Writing Reconstruction: Racial Fluidity and National Reunion in A Romance of the Republic

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2015-12-10 02:29Z by Steven

Writing Reconstruction: Racial Fluidity and National Reunion in A Romance of the Republic

ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance
Volume 61, Number 4, 2015 (No. 241 O.S.)
pages 631-666
DOI: 10.1353/esq.2015.0017

Lori Robison, Associate Professor of English
University of North Dakota

Speaking to a nation traumatized by the divisive war and anxious to find reunification, Lydia Maria Child, with her 1867 novel A Romance of the Republic, presents a portrait of a new national family that transcends the narrow racial and regional identifications of the antebellum past. Carolyn Karcher, Child’s biographer, notes that the novel was very consciously written to address the contemporary challenges of Reconstruction: “Written against the backdrop of the betrayal Johnson was engineering of all the promises the war had seemingly endorsed—genuine emancipation for African Americans; recognition of the indispensable role they had played as soldiers, spies, and auxiliaries; and their incorporation as equal citizens into a truly reconstructed Union—A Romance of the Republic insistently rehearses the history that its white audience was so rapidly forgetting.” This characterization of Child’s motivations for writing the novel hints at its complex rhetorical situation: the novel delves back into the recent, pre-war past to revisit the arguments against slavery, as a means of making the case for more progressive Reconstruction policies in the present and future. Worried, rightfully, that Reconstruction would undo the potential that emancipation had brought for a more egalitarian society, Child faced a contradictory writing task: she needed to represent a future in which the national “house divided” has been re-united while, simultaneously, not letting her readers forget the national divisiveness created by slavery in the recent past.

It is these contradictory tasks, I believe, that led Child to choose the sentimental romance as the genre through which to write this early novel of Reconstruction. To address the threat of cultural amnesia, the novel, which is set almost entirely in the antebellum period, uses appeals to sympathy to undermine slavery—just as do Child’s earlier abolitionist texts. Yet to also avoid entrenching resistant readers in the past, the novel, at the same time, uses the romance’s insistence on union to represent a more promising future. Conflating domestic union with national (re)union (a conflation signaled by the novel’s title), Child gives her readers a means of imagining a new post-war nation. The novel’s final scenes take place in the days following the end of the Civil War and it is in these final pages that the “republic” of the title is imagined in the new domestic space that heroines Rosa and Flora have achieved for themselves. Though it does not end with a wedding, the novel nonetheless does end like the traditional romance plot, with the promise of a new, united family and continuing, utopian domesticity.

Rhetorically, then, Child’s choice of genre makes a great deal of sense. My interest, however, in exploring A Romance of the Republic is to better understand how the literature of Reconstruction—even those texts with very progressive politics—would ultimately pave the way for the pro-Confederate romances that became so popular by the turn of the century. Post-Reconstruction literary representations of the regional and racial politics of national reunification came increasingly to be lodged in the genre of the sentimental romance. Published early in Reconstruction, A Romance of the Republic initiates this trend, largely because of its transitional status as an abolitionist text addressing post-abolition issues. As June Howard reminds us, “empathy and sympathy have different politics at different moments, and at any given moment are likely to have mixed and complicated politics,” and A Romance uses many of the rhetorical strategies that Child and other abolitionists had used so effectively in the fight against slavery, although the post-war fight for racial equality had very different political stakes. The hallmarks of the sentimental romance, sympathetic connection built through an appeal to union and family, effectively undermined slavery by asserting the humanity of those who had been enslaved. However, this sympathetic appeal also, I believe, worked to fix identities at a time in which our understanding of racial and national identities could have been more fluid and thus could have developed quite differently than they did. In…

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Keeping Pictures, Keeping House: Harriet and Louisa Jacobs, Fanny Fern, and the Unverifiable History of Seeing the Mulatta

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2013-08-14 20:32Z by Steven

Keeping Pictures, Keeping House: Harriet and Louisa Jacobs, Fanny Fern, and the Unverifiable History of Seeing the Mulatta

ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance
Volume 59, Number 2, 2013 (No. 231 O.S.)
pages 262-290
DOI: 10.1353/esq.2013.0022

Michael A. Chaney, Associate Professor of English
Dartmouth College

Daguerreotype of Louise Jacobs. From the Fanny Fern and Ethel Parton Papers, 1805-1982, courtesy of the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

