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How to Read the New Histories of Empire, Part 5

7. The new histories of empire are theory-laden.

One of the more remarkable features of Richard White’s writing is a certain idealist strain that breaks through irregularly. At one point, he informs readers that the middle ground was the site of certain “beliefs,” a kind of doctrine: “beliefs not only that the boundaries between societies and cultures were permeable but also that identities were interchangeable.” (389) It is important to register that the character of White’s argument has just shifted, by assigning to the frontier a moment of reflection or norm-generating self-consciousness. He is now claiming something more than that social and ethnic roles were up-for-grabs on the borderlands. He has added the assertion that the frontier-dwellers also knew this, or at least that they believed it, the suggestion being that they held cosmopolitan and anti-identitarian commitments. The Indians, he writes, were “attempting to prove the boundaries permeable.” (391) It’s that last phrase, with its clear echoes of the seminar table, that gives one pause, tending as it does to transform the Delaware and Shawnee into bearers of Adornian or Butlerite positions, or, indeed, to cast eighteenth-century Native Americans as undergraduate Sartreans, the ones who got As on their existentialism mid-terms, while the Anglo-Americans sit there looking slightly abashed, the square students who just don’t get it or who have read the wrong philosophers. The problem isn’t that the Virginians and Pennsylvanians were colonists—so, after all, were les habitants and les voyageurs. The problem was their identitarianism and mauvaise foi.

Perhaps Sartre and Butler are a red herring, however, because White’s real mentor in matters of political philosophy goes by a different name. Anyone reading The Middle Ground for the first time might notice that White is hung up on a couple of phrases: “The common world of the pays d’en haut” (519); “it succeeded in restoring, at least diplomatically, a common world and a common understanding.” (270); “The common world was … becoming ragged” (430); “The common world narrowed.” (432) A person might even be puzzled by this. Nowhere does White sound more like a pop existentialist than on the opening page of The Middle Ground, where he tells readers that his will be a book “about the search for … common meaning,” a phrase that, by recalling Viktor Frankl, does nothing to make the American frontier seem more benign, since Frankl, we’ll recall, was searching for meaning in a concentration camp. One of the worst things about “Indian haters,” at any rate, is that they “sought to terminate … more complicated searches for common meaning.” (389) But we can leave the word “meaning” to one side. For it is the word “common” that links the phrases “common meaning” and “common world” and thereby points us to a proper name. For “common world” is one of Hannah Arendt’s signature terms. A quick search of recent literature on Arendt turns up an essay called “How Common Is Our Common World?” (Kattago) and another called “The Idea of a Common World” (Jones). Outfitted with that unmarked citation, the reader soon spots White borrowing other concepts and arguments from a beloved philosopher. First Arendt (1972: 142 – 143): “It is, I think, a rather sad reflection on the present state of political science that our terminology does not distinguish among such key words as ‘power,’ ‘strength,’ ‘force,’ ‘authority,’ and, finally, ‘violence’…. Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert.” Then Richard White: George Rogers Clark, the head of the Kentucky militia, “was by temperament a war leader who thought that force was power”—though one notes that by “force,” White seems to mean “violence” and so becomes the target of Arendt’s argument in the very act of restating it. (426) Or again: Anyone who has read around in Hannah Arendt will know that the “common world” takes as one of its near-synonyms “the in-between,” which hereby joins those others as the fourth of the middle ground’s major connotations: the Midwest, the frontier, political moderation, and the Arendtian in-between. At this point, in order to collate these dispersed references, it becomes necessary to bring into view Hannah Arendt’s Big Story. For Arendt, politics always takes place in that intermediary zone, the public space of the polis or its agora, which we must learn to cherish for its own sake, which we must take care to distinguish from private life and which we must commit ourselves to cultivate and protect. The public and in-between is the space where we can deliver speeches and undertake actions without—and this is its signal advantage over home—having to certify these as intimate or authentic. The in-between is also the place where differences between people can be put on display and to some degree adjudicated without any presumption of unanimity. If members of a society share a common world than they need share little else—not attitudes or beliefs or ways of living. It doesn’t matter that we maintain different perspectives on x, provided we remain certain that we in some sense share x or that x is a public thing. Arendt’s philosophy can thus be read as a therapeutic program, designed to strengthen its readers’ flagging commitments to the public and active life, to remind them of all the reasons to love the common world, hence to combat the consoling lure of private life. But it is perhaps better read as a grand récit about the collapse of that common world, about the overtaking of politics by mere household concerns—what Arendt calls “the social” but what we on etymological grounds might more tellingly call “the economic.” Richard White’s least remarked upon achievement is also his most wondrous—a specimen to be admired by all collectors of rechercé academic ingenuities. He is retelling Arendt’s Big Story, her only story, the story about the death of politics, but has adapted it to a (somewhat) new location and a (sharply) new chronology, like Akira Kurosawa deciding to set King Lear in Sengoku-period Japan. In the place of ancient Greece, which was always Arendt’s paradigm of a Properly Political Place, we find Fort Detroit, as the vita activa’s womb and epitome. And the American Revolution, which Arendt took to have sponsored a temporary revival of genuine politics, translating Anglo-Americans into the active life, turns out instead to have brought about the fall of public man (because public man lives on the Midwestern frontier, and US Americans depoliticized that space via thick settlement and Indian removal). 1776, which we have been taught to see as the common world’s second chance, was instead its betrayal and shutdown. That White is also adapting the arguments of Frederick Jackson Turner should be abundantly clear by now. The Middle Ground works by superimposing upon a Turnerite story about the end of the frontier an Arendtian story about the end of the common world. “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” rewrites itself as The Human Condition.


