King Philip, William Apess, and the Emergence of a Distinct American Literature

Paul Revere’s caricature of King Philip (1772)

Last post, I wrote briefly about Philip F. Gura’s biography of William Apess, and I discussed some of the links between Apess and Hosea Easton. Along with the links between Apess and the abolitionist movement, I have been intrigued with the relationship between Apess and the literary production of the period. Gura speaks to this topic some; however, as a historian, he presents the historical facts surrounding the relationship. In this post, I will briefly outline my thoughts on how Apess, and specifically his references to King Philip, relate to the emergence of a distinct American literature during the early part of the nineteenth century. I will not go in to great detail, but the information will provide a quick view that I plan to explore further in the future.

At the beginning of his autobiography A Son of the Forest (1829), William Apess claims that his “grandfather was a white man and married a female attached to the royal family of Philip, king of the Pequot tribe of Indians, so well known in that part of American history which relates to the wars between the whites and the natives” (3-4). On the surface, this statement on his ancestry does not appear unique in an autobiography. While it does reinforce that Native Americans have not vanished from New England, Apess’s specific deployment of King Philip, and his later Eulogy on King Philip (1837) serves another more subversive motive.
In his Eulogy on King Philip, Apess begins by stating that he does “not arise to spread before you the fame of a noted warrior, whose natural abilities shone like those of the great and mighty Philip of Greece, or of Alexander the Great, or like those of Washington–whose virtues and patriotism are engraved on the hearts of [his] audience” (277). Instead, Apess presents a eulogy for Philip to present him as a man who exhibited sympathy, nobleness, talents, and other aspects of leadership and civilization.
By linking himself to King Philip through his lineage and the eulogy, Apess seeks to respond to the increasing relevance of King Philip during the American cultural mileu of the 1820s and 1830s. Starting with James Eastburn and Robert Charles Sands’s Yamoyden, A Tale of the Wars of King Philip: In Six Cantos (1820) and Washington Irving’s “Philip of Pokanoket” in his Sketch Book (1819-1820), Philip made his appearance in American literature. His presence continued through the decade with texts that obviously pulled from Irving, Charles, and Sands or from Philip’s story directly. These texts included Lydia Maria Child’s Hobomok (1824), Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie (1827), James Fenimore Cooper’s The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish (1829), and John Augustus Stone’s Metamora; or, The Last of the Wampanoags (1829). Adding to this resurgence,the North American Review in 1831 argued:

But as it was, Philip did and endured enough to immortalize him as a warrior, a statesman, and we may add, as a high-minded and noble patriot. Whatever might be the prejudice against him in the days of terror produced by his prowess, there are both the magnanimity and the calmness in these times, to do him the justice he deserves. He fought and fell,–miserably, indeed, but gloriously,–the avenger of his own household, the worshipper of his own gods, the guardian of his own honor, a martyr for the soil which was his birth-place, and the proud liberty which was his birthright. (419)

Earlier, when the North American Review provided its thoughts on Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie in 1828, the reviewer claims “that the characters of our first settlers, the peculiar features of their age, their troubles, their struggles, their wars, government, manners, opinions, and institutions, all fresh and singular, with the wild scenes amidst which they moved, and the wild men by whom they were surrounded, furnished the most admirable materials for literary fabrics of purely national manufacture, and original patterns, both in poetry and prose” (12). 
Image that appeared in Apess’s Eulogy

Even if the authors presented their Native American characters as noble and highlighted their “prowess,” the Native Americans inevitably vanished at the end of the novel, poem, or play, reinforcing the belief that Native Americans would disappear under the feet of “civilization” as it methodically plodded towards them. Along with this, the texts arose out of national discussions surrounding Native American removal, specifically Cherokee and Creek, in the Southeastern United States. This is the mileu that Apess wrote within. This is the mileu that brings a heightened significance to his ancestry and to his eulogy for his ancestor. This is the mileu that Apess countered by showing the United States that Native Americans existed, and thrived, among them.

 
This post only touches on the broad topic of King Philip, William Apess, and American literature that I outline here. I am doing more research on this topic, so stay tuned for more in the future. If you would like to find out more about King Philip, his life and his impact of early American culture, see Jill Lepore’s The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity (1998). What are your thoughts? Observations? Let me know in the comments below. 
 
Note: Philip was not King of the Pequots, as Apess says. He was Wampanoag Barry O’Connell and Philip F. Gura discuss this. 
 
Apess, William. On Our Own Ground: The Complete Writings of William Apess, a Pequot. Ed. Barry O’Connell. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992. 
“Hope Leslie; or Early Times in Massachusetts.” North American Review 26.59 (1828): 403-420.

“Indian Biography.” North American Review 33.73 (1831): 407-449.

 

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