The Name of War

Jill Lepore

Read January 2004

A rather scholarly history book, this is a detailed, insightful and thought-provoking account of the formative years of New England, told through the device of King Phillip's War. Living in Rhode Island, the War persists like a background noise, not quite in focus but never entirely absent. But where are the people who fought in it? The descendants of the winners are all round; those of the losers, hardly in sight. They say history is written by the winners, and Lepore's is a books-length study of the matter.

This is not an easy book to read. Lepore intended this for an academic audience, and sometimes her attention to detail can feel excessive. Yet, the detail is often her very point. The countless excerpts, for instance, aren't there simply to save her the bother of “writing history”: rather, the very specific language of the excerpts, and their context, and their presentation, and their purpose, are in fact what her story is about. The War is really just a framing device, and indeed at times feels like an excuse. A reader looking for a traditional history of the War might get as much out of the four-page timeline in the preface as out of the rest of the book. But to do that would be to entirely miss the point of this very strong work, which is really a study of language.

The book's range is somehow both very narrow (its period is tightly-defined, its major sources are relatively few and not wholly significant in their own right) and yet very broad. Lepore works with what are essentially tracts and broadsides. Not surprisingly, these are good sources for exploring themes like dehumanization or even alternate presentations of historical events. But Lepore extracts much more value, covering issues of just versus holy wars, early dimestore bestsellers, attitudes on house, property (cattle) and swamp life, and the ambiguous views of the Rhode Island's saint, Roger Williams.

In the end, if the book proves to be too heavy going, let me urge that you read at least the preface (“What's in a Name?”). Some prefaces are important; more often, though, they are tedious and forgettable. This one is definitely the former. To a lay reader, it might tell you all you need to know about where Lepore is headed. It is, in fact, a more ambiguous presentation of her theme, but the better for it. It's strong, powerful, memorable writing. And it might just compell you to read the remainder!

Thanks to Lee Millward for lending me this book.