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White Savage: William Johnson and the Invention of Americaby Fintan O'Toole
"O'Toole portrays Johnson as a complex character tormented by a psychological tension between his past and present, and between his inner and outer selves....O'Toole's book appeals to the current taste for a secret reality cleverly revealed by gathering deeply hidden clues to subvert an official story. The beauty of secret histories and conspiracy theories is that they need not weigh the preponderance of evidence. Instead, they can freely connect disparate slivers into an ominous pattern mandated by prior conviction." Alan Taylor, The New Republic (read the entire New Republic review)
Synopses & Reviews
A provocative new biography of the man who forged America's alliance with the Iroquois. William Johnson was scarcely more than a boy when he left Ireland and his Gaelic, Catholic family to become a Protestant in the service of Britain's North American empire. In New York by 1738, Johnson moved to the frontiers along the Mohawk River, where he established himself as a fur trader and eventually became a landowner with vast estates; served as principal British intermediary with the Iroquois Confederacy; command British, colonial, and Iroquois forces that defeated the French in the battle of Lake George in 1755; and created the first groups of "rangers," who fought like Indians and led the way to the Patriots' victories in the Revolution.
As Fintan O'Toole's superbly researched, colorfully dramatic narrative makes clear, the key to Johnson's signal effectiveness was the style in which he lived as a "white savage." Johnson had two wives, one European, one Mohawk; became fluent in Mohawk; and pioneered the use of Indians as active partners in the making of a new America. O'Toole's masterful use of the extraordinary (often hilariously misspelled) documents written by Irish, Dutch, German, French, and Native American participants in Johnson's drama enlivens the account of this heroic figure's legendary career; it also suggests why Johnson's early multiculturalism unraveled, and why the contradictions of his enterprise created a historical dead end.
"At the center of drama critic O'Toole's new book is an Irishman who migrated to New York in the 1730s. William Johnson began to trade with nearby Indians and quickly became knowledgeable about and beloved by the Mohawks, who adopted him as a sachem. Johnson, who became a key figure in the coexistence between Mohawks and Europeans, emerges as charismatic, a tad vain and very libidinous. He took a paramour, a German servant girl named Catharine Weisenberg, with whom he had children and whom he may or may not have married. Before Catharine's death, Johnson took Mohawk lovers and fathered Mohawk children; after her death, he married an Indian woman, Molly Brant. O'Toole reads Johnson's 1774 death as a turning point in Anglo-Indian relations; within three years, the Mohawks were siding with Brits in the American Revolution. Johnson, O'Toole argues, embodied the colonists' fantasies about the Indians — i.e., that their barbarity could be civilized and diluted by contact with enlightened colonists. O'Toole (A Traitor's Kiss) brings together great man history and real analytical rigor; this book should be a winner with academics and history hobbyists alike. 8 pages of b&w photos, 2 maps, not seen by PW. Agent, Derek Johns of A.P. Watt." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"During the time of the Seven Years' War, when France and Great Britain fought for mastery of North America, he was known as Warraghiyagey — 'Chief Much Business' — and painted his face in the brilliant, fierce hues of the Mohawks. But this chief was no Indian at all: He was William Johnson, an Irishman who came to Upstate New York in the late 1730s to work his uncle's land. In the decades after,... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) he amassed a fortune, loyally served the British Empire, which made him the first baronet of New York, led Indians in battle, sired numerous children by a Native American woman and became so fluent in the protocols of Iroquois culture that he was made a Mohawk sachem, a rare feat for a white man. By the time of his death in 1774, the vastly wealthy Johnson was one of the largest landowners in America. How, then, did a marginal Irish immigrant emerge as a man of power and influence in the English colonies? In the intriguing if flawed 'White Savage,' Fintan O'Toole tracks Johnson's rise with a wealth of detail, much of it culled from his papers. Although he doesn't deliver on the overblown promise of his subtitle, O'Toole — critic, journalist and author of 'A Traitor's Kiss,' a biography of playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan — gives us a finely nuanced portrait, always keeping Johnson's contradictions in view. Johnson was by turns ruthless and compassionate, honorable yet not above dodgy dealings; his natural element was ambiguity. He was a neither-nor, shape-shifting creature who moved between worlds — Catholic and Protestant, Irish and English, Indian and European — without ever quite settling in any of them. As O'Toole explains, Johnson's Irish