saturday morning at the round table on adjunct faculty (10.1). I was late attending this panel and only caught the last speaker who delivered a lively presentation of what he felt were the benefits of being a part-time faculty member. Not long before he finished speaking a woman sat down in the back row next to me. We started the discussion portion of the round table and someone asked a question about the gender and racial breakdown of adjunct faculty. I muttered under my breath “the statistics are pretty clear.” And they are. Women and minorities make up the largest number of adjunct faculty.
The woman next to me glowered at me and spoke in a voice between a shout and a whisper: “What statistics? You mean the AAUP ones? Those are skewed. Don’t you know who funded them?” She then proceeded to berate me for believing these statistics and began to cause a distraction for the rest of the people in the room.
Embarrassed, I tried to disengage from her and nearly left the room. I stayed and watched her continue to hijack the discussion, telling everyone in the room to “follow the money” and leave the profession. Eventually the room regained its equilibrium, but the storm blown in by her bitterness put a chill over the rest of the conversation. I left as soon as a I could after that and went to another panel. A sad end for me to what appeared to have been an otherwise positive session.
At every conference I attend, I make a habit of going to a panel on something I know nothing about. This year I decided to attend a round table session on 21st Century Tunisian Women Authors (11.14). The first two presenters spoke solely in French, leaving me to struggle through the remnants of my knowledge of that language learned many years ago as a middle school student in Vermont. Luckily they had slides. I could read and comprehend those easier than their speech, which I struggled to slow down in my head and translate. I must say, however, the struggle was fun and reminded me of why I began to engage in scholarship in the first place, for the mental challenge. The last presenter and much of the discussion was in English. I was particularly interested in what the audience had to say about the role of NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) in the lives of Tunisian women. Trying to help them achieve some measure of autonomy in their lives, many of these NGO’s were acting like 21st century colonizers, trying to impose a model of female autonomy on these women that did not respect their cultural heritage. I left that session wanting to go back and study French if for no other reason than to read the works of these brave women trying to find their voice in a troubled land.
I left this realm of unfamiliar people and language for a more comfortable space in the next session on regionalist writing in the nineteenth-century United States (12.23). All four panelists were excellent. The one that caught my attention most, however, was Florian Freitag’s talk on local color fiction about New Orleans in Scribner’s and other monthly periodicals from the late nineteenth-century. In part my interest was due to his explicit use of the periodical studies method, which is becoming far too rare in contemporary scholarship. Florian is attempting to contextualize the regionalist narratives he is examining within the magazine as a whole, considering both its publishers and their intended audience. I look forward to reading whatever publications develop from his research.
The last panel I attended was a round table on interdisciplinarity and the future of the humanities (13.24). All of us in the room bounced through so many different topics that I can’t possibly cover them all here. Suffice to say that there seemed to be a common thread throughout the discussion that the humanities are worth fighting for and that we as humanities scholars need to do a better job of promoting ourselves and our work. A special shout out is in order to Jean-Paul Boudreau, Dean of Arts at Ryerson University in Toronto, one of our local hosts, for sitting on the panel and reminding us that we should approach our Deans with new ideas and instead of fearing rejection find new ways to argue our case. Proof yet again, that Rhetoric is the mother discipline of all others. ; )
A plane back to Chicago awaited me after that panel, but I would be remiss in not mentioning the two AMAZING keynote addresses. The first was on Thursday where M. NourbeSe Philip and Madeleine Stratford brought their poetry to life for us. Similar life was breathed into the bard on Friday night as Christopher Innes and Brigitte Bogar shared the many adaptations of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with the audience. Brigitte sang musical adaptations of this classic story of ill-fated love and even shared the stage on two occasions with a ballet dancer who demonstrated two dances used to portray the character of Juliet.
I started this blog post with the word luxurious, using it to describe the setting of NEMLA 2015, but the intellectual aspect of the word has (I find) gotten lost somewhere in my expansive description of the sessions I attended. What made this conference luxurious intellectually for me was that I was able to attend the conference without chairing a panel or presenting a paper. I was simply a tourist in a land of fascinating ideas. This won’t be the case for me next year in Hartford as I left Toronto the newly elected Director of American literature. NEMLA 2016 is likely to be a busy event for me as I try to fill the large shoes of my predecessor, Jennifer Harris, and the amazing conference put together by the NEMLA board this year in Canada. A daunting task, but I’m up for the challenge. See you all in the Charter Oak State!
My book at long last is now available for purchase. You can buy a copy here: http://fordhampress.com/index.php/new-men-cloth.html
No this is not an April Fools joke. : )
How we represent veterans matters. This is a concept central to my research, which attempts to provide historical perspective on the always complicated relationship between armies and the societies they were created to protect. To understand that relationship at a given place and time, I rely on images and phrases that have moved beyond their original more limited symbolic use to become mythic in nature. Once an image or phrase has shifted into the realm of myth, it contains a ready made story within it that viewers or readers don’t need to decode as much as re-enact. Two such phrases that have been on my mind considerably of late are: “more are dying every day” and “thank you for your service.”
The first of these phrases appeared in a somewhat altered form in an article published by the Chicago Tribune on Sunday, March 15 about seven brothers from the Powell family who had served in the Second World War. In that article, the writer addressed a move by the state of Illinois to name a section of highway in Greene County, Illinois “The Powell Brother’s Memorial Highway.” He suggested that state lawmakers should move fast, saying:
“George Powell is the last survivor among the Powell brothers and the lone surviving sibling of the 13 Powell children. He’s also 99 years old, living in a Traverse City, Mich., rehabilitation center. Meanwhile, the number of World War II vets continues to decline. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 550 veterans from that conflict die every day, and that 1.2 million of the 16 million who served in the war are alive today” (“Bad of Brothers.”).