How to Read the New Histories of Empire, Part 4

6) The new histories of empire are generically comic. Whether or not you find a given account of the frontier plausible will have a lot to do with positions you’ve arrived at, and tastes you’ve formed, before you’ve ever heard of Fort Duquesne or Blue Jacket. How do you think history typically proceeds?—except that most history-writing is narrative, so the question is better rephrased: What kind of stories do you think history typically yields? And before that: What do you think makes for a good story anyway? What kinds of stories are you drawn to? There comes a woozy moment, in any extended discussion of history-writing, when the emphasis has to shift from the history to the writing, from the conscientious checking and re-checking of paleographic fact to the fashioning of a narrative that living readers will find aesthetically satisfying and so assign explanatory effects. Informing yourself about the eighteenth-century American frontier—or about any other patch of imperial history for that matter—is not fundamentally unlike choosing a movie to watch. Your housemate turns to you and asks: “What are in you the mood for?” In the standard accounts of Pontiac’s Rebellion, the generic conventions are almost too easy to pick out. Literary critics surveying the available texts are likely to feel that they should have to try a little harder. A reader thus opens Francis Parkman’s Conspiracy of Pontiac, first published in 1851, and finds Anglo-American heroes “bold and hardy enough to venture” into Indian country in the face of “murderous attacks,” “stout-hearted” “adventurers” and men of “duty and courage” (455-6, 678, 456). Ranged against these chevaliers of the New World we find Pontiac, “the Satan of this forest paradise,” an “arch-demon,” avatar of a “murder-loving race” (508, 812, 829). The Ohio Valley becomes the stage of an American adventure story, or romance, with clearly delineated heroes, performing “memorable feats” “in the true spirit of heroism” and thereby squaring off against Indians who serve largely as obstacles to be overcome (579, 576). (Maybe your housemate has proposed that you watch an old Western. Maybe your housemate is your dad.) Of course, other genre cues can join themselves to these medievalizing ones. Parkman sometimes writes in a Homeric mode, filling his pages with war councils and martial catalogues, in a manner that suggests he meant to supply US literature with its missing epic. Similarly, he sometimes writes as the classical historian of the American colonies, with Tacitus and Herodotus as his proximate models, hence with the Indians cast as Goths or indeed as “barbarian hordes” (796). That said, the fundamentally neo-chivalric cast of Parkman’s language can be pegged to a single word, gallant, which he favors: The non-British commander of Fort Pitt is “the gallant mercenary,” supported by “the gallant Swiss, Captain Ecuyer,” a “gallant soldier” capable of “gallant conduct” (642, 734, 735, 794). Anglo-Americans used to refer to native American settlements as “castles.”[i]

