This essay introduces the concept of imperative reading as one solution to the tension between implicitly suspicious historicist methods, on one hand, and, on the other, postcritical practices of reading that prioritize readerly pleasure over readerly paranoia. Imperative reading reveals the network of historically inflected obligations that can produce or intensify the expectation that reading should be pleasurable. This insight comes to view in the writing and reading practices of Samson Occom, late eighteenth-century Mohegan minister, theologian, and hymnodist, and cofounder of Brothertown, a political experiment in Indigenous survivance in the face of settler colonial incursion during the late colonial era and the early republic. For Occom and his fellow Algonquians, reading and writing, to say nothing of readerly pleasure, were not foregone conclusions. Reading and writing could be sources of pleasure, and they could also be sites of resistance to the era’s ascendant liberalism. Occom’s archive shows him exploiting these possibilities. This experience of alphabetic literacy, however, was neither uniform nor always consensual. Imperative reading names the experience of literacy as Esther Poquiantup Fowler, Samson Occom’s sister-in-law, knew it. Sometimes, despite Occom’s best intentions, liberalism cunningly inflected his relations with his kinswoman, and it did so most forcefully in his expectation that she slowly, maybe even symptomatically, read his writing and that she take pleasure in it, too. Fowler understood that expectation; she felt it as an imperative. Yet she didn’t refuse it so much as defer it. Her delicate negotiation of reading as an imperative directs attention to the personal and political history of the expectation—for her, a burdensome one—that reading should be self-evidently fun. Fowler’s strategies for alleviating this burden renew our understanding of historicist methods and the symptomatic mood of critique. They are instruments for future repair even as they afford us practice in noticing and interpreting the particularities that liberal society encourages us to forget.
When will reading be fun once more? For some, this is a goal worth pursuing. Historical demystification, though certainly offering its own gratifications, lends itself, some critics propose, to “chronic negativity” (Anker and Felski 2017: 11) or a “depressive position” that tends to capitulate too readily to our worst paranoid tendencies (Sedgwick 1997).1 By contrast, aesthetic pleasure shines forth, often, as a self-evidently primary experience of reading.2 Students—younger, less historically self-conscious readers—know this better than experienced older critics.3 Postcritique seeks to recover reading’s prelapsarian glow, an experience of love outside of history’s effects. Yet reading’s satisfactions have varied through time and across social contexts. This is one of historicism’s enduringly dynamic propositions. Some satisfactions seem clearly artificial, shaped in obvious ways by impersonal, historically determined institutions—say, persuasively performed aesthetic mastery when a grade point average is at stake. Other satisfactions, however, consist of a far more confusing tangle of the personal and historical—say, the pressure to appreciate a piece of writing because of the attention and encouragement of a dear teacher or friend. Aesthetic experience, historicism tenderly teaches, includes those who may not have derived pleasure from reading, but who were aware of obligations that they should.
The history of aesthetic experience in America, of its pleasures and pressures, includes many such readers, readers for whom reading’s fun was not a foregone conclusion. This is a history whose study can have positive, even reparative effects. Consider, for example, the Mohegan, Pequot, Montaukett, and associated Algonquian tribes who took up alphabetic literacy widely and passed it on to their youth during the mid- to late eighteenth century, contemporaneous with the institutional enshrinement of abstract individualism. These individuals had unique opportunities to consider writing’s pleasures, pressures, and, occasionally, its indirect effects circumscribing their happiness. Writing’s ambiguity—its capacity to be both fun and frustrating—appears vividly in a provocative set of documents written by Samson Occom, Mohegan activist, intellectual, and hymnodist, about—and occasionally to—his sister-in-law, Esther Poquiantup Fowler. He expected her to enjoy his writing. She recognized this expectation but quietly dissented from it. Her hiatus from writing calls attention to circumstances in which individuals found themselves ineluctably, sometimes unhappily, called to the laborious task of reading each other through the obstacles that history posed to mutual recognition. Her hiatus calls attention the imperative of reading.
Rather than a protocol or even a mood for interpretation, imperative reading names the experience of reading within a dense network of obligations. As an answer to postcritique, imperative reading advances dynamic recent scholarship, especially within Indigenous and settler colonial studies, on the entanglement of modern liberalism and colonial power. That entanglement generates what one such critic, following Karl Marx, calls the “freedom to ignore” the historical circumstances that encumber individuals within the abstract sphere of civic life (Saldaña-Portillo 2016: 123; Marx 1994). Settler states often propose such ignorance as a positive foundation for pursuits of happiness. That invitation to ignore is especially fraught for Native people, requiring them to disavow the historical particularities that point to settler imperialism’s enduring dispossessions (Coulthard 2014; Barker 2011). Liberalism, Foucauldian critics like David Scott (2005) have observed, consists of strategies of governmentality and functions most efficiently by organizing practices of reason, including alphabetic literacy. And because it strives to organize mental life, liberalism’s “cunning of recognition,” as Elizabeth Povinelli (2002) calls it, is often very difficult, and tricky, to refuse. Glen Sean Coulthard (Yellowknives Dene), drawing on Frantz Fanon, proposes that settler liberalism’s efficacy is a result of its operation on consciousness itself. It takes place in a process of “internalization” and, as a consequence, sometimes colonialism’s “social relations . . . come to seem as ‘true’ or ‘natural’ to the colonized themselves” (Coulthard 2014: 113). For María Josefina Saldaña-Portillo (2016: 93), love is one of these naturalized relations, and this can be easy to miss within critiques of liberalism that prioritize the state. Liberal forms of social life also reorganize how individuals present themselves to each other, shape the desires they bring to those relations, and influence the strategies by which they pursue those desires. Imperative reading clarifies these effects. It’s useful not so much to freshly indict liberalism as a powerful antagonist, a “confident, efficient, supercilious settler bully” (Ostler and Shoemaker 2018: 364). Rather, a more dynamic reason to closely, symptomatically read would be to witness how individuals subjected to settler colonialism’s quotidian norms responded to them; how they closely, maybe symptomatically read each other; and, finally, what got in the way of their desires to share reading’s pleasures with one another.
Imperative reading, in turn, is one yield of recent literary historical scholarship that encourages critics to think “beyond recovery” and to consider instead what frustrating archival obstacles can reveal about a given subject’s attunement to and assessment of their world.4 The challenge of these archives, as Ajay Kumar Batra (2020: 33) eloquently describes it, is that they often consist of “historical documents that double as sites of congealment and continued expression for historical relations of force.” For Batra, “historical relations of force” names, most prominently, the epistemology that modern historians risk sharing with history’s enduring engines of exploitation, extraction, and dispossession. More quietly, however, they might also include day-to-day intimate relations that may not have been entirely consensual or desired by their participants. Native people in settler societies have known this circumscribed agency well (Lyons 2010). And for Native subjects of earlier periods of colonial history, writing was one dynamic medium for that circumscription.
Imperative reading directs attention to the manifold efficacy of writing and its emotionally ambiguous social life. Many Algonquians saw literacy as a vital tool for the preservation of their people and their ways of living justly over and against settler norms. Algonquian people responded energetically to settlers’ attempts to disseminate what Europeans imagined were the cornerstones of civilization, like alphabetic literacy, Christianity, and ideals of property and responsible possessive personhood (Peyer 1997; Wyss 2000, 2012; Brooks 2008). But that wasn’t writing’s only affordance. It could also be a source of pleasure. Occom seems occasionally to have found it so. Writing was a key technique for sustaining local neighborly communities; it helped Occom preserve inherited principles of relation against settlement’s deracinating effects. More personally, it offered an opportunity to be witnessed in ways that settlers’ social norms foreclosed—the prospect of being lovingly and closely read gratified him. But these desires weren’t timeless in their contours. Settler colonialism’s trickiness wasn’t simply external material encroachment. It also shaped quieter emotional norms, even when settlers were not present. In responding to these shifting norms, Occom seems to have sought recognition from one reader in particular, his Mohegan-Pequot kinswoman Esther Poquiantup Fowler, a young woman he may have taught to read himself. Fowler may have had just as much fun corresponding with Occom as he did with her. But she may also have found their correspondence burdensome. She may have engaged in symptomatic reading practices as a mode of critique and a step toward refusal—a tricky endeavor, when, as Audra Simpson (Mohawk) proposes, refusal includes postponing what seem to be obvious goods “until your terms have been met for agreement, for a reversal of recognition” (Simpson 2014: 1). In response to the imperative to closely read, Fowler postponed writing rather than outright rejecting it. Her delay requires symptomatic reading to notice. Her delay symptomatizes dissenting hopes that she may have cherished for their friendship. And the occasionally unpleasant work of noticing such symptoms can, in turn, exercise our sensitivity to the various hopes, distinct from our own, that our relations might cherish for us.
Native people in the colonial era were among the first theorists of settler colonialism. In responding to it, many prioritized sustainable forms of relation with their lands and with each other. Within these early responses, Caroline Wigginton (2008) identifies practices of “epistolarity.” Following Janet Gurkin Altman (1982), Wigginton explains how practices of circulation modeled after letter writing preserved relations based on shared particularities against a political context of alienating abstractions, foremost among them the blank-slate subject the liberal state assumed. This abstraction would have especially high stakes in the Anglo-American context, where, during Occom’s and Fowler’s lifetimes, it would be enshrined in the spirit and the letter of the new state’s founding documents. That enshrinement would mean, eventually, its invisibility. For Wigginton, writing was central to legitimation—but not all writing. Writing, she observes, was not coterminous with print. Much writing took place outside of print publication. As it circulated within closed networks, it sustained qualitatively different forms of relation than abstract, anonymous citizenship, and it supported correspondingly diverse scales of community. These networks were vital to early American women, especially, Wigginton (2016: 6) shows, Native and Black women. These networks “affirm[ed] and order[ed] relationality.” Yet even as these relations preceded the new republic, its theories of abstract personhood, and the material conditions that made those theories attractive, these relations were not static but responded dynamically to material conditions. Fowler’s archival existence testifies to the dynamism of the applied theories with which Native people responded to settler colonialism. Everywhere she appears in Occom’s writings, these networks—and the conditions that tried and tested them—are visible.
Epistolarity could negotiate competing responsibilities in an expanding Atlantic world. It exceeds the letter writing that gives it its name, but it might at times consist precisely in writing letters. These letters recreated neighborly bonds beyond those neighborhoods’ original geographic sites, and they would be especially useful when the inhabitants of that neighborhood had to leave it in order to save it. An example appears in the letters that Occom exchanged with Mohegan relations when he traveled to England to raise money for a school that his mentor, Eleazar Wheelock, had promised would serve his kin.5 Occom wrote to extend the convention of the wellness check that letters and other neighborly practices occasioned.6 He also used letters to counteract some of the unhappier emotional consequences of those available written conventions.
In 1766, Occom wrote a letter to Mary Pharaoh Fowler, his wife, and a Pequot-Mohegan woman, Esther Poquiantup, a woman two decades his junior who would eventually marry Mary’s brother, Jacob. Mary and Jacob were children of prominent Montaukett matriarch Betty Pharaoh. Esther Poquiantup and Samson Occom married into this Montaukett family despite white attempts to ban intertribal marriages across the Long Island Sound (Brooks 2006: 15). Occom shared deep but different familial entanglements with this letter’s coaddressees, Mary and Esther. He turned to these women to express frustrations of distant, long-term separation and frustration with existing epistolary conventions meant to allay those frustrations. Occom begins his short letter to them by declaring that he is well. He observes that his journey across the Atlantic has gone well. His health is well, too. He is living well, and his company treats him well, and the future bodes well for his continued wellness: “I came from home well, was by the way well, I got over well, am received at London well” (Occom 2006d). In London, he is “treated extremely well, yea I am Caress’d well.” He hopes these conditions will continue, “pray that I may be well; and that I may do well, and in time return Home well.” Everything is fine, he writes. There is no reason to feel unwell.
Or was there? Close readers might respond to this letter’s fixation on the word well with some degree of suspicion. Elaborating so many possible ways to flourish, Occom’s letter becomes a prose ghazal suggesting, with a bit of cheekiness and fun, at least one way in which the author was not doing quite so well as the words claim.7 His repetition suggests frustration with the existing, well-recognized formula for sustaining social networks, an unease that he names in his first sentence, “Perhaps you may query whether I am well” (78). Here, Occom names a familiar convention. The author felt comfortable presuming that his readers would, in fact, ask. But his proliferating answers to that conventional query suggest his frustration with it. It seems not to have felt very effective in contributing to his wellness. At the same time, though, as the letter presents his frustrations, it asks readers to interpret its formal excess, and that request produces something of the desired closeness. Wit can be fun, if the addressee has the will to read closely; this possibility torques the conventions of relational publication. This letter generated a smaller community who recognized conventions and who understood the author’s plausible weariness with them. Occom wrote to elicit an intimate community, bound by the recognition of wit, by an interest in its unspoken meaning, and by contemplation of reasons the author might have to resort to it: a community bound by the fun of reading what he said and what he did not say.
Epistolarity sustained neighborly communities across great geographical distance; it could also strengthen communities whose participants may have felt new to each other or new to a particular place. Relational publication occurred in practices of visitation and hospitality, like the meetings that Esther Poquiantup Fowler hosted at her Brothertown home in the years following the death of her husband, Jacob Fowler, one of Brothertown’s founders. Brothertown was itself an attempt to build a new polity through building a new neighborhood, literally, as many Algonquians found the ideological terms and the material instruments that white settlers insisted they use in order to claim their ancestral neighborhoods for themselves increasingly intolerable—including, exemplarily, the written contract (Silverman 2010: 71–79, 91–129; Jarvis 2010: 89; Cipolla 2013: 3–5). The desire for a neighborhood to live in peacefully brought Algonquians to consolidate across tribes and to move away from those homelands. The first major move, in the wake of white settlers’ war for independence from their metropole, was to Oneida territory. Within fifty years, after further encroachment from settlers in the early nineteenth century, the Brothertown Indians moved to its present site, in current-day Wisconsin, on the eastern shores of Lake Winnebago. The Brothertown Nation, which endures into the present, though without federal recognition, has thus long acutely known the high costs of a shared peoplehood in the proximity of liberal desires.
Because this settlement wasn’t simply of individuals but also their relational norms, Brothertown’s founders were deliberate as they founded a new polity; they were intentional about building obligations and commitments. They secured territory through an agreement with their Haudenosaunee neighbors, the Oneida (Wonderley 2000). Both Algonquian and Haudenosaunee peoples knew what white usurpation of their lands looked and felt like, and both, for a time, saw neighborly proximity to be crucial in protecting them from white “deed games” (Brooks 2008). Brothertown thus benefited from intertribal relations initiated earlier by missionaries like Occom and his wife’s brothers, David and Jacob Fowler (Wyss 2000: 130; Brooks 2008: 86–100; Silverman 2010: 60–70, 91–101; Cipolla 2013: 65). And Brothertown’s consolidation developed these relations beyond the goals that Wheelock, former teacher to many of these men, had hoped would bind them.
Theological ideals had once been the foundation for renewed neighborly relations between Algonquians and Haudenosaunee. And on a week-to-week basis, Brothertown Algonquians renewed their commitments through collective spiritual life. In 1787, early in Brothertown’s establishment, the Fowler siblings were key players in that renewal. On Sunday mornings, David Fowler hosted well-attended meetings at his home. Similarly, on Thursday evenings, Esther Poquiantup Fowler hosted meetings at hers. Occom, the brother-in-law they shared, often led these meetings, with theological and musical guidance that culminated materially in his popular hymnbook (Brooks 2006: 51–86; Goodman 2019). At times, Esther Poquiantup Fowler’s meetings hosted visitors from beyond Brothertown, for example, on September 27, 1787, when, as Occom (2006c: 379) notes in his diary, a man from New Stockbridge, and before that from “Vergena” [Virginia], rose to speak along with two Brothertown residents after the evening teaching. Esther Poquiantup Fowler’s meetings seem consistently to have been less well attended than David Fowler’s. Yet Occom, in his brief, yet regular, recollections of these meetings, suggests that Esther Poquiantup Fowler’s included individuals who were more enthusiastic. He notes, for example, their “affectionate attention” (375), a shared experience of pleasure in engaging with a shared text. Despite lesser popularity, Esther Poquiantup Fowler was committed to using her household as a space for religious and political renewal.
Epistolarity, finally, sustained closeness and affection within kinship relations that didn’t easily square with the social forms that settlers imagined to be the natural, exclusive outcome of rational thought. In some of the letters he wrote, Occom seems eager to preserve the subtleties of Native kinship against the ambient erosions of settler norms, as Mark Rifkin (2010: 3–43) describes them.8 Practices of intimacy that did not have domestic reproduction as their goal, Rifkin explains, tended to appear to settlers as pathological when they appear in settlers’ documentary archive at all. Aberrations from those categories most interested Europeans when they appeared in obvious material form—sartorial habits, shapes of houses, patterns of household affiliation, or child-rearing practices (Rifkin 2010; Justice, Rifkin, and Schneider 2010). Against these norms, Algonquian forms of affiliation and sociability perplexed and alarmed English settlers. Though they were not likely to have read Occom’s more private correspondence, their norms for social closeness threatened the particular attachments that these letters described and sustained. Those threats, material pressures from white society to conform to domestic arrangements imported from Europe, would have been subtle to detect and to explain. They might have led to quiet shifts in an individual’s experience of desire or worsen the gap between what an individual like Occom wanted (a community that beheld him tenderly, say) and the material conditions for that desire’s fulfillment (geographical separation, domestic atomization, shifting contours for public performances of gender, say). The effects of these unprecedented conditions would not always be direct—they are difficult for readers two centuries removed to perceive, not least because they would have been difficult for historical individuals themselves to diagnose, to put into words, or sometimes even to perceive.
Epistolarity promised to bridge the gap that separated Occom from his desire’s fulfillment. Epistolarity bound the content of the letter to the specific interpretation of its addressee; it gratified but also intensified his desires for recognition in a quietly strange new inner world. Settlers’ domestic fantasies proposed that the most fulfilling emotional life would take place within heterosexual matrimony, an expectation particularly powerful in colonial contexts (Stoler 1995; Dillon 2004; Berlant 2008). Those fantasies might dispose a man to send his descriptions of his deepest feelings to his wife. Most of the surviving letters Occom sent to his wife discuss topics of quotidian importance. “I order’d some more money to be Sent to you, and I hope you receiv’d it” (Occom 1767a). “I sent a Box of Books a few Days ago” (1767b). Occasionally, he expresses concerns that are less material: “I am Sensable of the great Burden of Care that is on you, and I feel your burdens Cares and Sorrows” (Occom n.d.). His wife wasn’t the only reader of these deep feelings. He also wrote emotionally intense letters to Esther Poquiantup Fowler, as he did, for example, in his wellness check. His emotional investments in her endured. Four years after that letter from England, on June 9, 1770, Occom addressed Fowler again in another creative letter he wrote from closer by, in Mohegan territory. The text’s nominal addressee is a “Dear friend” (Occom 2006b), and, like his 1766 letter, it speaks to more than one reader in a closely bound community. Here, Occom’s correspondents are the addressee and her husband, a couple that one of Occom’s closest textual editors identifies as Esther and Jacob Fowler (Occom 2006b). As with his letter from England, Occom wrote to revitalize dear social networks. Here, as there, these networks presumed a capacity to close read, and a sensitivity to figurative language and attunement to historical precedent. As Angela Calcaterra shows, the letter required attunement to Algonquian political history and diplomacy to communicate its depths of feeling. Its use of metaphor, for example, draws on the Haudenosaunee motifs of the flame and chain (Calcaterra 2018: 47–72). It also requires significant slowing down on the reader’s part. The single letter enfolds two missives, interlined. The first appears on the first, third, fifth, and subsequent odd-numbered lines. The second appears on even-numbered lines. The letter thus requires “careful interpretive processes,” Calcaterra explains, “slowing down to unravel its messages and to ponder its form and symbolism” (49). For Calcaterra, Occom’s aesthetic extravagance conveys “pleasantness and humor” (47). Occom seemed to be having fun when he wrote it. Here, as four years prior, Occom’s most aesthetically elaborate, or “literary” epistles suggest that close reading strategies weren’t only useful in engaging with settlers; they were also personally vital. They were imperative, he thought, to sustaining his dearest relationships.
The dearness of Occom’s desires, however, often became entangled in the colonial conditions they answered, especially as they crossed differences of gender. These activities may have gratified Occom in direct, conscious correlation to the resistance they posed to the impersonality that white society expected of him. Such self-conscious attraction anticipates and justifies what Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus (2009) call the “heroic” mood of critical reading protocols in the present. But Occom’s pleasure may have been less self-consciously ideological—not because he wasn’t an acute critical witness of history. He was. Several decades of scholarship have shown this (Elliott 1994; Peyer 1997: 54–116; Wyss 2000: 139–53; Brooks 2006; 2008: 51–105; Wigginton 2008; Lopenzina 2012: 295–301). But the historical circumstances that affected his feelings and desires—Enlightenment liberalism’s requirement of impersonal reason, for example—were still dynamically and confusingly taking shape, and so were their effects. Occom valued epistolary practices because they gave him hope for happy outcomes in the face of social demands that he could not control. But epistolary practice did not have that effect uniformly. Not all who moved to Brothertown, and not all who counted Occom as a close and dear friend, agreed with him on the appropriate response to white settlement. The realm of particularity might be a site of dissent, a dissent all the more frustrating because the stakes of resisting and sustaining alternatives to settler colonialism were so high. And, like desires, these particularities remain contingent. They take shape through time and vary according to standpoint. Fowler’s appearances in Occom’s writings index epistolarity’s power, yet they also consistently suggest the differences that frustrated attempts to build life together apart from colonization’s influence. Close reading is vital in recognizing these differences, and one reason is that the obligation to close read was one expression of particularity that Fowler herself faced.
Among Occom’s many interlocutors, Esther Poquiantup Fowler seems to have provoked a particular desire: a longing to be beheld and understood. But this desire could be difficult to satisfy, given that it tends to require the other party’s volition, attention, and skill. That desire resounds in Occom’s more intimate letters, especially the ones he addressed to Fowler. Consider his witty letter of 1766. In it, Occom creates a neighborhood across great distance, a community of readers whose intimacy begins with a recognition of tone—the levity of his frustration with epistolary convention and the gravity of the conditions that produce that frustration. That intimacy presumes the other party cares about his status and would have inquired about it: “Perhaps you may query whether I am well.” The sentences that follow elaborate the evidence he had in support of that proposal—the query was, after all, a convention, and, as a convention, he repeats it again and again. But his repetition suggests quiet unease: what if the query is only a convention rather than a real interest in his status? Occom returns to that possibility in his 1770 interlined letter, written as he considered what would be a decisive break from one of the most materially influential and power-wielding individuals in his life, Eleazar Wheelock, the person who taught him how to read and who disciplined his early intellectual formation. That 1770 letter to Fowler, as with the 1767 letter, concludes with similar formulaic expressions of interest in mutual wellness: “Let me understand your Wellfair and the Wellfair of all friends in your Family,” and the “Well fair of [the?] people in your Way” (93). The 1770 letter advances this convention. This missive represents the inquiry consistently as a matter of desire, of wanting. And it identifies only one wanting party, the second person “you,” not the first person “I.” “What ever you Want to relate you may do it with all freedom to me, and what ever you want to know of me Shall not be witholden from you” (93). “You,” he repeats to his reader, “want.” His reader, he insists, is full of desire. She wants to express, he claims, and she is eager to witness her correspondent’s expressions. Readerly desire is the founding premise of the entire text: the letter’s elaborate quality presumes a reader who longs to know his condition dearly enough to attend so closely to it.
Here, Occom’s rhetoric suggests the effects of decades of skilled negotiation with white settler norms. Occom struggled with white society’s requirements of masterful, distanced reason. He knew that in order to advocate on behalf of his Native relations, he would have to perform disciplined masculinity; he would have to disavow desires that white settlers thought were too feminine and that they imagined were a special liability for Native people (Bayers 2014). Occom was largely successful in these performances. Yet through his practices of epistolarity—of moving his body and his writing around his neighborhoods—he could try to preserve the particularities that mattered to him with his Native relations and to secure the sort of attention and closeness that mattered to him deeply. When he wrote to Fowler, imagining her to be the more desirous party, he was probably not intentionally transferring an infelicitous set of settler norms and expectations to his kinswoman. But in his position—wanting attention and affection that he could not always get—the convention of womanly desire, a convention with which he would have been very familiar, would have been a safer expectation to invoke in his communication with her. Of course, the letter’s aesthetic sophistication also suggests longing on the part of the author, but to articulate that desire in a satisfying fashion, the author seems to have found it consistently useful to imagine his reader to be a woman who reliably longed for him.
Maybe Fowler did. She knew Occom well, and she was likely to have been an insightful witness to the conditions that shaped his longing. But she need not have agreed with his response to prolonged contact with settlers even as she probably recognized his sincere intentions in his epistolary practice. She may not have seen herself as the reliably desirous party. And in her epistolary practice at Brothertown, a decade and a half later, she elaborated a different vision for her peoples’ political renewal. Just as Occom circulated his ideas about the future among neighborhood meetings at Brothertown, so might Fowler. And Occom seems to have worried about this possibility, to have worried that Fowler too might make use of epistolarity’s power to “order relationality” (Wigginton 2018: 6). That possibility clings to many of her appearances in his writing. It is what Occom notes most frequently about her in his diary entries from 1787. Week after week that autumn, Occom recorded the meetings that David and Esther Poquiantup Fowler each hosted. As with David’s, he notes the size of Esther’s meetings: “I went to Widow Esther Fowlers and we had a mg there, and there was not a great Number of people,” he writes on Thursday, August 2 (Occom 2006c: 375). Sometimes he notes quality alongside quantity: that August he notes that he “spoke from Luke IX.62 and there was an affectionate attention from the People” (375). At a meeting several months later, he notes that “there was but few people” yet “there was great Solemnity amongst the People” (375); at a subsequent meeting there “was not many people,” yet “there was an uncommon attention” (380). Meanwhile, David Fowler’s meetings were notably well attended. On Sunday, August 12, he notes that he had gone “to Davids and about 10 we began the holy Service and there was a great Number of People” (375); “went to meeting upon the Hill at Brother Davids and about 10 began the Divine Worship and there was a large number of People” (376); “got to Brother David’s before Night” and the next morning, “the People got together & was a large Number of People” (381).
Esther Poquiantup Fowler kept hosting meetings, despite relatively low attendance. And Occom kept attending. His persistence expressed neighborly concern for Brothertown’s spiritual life. But it also may have expressed a tenacious desire to manage Brothertown’s political life over and above other ideas for its flourishing. And that persistence hints quietly, but importantly, at the frustrating entanglement of epistolarity and colonial power. Epistolarity, practices of neighborly circulation, could promise greater control—not only against impersonal abstractions like the civic sphere. Epistolarity also offered desired control over the various particularities of neighborly life as these neighbors responded to settler colonialism. For Occom (2006c: 382), those particularities included the possibility that Fowler’s meetings were cultivating dissenting energies, what he describes in his diary on October 24, as a “party Scheam,” and, three days later, on October 27, a “party spirit.” Occom stayed alert to the quantity and quality of attendance at Esther Poquiantup Fowler’s, as well to the particular individuals who attended—what town they came from; whether they were Native or white. He rarely noted these details for the participants at David Fowler’s meetings. And he made efforts not to miss Esther Poquiantup Fowler’s meetings. On Saturday, October 26, 1787, for example, Occom recorded in his diary that he had traveled to Clinton, ten miles north, to deliver a Sunday morning sermon there. But he left Clinton “as soon as the meeting was done” to get back to Brothertown before the end of Sunday. Back at Brothertown, he hurried through a quick dinner, ate “a few mouthfuls” in order to make it “to meeting at Sister esters.” There, he notes, “there was not much moving.” Still, he remarks with a suspiciousness that supersedes any immediately apparent evidence, “there Seemed to be Some party Spirit in the meeting” (382).
This particular meeting at Esther Poquiantup Fowler’s, unusual for taking place on a Sunday, held higher stakes than typical. That weekend had been particularly momentous for Brothertown, and for Occom’s leadership there. It was on that weekend, Brad D. E. Jarvis (2010: 127) writes, that “Oneida chiefs had apparently convinced some on the Town committee to agree to reduce the size of the Brothertown reservation to a tract two miles wide by five miles long,” a reduction of the earlier grant by nearly 95 percent. That revocation seems to have been the Oneida’s response to Brothertown’s rejection of their proposal, the previous October, to join their polity, to live “at large with them on their land,” as Occom put it in a diary entry on October 18, 1786 (Occom 2006c: 344; Jarvis 2010: 126). Such a proposal, from the Oneida perspective, would have fortified them together against further losses and diminished the likelihood of white settlers exploiting any weakness among them or their closest neighbors in order to acquire territory bordering Oneida lands.
The records of this proposition are “few and ambiguous” (Wonderley 2000: 465), and so the process by which the Oneida effected this reduction, and with whose authority from Brothertown’s leadership, remains unclear. What emerges most vividly in Occom’s documentation, however, is its emotional force—he compares it to a whirlwind. And one of the most significant factors in that intensity was where it took place: Esther Poquiantup Fowler had hosted the meeting between the leaders of the neighboring polities. “We were Call’d Suddenly to appear before the Cheifs of the Onoyda,” Occom (2006c: 382) wrote in his diary, the night of Thursday, October 24, 1787, after returning to the home he shared with David Fowler. The summons had caught them unawares; they had to “eat [their] Breakfast in hast and [go] directly to Widow Fowlers.” In his diary, Occom makes sense of these proceedings by describing them as motivated by vehement, irrational, but forethought malice. The grant had been coordinated between the polities “without the knowledge” of Brothertown’s “Head men.” Occom wanted a clear agent to blame for this dissent. He writes that “Some of the Contrivers of this mischief were much intoxicated and they drove on the Business with all fury in no order” (382).9 His journal emphasizes irrationality: much intoxicated, all fury, no order. Yet he also notes, but refuses to dwell on, something more disturbing: only some of the contrivers were clouded by passion and intoxication. Some may have been furious but not all. Some may have been quite sober, calm of mind, and deliberate. Although Esther Poquiantup Fowler’s husband, Jacob, had been active in guiding the Brothertown that he and Occom thought was best suited to protect Algonquians from settlers’ encroachments, Esther Poquiantup Fowler seems to have differed in her vision for their future.
If so, Fowler would have been drawing on her gender as a resource, in both the form and content of her actions. Her gender furthermore informed not only how she responded but why she experienced particularity differently than her brother-in-law, beyond what he considered. Through her late missionary husband’s networks, Fowler was familiar with Haudenosaunee diplomacy and its similarities with Algonquian social organization (Plane 2000; Bragdon 2009: 99–114; Danvers 2001), and she was thus particularly well situated to act on a different vision. Her hospitality to the Oneida diplomats suggests that she had been in communication with them beyond the approval of “Head men” like Occom (2006c: 382). This was one affordance of gender in shaping her response. But gender also gave her a distinct, vital perspective on how English ideals of property shaped Native diplomacy even when settlers weren’t among the negotiating parties. Fowler was probably not alone in skepticism toward these leaders’ vision or their means of achieving it. Others were susceptible to Brothertown’s “party spirit”—this, of course, was Occom’s enduring worry that fall. And many Algonquians in their former homelands had decided against signing on to that “modernization program” altogether (Bracken 2014: 123; Lyons 2010: 128). Among the Montaukett, for example, many rejected Brothertown’s invitation to nominal autonomy farther north because they recognized it meant alienation from their historical relations with their other-than-human neighbors. And they recognized that alienation was undesirable for specific material reasons (Wonderley 2000: 470–74), like hunger and famine—especially following the region-wide instability caused by colonial settlers’ war for independence from their metropole (Wonderley 2000: 477–78; Calloway 1995: 45–46).
Women would have noticed that alienation and its consequences with special sensitivity, since the transition to English agriculture at Brothertown—and especially its way of gendering and organizing labor—would have meant a sharp decrease in contact with their ecological environment in favor of domestic, housebound responsibilities (Wyss 2000: 148; Bragdon 2009: 102–29). This sensitivity would have kept Fowler more perceptive of the affordances of political alliance with the Oneida as settlers encroached on Haudenosaunee lands, too. Fowler need not have unreservedly advocated absorption by the Oneida to have planned that November meeting that so disturbed Occom. But her actions suggest that she saw the value of compromise and of seeking a better alignment between two neighboring political communities. They also suggest she dissented from Occom’s strategic vision for Brothertown’s autonomy in the world that settler norms had destabilized. Epistolarity required more delicacy and circumscription. It required closer, more troubled practices of reading than have hitherto been witnessed.
Differences within particularity precipitated—sometimes required—close, often suspicious reading. Suspicious reading has never been the exclusive possession of modern literary critics. As exponents of postcritique have astutely observed, suspicious reading isn’t always fun. It is characterized by “negativity” (Felski 2015: 8), “stony pessimism” (Sedgwick 1997: 4), and the ambivalent prestige of “one-upmanship” within an academy that “can still make you feel very bad” (Love 2010a: 236). Suspicious reading often turns its attention to bleak, frequently systemic imbalances of power and their unhappy consequences for individuals. It is therefore not frequently the most gratifying or fun approach to texts or the world in which they circulate. But these eighteenth-century readers may not often have felt such suspicion to be a choice. Occom read closely and, at times, suspiciously. His close reading of Fowler’s actions teases out her activism and her thoughtful dissent from the tough decisions that Occom felt he had to make for the sake of their peoples’ survival and flourishing. And historically attuned close reading, in turn, is vital to recovering the diversity and dissent within particularity that animated decisions like Fowler’s. Rediscovery of those alternatives might be a satisfying place to conclude; it would vindicate close reading in projects of historical recovery. But Fowler’s thoughtful responses to the changes she witnessed can illuminate more about the role of reading and interpretation in contexts of bewildering change. Fowler’s actions at Brothertown do point to the existence of plural particularities, diversity that could sometimes be invisible to one’s closest friends and collaborators. But, in turn, that diversity invites a more subtle understanding of the history of reading’s pleasures and its quiet coercions.
Fowler differed from Occom in her understanding of political autonomy’s costs. But she also differed from Occom in her ideas regarding emotional closeness and obligation. Alongside Occom, Fowler had witnessed settlers and their norms as they increasingly circumscribed her peoples’ material livelihoods. Fowler would also have been sensitive to how those norms shaped her friendship with Occom, directly and indirectly. She was likely to have noted this with more acuity and urgency than Occom did. This is at least in part because Occom’s experience of settlers’ emotional norms entangled her in his emotional life, too. Consider, for example, the emotional intensity of the letter Occom sent Esther Poquiantup Fowler and Jacob Fowler on June 9, 1770, from Mohegan territory, before the collective move north, before the dissent and cleavage within their neighborhood of relations, when it was at least a little easier to presume trust, friendship, and intimacy between them. Easy, however, for whom? That question nags Occom’s writing. Most explicitly, the letter avows the desire to renew friendship. But as a “publication event,” the letter communicates more than its nominal content (Cohen 2009: 7). The letter also makes demands of its reader. It presumes that its reader has the attention and desire to separate two deliberately entangled missives and two deliberately entangled moods.
The second missive is relatively conciliatory—relative, that is, to the first. The first missive, by contrast, unfolds in a series of rhetorical demands that the reader account for her silence and distance: “What is the reason, that I don’t hear anything at all from you,” it begins (Occom 2006b). Occom goes on to cite example after example of the reader’s communicative failings, and that accusatory mode lasts for the rest of the first missive’s eighteen lines: “What is the reason” for her silence? “Is our Friendship . . . dead?” “Is our former acquaintance forgot?” “What if . . . there is any . . . Friendship left in our hearts?” “What if we Should Try to blow it up again?” “What’s the Matter?” The letter concedes that physical distance might justify emotional distance—and then it proceeds to reject that possibility. The distance was not that great; the path between Mohegan and Montaukett, he reminds her, was familiar and well sailed. “What would be the Harm” in traveling across the sound to visit him? If she could not come in person, she could send letters: “What if you and your Husband should write to me once if you won’t Come to see us” (92). Occom longed for attention because, apparently, for a noticeable period of time but for inscrutable reasons, Esther Poquiantup Fowler had ceased sharing it with him.
Occom wrote to renew relations made difficult by white settler society’s emotional norms—the expectation that he be rational, composed, and minimally desirous. The letter he wrote makes explicit the intensity of his desire in its content and its form. But its aggressive enthusiasm, prioritizing the desires of its author, presumes that his reader assents to that intensity. The letter’s questions occasionally seem to want answers. But most of them tend to the rhetorical—they solicit affirmation, express frustration, and here and there propose action (“What if we should . . . ”; “What would be the Harm . . . ”; “What if you and your Husband should . . . ”). Throughout, the interrogative mode presents an argument with an imagined second person in advance of the addressee’s reading. This second person, the rhetorical questions presume, would be a reasoned and reasoning interlocutor, rather than what was actually there, which was silence.10 Above all, the letter insists that its author’s desires are rational and his disappointments quantifiable. In it, friendship consists of parts that can be tallied: “I have been to See you Several Times . . . and the Distance from here to you is no further than from you to me,” the letter alleges. It goes on to quantify the quantification: “I have measured it,” he insists, “Several times.” Occom’s extraordinary epistolary creativity points to a longing for friendship to be ordered, for it to depend on reason as an ordering force and, in that dependence, be rendered reliable. Accordingly, the letter’s creativity, its apparent “pleasantness and humor”—its fun—strives to produce authoritative effects in the reader, to restore what the author thought was rational order to his dearest relationships. Using these compositional strategies, Occom presumed, not irrationally, that Fowler would reciprocate in a fashion that he recognized as reasonable and, before that, that she would be a diligent and close reader of his expressions.
And before that, as the reason for the letter and its intensity, Occom had presumed that Fowler would write back. Evidently, however, she had not. Occom’s elaborate form and the intense emotion that his form communicates attest to how dearly he had cherished that expectation. “What is the reason,” his first letter begins, “that I don’t hear anything at all from you[?]” This had been the primary reason for the letter’s existence: apparently his addressee had not been writing. And her noncorrespondence had lasted for some time—long enough to provoke its author to reassess the terms of their relationship. Reflecting on her silence, he proposes that maybe they can no longer call each other friends. Of course, it was possible that she had in fact written and that any number of uncontrollable factors had intervened. Yet by 1770, Occom had been writing letters for nearly two decades, across two continents, and would have been familiar with the omnipresent possibility that a letter might not reach its destination. His letter’s intensity and its forthrightness suggest he had already ruled out the possibility of accident. According to his letter’s queries, he seemed to think Fowler’s silence was purposeful, that it was a deliberate refusal to reciprocate his expressions of affection.
