Books: On the Frontier of History and Myth ; White Savage: William Johnson and the Invention of America by Fintan O'Toole FABER Pounds 20 (402Pp) Pounds 18 (Free P&p) from 0870 079 8897
Howe, Stephen, The Independent (London, England)
In about 1738, a young man called William Johnson escaped his impoverished if well-connected Irish home for America. Initially working for his uncle, he soon struck out on his own as a fur- trader and land speculator. And he 'went native', acquiring an Iroquois wife, family and name. Within a few years, he became the most important intermediary between white and native societies, and a crucial actor in the complex conflicts which consolidated British power in North America, broke that of France, and gradually destroyed the indigenous societies with which Johnson had become so intimate.
But he also made himself something far more even than all that. As Fintan O'Toole argues in this remarkable, vivid biography, Johnson was a vital figure in the making of America: in a sense, one could even say that he was the first American.
The fact that we only know 'about' when he emigrated hints at how much of an enigma Johnson remains. That's partly because of holes in the archive: only a fraction of his letters and papers survive. More, though, the enduring mystery stems from the sheer multiplicity of the roles he played, the masks he wore.
O'Toole's view is that the Irish background explains much of this. Johnson's upbringing was in a Catholic family which traced its ancestry to the old Gaelic aristocracy, which had lost its wealth and power through English conquest, but several of whose members were clawing their way back up the social ladder via prudent (and probably nominal) conversion to Protestantism, adoption of a British identity and an empire-building mission, and a ruthless drive to succeed.
This 'amphibian' backdrop, so O'Toole believes, equipped Johnson very well for his difficult straddling of worlds and personas, between Iroquois and white settler. It was also symptomatic of a far wider pattern: the ambiguities of Irishness within the British Empire and then in the emerging idea of America. White Savage is, O'Toole tells us, to be the first of three 'loosely related' books about the creation of America and its myth of itself " and the seminal role of the Irish in that creation.
It might be argued that O'Toole's is too Hibernocentric a view. He is fascinated by the notion of Johnson seeking in America to recreate the lifestyle of a Gaelic monarch, with Iroquois (and African slaves) as his subjects in place of Irish peasants " even to the extent of …
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Publication information: Article title: Books: On the Frontier of History and Myth ; White Savage: William Johnson and the Invention of America by Fintan O'Toole FABER Pounds 20 (402Pp) Pounds 18 (Free P&p) from 0870 079 8897. Contributors: Howe, Stephen - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: August 19, 2005. Page number: 25. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.