Tucked away in Box Three, Folder Thirteen of the Fanny Fern papers held at Smith College is a daguerreotype of a subject officially designated as an unidentified woman. The represented figure does not stand out among the dozen or so other daguerreotypes in the collection. If, as Shawn Michelle Smith has argued, nineteenth-century “photography was used to locate individual bodies within a genealogy of familial hereditary traits and racial characteristics,” this image works post facto to produce a similar effect. Little distinguishes the faded propriety of this young woman seated in an anonymous interior from the other girls in Fern’s collection, such as her daughters Grace and Ellen Eldredge. What does distinguish the photograph, beyond its contents, is the oddity of its existence in the collection. The fact that there is a stray photo at all is curious in a collection so selectively devoted to so few subjects. Indeed, Grace Eldredge alone accounts for nearly half of the dozen subjects pictured, while her father Charles (Fern’s first husband) accounts for three.

A note in the finding aid identifies the sitter as Louisa Jacobs, Harriet Jacobs’s quadroon daughter. That the subject could be Louisa is supported by certain historical “facts” —Jacobs and her white-looking daughter spent time in Fern’s household. But on the other side of this notion of history as a set of verifiable facts is the regime of affect and feeling that surrounds the mulatta, a fascination that pervaded nineteenth-century American culture and the literature it produced. It is only with reluctance while scrutinizing the unidentifiable young woman that one dispels that urge so often discussed in nineteenth-century tragic mulatta narratives to discern traces of African heritage. Putting aside the possibilities that this is not a picture of Jacobs, we are still left to wonder what secret intimacy warrants the inclusion of this unidentified woman in such a closed gallery. As intertext, the image provides a different type of evidence—a suggestive form of evidence—for the rhetorical and psycho-social, if not historical, actualities that circumscribe Fern and Jacobs. These actualities cohere within a discourse of domesticity and the enclosed scenes that that discourse entails, which play out in gaps and silences behind history’s closed doors.

We need not confirm the identity of the photographed subject in order to use the association of sitter and image as an occasion to interrogate the bonds of affiliation that connect Harriet and Louisa Jacobs to Fanny Fern (a.k.a. Sara Willis). It is the burden of this essay to take up these speculations. The method behind such speculation requires a form of “creative hearing” that William L. Andrews advocates for reading slave narratives. To dwell in the seams, gaps, and cuts—those unspeakable or unknowable blind spots that frame the image—it is necessary that we employ a mode of creative seeing. As with Andrews’s formulation, what is seen is less a fiction invented by the critic than a textual provocation—a call to which we are solicited to respond. Accordingly, as we dwell in the fold where the material and the speculative collapse, possibilities emerge for rethinking sentimentalism and its attendant scripts of race, gender, authorship, and domestic labor.

Creative Seeing: An Analysis of the Unverifiable Photograph

The unidentified daguerreotype exists at the threshold of the speculative and the material. To explain, let us begin with the material dimension of the image, which is the same for any daguerreotype. The material daguerreotype is an artifact of a densely contextualized historical archive, in this case, one that subtends the life of Fanny Fern, her family and private life as well as her literary career as a connoisseur of affect. The speculative dimension of the image, which we shall employ in our creative seeing, derives from the conditions of possibility that enclose the subject. We can never know if this is indeed a photograph of Louisa Jacobs; nevertheless, clues in the archive invite speculation beyond the facts supported by conventional approaches to biographical evidence. Indeed…

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Remarkable Particulars: David Gamut and the Alchemy of Race in The Last of the Mohicans

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2012-10-22 16:45Z by Steven

Remarkable Particulars: David Gamut and the Alchemy of Race in The Last of the Mohicans

ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance
Volume 58, Number 1, 2012 (No. 226 O.S.)
pages 36-70
DOI: 10.1353/esq.2012.0010

Deidre Dallas Hall
University of North Carolina, Greensboro

David Gamut, the hapless psalmodist traveling with Major Heyward and his charges in The Last of the Mohicans, could not appear less suited to life in the wilderness of upstate New York, a war zone fiercely contested by the French, the English, and the Indians. With a temperament “given to mercy and love,” the pious and pacific Gamut brandishes a pitch pipe instead of a rifle or a sword; according to the wily Hawk-eye, in a frontier fight, “this singer is as good as nothing.” Hawk-eye’s dismissal of Gamut mirrors critical neglect: as David Seed notes, “to judge by Cooper criticism David Gamut seems to be the most forgettable character” in the 1826 novel. Within wider considerations of Cooper’s text, Gamut appears only fleetingly as a figure of fun, a stock character “representing the absurdity and pathos in the wilderness of men who will not touch a gun but take quite literally the Christian injunction to return good for evil.” Such assessments stem from the ostensible “incongruity of his presence in the wilderness,” for “as a psalmodist, he can scarcely have any conceivable connection with the novel’s central themes of nostalgia for the disappearing Indian and anxiety over the question of miscegenation.”

