(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

William Apess 1798–1839

(Surname also rendered as Apes) Native American autobiographer, biographer, essayist, and historian.

An outspoken advocate of civil rights for Native Americans, Apess was the first Indian to publish an autobiography. This work, A Son of the Forest (1829), chronicles his childhood of poverty, abuse, and indentured servitude; his service as an infantryman in the War of 1812; his subsequent itinerant life of menial jobs and alcoholism; and his eventual religious conversion and work as an ordained Methodist minister. Apess's works, particularly his Nullification of the Unconstitutional Laws of Massachusetts, Relative to the Marshpee Tribe (1835), are also known for their depiction of the Mashpee (or Marshpee) Indians of Massachusetts. The Mashpees, who were Christians, lived in their own town. They sought to maintain their independence from governmental oversight, and wanted to replace their inattentive white minister with Apess. In 1833 Apess organized the tribe, issued a series of declarations, and succeeded in satisfying the Mashpees' demands. Known as the Mashpee Revolt, this incident is remembered as one of few such victories in Native American history, and Indian Nullification is considered one of the most brilliant examples of political writing in Native American literature.

Biographical Information

Apess was born January 31, 1798, near Colrain, Massachusetts. His father, of Pequot and white ancestry, was a shoemaker, and his mother, variously described as white, Negro, and Pequot, was either an indentured servant or a slave who was not formally freed until 1805. Apess's parents separated and reconciled a number of times before finally turning Apess over to his alcoholic maternal grandparents. After a near fatal beating from his grandmother, Apess was contracted out as an indentured servant to a series of white families. He began attending Methodist meetings, thereby antagonizing his Congregationalist and Baptist employers who disapproved of racial intermingling and the lower-class followers of Methodism. Apess found in the Methodist sermons, which emphasized the oppression of the righteous by non-Christians, a structure for understanding his experience. He was eventually forbidden to attend meetings, however,

and ran away. Learning that a reward had been offered for his recovery, Apess enlisted in the New York militia and fought in the War of 1812. After leaving the service, he worked a variety of jobs in New York and Canada, battling alcoholism all the while. He eventually settled in Connecticut, where he became a Methodist minister and published A Son of the Forest and The Experiences of Five Christian Indians of the Pequod Tribe (1833). In his role as preacher, Apess went to Mashpee, the only surviving Native American town in Massachusetts, and became immediately involved in its longstanding struggle against the overseers assigned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the neglectful and corrupt pastor appointed by Harvard College. At Apess's urging, and probably with his authorship, the community sent "The Indian Declaration of Independence" to the governor, who threatened to call out troops."An Indian's Appeal to the White Men of Massachusetts, " in all likelihood composed by Apess, was published in several newspapers, and in 1834 the state legislature granted the citizens of Mashpee the same rights of self-governance enjoyed by other citizens of the state. During the next eighteen months, however, Apess seems to have lost his position of leadership, and three debt actions were brought against him in the Barnstable court between 1836 and 1837. According to an obituary published in the New York Sun in May 1839, Apess died in New York City after having "lost the confidence of the best portions of the community."

Major Works

The central thematic concern in Apess's work is the failure of white men to see the irony and hypocrisy in denying Native Americans the "self-evident" rights guaranteed to "all men" by the Declaration of Independence and in condemning them as heathens while treating them in the most un-Christian manner imaginable. A Son of the Forest is modeled after Protestant conversion narratives, the earliest literary form, along with the sermon, published in New England. While apparently a pious and conventional account of Apess's life, A Son of the Forest is a subtly political work. Apess depicted himself as a Christian persecuted without mercy by white heathens, thus inverting a conventional perception pivotal to the rationale for colonial conquest. Although he was beaten almost to death by his grandmother, he placed this beating in the context of her economic desperation andracial self-hatred and made clear that she was under the influence of alcohol provided by white men. He also suggested in a lengthy appendix that Native Americans constitute one of the Lost Tribes of Israel, a theory also promulgated by Joseph Smith, leader of the Mormon Church. Apess's next work, The Experiences of Five Christian Indians of the Pequod Tribe, presents the stories of five Native Americans, including Apess's own, and their experiences of redemption through Christian faith. This work also includes a polemic against white racism in which Apess blames racism and racist government policies for reducing the Indians of New England to "the most mean and abject, miserable race of beings in the world." Apess's last published work, Eulogy on King Philip (1836), has been described as his "most powerful and sustained polemic." Originally delivered as a series of lectures, the Eulogy praises King Philip—a Wampanoag Indian who in the seventeenth century led a confederacy of tribes in battle against English colonists and who was subsequently portrayed as a savage character by whites—as a great man and one of the founding fathers of the country. In so doing, Apess chronicled the abuses suffered by the Indian and, in David Murray's words, effectively invoked "God to criticize those acting in His name."

Critical Reception

At the time of his writing, Apess was generally reviled as an agitator by white critics who wanted to believe he was solely responsible for the Mashpee Revolt. After he disappeared from the public record, he was neglected by literary critics and historians because his style and visionary political insights were difficult to place within any established genre. Some critics also claimed Apess, in adopting the rhetoric of Christian conversion narratives, "lost his voice" as a Native American and wrote in a derivative style. In the last decade, however, as interest in marginalized peoples, in the subversion of established discourses, and in cultural, ethnic, and racial identity has grown, Apess's works have been rescued from obscurity. Apess is now celebrated for his ability to combine the perspectives of Native Americans and European Americans and to manipulate the accepted modes of discourse to suit his subversive ends. Scholars have also described Apess's struggle to construct an identity as a Native American living among whites as strikingly contemporary. Some critics, though, have asserted that Apess deliberately downplayed differences between native peoples and European Americans in order to persuade readers that the rights of white citizens should be extended to people of color. Today, Apess is recognized as an impassioned and sensitive writer who was ahead of his time in his condemnation of European hegemony, of racial self-hatred, and of the political uses of discourse to marginalize Native Americans and rationalize their extinction.