Must Read Book

Lepore, Jill, The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity (1998).

The Name of War might seem to be of interest mainly to students of colonial America, but it needs to be read by everyone, whatever their field of interest. It's one of those rare books of history that transcends its own apparent subject. Lepore shows how King Philip's War was a battle of words as well as a battle of arms. The struggle was for meaning as well as land and power. Lepore is such a talented writer that she can interweave texts and contexts across time, revealing that they compose one complex historical reality. Her goal is not so much to explain "change over time," the usual phrase historians have used to describe their endeavor, but to elucidate meaning over time. So much for the old dichotomy between "rhetoric" and "reality." Without engaging in any explicit epistemological discussion, Lepore disposes of both the rhetoric-reality opposition and the newer text-context opposition. Real bodies are tortured in King Philip's War, real villages and homes are destroyed, real books are written to justify or explain the carnage. Power is exercised in the writing as well as the shooting. Even the Indians occasionally write, though of course the English mobilize language as a weapon of war more potently than the Indians are able to do. One of the tragic motifs of her story is that an occasional Indian had the English language skills to offer an Indian interpretation of the war, but circumstances conspired to prevent it. The social production of circumstances is one way that power is exercised. The Name of War is a profound moral meditation on the curious attractiveness of war to many of those who believe they abhor it-- like those English observers who preferred to let their Indian allies torture Indian prisoners, yet did not mind watching and writing about what they witnessed. It is also a terrific case study in the production of historical memory. King Philip's War was actively remembered, by whites and Indians alike, into the revolutionary and national periods. Again texts and language are revealed as instruments of power. King Philip's War is mobilized for purposes of identity-making as Euro-Americans seek "native" models of resistance to English political or cultural dominance. The Name of War is Lepore's first book, winner of the Bancroft Prize. It's one of those dazzling first efforts-- in her realm of cultural history one thinks also of Jackson Lears' No Place of Grace, Kenneth Cmiel's Democratic Eloquence, and Karen Halttunen's Confidence Men and Painted Women -- that promises very good things to come.

Recommended by Richard Wightman Fox, University of Southern California

Grew up in Los Angeles, got B.A. and Ph.D. from Stanford, have taught American history at Yale, Reed, Boston University, and USC. Wrote Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography and Trials of Intimacy: Love and Loss in the Beecher-Tilton Affair, am writing a cultural history of Jesus in America, co-edited The Companion to American Thought and other collections of essays.