The Making of Racial Sentiment: Slavery and the Birth of The Frontier Romanceby Ezra Tawil
The frontier romance, an enormously popular genre of American fiction born in the 1820s, helped redefine 'race' for an emerging national culture. Ezra Tawil argues that the novel of white-Indian conflict provided authors and readers with an apt analogy for the problem of slavery. By uncovering the sentimental aspects of the frontier romance, Tawil redraws the lines
The frontier romance, an enormously popular genre of American fiction born in the 1820s, helped redefine 'race' for an emerging national culture. Ezra Tawil argues that the novel of white-Indian conflict provided authors and readers with an apt analogy for the problem of slavery. By uncovering the sentimental aspects of the frontier romance, Tawil redraws the lines of influence between the 'Indian novel' of the 1820s and the sentimental novel of slavery, demonstrating how Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin ought to be reconsidered in this light. This study reveals how American literature of the 1820s helped form modern ideas about racial differences.
- Cambridge University Press
- Publication date:
- Cambridge Studies in American Literature and Culture Series , #151
- Edition description:
- First Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 5.98(w) x 9.02(h) x 0.75(d)
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Cambridge University Press
0521865395 - The Making of Racial Sentiment - Slavery and the Birth of the Frontier Romance - by Ezra Tawil
Introduction: Toward a literary history of racial sentiment
While we know that racial theories have been built on and engendered a range of “scientific” subdisciplines – from Lamarckianism to Social Darwinism, eugenics, degeneracy theory, anthropology, philology, and social psychology – we have not really interrogated the epistemic principles, the ways of knowing – on which racisms rely. Folk and scientific theories of race have rarely, if ever, been about somatics alone. What is so striking as we turn to look at the epistemic principles that shaped nineteenth-century enquiries into race and sexuality is that both were founded on criteria for truth that addressed invisible coordinates of race by appealing to both visual and verbal forms of knowledge at the same time . . . Racism is not only a “visual ideology” where the visible and somatic confirms the “truth” of the self. Euro-American racial thinking related the visible markers of race to the protean hidden properties of different human kinds. Nineteenth-century bourgeois orders were predicated on these forms of knowledge that linked the visible, physiological attributes of national, class, and sexual Others to what was secreted in their depths – and none of these could be known without also designating the psychological dispositions and sensibilities that defined who and whatwas echte European.
It is this combined palpability and intangibility that makes race slip through reason and rationality.
Ann Laura Stoler, Race and the Education of Desire
There is an important sense, then, in which the question of the color line – Are you white or black? – cannot be answered by an appeal to color.
Walter Benn Michaels, “The Souls of White Folk”
Perhaps the most intriguing of the multiple romance plots in Catharine Maria Sedgwick's Hope Leslie is the one that never materializes: the possibility of a romantic attachment between the white hero, Everell Fletcher, and the “Indian” princess Magawisca. Everell discusses his feelings for Magawisca only once, long after their union has ceased to be narrative possibility, in a conversation with the Fletchers' servant, Digby. “[T]ime was, when I viewed you as good as mated with Magawisca,” confesses Digby;“forgive me for speaking so, Mr. Everell, seeing she was but a tawny Indian after all.” Everell responds with pique at the premise, and, we can assume, the use of the pejorative epithet: “Forgive you, Digby! you do me honour, by implying that I rightly estimated that noble creature . . . Yes, Digby, I might have loved her – might have forgotten that nature had put barriers between us.”
This book argues that the frontier romance, an enormously popular genre of American fiction born in the 1820s, helped to redefine “race” for an emerging national culture. At a moment when scientific discourse was becoming increasingly concerned with the biological differences among types of bodies, these fictional narratives about racial conflict began to distinguish the “races” on the basis of their emotional rather than exclusively physical properties. By defining the realm of feeling as the most important locus of racial difference, these novels produced what I call “racial sentiment”: the notion that members of different races both feel different things, and feel things differently. In accounting for the formation and dissemination of this idea, I place an unconventional focus on the relationship between frontier fiction with the figure of the “Indian”
In the 1820s, American fiction-writers turned to the past in order to make sense of the present. If the publication of Sir Walter Scott's Waverley (1814) is widely regarded as the birth of the historical romance in England, the appearance of James Fenimore Cooper's The Spy in 1821 is said to mark its arrival on American shores. Ever since, the “biggest bestsellers, the favorite fictions of succeeding generations of American readers, have been historical romances.”
