Sunday, March 15, 2009

Book Review: "Peter's War"

In her new book Peter's War: A New England Slave Boy and the American Revolution (Yale University Press, 2009), George Mason law professor Joyce Lee Malcolm attempts to create a history of one slave's experiences during the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, the slave she chooses - like most slaves - did not leave much of a paper trail, so the narrative Malcolm is able to draw out is at best incomplete and at worst based on a rather surprising amount of speculation for a book published by a press which normally takes scholarship very seriously.

After discovering the 1765 bill of sale for a nineteen-month old slave in Lincoln, MA, Malcolm says, she was captivated by finding out more about this boy, Peter, and what happened to him later in life. After researching, she writes, "In the end I have discovered Peter's footprints but not his voice. I have set those footprints down in the landscape he inhabited, among the people he knew and the dramatic historic events in which he participated" (p. x).

If Malcolm had done only what she said she would do, I wouldn't have minded in the slightest, (although I suspect she would not have had enough material for even a short article that way, let alone a book). Unfortunately she goes far beyond footprints, placing thoughts and motives in the head of young Peter that there is, so far as I can tell, no evidential basis for whatever.

From the very first pages, Malcolm presumes to divine Peter's thought processes: "In many ways his childhood was little different from that of other New England farm boys of the time. Sometimes it had been easy to forget the difference between slave and free and, beyond that, the racial barrier that had made him always the outsider" (p. 3). Later, we learn that by December of 1775, "Home seemed more comfortable than before" (p. 106), and when Peter's mistress dies, "He would miss her terribly" (p. 119). Malcolm suggests that when Peter's master remarried, Peter was "anxious" and "filled with uncertainty" (p. 145). We do not have a single letter or reminiscence written by Peter, so as a reader I kept asking myself, is it possible to know any of those things? Perhaps his emotions can be guessed at, but that is all Malcolm has to work with: guesswork, and unstated guesswork at that.

Malcolm writes several paragraphs about the day on which Josiah Nelson purchases Peter from the owners of his father, a slave called Jupiter. Because Josiah's wife Elizabeth doesn't sign the bill of sale, Malcolm presumes that she wasn't there. "Elizabeth was probably too embarrassed to be present," the author writes (p. 9), without any evidence testifying to her absence (let alone to her emotional state of mind) other than the lack of a signature.

Peter finds himself drawn into the Revolutionary War from its very first day, as the Nelsons' farm sat right on what we now know as Battle Road. Malcolm believes that Peter enlisted several times in local militias and the Continental Army, serving in different locations and engagements throughout the war. However, it is not at all clear to me whether the men she's following are even the same person. She suggests that Peter changed his last name to Sharon in late 1779 when he was emancipated and enlisted again, but provides only the sketchiest of evidence for why he would have done so (she suggests it is a "clear indication of deep anger and dismay", p. 193), but offers no supportive documentation of this fact. Does Peter Nelson become Peter Sharon? Perhaps, but with the evidence I have, I'm not entirely comfortable thinking so.

For reasons not entirely clear, Malcolm adds several chapters about Titus, also known as Captain (or Colonel) Tye (the ranks were 'honorary' only), an escaped slave who fights for the British, leading guerilla raids in the NY/NJ region. Titus hasn't anything to do with Peter, and his inclusion here is puzzling.

There are also several editorial slips, including a typo or two (extremely rare for a Yale book) and a rather gaping contradiction about the training of the British regulars who marched on Lexington and Concord (described on p. 52 as "hardened professionals", they are, just fifteen pages later, "young, untested troops"). But what is most troubling about this book is the complete lack of footnotes. A monograph which deals with a subject as difficult and as fragmentary as a slave's experiences positively screams for documentation, and yet Malcolm has omitted all specific references ("for ease of reading," she says, p. x). There is a brief Essay on Sources (pp. 235-241), but Malcolm does not indicate what she got from where, and for most of her conclusions it is impossible for the reader to tell. This is utterly insulting to any serious reader, who certainly should be curious about Malcolm's sources and what uses she makes of them.

Overall, a book which makes too much of the available evidence, and tries to be more than it can be.

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