January 27, 2006

Gratuitous Llama Book Review

White Savage.jpg

I'm just finishing up White Savage: William Johnson and the Invention of America by Fintan O'Toole. Johnson was the principal Crown Agent for Indian Affairs in the Northern Colonies during and after the French and Indian War and was crucial in maintaining good relations between the British and the Iroquois Confederacy, without which the British could never have defeated the French and their own Indian allies.

I'm hoping Steve-O will weigh in on this subject a) because I know he read this book recently (indeed, it was his geek-posting that put me on to it), and b) because he's a ringer on the topic.

In general, I found the book quite informative. However, I must say that I am not fond of history as psycho-analysis. Too often, the author is apt to confuse what his subject was thinking and feeling (or at least as much of it as can be known from the historical record) with what the subject might have been thinking and feeling. And once into the realm of conjecture, I think the author runs the danger of projecting his own thoughts and feelings onto his subject.

Here, O'Toole tries very, very hard to link Johnson's affinity for the Iroquois, who are rapidly being overrun by British colonists, with his own roots in a British-conquered Ireland of suppressed Catholicism and smoldering Jacobite resentment, coupled with a Gaelic mysticism paralleling the Indians' concept of spirituality. (He also swallows the Noble Savage view of the Indians hook, line and sinker.) How much of this is O'Toole's own apparent romanticism leaking through, I really could not say, but I have my suspicions. And while I don't doubt his more straight-forward factual presentations and even his political analysis, I'm not sure that I buy his exercises in mind-reading.

UPDATE: On the other hand, I think O'Toole's concluding chapter about how authors such as James Fenimore Cooper transmogrified Johnson's life into a mythic image of the young American Republic - a mixture of European blood and Indian virtue (the so-called "White Savage" of the title), is spot on. (I believe O'Toole is some kind of literary critic, so he seems to be on safer ground here.)

Posted by Robert at January 27, 2006 04:01 PM | TrackBack