To script the 1763 rebellion as a tragedy, meanwhile, is simple enough—it takes just two steps: First, Howard Peckham’s Pontiac and the Indian Uprising (1947) is the only monograph to present itself as a biography of the Ottawa leader. Chapter 1 is called “His Background,” Chapter 2 “His Early Life,” and so on. The effect of this choice is to frame a generalized anti-colonial war as the effort of a one admittedly important war-leader—or, if you prefer, to fix our attention on the program laid out by a single chief. Syntactically, this individualizing thrust makes itself felt via persistent synecdoche, in which the name “Pontiac” is made to serve as the term for the collected Indian forces: “If Pontiac could not stop the supply ships from reaching Detroit….” (210) “He [Pontiac] had failed to annihilate Dalyell’s force….” (209) Other literary conventions reinforce Pontiac’s centrality. It is Peckham’s habit to summarize the speeches given by other people only to reproduce Pontiac’s oratory in full, often over several pages, setting them off as monologues in a manner that readers are likely to experience as Shakespearean. The book’s biographical frame is thus reinforced by quasi-theatrical sequences, which Peckham can almost name as such: “The spotlight had been focused on [Pontiac] for the past several days, but this climatic appearance on the stage of Indian diplomacy was his last role of consequence.” (297) A man who never once saw a play, who in fact spent his life some six hundred miles from the nearest theater, is anachronistically described as thespian and leading player. Second, the historian, having emphasized the (theatricalized) agency of Pontiac as individual nonetheless insists on the limits of same. If we look back at the instances of synecdoche just quoted, we’ll see that they emphasize miscarriage and disappointment, rendering Pontiac as sole actor, but then announcing his inability to act or to complete an attempted action: He could not stop the ships. He failed to wipe out the British army. In his final chapter, then, Peckham reclassifies the book he has just written, swapping genres at the last possible moment. Pontiac’s has been a story about a “diminishing of power,” about “losing,” about “not attaining any of [one’s] objectives.” (319) In formulations such as these, biography yields to tragedy: The Indian leader “stood in our path for a moment and thrust us back, revealing the tragedy of his people and the cost of human progress. … From this date the real tragedy of the Indian begins.” (322) The scholar obligingly names his preferred plot-form at the moment of its conclusion. The first play written by an American to feature an American setting was Ponteach, or the Savages of America: A Tragedy (1766).

Or again, readers with more lurid tastes might decide they prefer David Dixon’s Never Come to Peace Again, published by the University of Oklahoma in 2005. That Dixon has written a kind of Gothic yarn—or perhaps a horror-Western in the manner of Ravenous or Bone Tomahawk—should be clear by Chapter 4 at the latest, when we read an interpolated “legend” about a British settler, killed by Pontiac outside of Detroit, trying twice to scrabble out of his burial ground, his “pale arm protruding from the grave.” (112) It is around that zombie-movie freeze-frame that the rest of Dixon’s book will now organize itself. Pontiac’s Rebellion was a war full of “bizarre tales,” the historian/crypt-keeper tells us in the language of the pulps, a “horrifying holy war” on the Indian side, a sequence of atrocities on the English side, outrages perpetrated by white “fiends.” Quotations from period documents obligingly make the genre argument for us: “Anything feigned in the most fabulous romance cannot parallel the horrid sight now before us.” (qtd 163) And it’s true: One wonders whether any other peer-reviewed monographs by tenured American historians feature quite so much cannibalism. Dixon even concludes his preface with a winkingly insincere warning/enticement to the reader—“I beg the reader to be indulgent through the relation of numerous horrific atrocities perpetrated by both sides during the conflict” (xiii)—a sentence that converts the academic prologue into a vintage B-movie teaser: “Do you have the guts to sit in this chair?” “Trained nurses will be available in the lobby.” “No refunds!” A reader skimming forward at this point will notice that Chapter 2 is called “A Colony Sprung From Hell,” in which the Ohio Valley becomes the stage for an American horror story. It remains to be said that an older version of literary theory would suggest that we call such hell-writing “satire” rather than “horror,” where “satire” refers to stories without heroes, stories, that is, in which the characters who would usually be regarded as heroic are merely victims or are themselves bad, hence stories in which nobody wins. Thus Dixon, in his book’s final pages: “Neither side could claim any decisive victory in the conflict.” (242) At one point he asks us to “ponder” a bit of anonymous backwoods graffiti: Nous sommes tous sauvages.[ii]

By now, anyone familiar with Northrup Frye’s short catalog of story-types or “fictional modes” will have realized that one of them is missing. Historians can fashion the stuff of the eighteenth-century frontier into an American romance; they can fashion it into an American tragedy; or they can fashion it into an American horror story. The mind now itches to ask whether they can also fashion it into an American comedy—a comedy, that is, that would include the Native Americans, since inclusion is one of the comic mode’s more important features. Can we fix our attention on the frontier and find (except—no, not “find”) there a story, not of universal savagery, but of new life, or revival and rejuvenation, a story in which there are no losers, a story of reconciliation in which everybody wins, in which nearly all the characters turn out to be good guys, in which apparent conflicts are revealed to be misunderstandings, and in which the social order remakes itself at last around a few improbable marriages? A reader can disagree with every page of Richard White’s Middle Ground and still admire the resourcefulness with which he sets about this unlikely task, point for point for point.

A story of revival and rejuvenation? White’s very first argument is that colonization was not just destructive; it didn’t merely mow down native people. Nor was it the extension unto monotony of older European social forms. Empire “creates as well as destroys”; or, better, it provokes rounds of creativity in Europeans and Native Americans alike. The last sentence of the book’s first paragraph reads: “Something new could appear”—a “new man,” “new systems of meaning and of exchange,” “new meanings and through them new practices.” (ix-x) In sun-saluting prose, Richard White summons his readers to the colonial equinox. The hard ground yields. Birds remember their song.