background provides vital clues to his behavior in the New World. He came from a family with close ties to the dispossessed Catholic gentry, who endured a calamitous fall in status as they were pushed aside by the English in the 17th century. Johnson grew up in 'a culture that felt itself in danger of extinction.' To get ahead often meant renouncing Catholicism and swearing allegiance to the Church of England, which is exactly what Peter Warren, Johnson's uncle, did. (Warren was a decorated admiral in the British navy and a big player in the Colonies.) Johnson was cagier; loud proclamations were not his style. Instead, he engaged in a series of canny trade-offs — cultivating, O'Toole writes, 'the equivocator's skill of telling people what they wanted to hear.' Johnson was a man tormented by status anxiety, and the British Empire gave him, above all, the opportunity to restore his family's name. After his arrival in New York, Johnson quickly emerged as an honest broker in his dealings with the Mohawks, who vigorously sought out European goods. (To his credit, O'Toole doesn't portray the Mohawks as hapless victims of imperialism; nor does he romanticize them.) But, O'Toole argues, there was more to the Johnson-Mohawk connection than a mutual interest in trade. Once the proud bulwark of the Iroquois federation, the Mohawks, too, had suffered a precipitous decline in status. In Johnson, they saw a means to gain favored status with the British, who needed Indian allies to press the war against France; in turn, Johnson used the Mohawks to consolidate his power in New York. There was an aspect of realpolitik to all this, but O'Toole argues that Johnson shared deep spiritual affinities with his Mohawk allies: In their notions of kinship and elaborate rituals of mourning, Johnson saw a reflection of his own Gaelic inheritance, which, however submerged, was an essential part of his being. At the intersection of three cultures, Johnson exploited his position to maximum gain. He was a relentless schemer and often butted heads with competing interests. Quick to feel the sting of condescension, he lashed out at 'The Albany Grandees whose Soul and Blood are money.' (Johnson's rivals gave as good as they got: The ambitious Massachusetts governor sneered that 'Brother Warraghiyagey was but an upstart of yesterday.') Some of his more rigid colleagues chafed at his ease with Iroquois ways, but Johnson's can-do attitude and martial prowess won him allies in high places. In 1746-47, as Colonel of the Warriors of the Six Nations, Johnson unleashed raiding parties into Canada to 'make the french Smart ... by taking Scalping & burning them, & their Settlements.' He mastered the techniques of Indian warfare to brutal effect and didn't flinch from paying for the scalps of women and children. Later, during the Seven Years' War (1756-63), Johnson distinguished himself in the Battle of Lake George, taking a musket ball in the hip. By sparing the life of a French general, Johnson scored a propaganda coup — his chivalry was both genuine and tactical, showing him in a merciful light. Throughout these conflicts, Johnson served as an arbiter between his Indian allies and the British, trying in vain to broker a fair pact for Iroquois lands after the French were defeated. Still, he enriched himself — and his friends — in a corrupt deal that netted him a large swath of the Ohio River Valley. At the end of 'White Savage,' we are left with a welter of conflicting impressions and unanswered questions about Johnson. How, exactly, did he contribute to the 'invention of America'? This seems a throwaway conceit designed to catch the browser's eye, rather than a serious explanation. O'Toole tantalizes us with possible answers but never arrives at a satisfactory conclusion. In one sense, Johnson forged a unique, multicultural existence that is fascinating to ponder; in other ways, he was anything but a harbinger of the emerging nation. For all his emphasis on Johnson's fluid identity, O'Toole constantly refers back to an essential core of Irishness that was not forward-looking but wistful, inward, nostalgic. What Johnson tried to create at his grand estate, O'Toole suggests, was a 'kind of feudal Irish lordship in the Mohawk valley.' He was out of sympathy with democratic or republican ideals — during the anti-British agitation of the 1760s, he denounced 'the clamourous conduct of a few pretended Patriots.' Johnson was going against the tide, and he had the peculiar misfortune to find himself once more on the wrong side of history." Reviewed by Matthew Price, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"[A] fascinating account." Booklist
"This is a well-rounded and densely detailed biography worth reading and studying." Library Journal
This provocative biography profiles William Johnson, an Irish immigrant to Britain's North American empire who became instrumental in forging America's alliance with the Iroquois.
About the Author
Fintan O'Toole, columnist and drama critic for the Irish Times, is the author of seven books, including A Traitor's Kiss (FSG, 1998). His work frequently appears in a number of American magazines. He lives in Dublin, Ireland.
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