Death and Afterlife of the North American Martyrs: An Interview with Emma Anderson, Part I

I'm pleased today, and for the next two days, to run this conversation I recently had with Emma Anderson, who teaches in the Department of Classic and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa and is the author of the recent and very wonderful book The Death and Afterlife of the North American Martyrs. I featured Emma's book in my "best books of 2013" year end list, where I wrote the following 

Emma Anderson, The Death and Afterlife of the North American Martyrs (Harvard University Press)
Anderson’s first book Betrayal of Faith: The Tragic Journey of a Native Convert (2008) was a moving microhistory of Pierre-Antoine Pastedechouan, the young Innu convert taken to France and later closely observed by the most famous of Jesuit chroniclers, Paul Le Jeune. In this new work, more of a macro-history, Emma Anderson follows the varying fortunes of the eight Jesuit seventeenth-century martyrs (and also why native converts who died for their faith missed being received into martyrdom). Religious studies scholar Robert Orsi describes this big book this way: This richly imagined book is a delight to read. In prose of exquisite, often sensuous detail and striking immediacy, Anderson offers a compelling history that opens up important questions in the study of religion. Her account of Brébeuf's torture and death is a tour-de-force, while her treatment of the interactions between Native Americans and Europeans is psychologically acute and emotionally resonant.
Emma's previous book that I reference there, Betrayal of Faith, was actually the first "author interview" book ever featured on this blog; it's an enormously moving book that remains one of my favorites in the field.

The new book,
Death and Afterlife, is really a massive project that covers centuries, mixes genres of writing, and puts together avenues of research from the most monkish and archival to the most ethnographic and participatory. It's another remarkable, moving, and fascinating work from an author emerging as one of the most talented scholars we have in North American religious history.

Part I of the interview with Emma Anderson is today; parts II and III will follow the next two days. Now is a good time to pick up the book and follow along with the interview! 

What inspired you to write The Death and Afterlife of the North American Martyrs?

The seeds of a future project often lie, dormant and unacknowledged, within one`s current field of research.  Back when I was working on Betrayal of Faith, my first book, which explores the life of Pierre-Anthoine Pastedechouan, a native boy who was taken to France by Catholic missionaries in the early 17th century, my family and I went to the Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland, Ontario.  While we were there, we saw the preserved skull of Jean de Brébeuf, the famous Jesuit martyr who is one of the central figures in Death and Afterlife, in an ornate reliquary on a side altar of the church. As incredible as it seems to me now, having just finished an entire book on Brébeuf and his fellow Jesuit martyrs, at that point in time I was largely interested in the deceased Jesuit’s relics because they seemed to present a tangible link to the then-subject of my research, Pastedechouan, who himself had left virtually no physical or textual remains at all.  I vividly remember thinking to myself, as I stared into the dead saint’s void sockets, “these bony chambers once held eyes that saw Pastedechouan!”  It was only some years later, led by several serendipitous conversations, that I started to conceive an interest in Jean de Brébeuf and the other Jesuit martyrs as important subjects in their own right.

The first conversation was with my colleague, Georges Sioui, of the Wendat nation in Quebec (the same native group who during the 1640s had been subject to extensive missionization by the Jesuits).  He told me about his very first Canadian history class at a Catholic school on his Wendat reserve in Quebec back in the 1950s, recounting how he and all of his young native classmates had been castigated for the role their ancestors had supposedly played in the slaying of Jean de Brébeuf and Gabriel Lalemant. Despite being only six years old at the time, Georges vividly remembers his teacher, a nun, characterizing his people’s traditional culture as “barbarism,” and being ordered to kneel and pray for the martyrs’ forgiveness. I was so struck by the unfairness and irony of the martyrs’ legacy being used to browbeat this young native boy that it made me want to write a book that would critically explore these famous deaths and trace the history of their veneration from the 1640s to the present-day, highlighting in particular the effects of the martyrs’ “cult” on native peoples on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border.