Fowler found herself in an awkward position, but a position easy to miss without the sensitivity that imperative reading names. Fowler found herself obliged to read, to witness, and to make sense of her brother-in-law’s affections toward her. Though Occom indicated interest in both Jacob and Esther Fowler’s attention, he addressed himself to her, to the woman socially positioned, as Eve Sedgwick (1985) has famously put it, “between men.” Imperative reading calls attention to, without necessarily reconciling, Fowler’s concern for her brother-in-law, on one hand, with, on the other, her plausible reasons for neglecting his attentions. Imperative reading draws out a field of emotional ambivalence that Sarah Tindal Kareem (2020: 314) describes as “an abiding preoccupation with the ostensibly spurned object,” preoccupation that might consist of a range of affective experiences, including, in Heather Love’s (2010b: 239) count, “antagonism, aggression, irritation, contempt, [and] anger.” There exist many other possible explanations for Fowler’s disappointing silence, of course, besides deliberate refusal and accidental loss. Less glamorously, she may have meant to write back but hadn’t yet. There may have been a host of other demands on her attention, many other imperatives and obligations that consumed her time. Some may have been spectacular; many were probably quotidian and unremarkable, and most probably expressed history’s circumscription of the will that Occom’s intense yearning for her accountability presumed. Fowler would have had many relations among her neighbors and just as many local commitments and obligations. In this less glamorous reading, her silence wasn’t dissent so much as deprioritization, and this deprioritization would have expressed the particularities of gender and sexuality as she experienced them. Even as her kinsman, beset by masculinity’s demands, insisted that she recognize her obligations to him, she also recognized closer, maybe more urgent responsibilities that happened not to include him. Her kinsman longed for recognition, and he used his extraordinary creativity to compel her to witness his longing, frustration, and worry that their friendship was no longer sustainable. But that letter’s intensity and impatience overlook the possibility that there in fact did exist answers to the question, “What is the reason that I don’t hear anything at all from you[?]” Imperative reading won’t necessarily identify the decisively correct answer to that question. But it can illuminate a field of quieter, more ambiguous social experience that these two limited options, refusal and loss, overlook in their privileging of individual, conscious intention.
Delaying her response to that query, Fowler may have been seeking time to reflect on the intensity of Occom’s attentions, to try to understand it and account for its sources, and maybe to prompt him to consider how she was experiencing his impatience in return. She probably noticed how intensely Occom wanted her, even expected her, to be a satisfying witness to his emotions. And it wasn’t an extravagant expectation. Her capacity not simply to read but to take pleasure in reading was likely to have been organized, at least indirectly, by Occom himself. In 1749, Occom left his tutelage with Wheelock, returning to his homelands to teach Christianity and alphabetic literacy, among other disciplines that he had acquired with his former tutor and that he thought were valuable, even imperative for his relations to acquire, including young women (Szaz 1980; Wyss 2006).11 During this time, he crossed the sound frequently, traversing Montaukett, Mohegan, and Pequot territory, visiting relations that included Esther Poquiantup Fowler and her family. Fowler’s year of birth remains uncertain, but her mother, born in 1725, was of Occom’s generation. It seems likely that during the 1750s, the period of Occom’s itinerant leadership and pedagogy, Fowler was a child and would have been learning to read and write. At times, she may have been one of Occom’s students. For Occom, as these letters suggest, literacy wasn’t only a strategic tool, however. It could also be a source of gratification and pleasure. But it was a peculiar pleasure. It increased with readers who appreciated writing according to shared priorities, and these priorities and pleasures were not self-evident or innate. They were taught. Thus, as these letters communicate the author’s hopes for pleasure—his humor, his pleasantness, his wit—they confront their addressee with the expectation that she be a skilled enough reader to appreciate these qualities, and to consider their motivation.
Reading in general, and maybe even this particular letter, may have been fun for Fowler. But even if it were, fun wouldn’t render historicist priorities irrelevant. To the contrary, reading’s pleasures were a key part of a social experience of literacy that historical circumstances shaped, both directly and indirectly. For Fowler, alphabetic literacy, the proficiency required to close read, and her status as an addressee of especially elaborate invitations to close read—all these experiences materialized her particular historical position. Some of the contours of this particularity she shared with Occom, like her commitments to her Algonquian kin and their ways of life. But other qualities, like her age, her gender, and her experience of the threat posed by white settlers to her flourishing, she did not share with him. These factors distinguished their experiences of particularity; they shaped how these individuals experienced each other and how both went about the business of “ordering relationality” in the shadow of settler norms. Though practices of epistolarity certainly empowered Occom in his pursuits, those practices were not so clearly empowering for his sister-in-law. Occom, knowing Fowler’s skill, insisted that she read his writing and consider the reasons for its moods, perhaps even beyond the reasons that he himself recognized. In these missives, it would have been difficult for her not to read for implicit significance. As Fowler read this letter, its “most significant truths” may not have been, as Best and Marcus (2009: 4) describe the foundations of close historicist reading, “immediately apprehensible” but rather “veiled or invisible.” The possibility of fun—and, crucially, the possibility that Fowler wasn’t having it—points to the historical forces that made close, sensitive reading, at least for her, imperative.
Imperative reading unlocks new value within leading methodological interventions by historians and literary historians in Native American and Indigenous studies. Imperative reading deepens recent salutary exhortations to reassess the methods and materials best suited for understanding Indigenous pasts and their relationships with the present (Mt. Pleasant, Wigginton, and Wisecup 2019). For decades, conversations in early Native studies had focused preeminently on the role of writing, its ambiguity as an instrument of domination and the affordances it offered Native resistance. But writing, as recent critics point out, is not the only, or even the best, sort of object with which to acquire evidence about the past. Even as more meaningful sources of evidence exist than writing, however, writing’s effects, especially as they intersected with other strategies for Native resistance, have not fully been accounted for. Strategic material value wasn’t writing’s only attraction. Writing also promised emotional gratification, and this second, quieter value was often bound up with writing’s aesthetic qualities. Yet that value could be burdensome to the individual whom this writer, Occom, expected most to appreciate it. Occom thought writing would answer a longing to be witnessed and beheld. And his turn to writing shares a special relationship with the premise, so long cherished by historians and literary historians, that writing is the best and most reliable form of evidence. The two complement each other. The premise that writing is the most reliable form of evidence has been a foundational condition of possibility for history and literary history. But Occom’s turn to writing shows one condition that fortified that premise’s foundational place. Occom turned to writing for specific but probably intuitively reached reasons—because he felt writing to be the least risky gamble in sharing his experience of particularity, in communicating the often-confusing costs of liberalism’s demand that he be rational, minimally affected, and equal in an abstract fashion with other individuals, including the young woman he taught how to read. To have decided that this was the least risky gamble does not make one a dupe of history. But the possibility that his reader did not share his experience of literacy, the possibility that she found the imperative to read such letters more taxing than fun, is one reason to try to understand these more extravagant and subtler of literacy’s social effects.
