"I Am the Hero of a Fairy Tale": The US-Mexico War and American Manhood in E. D. E. N. Southworth's the Hidden Hand

Article excerpt

Few things are in worse taste than for a man needlessly to busy himself in women's work; and yet a man never appears in a more interesting attitude than when, by skill in such matters, he can save a mother or wife from care and suffering.

Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe,

The American Woman's Home

A few short chapters after Capitola Black defends her honor in a duel with Craven Le Noir and captures the local bandit Black Donald in E. D. E. N. Southworth's The Hidden Hand, another "young hero" and "young adventurer," Traverse Rocke, fights valiantly in the US-Mexico War (449, 432). When his fellow soldier falls in siege, Traverse takes the American flag from him and "march[es] into the very mouths of the cannon that were vomiting fire upon [him]." Facing a brutal Mexican army, he does not turn away; instead, "springing upon one of the guns which continued to belch forth fire, he thrice wave[s] the flag over his head, and then plant[s] it upon the battery!" (425). The moment is one of heroic triumph for a man who had earlier, on "a weary day when hope and faith beneath the weight gave way," abandoned his dreams of becoming a doctor and joined the army, but who has also quickly realized that as a soldier he is "entirely out of his vocation" (344, 400). In Mexico, Traverse endures the rough life of a soldier__the poor quality of the uniforms, the "drilling, close quarters, coarse food"__and, hounded by Colonel Le Noir and his cronies, nearly dies at the hands of a military tribunal (343). As he explains to his friend and fellow soldier Herbert Greyson, he is not even sure why American men are fighting in Mexico: "If a foreign foe invaded her shores, yes; but what had I to do with invading another's country?__enlisting for a war of the rights and wrongs of which I know no more than anybody else does!" (345). A moment of crisis in Traverse's life, the US-Mexico War is also one of redemption: He eventually returns to his hometown a decorated war hero and becomes a successful doctor, rescuing Capitola's mother from an asylum and marrying his sweetheart.

In a novel where geographical location and setting are significant__the "gothic plantation" in Virginia, for example, is far from an "Edenic paradise" and is instead "associated with images of darkness, evil, and turmoil" (Jones, "This Dainty Woman's Hand" 7o)__these moments in Mexico have not been adequately studied. Christopher Looby indicates that the scenes were likely Southworth's nostalgic nod to the romanticized Mexican War stories that frequented Robert Bonner's New York Ledger during the initial serialization of The Hidden Hand in 1859 (206).(1) Looby notes, though, that "[w]hatever the intrinsic interest of these scenes in Mexico, they are strictly unnecessary to the central plot," and he suggests that Southworth's decision to include them was a ploy to "[stall] for time until fresh inspiration came" (204, 2o4n34). But such an analysis overlooks the fact that The Hidden Hand opens on the eve of the Mexican conflict and the same year as Texas's annexation__a cold, dark, and stormy Halloween night in 1845__and closes three years later, shortly after the signing of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Peace, too, appears on the domestic front, as the novel closes with a happy series of reunions and a double set of marriage vows.

The United States' declaration of war on Mexico fed women writers' growing and widespread concern for the failures of American manhood. As the atmosphere of war and unrest worsened during the 184os, many Americans began to fear that there might be no peaceful solution to the Mexican conflict and that their nation could well be speeding toward civil war. Men were held responsible for this degeneration, and, in literature, an increasing number of female characters, like Cap, learn to rely on themselves and God for spiritual, physical, and financial support. Women, Robin Miskolcze explains, presented "an alternative vision of a nation untainted by men's selfishness, greed, or desire to move west" (133). …