The Author’s Corner with Philip F. Gura

Philip F. Gura is William S. Newman Distinguished
Professor of American Literature and Culture Department of English and Comparative Literature at The University of North Carolina. This interview is based on his new book, The Life of William Apess, Pequot (The University of North Carolina Press, March 2015).

JF: What led you to write The Life of William Apess, Pequot?

PG: As a student of antebellum American literature and culture, I was surprised how little we knew of a Native American who had left so large a body of written work. I wanted to place Apess and his writings in their historical context. I also was fascinated that he was a survivor of the supposedly extinct Pequot nation and thus sought to learn more about the history of Native Americans in New England.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Life of William Apess, Pequot?

PG: The book is an intellectual biography of a mixed-race person in a region that paid lip service to the notion that Native Americans were a doomed, vanishing people. The book alerts us to the ways in which such an individual negotiated, particularly through education and religion, the various roadblocks put in his way as he tried to understand and work for the rights of indigenous people who never sought to become “Americans” in any traditional sense.

JF: Why do we need to read The Life of William Apess, Pequot?

GF: Apess deserves the same recognition as others, particularly in the abolition and women’s rights movements, who questioned the sincerity of the nation’s commitment to democracy. This biography explains how and why Apess accomplished what he did and yet still almost perished from historical memory. Reading about his life allows us to think about the complex task of recovering Native American history in a region where Native Americans occupied a very different position than they did, say, on the Western lands to which they were being removed even as Apes wrote.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

PG: As a college student, I was fortunate enough to major in American History and Literature, and learned the satisfaction of working at a topic through the perspective of various disciplines. I continued such study for my PhD, in the History of American Civilization. This training instilled the notion that to explain a topic honestly and deeply, one had to examine it through the lenses of other, cognate disciplines. I also was fortunate to have attended college when the fields of African American and Women’s Studies were emerging, allowing students to expand their understanding of how to tell the story of, say, the development of American literature. Finally, when I went on the job market, positions in “American Studies” per se were few, and I opted to look for work in departments of literature. I find it ironic that I have no degrees in literature but always have had my home in English Departments, ones, fortunately, that valued my work as an historian of American culture.

JF: What is your next project?

PG: I am writing a book tentatively called Panic: Romantic Reformers and the Coming of the Civil War in which I examine a spectrum of reform activities, most of them bent on transforming the individual or the individual’s relation to society but that failed to address the nation’s larger structural problems, particularly the institution of slavery. The book examines self-indulgence as a problem endemic to a culture built on the sanctity of individual rights. The relevance to our own age should be obvious.

JF: Looking forward to reading about it. Thanks Philip!

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner