Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Orientalism and Sympathy in Maria Susanna Cummins's El Fureidis

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Orientalism and Sympathy in Maria Susanna Cummins's El Fureidis

Article excerpt

The Lamplighter has long monopolized scholarship on Maria Susanna Cummins and her treatment of sympathy, despite the rich sympathetic texture of her other three novels: Mabel Vaughan has more than seventy references to sympathy; Haunted Hearts is saturated with allusions to "heart"; and El Fureidis teems with signs of sympathy. Craig Taylor has defined sympathy as "a primitive response to another's suffering which is partially constitutive of our understanding of what it is to suffer as a human being" (113); Lauren Wispe characterizes it as "the increased sensibility of another person's suffering as something to be alleviated" (68). These definitions of sympathy derive from A Treatise of Human Nature, wherein David Hume notes that because of human "resemblance," the feelings of others "produce [in us] an emotion similar to the original one" (86), and from the opening chapter of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, where Adam Smith writes, "As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation" (9).

El Fureidis ("The Paradise") is unique among Cummins's works, not only because its setting, Lebanon, is a far cry from Boston, New York City, northeastern New Jersey, and the Illinois prairie (settings of her other works), but also because in El Fureidis conventional meanings of sympathy are continually undercut by an Orientalist point of view. Indeed, El Fureidis is unique among other major antebellum fictions, discussed below, in which the interplay between sympathy and Orientalism is prominent. Cummins so often bends and twists accepted definitions of sympathy in an Oriental milieu that the text's sentimental assurances are negated by its very infatuation with Eastern culture. El Fureidis depicts a contradiction between two discrepant sensibilities--compassion for human beings, no matter what their race, nationality, or religion, and Orientalist assumptions about Lebanese culture. Contained within every sign of sympathy in El Fureidis is a sign of antipathy based in Orientalism, no less disparaging for being genteel and, for the most part, subtle.

Carried along on the tide of what Anna Brickhouse has termed the "transamerican renaissance" (8), Cummins's novel is "riddled with the contradictions and rhetorical impasses attending a nation whose geographic borders were expanding even as its imagined racial borders were narrowing and calcifying" (6-7). Brickhouse's concentration on this transnational dynamic as played out between the United States and Cuba, Haiti, and Mexico in the first half of the nineteenth century sheds light on the literary border crossing undertaken by Cummins in more distant regions and with different connotations for Americans. In El Fureidis, the "racial ideologies" and "cultural fantasies" that Brickhouse sees proliferating and feeding "anxieties about the wider Americas" are expressed in Cummins's sympathy for Oriental culture and the antipathy that permeates Orientalism (23). A "simultaneously affiliative and expansionist" transamerican discourse means that even texts encoded in what Brickhouse identifies as "a language of sublime transcendence" can harbor imperialistic qualities (138,26).

El Fureidis is one such text: It looks beneficently on the Orient (birthplace of Christianity, location of paradise) even as it closes in to colonize it. Cummins channels American ambivalence toward Lebanese manners into sentiment and distills anxiety into a love plot that doubles as an allegory of imperialism, and she does this even though all the evidence suggests that a conscious plan to discredit the East was far from her mind. In spite of itself, the sympathy Cummins manifests in El Fureidis works on behalf of an agenda of expansionism. The novel's English protagonist succeeds in invading paradise, and the Western reader collaborates in his antipathetic enterprise largely because sympathy paves the way. …

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