Numbers don’t lie, according to this writer, and consequently we must hurry to honor the service of veterans such as George Powell, “550 veterans from that conflict die every day.” But the question we don’t ask as we read this article is why this war and why this sense of urgency? The writer assumes we already know.
Perhaps we do. But it is worth remembering that the Second World War is one of the “good wars” in American consciousness. Fought to save the world from Fascism and end the human rights abuses of Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan. In this respect at least, the Second World War bears a strong similarity to the United States Civil War, which was fought to end slavery and nudge the nation in the direction of improving civil rights for black men. So it should come as no surprise that the words and phrases used to describe these conflicts and their legacy are close in nature. Writing in a Galveston, Texas newspaper on Sunday, May 30, 1897, the writer claimed that:
“Nearly two thirds of those who fought in the Civil War have already passed away. Of the 2,800,000 men called into the service of the nation, only a few more than 1,000,000 remain. By 1940 these will be reduced to a battalion of 340, and, five years later, not one will be alive” (“More Than Half Are Dead.”).
There is something uncanny about the writer of this article in the 1890’s referencing dates that would become associated with the nation’s next “good war.” More important, however, is the logic of urgency that we see repeated in this article. The generation associated with the Civil War is rapidly dying off and soon no one with living memory of the war will remain. Honor the veterans while you may for soon none will walk among you.
In the Civil War era, this logic actually proved untrue. Although there is some dispute over when the last Civil War veteran died, many agree that it was some time in the 1960’s or 70’s. This rate of decline would be comparable to that of other wars as the last veterans of World War I have only recently died and the last veterans of the United States Revolutionary War died in the 1820’s and 30’s.
Belief in the rapid mortality of World War II vets, the last examples of what to the national mind must appear to be a blissfully uncomplicated war, is paired with the concept made visible in the phrase “thank you for your service.” Naming a roadway for George Powell and his brothers is one method of thanks. But now we find many businesses offering discounts to veterans and their families and the presence of a man or woman in uniform elicits spontaneous applause in airports and train stations. One veteran, Dave Duffy, complains in a Washington Post editorial from Thursday, March 19 that this action by U.S. civilians puts soldiers on a pedestal. He says:
I get it that society is grateful for our military service, and reasonably so. I also believe that society’s overboard efforts to recognize military service are directly related to the lasting guilt over how we treated returning Vietnam veterans….Teachers, police officers, firefighters, doctors, nurses, scientists, social workers, civil servants, diplomats and, yes, military all do our part to make our society a bit better while taking care of our citizens. All deserve admiration and thanks. (“Stop Putting Our Soldiers On a Pedestal.”).
Retired Lieutenant Colonel Duffy makes an important point that service should be the reason we honor veterans rather than latent guilt. Service to the country is what makes the concept of republican government work in the first place. Without people willing to vote, serve on juries, run for political office, and the many other thankless but necessary tasks that make up life in a participatory society, we do not have a participatory society.
So where does this leave us? How should we represent veterans and interact with them in a meaningful way?
I’ve thought about this question a great deal even as I’ve spent much of my time contextualizing the ways in which symbolic language use got us to the point we are at today. The best answers that I’ve arrived at so far are: Ask veterans how they would like to be remembered. Remember that not all veterans are the same.
Knowledge is the best cure for stereotyping of any person or group. For what is a myth but a form of stereotype? If you don’t know a veteran, make a point of befriending one in a genuine way. If you know a veteran, take the time to speak with them about their service. Also, it is important for all U.S. citizens to learn more about the military system that your tax dollars support. The civilian military gap can’t solely be blamed on soldiers. There is a lot as civilians that we simply don’t want to know. Army life is one of those things.
On Saturday, February 14, C-19 (The Society for Nineteenth-Century Americanists) held what will hopefully be the first of many circuit events, which will help members of the organization meet on a local level and promote the study and discussion of nineteenth-century American culture.
Members of C-19 joined other scholars and the general public for a dramatic reading of a play recently unearthed by the Newberry library’s acquisitions staff. That play was “Philip, or the Indian Chief (1838),” a play script written by Jehiel Lillie, a cadet at Norwich military academy in Vermont.
The script contained many of the themes and imagery that one would expect of a play written about Native Americans in the nineteenth century. Philip and his warriors are portrayed as brave but ultimately doomed to extinction at the hands of colonists as they “civilize” the land. At one point near the end of the play, Philip’s spiritual counselor, Francis the Prophet, directly references the myth of the “Vanishing Indian” in words that would not have been out of place in one of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels.
What surprised me, however, was the dialogue between the commander of the Colonial Militia (Church) and the Missionary (Elliot) and Surgeon (Cooper). These two civilian professionals attempt to convince the military leader that violence is not the answer to resolving the land disputes between the Wampanoag tribe and the colonial settlers. Although their argument ultimately falls on deaf ears, the fact that it is present in a play written and performed by military cadets is fascinating. It suggests that in 1838, a period dominated by wars with the Native tribes and racist populism, a group of potential army officers were concerned about the relationship between the army and the people it was supposed to serve.
More research has yet to be done on this play. I hope to see scholarship both from Native Americanist researchers as well as historians of the Jacksonian era that references this intriguing work.
This newly acquired play script is part of the Rudy Lamont Ruggles collection at the Newberry Library in Chicago and is housed in their Special Collections on the 4th floor. Call slip information can be found here.
Many thanks to the Newberry Library and Karen Sánchez-Eppler, the President of C-19, for hosting and organizing this event.