Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

Emotional Subjects, Big and Small

· August 30th, 2017 · No Comments

Today’s post comes from Matthew Kruer, author of “Bloody Minds and Peoples Undone: Emotion, Family, and Political Order in the Susquehannock–Virginia War” in the July issue of the William and Mary Quarterly. 

by Matthew Kruer

Early Americanists are thinking big these days. When, in early 2016, Karin Wulf introduced[1] the twitter hashtag #VastEarlyAmerica and Josh Piker advocated[2] that “early Americanists should be striving to get lost,” they gave shape to a momentum that had been building for some time, and in the process catalyzed a remarkable energy toward expanding the scope of the field. I have been watching with interest as articles on English perceptions of Peru’s Native peoples, Barbadian colonists’ connections to Surinam, and New Englanders’ support for German missionaries in Tamil Nadu have appeared in the pages of the Quarterly. I count myself among those who find this expansiveness exhilarating, and I embrace the vision of early America as a vast and inclusive space. At the same time, though, I have found inspiration for my article in the most recent issue of the Quarterly in exactly the opposite direction.

In 2008, Nicole Eustace published Passion is the Gale: Emotions, Power, and the Coming of the American Revolution[3], advocating for early Americanists to historicize emotional concepts such as “love” or “anger,” words we often take for granted as though they have self-evident and transhistorical meanings. In this sophisticated study, Eustace managed to connect the inner lives of early Americans with some of the most sweeping changes in world history. In the process, she challenged historians to treat the emotional subjectivities of early Americans as a force capable of driving social and political change.

Nearly a decade later, virtually no one has taken up the gauntlet she threw down. This strikes me as a shame, and one that I hope will change in the years to come. My article takes a step down this path by taking a closer look at emotions related to war and their political ramifications, focusing on the little-known Susquehannock-Virginia War (1675-1685). I am happy to acknowledge, however, that Anglo-Indian violence is only one patch of ground in a wide-open field that is begging for new scholars to explore it.

Investigating emotional subjects is even more important now that we are casting our gazes farther afield than ever before. As we stretch through space seeking to encompass continents, Atlantics, and globes, we will all be grappling with fresh examples of the ways that early modern peoples were profoundly strange to modern sensibilities. We will have to take a deep dive into their inner lives to understand the ways they strived to navigate that bustling, disorderly, often violent world. When we surface again, we can approach what once seemed familiar with fresh eyes.

Emotional subjectivities are extraordinarily difficult to reconstruct, much less explore. Yet such scholarship can be luminous in its revelations. So as we savor the dizzying expanses of wide new horizons, we should never lose sight of the revelatory power of the most intimate spaces. Sometimes, thinking big means going small.

[1] Hyperlink: https://blog.oieahc.wm.edu/for-2016-appreciating-vastearlyamerica/

[2] Hyperlink: https://blog.oieahc.wm.edu/getting-lost/

[3] Hyperlink: https://www.uncpress.org/book/9780807871980/passion-is-the-gale/

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