Author Q&A

Open Book with Colin G. Calloway


Growing up in England, Colin G. Calloway became fascinated with Native American history. Yet, the more he explored the topic, the more he realized native people were hardly mentioned in the history books across the pond.

"There was a disconnect," he said. That's why his book, "The Indian World of George Washington" (Oxford University Press), a finalist for the 2018 National Book Award, centers around one of the most prominent figures in our nation's past.

"Nobody's a bigger name in American history, particularly in early American history," Calloway said. "I really looked at George Washington as a vehicle. If I could show how Native Americans shaped the life of George Washington, the guy who shaped the nation, that would go a long way to demonstrating the central importance of Native Americans in American history."

Published in April of 2018, Calloway's work grapples with two opposing titles for Washington — the "great father" to indigenous people, as well as the "Town Destroyer" — and emphasizes that while textbooks may glance over indigenous people's past, the future of Native Americans during America's inception weighed heavily on Washington's mind.

"When I was reading the correspondence between George Washington and Henry Knox, who was his first Secretary of War, [I was surprised at] just how much time, effort, ink, mental energy was expended in trying to do the right thing in establishing a national Indian policy," he said. "And I think that effort is too easily just dismissed as hypocrisy because Washington, as president, is setting precedent ... And love him or hate him, that's a part of his role as president and it was certainly part of the landscape that he had to deal with."

Ahead of his lectures and book signings at The Mount on Monday and Tuesday, the Dartmouth College professor shared some of his favorite books. The interview has been edited for length.

Q. What are some of your favorite books focused on the founding of America and the Colonial era?

A. I teach a course at Dartmouth called "The Invasion of America." And I stole that title from a book that was written in the 1970s by Francis Jennings called "The Invasion of America." And it's really primarily about New England and the Puritan assault on Indian culture. Now that book is quite dated, and I think fairly polemical, but I think the title is significant because often my students [say] 'Did we miss something? We've been invaded?' It was a bit of a game-changing book because it shifted the focus away from the story of Americans being English people arriving in New England and building civilization and a City on a Hill, and rather, how did that look from the other side? The story of America was a story of invasion, viewed from Indian country.

The other book I mention, in part because of its accessibility, is a book by Charles C. Mann called "1491." And Charles doesn't do anything that scholars of Indian history would find new, but what he does do is kind of take a helicopter approach to the American hemisphere and say, 'This is what it looked like on the eve of colonization.' And that helps to dispel a lot of those stereotypes about savage, primitive people.

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For the Colonial era, a book that I still like is a book by Fred Anderson called "Crucible of War." It's really a book about the French and Indian War, but again, that shifted thinking a little bit because in American history, I've often found that anything before the American Revolution was kind of ancient history and pre-American Revolution was sort of people in powdered wigs and buckled shoes. And what Fred Anderson's book did was focus attention on that war as a massive struggle for dominance in America between France and Britain, Spain on the wings and of course, multiple Indian nations. And that was over a war that set in motion the developments that led to the American Revolution.

Q. What's your favorite book about George Washington?

A. I actually came back to "The Journal of George Washington," (1754) — the journal he wrote after his mission to the Ohio country. He was sent on an embassy to ask the French to withdraw, which they refused, but it was kind of a spying mission also. But I like that because, even though you can read that in an hour and think there's not much there, there's actually a lot there if you look at it through the lens of Indian history and what's happening in Indian history at that time. It's a little bit like reading a poem where you look at it and you have to look at it again. It's interesting to me about what he missed as much as what he saw. I'm not sure that it's a favorite book, but it's one that I've gone back to a lot of times because there's a lot of mileage in it for the kind of work that I do.

Q. What's your favorite book about indigenous people in America?

A. It's a book by Pekka H m l inen. He wrote a book called "The Comanche Empire" and what it did was demonstrate that here was a massive indigenous presence that we've ignored and by ignoring it, we must have misunderstood how history unfolded in that area. One of the things that that book has pointed out is that by the time the United States goes to war with Mexico in 1846, Mexico's ready to crumble because it's been trying to sustain and failing to sustain defenses against the Comanche and other powerful Indian people on its northern borders. I think that's an important point you can apply elsewhere across the continent — that a lot of things in American history don't make sense without Indians.

Q. What's your favorite book about a U.S. President other than Washington?

A. I suppose it would be the journals of Lewis and Clark, which are not about Thomas Jefferson, but in a lot of ways, this was his brain child and his mission. He wanted Lewis and Clark to go out there and gather as much information as they could on the West, which means they wrote about a million words in these journals. There's a huge amount about Native Americans because Jefferson wanted that information. He had in mind this Empire of Liberty and he understood that for the United States to expand west of the Mississippi, you need to build alliances with Indian people.

Q. What books are currently on your night stand?

A. I'm just wrapping up two books, neither having anything to do with Native American history. The first book is a book by Stuart Maconie called "The Long March from Jarrow." I'm from the north of England, and I was interested in the chance to read something about home. What's interesting is that he was trying to retrace that march in the wake of the Brexit vote and Trump's election.

I'm also just finishing Jeffrey C. Stewart's biography, "The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke." He and I were finalists together for the National Book Award in 2018, and we had both published with Oxford University Press, so we were sitting at the same publisher's table. We spent a couple of days together at the National Book Awards, and we kind of became friends. He gave me a signed copy of his book, so I felt compelled to read it [laughs]. And I have no qualms about losing out to Jeffrey. He spent 30 years on this book, and it's painstaking and it's detailed and it's thorough.


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