I believe that fiction addressed this question in a context defined at least in part by the contemporary crisis of slavery. By reading the frontier novels of the 1820s alongside the political debates surrounding slavery and the scientific writings on “race,” I will try to show how fictional narratives could offer narrative solutions to a political crisis during a period when political discourse was curiously unable to do so – how, by setting contemporary contradictions in a fictive past, these stories could imaginatively resolve them. In a certain respect, then, this book revisits an old question in American literary criticism: what did antebellum stories about racial conflict in the colonial past have to say about the most pressing political issues of their own time? By reading frontier fiction for its connection to the politics of slavery, I attempt to recover an important dimension of these novels that has been overlooked or at least under-emphasized. For while a large and still growing body of scholarship investigates the relationship between the emergence of frontier fiction and early-nineteenth-century racial ideology, this work generally does so in order to fathom the cultural politics of westward expansion.
With a few notable exceptions, American literary criticism has yet to consider the frontier romance in relation to the politics of slavery.
I am by no means the first to suggest that there is something compelling about juxtaposing the work of Cooper and Stowe. One critical example which bears directly on my work here is Philip Fisher's seminal and richly layered examination of the two in Hard Facts (1985). Hard Facts takes up the “cultural work” of the mid-nineteenth century novel, reading the literary forms of Cooper, Stowe, and Dreiser in relation to “three of the central hard facts of American history,” Indian removal, slavery and late-century capitalist expansion, respectively.
To question the assumed ontological priority and thematic singularity of the “Indian” in early frontier romances is not, of course, to deny that the politics of westward expansion and Indian removal were central to the formation of racial categories during the early nineteenth century. Rather, it is to treat the nineteenth-century discourse of race as a system of relationships that cannot be comprehended as the simple supersession of the “white/red” dyad by the “white/black” one. I am not interested in displacing “the frontier” and installing “slavery” as the new master narrative for this period of literary history. I simply want to call attention to their interaction in the formation of American racial categories. I begin by placing my own critical emphasis squarely on the question of slavery in order to supplement the already rich critical literature on the “Indian” and the fiction of the frontier.
During the half-century between the War of 1812 and the Civil War, Anglo-Indian relations were the subject of some seventy-three American novels.
The fiction of white-Indian warfare also engaged contemporary concerns about slavery in a more concrete sense: it raised the specter of “race war,” a fear that haunted nineteenth-century debates about slavery. It is easy to imagine how the dispossessed and potentially vengeful Indian of frontier fiction may have evoked the slave insurrections of the opening decades of the nineteenth century. Large-scale slave rebellions and conspiracies were planned and enacted with varying levels of success in Virginia in 1800, Louisiana in 1811, and Florida in 1816. Vesey's rebellion of 1822, a conspiracy of slaves and free blacks organized in South Carolina, provided a particularly immediate backdrop to the emergent frontier novels. Though betrayed and quashed before it could be brought about, a lengthy and nationally publicized trial, followed by public hangings of the conspirators and demonstrations by local blacks that had to be contained by state militia and federal troops, all made this the most highly visible such event until Nat Turner's rebellion some nine years later. Cooper, Child, and Sedgwick would no doubt have had these recent events fresh in their minds, along with the political fallout of the Missouri crisis, at the very moment they produced the first spate of frontier romances – Cooper's Pioneers was published in 1823, Child's Hobomok in 1824, and Sedgwick's Hope Leslie in 1827. So, too, would the readers who consumed these romances.
While I make this common-sense appeal to the historical context of the production and reception of frontier romances, I will not offer any analysis of whether authors or readers consciously made these connections. As regards the authors themselves, I am interested only in showing how their works were structured in such a way as to engage some of the contemporary questions about the issue of slavery, not in arguing that they deliberately codified those questions. And while I make passing reference to the readership of these novels, what is at issue in my account is neither individual acts of reading, nor even a general pattern of reception, but rather the “reader” implied or imaginatively addressed by the texts. Thus, while there may well have been occasions when individual authors or readers made explicit connections between the themes I discuss, what interests me are the implicit connections between the two that it would have occurred to no one to discuss or spell out in the terms I do here. I think of this not as a disavowed knowledge, but quite oppositely as the level of the “everybody knows”: everybody knows, for example, that the vengeful Indian of frontier fiction presents a potential analogy to the historical possibility of slave rebellion. This unspoken semantic level need not be conceived as a repressed depth, but rather as something more like what Foucault has termed a “positive unconscious of knowledge,” by which I mean in this context, something that may elude explicit awareness of the reader or articulation by the author, but which nonetheless forms part of the understanding of the semantic limits of the text.
Taking the recent works of Russ Castronovo and Jared Gardner as my starting point, I treat “slavery” not only as a presence in this body of writing but also as a significant absence – what we might call an eloquent silence.
My task is thus to understand how these texts offered a powerful way of transcoding the crisis of antebellum slavery into fictional narratives of frontier violence. Yet while I will on occasion employ the language of substitution or displacement, I emphatically do not mean to imply that the literary “Indian” was merely the slave in disguise nor to assume a hermeneutics of depth where text conceals subtext. In discussing the connections between the literature of the “Indian question” and the politics (and later, literature) of slavery, I mean to explore the semantic, structural, and narrative connections and overlaps between the two. If I nonetheless place my focus on what the literary Indian could do for the issue of slavery, it bears repeating, it is only to emphasize the less apparent semantic work being performed and hence to supplement existing critical work on the genre. I have chosen to do this, not by offering a comprehensive account of the genre in the antebellum period, but largely through close and thickly-contextualized readings of a select group of frontier novels from the 1820s. I then reread two major works of the 1850s, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and Herman Melville's Benito Cereno, against that literary background in order to show their borrowings from the literary logic of the frontier and to cement the link between frontier romance and the mid-century literature of slavery.
While the most concrete intervention I aim to make in criticism of frontier fiction is to make it speak to the politics of slavery, my more important goal is to provide a picture of what these novels contributed to their culture's conception of race. My work on this genre is thus indebted to the large body of work analyzing the centrality of race as a constitutive element of American fiction in general, from Henry Nash Smith and Leslie Fiedler on down to the recent work of Richard Slotkin, Eric Sundquist, and Dana Nelson.
My own project has a distinct emphasis from all of these works, however, in that I am interested in exposing the ways in which fiction itself may have helped to fashion modern notions of race. My founding premise is that if we do not insist on the historicity of “race” itself, we risk succumbing to the mimetic fallacy that it must have existed prior to, and dwells outside of, its representation in writing. For this reason, I am not content to treat race as a “theme” or even constitutive element of American fiction, because to do so may cause us to neglect the possibility that fiction itself was an important cultural site of racial formation as much as racial representation.
I argue that early frontier romances, which appeared merely to thematize race, were in fact an important part of the cultural processes that shaped it. Drawing on the recent work of race theorists, intellectual historians, and historians of science, I begin by charting the rise to dominance of a new scientific conception of human variety during the first half of the nineteenth century, one that differed in nearly all its fundamentals from earlier such theories. The “diversity of nations” presumed by eighteenth-century natural science and the “race” posited by nineteenth-century biology each attributed to human differences an entirely different etiology, epistemological status, and location on the body. Where eighteenth-century science presumed the original unity of the human species and the origin of all varieties in external influences, nineteenth-century scientists argued for multiple “centers of creation” and the original and natural diversity of “the races.” Where eighteenth-century thinkers emphasized continuity in the natural world and the mutability of human differences, nineteenth-century theory saw stark discontinuities among races and presumed the permanence and stability of racial essences. And where eighteenth-century natural scientists focused on the visible surface of the body, nineteenth-century biology shifted its gaze to the body's inner structures – its bones, blood, and microscopic depths – and the interior of the subject in order to ground racial differences.
I thus stress the novelty of nineteenth-century race, and tend to speak of its “emergence” rather than its “development,” in order to emphasize critical shifts in its definition between 1750 and 1850. After tracing these shifts in general terms, however, I then focus my critical gaze on the decade of the 1820s, which I believe can be regarded as a significant interval in the larger historical period. This conviction first arose from my observation of a peculiar feature of most histories of racial science, namely, that while nearly all accounts acknowledge a sudden proliferation of racial theory in the 1840s, the period of time immediately prior to it receives almost no attention. There is no great mystery here. Stated most simply, this state of affairs indicates only the paucity of important racial-scientific work prior to the discursive explosion of mid-century racial biology. As I have already suggested, however, I do not regard it as merely incidental that, while the 1820s constitute a decade of little consequence in scientific racialism, it did see the rise of the frontier romance, a hugely popular national literary form which can be seen to thematize questions of human difference related to those treated by science. Emerging, as the genre did, at a moment between the waning authority of an earlier natural science and a racial biology yet to become dominant, the frontier romance bears both traces of the earlier theories and anticipatory gestures towards the later ones. In this respect, the decade of the 1820s may be regarded as a kind of hinge between residual and dominant conceptions of difference.
In focusing on the Janus-faced nature of this literature vis-à-vis human difference, then, I want not only to suggest that the fiction of the 1820s reflects contemporary conceptions at this moment of historical transition, but also to take a hard look at what part this writing might have played in the larger historical and ideological processes I have highlighted here. Ultimately, however, my purpose here is not to claim that race was “born” in the 1820s, or still less that it was my selection of novels that gave it life. Rather, in examining the fictional, scientific and political discourses of human difference side by side, I want to register a change in the way difference itself was understood and how exactly it was thought to mark the human subject. And I do have reason to argue that literary texts may have had a role to play in effecting this change.
© Cambridge University Press
Meet the Author
Ezra F. Tawil is Assistant Professor of English at Columbia University.
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