The other seminal conversation was with Jesuit historian Father Jacques Monet.  Over dinner, he told me how a famous altarpiece, painted by a Canadian nun in the 1920s, and depicting the gory deaths and heavenly rewards of the North American martyrs, had been ingeniously edited in the post Vatican II era in response to native complaints about its gratuitous violence and stereotypical presentation of native culture.  Placed within a stucco false wall, the offending bottom portion of the painting was hidden from view at the same time that it was carefully preserved for posterity.  With the ornate golden frame reattached to the edited painting, only those in the know could possibly guess that anything was missing.  This incident, too, struck me as deeply revealing of how the culture of veneration can and does change over time, and made me want to encompass the history of visual depictions of the martyrs in this project.

You combine historical and religious studies analysis with vivid historical narration, and later in the book first-person narration of some very recent experiences you had following the trail of the martyrs. How did you balance the different writing demands of a book that crosses genres and styles in that way? And elaborate a bit on the following, if you would: “I sought to make the past palpable;: to evoke the texture of lost time and to recreate the nuance of individual perspectives.”

You’re right, the book does feature very different writing styles and perspectives, running the gamut from the familiar, third-person, academic analysis with an attempt to evoke, more descriptively, what these events would have been like to experience, from the martyrs’ deaths to critically important events which perpetrated their cult over almost four centuries of their cult.  I really feel that academics are often too distrustful of the power of the (appropriately harnessed) historical imagination, which can serve as a critical, if often under-rated tool for exploring the past.  Typically, we are so eager analytically pin the butterfly to the board that we often fail to sketch in what these events might have been like to their participants, or to try to evoke the context or the setting in which they occurred, steps that would better situate the whole living framework in which the events we are examining took place.  But these too are part of the past as it was lived and experienced: the fall of snow, the hush of ascending prayers, the smell of smoke. We shouldn`t leave them out.  Most scholars would reluctantly accede the point that award-willing novelist Hillary Mantel (Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies) has made a contribution equal to, if not excelling that of conventional historians working on the enigma that is Thomas Cromwell.  And yet we remain leery of adapting these evocative techniques to our own work, even though in some cases academics are being passed over in favour of novelists to write accessible popular history because of publishers` fears that, like reverse Rumplestiltskins, given the chance academic writers will turn gold into straw, making even the most intriguing subject barren with their dry analysis.

While most of the book is written in the standard academic third-person, with segments which attempt to put the reader in the shoes of various historical figures, I decided to shift into the first person for the last chapter in the book, `Pilgrim`s Progress,` so as to be able to take the reader with me, so to speak, on three contemporary pilgrimages to sites sacred to the martyrs in the United States, Canada, and France.  To me this was a natural choice, because participant-observation was a big part of the methodological approach for this chapter.  I wanted to be able to relay in a straight-forward way, without the artifice or the false neutrality of the passive voice, what my experiences and conversations were like in `real time.` I thought that this was a more honest technique because it permits the reader to allow for the idiosyncrasies of my personality in relaying these events and to imagine how their own perceptions and experiences might have been different from mine.  They are brought along for the ride as an independent observer, so to speak.

On a more practical level, perhaps unconsciously adopting as my motto ``a change is as good as a rest,`` I did find that writing in different styles kept me going during the seemingly interminable process of cranking out this 460 page book. 

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?
I think that the biggest misconception is that there is nothing left to be said about the subject.  After all, the deaths of these eight Jesuit missionaries are one of the better-known foundational Catholic myths in North America.  Particularly in Canada, these slain Jesuits have long served almost as our equivalent of your “founding fathers.”  The fact that this group of Jesuit missionaries were canonized in 1930 and have been exhaustively eulogized in Catholic hagiographic and devotional literature for some 372 years (a process which began virtually before their bodies were even cold), has led to a sense of complacency or the idea that “we know this story already.” 

And yet nothing could be further from the truth.  Conventional hagiographic accounts of the lives and deaths of these sons of St. Ignatius has, arguably, concealed as much as it has revealed about them because it has been written from only one perspective: the Catholic perspective.  Re-examining how and why these men died from the less familiar viewpoint of seventeenth-century native peoples, both Iroquois and Wendat, reveals their hidden complexities and nuances, bringing these bloody events to life in a new, vivid, and fascinating way.  Some of what I have uncovered in my research for this book challenges the martyrs` conventional characterization as such even in strictly Catholic terms.  Furthermore, charting the effects of the cult on the perception and treatment of native people over the centuries reveals a disturbing and largely unacknowledged dark side to these saints’ veneration.