Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

"Your Sister Cannot Speak to You and Understand You as I Do": Native American Culture and Female Subjectivity in Lydia Maria Child and Catharine Maria Sedgwick

Academic journal article ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)

"Your Sister Cannot Speak to You and Understand You as I Do": Native American Culture and Female Subjectivity in Lydia Maria Child and Catharine Maria Sedgwick

Article excerpt

As a genre especially concerned with themes of identity and duplication, separation and connection, the early nineteenth-century historical romance revised by Lydia Maria Child and Catharine Maria Sedgwick particularly emphasized the connective, synthetic role of women. The region in which that role is defined and enacted is the intermediary space in which women writers self-consciously operate; this region demands a language of mediation--of translation, interpretation, negotiation, and balance. For my argument, "mediation" can be conducive, creative, or negotiative; positive mediation allows for development and is in Child and Sedgwick gendered female, while negative mediation that interrupts is often gendered male. As Child and Sedgwick challenged and reframed prevailing patriarchal languages of power--historical, religious, and literary--they adopted the connective, figurative discourse of Native American culture (as they perceived it) to promote a female subjectivity. By identifying with and then appropriating ideas of Native American language and identity in Hobomok (1824) and Hope Leslie (1827), Child and Sedgwick confronted issues of authority and subjectivity. Those issues concerned not only the convergence of Native American and Euroamerican cultures (both novels comment upon the "mingling" of cultures, particularly through miscegenation), but also the cultural authority of the female character, author, and reader. Hobomok and Hope Leslie are novels in which the search for identity, as Irma Garcia has noted, is often expressed through the motif of the "double" (132-96). In these texts, the "double" illustrates a signifying space of identification between one self and another, a space in which the reader could visualize her own self. The sympathetic representation of Native American culture by Child and Sedgwick thus becomes an avenue toward nineteenth-century white female subjectivity.

Hobomok illustrates the challenge to the cultural boundaries that marked Lydia Maria Child's career. Not only does the text critique religious and literary conservatism, but it is an early sympathetic treatment of miscegenation. Hobomok privileges finally not traditional discourse and ideology but the inductive, "natural" method of understanding represented by Native American culture--for instance, privileging an indigenous "natural religion" rather than a foreign, institutionalized one. Reading against male-centered historical, religious, and literary cultures, Hobomok addresses themes of separation and connection and the reliance on successful mediation; the failed language of white patriarchy; the successful language of women and Native Americans; and the resulting authority of Native American and female subjectivity.

Answering John Gorham Palfrey's call in the North American Review for contributions to a national literature, Child in her preface to Hobomok tries to frame her text as masculine. Child, implying from her title page that her history text is written "by an American" male, immediately seizes traditional, patriarchal literary authority, deferentially acknowledging a debt to "the old and forgotten manuscripts of those times" (4). Yet she asserts that such "old, worn-out manuscripts, which accidentally came in my way" from a personal (male) ancestor, contain an outdated language that requires the narrator to "take the liberty of substituting my own expressions for his antiquated and almost unintelligible style" (6-7). Unlike the similar narrative prefaces of Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Child's preface is a gendered recasting of historical and literary authority. This subversive treatment of patriarchal discourse leads Child's narrator to make manifest, throughout the novel, her/his nascent narrative power. For example, at one point the narrator imposes this mediation: "the manuscript mentions numerous controversies between Mr. Higginson, Mr. Oldham, and Mr. Graves; but their character is so similar to those I have already quoted, that I forbear to repeat them" (57). …

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