Mark Twain once wrote a famous essay on the ‘literary offenses’ of James Fenimore Cooper. Sadly, one is tempted to write in a similar vein about J C H King, whose big, ambitious book is chock-full of faults at different levels. He aims at a complete survey – historical, geographical, sociological, demographic, cultural – of the indigenous inhabitants of North America. King is now a Cambridge fellow, having worked as keeper of anthropology in the British Museum, so there can be no doubt of his commitment to his subject. But he has made little attempt to reach out to the general reader and, where he has, the results are disappointing. To use another analogy – Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity – one might say that King is vulnerable to seven different types of criticism.
The first and most obvious is that this is not really a history but an encyclopaedia in which he merrily zip pans from one set of indigestible facts to another. There is no narrative thrust, and his account never achieves liftoff. This reviewer, at least, found it a real chore