Sunday, October 6, 2019

Sarah M. S. Pearsall's "Polygamy: An Early American History"

Sarah M. S. Pearsall teaches the history of early America and the Atlantic world at the University of Cambridge. She is the author of the prizewinning Atlantic Families: Lives and Letters in the Eighteenth Century.

Pearsall applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Polygamy: An Early American History, and reported the following:
A contemporary quotation about “the sparkes of the lusts of pride and passion,” and the relationship between political strategies and family standing, open Page 99. Its focus is on war: specifically, the coming of King Philip’s, or Metacom’s, War in New England in 1675. The page includes a section break. The first part of the page concludes a section about rising tensions between Wampanoags, some of whom had converted to Christianity, and the English in the late 1660s and early 1670s. The quotation about pride and passion comes from Roger Williams, an English observer, who pronounced that these “sparkes” led to the “flame of their warres.” It ends with the dramatic difference between one Wampanoag daughter, Naomi, who had converted to Christianity, and her father, Tuchpoo, who joined the fight against the English. The next section turns to Metacom, or King Philip, himself, and the connection of his polygamy, unrecognized by most who have written on this war, to his larger political ambitions. As I summarize, “Metacom worked hard to rally a range of allies among other Native people. Marriage strengthened his ability to do so.” Both sections highlight the strong linkages between family life and larger politics, and how women shaped them both.

The “lusts of pride and passion” flag the abiding connections between power and lust, politics and passion; such desires motivated many actors in this book. So Page 99 does encapsulate a number of key themes. Every chapter draws out these linkages, considering the interweaving of intimate choices and larger political structures in early America. How colonialism, revolution, and slavery changed families, and how families changed them, form key parts of the analysis, and these points are evident here. This page also includes consideration of women, Naomi and also another sachem, Weetamoo, and her sister, Wootonekanuske, as well as men like Metacom. This, too, is a defining feature of a book which tries to center women’s perspectives, not just on marriage and family but also on colonialism, war, and change. The fact that I name several Indian women, who too often go unnamed in many history texts, is a deliberate choice to ensure that their humanity shines through, even as the lack of first-person accounts by them poses great challenges. Methodologically, this page also highlights a distinctive feature of this book: the use of linguistic material. I include another quotation in the Narragansett language here, and throughout the book, especially the first part, I use indigenous language material to try to get at something like a Native perspective on events, even as it is necessarily imperfect.

Yet of course Page 99 could not entirely convey the broad trajectory of an ambitious book spanning the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries in order to establish how an “infrastructure of monogamy” came to be in place in the modern United States This section focuses on Anglophone material, and well-trodden territory (King Philip’s War). However, this book moves far beyond New England, into many other settings, from Utah to Florida, and into languages beyond English (there is Spanish and French as well as a bit of Native American and even African tongues). Although the lusts of pride are here, other lusts and sexuality, which do receive treatment throughout the book, are less evident, as are vital contexts for the intellectual and religious history of polygamy. Altogether, this book presents an intimate, unusual, and capacious view of both early America and polygamy, one difficult to contain in a single page—or story.
Learn more about Polygamy: An Early American History at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue