Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Thoughts on Tecumseh: A Life

Reading John Sugden's biography of Tecumseh is at once mesmerizing and perplexing. There's little doubt that he did a great deal of expansive and immersive research on his subject, but from a objective standpoint, Sugden still tends to fall prey to the same things he attempted to avoid and strip away from the pervading narrative of the life of Tecumseh, namely the legend.

Many, many times, he goes out of his way to give voice to the perception that Tecumseh was an extraordinarily attractive individual. I don't personally see how that's relevant, nor how it affects one thing or another about his effectiveness. The basics of Tecumseh's life are that he came about at the last opportunity for Indians to make a significant stand against the encroaching United States, and was successful to the extent that he was because of continued bad relations between the country and its late fatherland, England. Beyond that, he failed in unifying tribes for any length of time, inspiring greatness in them, or winning sympathy for them. That may sound harsh, but the same can be said for Alexander the Great, for whom Tecumseh is a remarkable analogy, except Alexander had success in his lifetime that crumbled as soon as he died. Both had precedents immediately before them that helped make their successes possible. If there's something Sugden misses, it's an opportunity for perspective.

He spends most of his time preparing the reader for Tecumseh's greatness, but ends up making his brother, the Prophet, whom Sugden routinely downplays, sound more successful, if more temporarily, less respectful. For all the exhaustive accounts of Indian activities and the politics of William Henry Harrison, Sugden dances around more than illustrates Tecumseh, happily relying on conjecture rather than admitting that he doesn't really know that much beyond what he can extract from the legends that followed.

I'm not trying to say this is not worth reading, because it is; it's incredibly insightful and educational, and in some closing thoughts Sugden tries to put Tecumseh's impact in a certain amount of context (while basically dismissing every other Indian leader and movement that followed). It might be said that the whole point of the biography is to testify to the portrait of Tecumseh as the consummate "noble savage." Again, I don't mean to imply that this was actually Sugden's intention, but that he is not the writer that Tecumseh deserves, and that's what the book really proves, that there's a truly great story here, except that it's waiting for the author that's worthy to the challenge.

I read this one because I was relying on information that suggested it actually was that book, but I'm not convinced that it is. I struggled with the legacy of Tecumseh throughout the book, mostly because Sugden keeps him at an ambiguous distance for most of it, and maybe that's the best the historical record can give us today, and maybe it's a flaw of the author. That's why I'm presenting my impressions in this light, because it's my opinion that the author is the problem, and not the subject. Perhaps we'll know for sure at a later date.

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