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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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4. Spirit of Nationalism   

4. Spirit of Nationalism

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- William Apess
- J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur
- Jonathan Edwards
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
- Benjamin Franklin
- Margaret Fuller
- Thomas Jefferson
- Susanna Rowson
- Royall Tyler
- Phillis Wheatley
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: William Apess (1798-1839)

Goffe Rallying the Men of Hadley
[2121] Anonymous, Goffe Rallying the Men of Hadley [in Defense of Indian Attack during King Philip's War, Hadley, Mass., 1675-76] (1883), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-75122].

William Apess Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
William Apess composed the first published autobiography by a Native American. Born in Massachusetts, Apess was part of the Pequot tribe and claimed to count Metacomet, the Wampanoag leader known of the English as "King Philip," among his ancestors. Metacomet's courageous but unsuccessful resistance of the English settlers during King Philip's War (1675-78) probably made him an appealing historical figure to Apess, who devoted his own life to asserting and defending Indian rights.

Few details of Apess's life are known beyond those recorded in his 1829 autobiography, A Son of the Forest. Left by his parents to be raised by alcoholic and abusive grandparents, he was bound out as an indentured servant when he was very young. Apess lived with a series of white masters, but a combination of their unreasonable expectations and his own rebelliousness ensured that he never found a tenable situation as an apprentice or laborer. At the age of fifteen, Apess was converted to Methodism, an evangelical and radically egalitarian strain of the Protestant religion. Religious studies scholars have speculated that Methodism appealed to Native American communities not only because of its emphasis on equality, but also because its enthusiastic style and theology were more in keeping with Native American religions. Methodism was a controversial movement among European Americans, and Apess's involvement in ecstatic religious meetings did not sit well with his master. Encountering "persecution and affliction and sorrow" in his master's home, Apess ran away. He then enlisted in the army and served during an invasion of Canada in the War of 1812. In 1817, he returned to the Pequot community, where he soon began serving as a lay preacher. By 1829, the Methodist society had ordained him as a regular minister.

A Son of the Forest was published in 1830 in the midst of the national controversy over the Indian Removal Bill, the congressional act that legalized the federal government's decision to force Native Americans off their traditional homelands east of the Mississippi River. Apess's memoir implicitly challenges this injustice toward Native Americans by asserting Indians' humanity, worth, and potential, using his own life as an example. Conforming to some of the conventions of a spiritual conversion narrative, Apess's text situates his experiences within a Christian tradition and demonstrates his dedication to Christian values.

After the publication of A Son of the Forest, Apess became an increasingly outspoken critic of the wrongs white society perpetrated against Native Americans. In 1833 he published "An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man," an impassioned exposè2121 of the disjunction between the rhetoric of white Christianity and the reality of whites' harsh treatment of Native Americans. In the mid-1830s, Apess also became involved in the Mashpee Indians' struggle for self-government and control over their own land and resources. (The Mashpee are one branch of Wampanoag Indians living in Massachusetts.) His efforts to publicize their case and to articulate their grievances helped them eventually win the right of self-governance from the Massachusetts State Legislature. Apess's final published work, the text of a lecture on King Philip that he delivered to a Boston audience in 1836, is a moving study of the history of white-Indian relations in early New England from the perspective of a Native American. Apparently exhausted by his efforts to fight for Indian rights, Apess stopped writing and publishing. Obituaries in New York newspapers report that he died of alcoholism.

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