A story in which there are no losers? One is tempted to argue, as a discrete point, that the new histories of empire are pro-trade. The observation proves skippable, however, and not only because it is wholly unsurprising, but also because it is properly catalogued as one of the school’s comic impulses. In this regard, the most telling sentence in The Middle Ground is tucked into one of the book’s two distinct and widely separated attacks on dependency theory. White is out to contravene a group of dependency theorists, including a younger version of himself, who thought they could show that a growing reliance on European manufactures had narrowed the political options available to Native Americans in the period of westward expansion. The Europeans possessed a permanent bargaining advantage, one they did not fail to exploit, which was that they controlled access to goods that the vast majority of native people were not prepared to do without. Here, then, is that argument’s comic refutation: On the frontier, “it remained possible for both traders and Indians to profit from … exchange.” (484) Global trade under colonial conditions did not undermine Indian autonomy; it gave native peoples scope, rather, to initiative and self-reinvention. This was especially true around the Great Lakes, because trade with the French involved “love”; without that “love,” it’s true, trade risked turning “chaotic,” not oppressive, necessarily, but disordered. (265) This is an argument that White then gladly extends to military affairs: The biggest Indian uprising of the eighteenth-century sought, not an end to colonial rule, but an “accommodation between the races.” (270) Even “conflict” and “confrontation” are best grasped as opportunities to “rearrange … relationships.” (420) [iii]

A story in which apparent conflicts are revealed to be misunderstandings? White is interested in misunderstanding in two different modes. First, misunderstanding is one of the engines of imperial creativity: Forced to adapt to native lifeways, the French never fully comprehended the practices they had adopted, and so unwittingly created new ones, by force of persistent mis-emulation. That the same point can be made of the Indians, compelled to guess what the Europeans wanted from them and never quite getting it right, merely duplicates the point. American modernity is a bad translation and subtly botched rite. White’s second version of misunderstanding is more obviously of the type identified by genre theorists and directly recalls the plots of the comic stage. The Middle Ground reports on the moment when the Mingos, a breakaway group of mostly Seneca Indians who moved into the Ohio Valley in the eighteenth century, decided that the British had “bad designs” upon them. White calls attention to this instance of resentment and antipathy and then analyzes it in a manner that largely exculpates the British. The Mingos had given in to an understandable misperception. “Famine and epidemic, coupled with British trade policies, created an [Indian] image of the British not as misguided brothers, but as enemies, a malevolent people bound by neither kinship nor ritual obligations.” (275) Such is the subtlety of comic plotting, which it is easy to underestimate: A well-tooled comedy needs to be able to mimic the plots of epic and tragedy and the adventure story, simulating the conflicts and crises that are the indispensable stuff of narrative interest, and so affording, after a fashion, the basically jejune and melodramatic pleasures of the non-comic genres, all the while negating the plot’s various dangers and clashes, even as it stages them, by in the end re-classifying all conflict as misperception, transient and rectifiable. British imperial agents in North America were nobody’s enemy; they were, at worst, temporarily estranged kin: “misguided brothers.” “Misunderstandings were also the stuff on which the middle ground fed.” (383)[iv]

A story of societies remade by hitherto disallowed marriages? There is an x here that goes by many different names. The classically minded theorists of genre call it comedy. The Victorianists call it the marriage plot. The anthropologists call it exogamy. For a while, the postcolonialists made it seem compelling again by calling it hybridity. A literary historian might call it the last two chapters of Walter Scott’s Waverley. I’m writing for the moment about colonial North America, so I’ll call it the Pocahontas motif in order to observe that Richard White deploys it with the frequency of a priest publishing the banns:

-“Indians, like the [French] commanders, saw marriage as an integral part of their alliance with the French. . . .” (69)

-“To keep the villagers loyal, French commanders depended, too, on the métis legitimes and on the Frenchmen who had intermarried and traded among the Indians.” (215)

-The middle ground sponsored “a heterogeneous mix of different peoples loosely linked by intermarriage and common loyalties.” (316)

-“The French took wives from the Indians and produced children of mixed descent; the British took land and threatened the well-being of [Indian] children.” (342)

It is this last sentence that most bolsters one’s sense that Richard White thinks in terms of literary genre, though perhaps without realizing that this is what he is doing. In two pared-back clauses, he has assigned to each of the major North American empires its characteristic plot. The British Empire generates melodrama: sociopaths with posh accents menace the cowering young. The French Empire is a library of courtship novels, a favorite book multiply re-read, at the end of which there will always be a Québécois Darcy, ever-wedding his Anishinabe Elizabeth.[v]

