William Apess lived during the 19th century, when America, or rather, the original 13 colonies had won their independence from the British Empire and were beginning to build their own empire, also known as the United States, and this essay will discuss the influence of this political event on Apess' writing An Indian's Looking-Glass...
For a start, it must also be remembered that the States were expanding at the expense of their neighbours and former allies, the Native Americans, like the Pequot, Apess' own native tribe. As they were doing it, they were undermining - in a way - their own Declaration of Independence, and their political critics, like Apess, were quick to point it out. Apess, however, did not use the Declaration of Independence too much, but rather other statements and declarations, like the Bible.
From the first paragraph of his work, Apess uses the Anglo-American rhetorical approach to his problem:
Having a desire to place a few things before my fellow creatures who are traveling with me to the grave, and to that God who is the maker and preserver both of the white man and the Indian, whose abilities are the same and who are to be judged by one God, who will show no favour to outward appearances but will judge righteousness.
(An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man, 1079)
The modern reader may think that the above quote may appear rather arrogant and haughty to the Anglo-Americans of that time, and they will be right. What is more, to Apess' contemporary reader there is an added `insult to the injury' - an indirect reference to the Gospel saying that God created all men equal, that there will be no social or political distinctions in the afterlife. However, many centuries have passed since that was written, and by the time of Apess, the Anglo-Americans preferred to think that that did not apply to the natives, and behaved accordingly.
Naturally, Apess disagreed with this approach and is freely using his rhetoric to point out this inconsistency in the oppressors' logic:
Now I will as if the Indians are not called the most ingenious people among us. And are they not said to be men of talents? And I would ask: Could there be a more efficient way to distress and murder them by inches than the way they have taken?
(An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man, 1080)
In other words, Apess is using rhetorical questions - an old and well-used rhetorical device - to drive and direct his audience in the direction that he wants them to take. He began by pointing not-so-subtly how the Native and Anglo-Americans were no different in face of the higher power of the Christian faith, and now he is first calling them `ingenious', and then saying that they are being `murdered by inches' by the Anglo-Americans. Clearly, this approach is being laid out with a very predetermined goal in mind: Apess wants his audience to admit that they were wrong.
Actually, Apess was not the only Native American, or partially Native American author of that time who was using similar techniques in their approaches and appeals to the new American government. His main difference was that he used fewer references to the Declaration of Independence and more those from the Bible, and starting from page 1081, he begins to freely use various citations from the abovementioned source to push his arguments further home.
But we will strive to penetrate more fully into the conduct of those who profess to have pure principles and who tell us to follow Jesus Christ and imitate him and have his Spirit. Let us see if they come anywhere near him and his ancient disciples. The first thing we are to look at are his precepts, of which we will mention a few. "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God will all thy heart, will all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. The second is like unto it. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two precepts hang all the law and the prophets" (Matthew 22.37, 38, 39, 40).
(An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man, 1081)
As the above passage shows, Apess could, and did use Biblical quotations as well as any of his English-born colleagues - he was a preacher - and he had no problem adapting and interpreting them to suit his purpose, to drive home the point that harassing and persecuting Native Americans is not only wrong, it is against the point of the Bible.
Moreover, since while it can be argued that Matthew did not write the abovementioned quotes having the North American situation in mind, it is also very hard, at least for the modern audience to disagree with Apess' point, that persecuting other people because it is physically possible is wrong and un-Christian. An average member of Apess' direct audience back in the 19th century would have similar problems in proving him wrong.
Here, however, a problem arises for Apess' modern-day audience as well - how do we determine fact from fiction in his work? Chronological hindsight is of no use here: yes, nowadays it is admitted that the treatment of the Native Americans in the past was wrong, but to Apess things were different, and to better understand Apess' work we must try to understand his contemporary audience as well.
Therefore, how could Apess' contemporary audience distinguish fact from fiction in Apess' work? The answer is that they could not - not unlike other rhetorical speakers of that time, Apess used both logic and passion in his work, he fully believed into what he wrote down. Thus to him all that he wrote down was true and solid fact; therefore, all that his reader comes across in his work is overall more fact than fiction.
However, that situation is actually somewhat trickier than just that. Look at the following quote, for example:
What then is the matter now? Is not religion the same now under a colored skin as it ever was? If so, I would ask, why is not a man of color respected? You may say, as many say, we have white men enough. But was this the spirit of Christ and his Apostles?
(An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man, 1082)
Here, once more, Apess is referring to the Bible, using the rhetorical question trick to lead his audience towards his truth. Yet, is it the actual truth? Well, the trick here is in self-admittance and in certain political hypocrisy of the American government at that time, who claimed one thing, but actually did another. Being rather painfully aware of that - "Another reason is because those men who are Agents, many of them are unfaithful and care not whether the Indians live or die; they are much imposed upon by their neighbors, who have no principle" (1080) - Apess capitalized on it, and used the existing political hypocrisy to his advantage, by confronting it directly and combining it with his previous rhetorical techniques to get the point across. However, since what he used was hypocrisy, after all, this also meant that any fact-from-fiction distinguishing tactics already had a home field disadvantage: how do you get sorting out something that does not sort itself to begin with?
Apess, however, does distinguish truth from lies, facts from fiction, even if he does it in a roundabout way:
By what you read, you may learn how deep your principles are. I should say they were skin-deep. I should not wonder if some of the most selfish and ignorant would spout a charge of their principles now and then at me.
Do not get tired, ye noble-hearted - only think how many poor Indians want their wounds done up daily; the Lord will reward you, and pray you stop not till this tree of distinction shall be levelled to the earth, and the mantle of prejudice torn from every American heart-
(An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man, 1084)
Here, in the concluding paragraphs of his work, Apess finally does one more distinction beyond the original Anglo- and Native American distinctions, and finally openly admits that there are hypocrites and there are "noble-hearted" people instead, who help and support the Natives' plight - therefore, it is up to his audience to decide as to which part of the American society they want to belong: another rhetorical play, put otherwise.
William Apess was in some ways a typical preacher of the 19th century, who used word-of-mouth as much, if not more, as written-down words to get his message across. His work, An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man resembles a church sermon in several ways, including quotations from the Bible (the New Testament) to get its message across to his audience, using such rhetorical devices as a rhetorical question and its variant, hypophora, to get his point to the readers.
Yet, An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man is more than just a sermon; it is a real, anguished plea for recognition and national self-identification as well. William Apess uses not only rhetorical devices, but also his own logic and passion to get his point across - again, not unlike many Christian preachers of that era, but on a more secular than Biblical topic - and convince his audience in regards to his message. That is why, even over a century later, An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man is such a powerful literary work in America's history.
Apess, William. "An Indian's Looking-Glass for the White Man." 1883. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: Norton, 2003. Pg. 1079, 1080, 1081, 1082, 1084.