However, I find the psalmodist more than “conceivably connected” to these themes. Complicating traditional readings that focus exclusively on the novel’s rhetorical reinforcement of nineteenth-century race thinking, I argue that this quirky character enables The Last of the Mohicans to introduce important exceptions to the racial rules. I read the body of David Gamut as a hybridized construction around which signs not only of the Puritan but also of the Indian and the Jew gather. This body increasingly emerges as a site of racial ambiguity, a screen upon which a drama of cultural flux unfolds—a drama that points to the pull of the disappearing Indian and push of the arriving immigrant in Cooper’s own time. Such representation suggests an active engagement, substantiated by retrospective reflections in Cooper’s travel writing and late novels on the increasing prominence of Jews in the early republic, with the contemporary discourse of probationary whiteness. Described by Matthew Jacobson as a kind of “racial alchemy,” this discourse “whitened” suspect Europeans such as Jews and Catholics through imaginary contrast with the Indian in the West and the slave in the South, facilitating a national consolidation of whiteness essential to the rhetoric of nonwhite removal and containment. With the astonishing survival of the hybridized, pseudo-Jewish Gamut, Cooper’s text seems to anticipate the masses of immigrants that would flood ports in the North only a few years after the publication of The Last of the Mohicans, but ultimately, this early work stands as uneasy witness to the discursive whitening of American Jews and questionable immigrants: when Cooper revisits the question of probationary whiteness in his last novel, The Oak Openings (1848), that narrative’s analogue to David Gamut quickly meets a violent end—a clear corrective to the racial redefinitions suggested by The Last of the Mohicans.
Jews in America: David Gamut and the Confluence of Race Thinking
The grotesquely attenuated figure of David Gamut appears in the opening moments of the narrative as a “marked exception” to the bystanders watching the departure of a British detachment from the frontier stronghold of Fort Edward. As this mysterious stranger falls in with the Duncan Heyward party, the narrator withholds the newcomer’s name and history, instead…

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How Mixed-Race Politics Entered the United States: Lydia Maria Child’s ‘Appeal’

Posted in Articles, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, New Media, Politics/Public Policy, Slavery, Social Science, United States, Virginia on 2010-04-12 17:11Z by Steven

How Mixed-Race Politics Entered the United States: Lydia Maria Child’s ‘Appeal’

ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance
Volume 56, Number 1, 2010 (Nos. 218 O.S.)
pages 71-104
DOI: 10.1353/esq.0.0043

Robert Fanuzzi, Assistant Chair and Associate Professor of English
St. Johns University, Queens, New York

For scholars of the colonial and early national United States, it is difficult if not impossible to retell the story of social egalitarianism and political liberty without recounting the social, political, and legal codes governing the practice of miscegenation. Under both the colonial British regime and the post-Revolutionary political order of the United States, these laws and customs operated hand in hand with the equally determinate laws of slavery and citizenship, helping to decide who was a democratic subject and who was not.

In seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Virginia, prohibitions against mixed-race marriages and extramarital unions along with their mixed-race offspring helped to create a new, putatively classless caste system, which equated the dignity of free labor and property holding with a pure British ancestry and the indignity of coercive labor with an African ancestry. In doing so, these laws paved the way for a historic argument for civic equality that rendered the American colonist the genetic bearer of English liberty.  In the new American republic, miscegenation laws functioned even more transparently as citizenship decrees, stipulating the whiteness of politically enfranchised subjects and, often capriciously, the blackness of the enslaved or disenfranchised. The logical outcome of these laws, the “one drop of blood” provision, was a testament to the determination of the privileged caste to maintain an artificially scarce supply of citizens by keeping their legal, economic, and political assets from their mixed-race descendants.

Miscegenation laws and regulations played an equally formative role in the civic culture of the antebellum era, when social prejudice against race mixing helped to police civil relations and to foreclose the scope of civic activism…

Read or purchase the article here.

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