Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

"Vanished Scenes ... Pictured in the Air": Hawthorne, Indian Removal, and the Whole History of Grandfather's Chair

Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

"Vanished Scenes ... Pictured in the Air": Hawthorne, Indian Removal, and the Whole History of Grandfather's Chair

Article excerpt

"The Tory's Farewell," one of the final sketches in Hawthorne's The Whole History of Grandfather's Chair, a series of historical fiction for children, attempts a sensitively wrought depiction of the loyalist expulsion from Boston after the American Revolution. (1) Aiming to make his grandchildren "sensible of the pitiable condition of these men," Grandfather offers a poignant portrait of Peter Oliver, "chief justice of Massachusetts under the crown," marching through his native city for the last time, already pining for the homeland he must leave "forever" (6:191). As he passes the Province House, Oliver observes, "on the cupola, that surmounted the edifice," the "gilded figure of an Indian chief, ready to let fly an arrow from his bow" (193: see figure one). The image thus links Oliver's banishment after the war with one of the more problematic displacements for the antebellum historian of national origins: the systematic removal of the continent's indigenous peoples. In the process, it raises the question, "What, in Hawthorne's sentimental re-imagining of American history, do English Tories have to do with Native Americans?" This essay explores how such juxtapositions in Hawthorne's version of New England history lend themselves to the construction of a white American national and racial identity.

Hawthorne's politics have vexed literary critics for decades, with most concluding that his positions on social issues from slavery to women's rights were characterized by ambivalence, ironic detachment, compromise, quietism and conservatism. (2) While the topic of slavery has particularly interested scholars, The Whole History is, for the most part, conspicuously silent on this topic. Gillian Brown contends that, in his children's fiction, Hawthorne's concern is more "fanciful than polemical," exploring "the identificatory and imaginative activities entailed in learning history--what we might call the affective experience of history" that forms the basis of nationalism. (3) Thus, the absence of African-Americans as subjects despite his history's varied selection of personages indicates that the "imagination of history can be both inclusive and exclusive," and that "imagination and affection can be narrow and ... selective." (4)

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While Brown posits that emigration functions as the text's metaphor for the affective and imaginative dimensions of nationalism, I suggest its sense of American identity hinges on what might more properly be termed "removal." Although Hawthorne's collection elides examination of the United States' "peculiar institution," it embraces Indian removal as a peculiarly national phenomenon worthy of consideration. In the process, The Whole History invokes the figure of the Indian to articulate an experience that, in its formulation, constitutes the essence of white American identity. As such, it takes part in an antebellum literary nationalist tradition in which Indians played a prominent role, serving as "liminal figures ... at once symbolically central and politically excluded" and constituting "the boundaries at which the meaning of the national is defined." (5) In other words, Indians provided the materials out of which Anglo-American writers like Hawthorne might articulate a sense of national identity, even as the actual history of Anglo-American/ Native-American relations called into question the moral foundations of American national character. (6)

Hawthorne's Indians, although excluded from participation in his imagined national community, are very much a part of the "affective experience" of The Whole History, emotionally central to its delineation of a white, Anglo-American identity. Accordingly, the text can be read as part of a sentimental frontier romance tradition including such writers as Child and Sedgwick that was instrumental in fashioning modern racial categories. These fictional narratives about racial conflict employed a sympathetic and sentimental discourse distinguishing between races based upon emotional properties, what Ezra Tawil calls "racial sentiment," or the notion that "different races both feel different things, and feel things differently. …

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