My Turn: Being a revisionist isn’t a bad thing


Tuesday, January 16, 2018

As a U.S. historian who has participated in the public discussion of the current research project on the battle/massacre at the Great Falls in 1676, and as someone who briefly taught Native American history at the college level, l am certainly interested in any new perspectives on King Philips War. Thus, I read with interest Gary Sanderson’s discussion of two new books on the war, one by Amherst College historian Lisa Brooks, and the other by Christine M. Delucia of Mount Holyoke.

The war has been, and will continue to be, a subject of debate among historians. The battlefield project has certainly struggled to find good primary sources on the war that reflect the perspective of Native Americans. Sanderson argues that these new books do just that, which would be a good thing.

However, I find Sanderson’s diatribe against mainstream historians who, he seems to feel, have relied on “tired documentary evidence” in their narratives of the war, very misleading. Yes, historians have relied on accounts by English “conquerors” like William Hubbard, Increase Mather and Benjamin Church because until now there has not been not a whole lot else to rely on.

The battlefield project has made creative use of a few new sources — as hopefully have Brooks and Delucia — but it has also had to rely on these traditional sources because they are what we have. But using these accounts hardly means embracing them uncritically or ignoring their biases.

The same might be said of the historian Jill Lepore, whose work Sanderson seems to feel good about. Lepore’s “The Name of War” is in large measure a study of the biases and myths promoted by the traditional sources. But she still uses them, in fact, relies heavily on them.

Recognizing the biases of your sources is absolutely central to the writing of what Sanderson seems to view as mainstream history. There has been, for example, a fair amount of discussion of the self-serving account of Benjamin Church, the military leader who played a central role in defeating the Indian insurgency supposedly by adopting Indian tactics.

But Church is still an important source for the events of the war and the attitudes of those who fought in it. He is a key source for Nathanial Philbrick’s “Mayflower,” which contains one of the better accounts of the war. Philbrick is certainly aware of Church’s biases, but he also recognizes that Church’s relationship to both Indians and the English authorities was complex, problematic and revealing.

Sanderson, on the other hand, simply dismisses Church as a “land grab military officer.” To me, this sucks the life out of history in a hail of self-righteous rhetoric.

Similarly, I doubt that most mainstream historians would uncritically embrace Mary Rowlandson’s narrative of her captivity by the Indian insurgency. It is hardly surprising that Lisa Brooks finds this classic account as, in Sanderson’s words, “romanticized and heavily slanted in racist bias.”

But does this mean that we should completely ignore one of the few written first-hand accounts of native peoples in the late 17th century? Perhaps Brooks takes issue with previous renditions of Rowlandson’s account. Fair enough, and that critique is exactly what the writing of mainstream history is about. But, I find it difficult to believe Brooks finds Rowlandson’s “captivity narrative” completely useless as a primary source.

Toward the end of Sanderson’s caricature of the historical profession, he suggests that various un-named “red white and blue” historians will denounce Brooks’ and Delicia’s work as “revisionist.” They have, he says, hurled this accusation at historians such as Jill Lepore, Francis Jennings and Howard Zinn.

Well, no doubt some historians would disagree with the interpretations of Jennings and Lepore, but as far as I know, their work has been respected and influential within the profession. Zinn is another matter, but he is not a historian of King Philips War, so let’s put that problem aside.

Sanderson’s concept of “revisionism,” reflects a popular myth — that there is some subset or school of historians who get labeled “revisionists.” In reality, a very large number of mainstream historians are “revisionist” in one way or another in the sense that they revise a standard view or interpretation of an event. That’s how you get your Ph.D, a job and tenure. I published a revisionist account of the origins of New Deal welfare policy. So-called “revisionism” is, in fact, central to the writing of mainstream history.

The term revisionist as Sanderson seems to understand it, is not commonly used in academic history but rather is an epithet hurled by right-wing propagandists at what they consider to be unpatriotic “liberal academia.”

So by all means, let’s see what Lisa Brooks and Christine M. Delucia have to say that challenges traditional views of King Philips War. I would agree that, given the excellent work done by the battlefield research project, the timing of these publications could not be better. But let’s have a healthy debate about the issues they raise that respects different viewpoints and minimizes misleading rhetoric about the current state of the historical profession. After all, this is 2018, not 1918.

Jeff Singleton lives in Montague.