Comedy, it hardly needs saying, is not an obligatory mode. It is at least as plausible to describe the pre-Revolutionary frontier as, in the words of another ethnohistorian, “a place where the peripheries of two cultures merged, creating potentially dangerous situations based upon tension, hostility, fear, and insecurity between the two peoples,” a “flux area,” unusually “precarious” (Kawashima: 2) Read alongside these contrasting claims—mixture, yes, but volatile mixture, dangerous to some of its human components, ready at times to re-separate—Richard White’s version of the colonial periphery stands out by virtue of its wholly amicable stability, not the stability of particular imperial or Indian formations, but the stability of the middle ground itself, as the matrix for these others. To hear White tell it, everything fed the middle ground; everything that happened on the middle ground, no matter how death-stalked or superficially antagonistic, was an invitation for further moderation and accommodation. The French were ousted from Canada, and the British got absorbed by the middle ground even as they refused it. The Indians arranged around Pontiac launched a simultaneous rebellion against every British fort in the west—and nonetheless ended up reaffirming the Middle Ground. One consults Gary Nash, summarizing a generation’s worth of research into Native America in the 1770s and ‘80s, and finds him writing that the American Revolution was a catastrophe for Native America (Nash: 346ff.; see also Calloway). And then one turns back to White, who claims instead that “for all its clamor and destruction, [the Revolution] watered the political middle ground….” (366) Even murder fed the middle ground: Every ambushed trader provided impetus for a fresh cycle of diplomacy; every killing was a chance to reaffirm friendships and expiate wrongdoing. “In fighting and death, as well as in peace and negotiations, there were contacts, meanings to be deciphered, and understandings reached.” (387) The most important thing about a murder is the people who come calling after the funeral.

Anyone still puzzled by White’s position need merely dip back into literary theory. You can tell what White is doing if you know how comedies work. For students of the genre have often observed that Shakespearean comedy, in particular, has a thing for forests. In many comedies, characters exit the ordinary world of city or court and remake themselves, not always by choice, in the woodlands outside of Mantua or Athens. When literary historians go looking for the origins of the frontier myth, they tend to single out the more or less martial genres of early American writing: captivity narratives, memoirs of Indian war. What Richard White has grasped better than these English professors is that comedy has always been a sylvan genre, too, no less than these others. It was only a matter of time, then, before some writer seized the genre-dictated opportunity to redescribe indigenous Wisconsin as the Forest of Arden. White’s most enduring bequest to the new histories of empire, replicated serially across the continents and across the university’s many regional expertises, has been to show scholars how to look at any contested zone of timber, bush, or jungle and to see there only the green world.[vi]

[i] For “castle,” see, for instance, Middleton 2007: 29, 33, 60, as in: British “claims threatened the upper Mohawk castle of Canajoharie.” (29) By introducing the question of genre, I am, of course, following a procedure first recommended by Hayden White in Metahistory.

[iii] The full quotations might be instructive in this instance: p. 265: “When gain rather than ‘love’ ruled the trade, exchange remained chaotic.”; p. 270: “Out of the radically different British and Alognquian interpretations of the meaning of the British victory over the French, it [Pontiac’s Rebellion] forged a new, if tenuous, accommodation between the races.”; p. 420: “To portray the confrontation along the Ohio simply as a conflict between the new American state and Indian tribes misses the complexity of the relationships between the various groups involved; it neglects the extent to which confrontation itself was rearranging the organization and relationships of the region.”

[iv] See also Martin Goodman in Rome and Jerusalem (386): “Bloodshed [in Judea in the early first century] seems always to have been the result of quite specific incidents. During the festival of Passover in the late 40s or early 50s a Roman soldier bared himself, turned his backside to the assembled pilgrims and let out a noise like a fart, according to Josephus’ account in his Jewish War; in the parallel account in the Antiquities, the insult was to display his genitals. (The accounts are of course not incompatible. Perhaps this was a cultural misunderstanding and Romans felt able blithely to joke about nudity and bodily functions in a way that Jews found disgusting.)”

[v] An early review by Rebecca Kugel highlights the centrality to White’s argument of Indian women and intermarriage. See also Plane 2002.

[vi] On the literary origins of the frontier myth, see especially Slotkin 1973.

How to Read the New Histories of Empire, Part 3


Here, then, are seven points to keep in mind when reading the new histories of empire—preliminary theses that any reader should be able to confirm by reading widely in the scholarship published since 1990 or so. The first three are implicit in what I’ve already written:

1) In the contemporary academy, defenses of empire are surprisingly common.[i]

2) These often emerge from the corners of the university where you would least expect to find them—from among ethnohistorians, for instance, or critical theorists.[ii]

3) They are typically liberal or left-liberal in orientation.[iii]

The remaining four points will require a little more explanation.

