Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

Land and the Narrative Site in Sedgwick's Hope Leslie

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

Land and the Narrative Site in Sedgwick's Hope Leslie

Article excerpt

Catharine Maria Sedgwick was an astute politician whose writing helped to shape the historical consciousness and conscience of Americans in the early Republic. Traditionally, her novel Hope Leslie (1827) has been read as a romantic national narrative that exposes the guilt of the Puritans in their seventeenth-century dealings with Native Americans. Writing in the nascent genre of the historical romance established by Sir Walter Scott's Waverley (1814), Sedgwick competed with other emerging writers such as James Fenimore Cooper and Lydia Maria Child to create distinctly American foundational fictions. She places her narrative within the framework of the Waverley model but she deviates from it in a significant way. Waverley fictionalizes the 1745 Jacobite uprising in Scotland by showing how the forces of reaction and progress eventually reconcile as the Jacobites and the Stuarts settle into a peaceful co-existence. In Hope Leslie, the forces of reaction (the Indians) and the forces of progress (the Puritans) eventually agree to disagree; in the end, they separate as the Indians are removed from the land.

In contrast to those critics who see the aim of Hope Leslie as creating a sympathetic portrait of Native Americans through a revisioning of history, I argue here that Sedgwick's text condones the Indian removal policies of pre-Jacksonian America when the Pequot princess Magawisca departs at the novel's close. Judith Fetterley raises the important point, "Given the extent of Sedgwick's investment in Magawisca, we might well ask why she is willing to let her go" (509). The answer is that she must go for Sedgwick's vision of the young nation to be fulfilled.

In this essay, I will first disagree with some of the accepted truisms of scholarship on Hope Leslie: the novel does not call the Puritans to task for their violent treatment of the Pequots, but rather exonerates them from two centuries of pent-up guilt over confiscation of Indian lands; the massacre scenes depicted early in the novel are not equivalent in their portrayal of Puritan and Indian violence, as some critics have suggested, but rather they are strikingly dissimilar in their treatment of brutality; Magawisca is not just a beautiful and noble Pequot maiden, but a serious threat to the community; and the combined effect of these aspects of the novel does not make the narrative "finally equivocal" (Nelson 202), but rather provides the ethical groundwork to support the Indian removals taking place as Sedgwick was writing. Second, Hope Leslie's exposition of Indian removal policy serves the larger purpose of protecting what had become the cornerstone to national identity in the early Republic: private ownership of land and a sense of moral entitlement to that land. In creating her own national narrative for America, Sedgwick fictionalized American land rights in a way that satisfied the political sensibilities of many citizens of the early Republic. Third, Sedgwick's text transforms the American Indian from a living, breathing occupant of the soil into a poetic image that still resonates today in our national literary imagination.

Sedgwick clearly imagines a new political order that excludes Indians. Her text has been noted for statements that highlight the humanity and equality of the Indians, for example: "difference of character among the various races of the earth, arises mainly from difference of condition" (6). This passage has been interpreted as championing the cause of the Indian, but Sedgwick uses it as an argument for--not against--Indian removals. In celebrating the "difference" of the Indians, Sedgwick compartmentalizes them, making them into a distinct cultural group that exists outside the main fabric of society. Recently, Shu-mei Shih has identified this dynamic as one of the "technologies of recognition" (17) that objectifies a cultural group in order to strip it of political power (24-25). In Hope Leslie, Sedgwick weaves the Indian into the fabric of America, but along its fringes, thereby taking the pressure off her readers to make a political decision about Indian removal. …

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