Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

The Voice of Nature: Hope Leslie and Early American Romanticism

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

The Voice of Nature: Hope Leslie and Early American Romanticism

Article excerpt

In the preface to his 1848 anthology The Female Poets of America, Rufus Wilmot Griswold proposes "feminine genius" as the answer to charges that Americans are "too much devoted to business and politics" to produce a national literature (8). In the expanded preface to the second edition, published four years later, Griswold illustrates the dynamic relationship between antebellum domesticity and Romantic historiography by turning to the frontier and its narrative of American progress to make his point: "[lit is in the West too where we look for what is most thoroughly native and essential in American character where we are struck with the number of youthful female voices that soften and enrich the tumult of enterprise, and action, by the interblended music of a calmer and loftier sphere" (8). Griswold's faith in the possibility of a national literature depends on feminine genius to represent western expansion as a "native" instinct, even as the transcendent properties of that genius exclude women from the political rights earned by participation in the commercial enterprise of empire building. The rhetoric of domesticity established women as the source of private virtue that naturalized civic duty but also excluded them from being considered citizens. Similarly, by establishing the frontier's wide-open spaces as the source of national character that naturalized American expansion, Romantic historiography worked to preserve rather than assimilate nature's ever-receding possibilities. Amy Kaplan has compellingly analyzed the process by which "imperial domesticity" relies on the construction of uncivilized spaces to continue its "domesticating mission" (588). Reading Catharine Maria Sedgwick's playful frontier romance Hope Leslie; or, Early Times in the Massachusetts (1827) as an early Romantic experiment rather than as a straightforward precursor to mid-nineteenth-century domestic novels, this article traces a strain of antebellum discourse that romanticizes these uncivilized spaces as extrapolitical sources of national character. The logic of this rhetoric proposes the figures it imagines circulating in these spaces as working to naturalize culture rather than domesticate nature. I begin by situating Sedgwick in the early Romantic movement by arguing that early Romantic historiography called upon feminine genius to naturalize fantasies of progressive national history. I then argue that Hope Leslie's cyclical concept of history poses a direct challenge to Romantic historiography's reliance on the essential-izing rhetoric of domesticity. Although Sedgwick's experimental Romanticism protests the artificial confines of domesticity, it can do so only by replacing the disenfranchised white woman of domestic fiction with the forsaken Indian woman of Romantic historiography as the figure who must remain the unassimilated source of the natural values that the United States claims for itself.(1)

EARLY AMERICAN ROMANTICISM AND WOMEN'S FICTION

Sedgwick's selection of poetry by Eliza Lee Cabot Follen, William Cullen Bryant, and Fitz-Greene Halleck for Hope Leslie's title page and chapter epigraphs situates her novel in the context of the burgeoning New England Romantic movement. Most accounts of nineteenth-century literature would not consider these authors as part of the movement, primarily because their old-world metrical arrangements and didactic sentimentalism seem hopelessly opposed to the inventive aesthetics of midcentury American Renaissance authors. Recent critical attention has begun to view early American Romanticism's transatlantic appropriations as revisionary rather than imitative, particularly by noting the nationalist agenda behind the movement's relationship with a specifically American landscape.(2) In their appropriation of Wordsworthian naturalism, early American Romantics preserved a jarring sense of eighteenth-century didacticism. A correspondence between the moral and natural worlds worked to naturalize expansion as an involuntary democratic impulse. …

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