4) The new histories of empire are superficially pro-indigenous and so easily misread as hostile to empire. This matter is perhaps best understood as involving a rhetorical technique. Many readers will find defenses of empire plausible only if these have been routed first through a defense of indigenous people. The initial task facing the new imperial historian is thus to show that empire brought benefits to non-Europeans or that it was in some meaningful way the latter’s choice and co-creation—that empire, indeed, was just one more version of indigenous society. The simplest way to do this will be for the historian to route his imperialism through a necessary mediation, by focusing our attention on some group of colonized people who for whatever reason elected to cooperate with the Europeans. One sides with empire by siding first with them. At the same time, arguments of this kind typically proceed by way of the negative, which is to say that their defense of one set of imperial practices announces itself as a critique of other empires. In practice, this requires little more of historians than that they identify to their own satisfaction which version of empire was best for indigenous people, hence that they posit a Good Imperialism alongside a Bad One, though if carefully written, even this simple A-B coding can masquerade for long stretches as an anti-imperialism. This antithesis, it must be noted, can work a few different ways: the early stages of empire vs. the late ones; the remote margins of an overseas territory vs. its oldest and most settled districts; weak imperial programs (indirect rule, soft power, treaty imperialism) vs. strong ones; national empire #1 vs. national empire #2, the French vs. the British, the British vs the Spanish, any of these vs. the Americans. White’s arguments, for all their archivally generated detail, are, of course, iterable. Arguments he makes about the French can be transferred at will to any other group of Europeans. One important circle of historians, headed by Francis Jennings and Stephen Saunders Webb, have asked us to admire the British Empire for its determination to protect native peoples from Anglo-American encroachment. For much of the continent, Indian survival would have required more empire and not less. In such writing, the British and Indian alliance, as forged at Albany and points north, becomes the target of our trans-historical identification, and this cathexis yields a position that, though difficult to parse in the political categories of the early twenty-first century, is nonetheless fairly common among PhD-holding historians: anti-colonial, but pro-empire.[iv]

5) The new histories of empire are Americanizing. White’s writing cultivates in the reader a disaffection towards American history. The Anglo-Americans are the ones who menace the middle ground and in the book’s final act destroy it. They are the agents of ethnic and religious immoderation; the founders of some strange, new country without a middle; the designers of its impossible geometry—a surface, vast and unbroken, that is nonetheless all perimeter. And yet it is enough to blink once, and these two seemingly opposed terms—America and the middle ground—will start to merge. America, which we have been instructed to see as the middle ground’s annihilator from the east, turns out instead to be its synonym and twin, a second name for the third term. That which is neither Indian nor European is. . . . To American Studies scholars, meanwhile, the notion of the middle ground is likely to suggest nothing so much as the chronotope of Hollywood Westerns and dime novels. Frontier stories, after all, have always rendered the US as the space in-between, carving their story-world into three vertical tiers: a Far West, wolfish and primordial; an effete and overcivilized East Coast; and a central zone, paradigmatically American because semi-civilized, on the understanding that semi-civilization is actually the preferred state. The task of the Western, as genre, is to consider how this last, easily understood as transitional and unstable, might nonetheless be maintained: how to be white, certainly, but not too white. Any backyard, toy-gun reenactment of the frontier myth—any game, I mean, called cowboys and Indians—is thus an abbreviation of what was always a more complicated narrative structure. The organizing principles of the Western are not two-term, in the manner beloved of structuralists and schoolboys, but three-term: cowboys and Indians and Easterners: dudes, greenhorns, English dandies, pedant-journalists, the shady agents of the railways. Frontier stories are to this extent always multiple and hard to summarize. Readings of Westerns inevitably yield paradox, since the master-story they tell while facing westwards will be contradicted by the master-story they tell while facing east. Stories about bringing civilization to the deserts and the badlands double as Rousseauvian parables about Europeans who regenerate themselves by exiting the metropolis. Your typical Western is at once a vernacular narrative about the coming of modernity and a story about the return to nature, in which the Easterner becomes an American by stripping away finical layers of accreted custom and luxury. No doubt: It is the genre’s anti-Indian animus that has allowed Westerns to function as so many parables of modernity into the twentieth century and beyond, re-tooling the form’s older, agrarian republicanism by harnessing it to a fully commercial ideology. Settlers in Westerns look like yeomen but are inevitably the bearers of market society. The historical cowboy, after all, nonsensical icon of American independence, was a not-at-all-autonomous worker paid a wage to drive his boss’s bovine commodity to market. Complexities abound, however. If the fictional cowboy is not simply a Lowell factory girl in disguise, then this is because the persistence, in the genre, of the East as a cursed space, even when Indians are the primary enemy, means the Western is always eager to draw distinctions among its pioneers. There are proper ways of living in a commercial society, visible only in the primal spaces of incipient modernization—distinctively American ways, as opposed to European ones—and these will still be roughly primitivist and republican, rather than bourgeois-Occidental. It is therefore misleading to describe literary cowboys and frontiersmen as the puppet-envoys of European society or as generically white. For they will count as American only if their whiteness has been modified and perhaps even compromised, if, that is, they have to some degree adopted Indian ways. White Indians were the stock figures of early American nationalism: Daniel Boone, Natty Bumppo, sundry other rangers, scouts, and trappers, all of them figures of the middle ground. In the introduction to his book, Richard White tells the reader that he “found . . . much that surprised [him]” while researching the volume, that, indeed, he “found his perspective on the period changing” in some fundamental way. (xi) Anyone reading these words might well expect White to be expounding a new paradigm. How baffling, then, to realize that this “new Indian history” (he uses the term on p. xi) is mostly a restatement of the old Western and frontier myths—more baffling still to return to the book and find that its author has admitted as much on the first page: “American myth . . . retained the wider possibilities that historians have denied American history.” (ix) In defiance of our accustomed sense that historians are among the great demystifiers, the fact-checkers of popular memory and dispellers of chauvinist legend, the new history of the West steps forward to validate the frontier myth, to renew the Leatherstocking fable by reassigning it to the French. The result is a book that just keeps repeating all the old claims about how the West was the true America, and about how this true America was eventually lost. The old West, White tells us, was the open space where “a person could become someone else.” (389) The book’s lyrics are skeptical and anti-nationalist, but its tunes have all been borrowed from patriotic songs.[v]

