BEING AND BECOMING LITERATE
IN THE EIGHTEENTH- CENTURY
IN 1773, MOHEGAN MISSIONARY Joseph Johnson (1751–77) wrote in a letter meant for public circulation, “Be it known to all in general, that I am Properly an Illiterate man.”1 Johnson was apologizing in advance for his writing style to anyone who might one day happen upon his manuscripts. This was a man who read the Bible and religious tracts regularly, turning often to Richard Baxter’s Saint’s Everlasting Rest after long days of teaching and working in the fields. He was fluent in two languages and working on a third (Oneida). In the years following this letter, he would write many public petitions to government officials. Yet, in speaking to an imagined Anglo- American public, Johnson felt the need to depict himself as unskilled with the written word.
This chapter offers an explanation of Johnson’s puzzling statement about his literacy by relating it to the two sets of material practices out of which it arose — Native communicative protocols and those of an emerging EuroAmerican public culture. By focusing on the writings of Joseph Johnson and his elder mentor, Samson Occom (1723–92), I map the Native performance, literacy, scribal, and print practices surfacing in the Northeast during the eighteenth century. These shared practices reveal that Johnson’s anxiety about literacy is symptomatic of a whole generation of Native writers. As Christian converts under the sway of British and American colonialism, such writers uneasily adopted aspects of the emerging public culture taking shape across British America. At the same time, they worked to preserve and revivify traditional rhetorical protocols from within their own tribal communities. In the process, Native intellectuals like Joseph Johnson found themselves performing literacy in ways that differed from their seventeenth- century ancestors.
Readers and writers of texts in the Massachusett language had engaged Eliot’s Indian Library through a Native print vernacular that aided them in