Fowler’s noncorrespondence and the unwritten actions she prioritized instead comprise a dynamic part of the “ethnic archive” as Dana A. Williams and Marissa K. López (2012: 358) describe it. This archival material, they observe, is valuable not simply in showing the subtlety of historical phenomena. It is also valuable for the challenge it poses to the perceived “fixity” of those concepts (358). Here, it reminds literary historians of the stakes of noticing the often-vague experiential contours of a given phenomenon. For Fowler, the effects of settler colonialism and of ascendant European liberalism would have been virtually inescapable. Even the exodus to Brothertown, the departure from ancestral, increasingly settler-occupied Algonquian homelands, was profoundly shaped by disputes regarding how best to countenance these ascendant historical phenomena, survive them, and flourish despite them. Fowler witnessed these phenomena, but she would have experienced them in a far less fixed fashion than the historiographical exigency of naming them tends to imply. Fowler’s experience of settler liberalism circumscribed and frustrated her relations with her brother-in-law, even if she knew and recognized his purpose and intentions, and even if she knew and recognized how deeply he loved and cared for their people. Thus, witnessing her witnessing recasts the fixity implied by the term liberalism. It isn’t simply a name for how individuals engage with the state or civic sphere. More dynamically—and sometimes more disturbingly—it appears in the obstacles that individuals face in attempting to sustain just relations with each other. These historical phenomena wormed their way into the practices of neighborliness, closeness, and even suspicion that Occom and Fowler brought to their friendship; they shaped how these individuals saw—and occasionally failed to see—each other.
Imperative reading unfixes the experiential contours of at least one historical phenomenon (liberalism). This unfixing, in turn, provokes a reassessment of the yields of literary criticism. Historicist interpretation is conventionally posed as a counterpart to projects that would “recuperate the pleasures of play, absorption, and attachment” that reading seems to afford, and to afford universally (Drury 2020: 301). Yet that appearance of universality—implicit in the field-wide claims proposed by postcritical polemic—took shape historically. That process was costly. For Occom, humor and wit, and the pleasure they promised, entangled Fowler in obligations beyond what she may have wanted. But history need not always be so bleak. In a recent forum on postcritical reading and the eighteenth-century archive, Joseph Drury observes that by attending to “the pleasures of play, absorption and attachment” in writing and reading, we can “do more justice,” both to the figures of the past and, importantly, “to our own experiences as readers and scholars” (301). By “do justice,” Drury means something like “recognize better” and cultivate greater sensitivity to the effects of history, in this case colonial liberalism, as they inflected intimate life, life that can often seem most “true” or “natural,” in Coulthard’s (2014: 113) words. Both Fowler and Occom sought such recognition yet in different, not always congenial, ways. A better understanding of the obstacles they faced in their attempts to recognize each other, and of what got in the way of shared pleasure, is one yield of historicist reading. And that practice can just as powerfully exercise itself on public, widely circulating texts as it does in private journals and epistles. To do justice in Drury’s sense isn’t, finally, an exposure of a violent modern hegemony’s deceptions. To do justice to our own experiences of fun, pleasure play, absorption, and attachment—and, importantly, to do justice to each other’s experiences—requires practice that historicist close reading exemplarily provides, practice identifying the subtle, as-yet-nameless obstacles that get in the way of best witnessing each other, and seeking to be witnessed ourselves.
Proposals to turn away from a suspicious hermeneutic, as Paul Ricoeur (1970) described it, have become a productive recent strand in twenty-first-century literary study. Some touchpoints in this conversation include Anker and Felski 2017; Felski 2015; Love 2010a, 2010b; Best and Marcus 2009; Sedgwick 1997.
For a survey of this turn to pleasure, see Anker and Felski 2017: 10–12.
See, most memorably, Warner 2004.
Perhaps the most impactful such critique has been Hartman 2008. Drawing on Michel Foucault (2000), Saidiya Hartman (2008: 11) proposes a method of “speculative arguments” that exploit “the capacities of the subjunctive” to “paint as full a picture of the lives of the captives as possible.” Over the past decade, her essay has become the springboard for productive reorientations in historically oriented scholarship in Black studies; see, for example, Helton et al. 2015; Connolly and Fuentes 2016. Early American studies has affirmed the value of this turn in pre-nineteenth-century texts, not simply for African American history but for Indigenous history, too. Though Mt. Pleasant, Wigginton, and Wisecup (2019) reassess the “methods and materials” proper to Native studies, they do not weigh in so directly on the matter of recovery’s empiricist risks as do Lauren Coats and Steffi Dippold (2020). For work at the intersection of Black studies and Native studies that draws strength from this question of recovery, see Rifkin 2019; King 2019.
On Wheelock’s promises for a school, see Wyss 2000: 123–30, 2012: 33–42; Brooks 2006: 19–22. On the significance of schooling among eighteenth-century Algonquin communities, see Rice 2010.
Occom’s wit has most often been identified as a response to colonial frustrations. See Elliott 1994: 245; Peyer 1997: 78–79; Wigginton 2008: 32; Silverman 2010: 71–72; Stevens 2013: 385; Vance 2016: 159; Calcaterra 2018: 77.
See also Morgensen 2010.
One of the few historical accounts of this episode takes Occom’s brief diary entry at face value and fills in the opacities with infelicitous cliché. The Oneida, Silverman (2010: 129) writes, “plied a few Brothertowns with drink to get them to sign a deed.” My essay’s counterreading may be too speculative, yet its suspicions, even if potentially paranoid, are one way to open up the field of historical possibility beyond these caricatures.
On the prosopopoeia of the rhetorical question, see Rei Terada (2001: 128–39). Fowler’s correspondent may have learned the power of the rhetorical question from his own teacher, Wheelock, who, when he responded to his students’ letters at all, used rhetorical questions to rebuff what he saw as impertinence in his students, as his letter to Fowler’s other brother-in-law, sent from Lebanon on August 26, 1766, attests (McCallum 1932: 104–5).
Szaz 1980 has accounted for the handful of girls and young women sent to Wheelock to learn Christianity and alphabetic literacy. In Margaret Connell Szaz’s research, Esther Poquiantup was not among them. On seventeenth-century Algonquian women’s literary activity, see Wyss 2007; 2012: 64–73.