[i] One monograph does not a pattern make. For other instances, see the discussions below of James Merrill and Doris Sommer. Subsequent footnotes will draw attention to scholarship on west Africa, South America, the Pacific, ancient Israel, and the multicontinental British Empire. The thrust of this scholarship is especially apparent in Nicholas Thomas’s Islanders: The Pacific in the Age of Empire (Thomas 2010), whose jacket copy assures readers in its second sentence that the book will reveal to them the “gain” of empire—imperial benefits and rewards—and not just “loss,” as well as empire’s capacity for “invention.” The book goes on to claim that most native people were more interested in “creative accommodation” than in resistance and to demonstrate in indigenous societies a widespread “enthusiasm for things European and things British” (3, 24).

[ii] A belated word on the essay’s title: There was a vogue around 1990 for re-christening as “new” various subfields in the study of European expansion: the new Western history, the new American studies, the new imperial history. The last is especially instructive: The “new imperial historians” were credentialed, archivally adept historians who nonetheless avowed a disciplinarily unfashionable debt to critical theory and who to that extent gave priority to culture and discourse; who paid special attention to matters of gender, race, and ethnicity; who promised to write an imperial history without nostalgia; and who refused to take nations as given, but instead favored explanations in terms of “circuits” or “webs” or “global interconnections.” For the new imperial historians, Britain would no longer count as central, even in the British Empire. For a while, Antoinette Burton was pushing the term “critical imperial history.” (See Part II of Burton’s Empire in Question (2011: 122ff.).) What has become clear over time, as the new histories of empire have aged out of their novelty, is that these putatively critical historians have tended to restate the claims of an older imperial historiography. “New” and “critical” histories of an empire without a British center dovetail with older and apologetic accounts of British imperial absentmindedness, lack of coordination, reliance on local elites, and, in general, the limits of British power in the colonies. Conversely, when the inheritors of the older imperial history step forward to refurbish their case, often in defiance of the new imperial historians, they nonetheless avail themselves of the tropes of “networks” and “native agency” first touted by their rivals.

[iii] Thomas’s way of defending empire is to call it “cosmopolitan”: “This book has emphasized the cosmopolitanism of the Pacific during the nineteenth century.” (182) His second example of this mindset arrives in the book’s opening pages, in the form of three men from an island near New Guinea who were abducted by the Spanish in the early 1500s—forced onto a ship, made worldly by the European explorers who seized them; they are evidence of “a particular cultural condition … that of cosmopolitanism,” which the author seems to think of as to be affirmed even when involuntary. (3-4) The new histories of empire congratulate kidnap victims on the occasion of their expanded horizons. “Empire,” Thomas ends up concluding, was “replete with possibilities, marked out by travels, possible travels, and travels of the mind.” (297) John Darwin, meanwhile, introduces two more devices to the liberal defense of empire: First, he considers dropping the term empire itself. Darwin’s first career retrospective is called The Empire Project (2011), and the trick of that title is that it both uses the word empire and offers to negate it. The British pursued the project of empire, which to that extent was less than a thing: a projective empire, aspirational, underway, incomplete, in some large part imagined. In the text itself, he often refers to “the British world-system” or to “British connections” and at one point to “the Britannic association.” (159) Second, then, and already apparent in those last two formulations, Darwin describes the British Empire in a strongly horizontalist idiom borrowed from network theory: The Empire was “a large, loose, decentralized confederacy,” a “network of alliances,” “not a structure” but a “web.” (69, 97, 1) It falls to Henry Kamen (2002), then, in his work on the Spanish Empire, to combine Nicholas Thomas’s bluntly imperial cosmopolitanism with Darwin’s ontologically flattened non-empire. Kamen’s distinctive tic is obsessively to negate the word conquest: “There was, literally, no conquest of the islands.” (65) “Castilians of subsequent generations tended to assume that they had conquered Italy. There was no real basis for the belief.” (65) “When the Spaniards extended their energies to the lands beyond the ocean, they did not … conquer them.” (95) “There was never in any real sense a ‘conquest’ of America, for the Spaniards never had the men or resources to conquer it.” (121) “collaboration rather than ‘conquest’” (122) The Spanish had “never been in a position to conquer any overseas territories or plant its banner anywhere” (169) “the year 1573 marked a fundamental change of direction in royal policy that affected not only Europe but the whole empire. … conquest was no longer to be an objective.” (187) ”The possibility of ‘conquest’ did not arise, for there were never adequate Spanish men or weapons” (254) The monarchy “definitively banned further conquests in America” (255) Kamen finally just puts scare quotes around the “Spanish Empire” on p. 153, convinced as he is that the political formation he is describing was neither Spanish nor an empire—an empire “in theory,” but actually “a complex international network” “a cosmopolitan network” of multiethnic endeavor, a “vast commercial enterprise” with “the outward form of an empire,” a spur to the ingenuity and energy of people other than the Spanish. (170, 289, 297)

[iv] See, for instance Jennings 1984, Webb 1995, Webb 2013. Ian Steele (2000: 384) begins his review of Oberg’s Dominion and Civility like so: “The likelihood that promoters of empire were more humanely inclined towards Amerindians than were their colonists may be another obvious truth finally returning from banishment by indiscriminate anti-imperialists.”

One especially notable variant of this position is visible in John Thornton’s Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World (1992). The book’s core argument, at least in its first half, is that West African elites were full and eager participants in the Atlantic slave trade. Before 1680 and perhaps thereafter, Europeans neither created nor even much transformed the workings of the region’s already existing trade in captives. The most important thing to know about the market for slaves is that it was well-established, distinctively African, and big enough to accommodate the entry of the Europeans as just one more set of customers. That’s the argument. Rhetorically, then, one of the book’s most conspicuous features is its reliance on the terms Africa and Africans, as the title already indicates. It is not uncommon to find other historians remarking that race was a creation of the slave trade itself—that sailors couldn’t know themselves to be white or European until they arrived on the coast of Guinea, just as the Igbo and Yoruba couldn’t know themselves to be black or African. (Among many other instances, see Rediker 2007: 261. But Thornton uses the terms European and African without comment, and the cunning of this move is that it allows a defense of Europeans to masquerade as a critique of Eurocentrism. Thornton says that his book is de-centering Europe, by asking that we hail the slave trade as an African accomplishment and a sign of the continent’s strength. Submerging the difference between slave states and their quarry is the precondition to those claims, since it is plainly impossible to see the slave trade as announcing the strength of all Africans equally. Having declared European merchants marginal to the slave trade, Thornton is now able to say that “Europeans did not pillage Africa” and that they introduced no “monopolistic distortions of trade.” (53, 65) The critique of Eurocentrism is called upon to testify to English and Portuguese virtue. Other rhetorical choices follow on from there, all made possible by the dedifferentiated word African: Thornton says repeatedly that the Atlantic slave trade was “peaceful” and that it was “voluntary”—that such, indeed, were the unappreciated hallmarks of the trade: “we must accept that African participation in the slave trade was voluntary” (124) The European relationship to West Africa was a matter of “peaceful regulated trade.” (38) Thornton’s book is improbable in at least one further respect—a book that proclaims its allegiance to Braudelian world-systems history while arguing that the linking to the oceanic system of its chosen region changed that region in no important way.


[v] On frontier stories and Westerns, see Slotkin 1973, 1985, 1992.