Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Race, Romanticism, and the Politics of Feminist Literary Study: Harriet Prescott Spofford's "The Amber Gods"

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Race, Romanticism, and the Politics of Feminist Literary Study: Harriet Prescott Spofford's "The Amber Gods"

Article excerpt

Far off, by the curtain of the doorway, huddled together like a flock of frightened doves--gentle ladies, quiet, timid, humble before heaven, ladies of placid lives, no opportunities, small emotions, narrow routine, praying by form, acting by precedent, without individuality, whose goodness was negative, whose doings were paltry, their drab beings swamped, and drowned, and extinguished....

Harriet Prescott Spofford ("The Godmothers" 214)

In the above passage, Rosomond, an American expatriate who has just given birth, imagines the wan, disempowered, or absent histories of her New England foremothers. In this timid "flock of frightened doves," she recognizes not individuality but merely obedience to culture's outward forms. Their daily living fails to question the "narrow routine" of woman's position; their lives are not merely "paltry" but oppressed, "swamped, and drowned, and extinguished." Much of Harriet Prescott Spofford's writing, like the postpartum vision of this protagonist, exhibits similar anxiety. Her stories seem to ask, what foremothers' (hi)stories and traditions of expression might women draw on? How, in life and in literature, might women identify a usable past of their own? And with what language might they speak of it? [1]

Appropriately or ironically, Spofford's concern with women's history and literary traditions seems to be what is at stake in contemporary Americanist and feminist scholars' reluctance to embrace this author as one of our own foremothers. In December 1996 (seven years after Rutgers University Press published "The Amber Gods" and Other Stories, the first collection of Spofford's fiction to appear in print for nearly a century), the Modern Language Association included its first session on this nineteenth-century writer, "New Perspectives on Harriet Prescott Spofford." [2] Following the panelists' presentations, a member of the audience asked a question that seems central to this writer's fate in American literary studies: how might scholars and teachers assess Spofford's race politics? In this essay, I maintain that the problem of Spofford's race politics offers a significant critical entry into this enigmatic author's fiction; specifically, an analysis of Spofford's race politics in "The Amber Gods" (1860) enables our scrutiny of gender- and race-bound theories that underpin not only Spofford's fiction but American literary romanticism. I use an approach informed by feminist and postcolonial theories to consider how the story adva nces the perspective of its marginalized nineteenth-century white, upper-middle-class heroine/narrator, Giorgione, with--indeed, perhaps even at the expense of--the troubling characterization of a woman of color, known merely as "little Asian." Through the juxtaposition of these women, the story resists and revises patriarchal and hegemonic romantic scripts even as it complies with their racist agendas. "The Amber Gods," I argue, makes visible those narratives that American literary romanticism and, until recently, its study, have buried: agendas of colonization and expansionist imperialism mounted against racialized and gendered Others. [3]

Evidence of troubling race politics abounds in Spofford's fiction: "Circumstance" (1860). her most widely anthologized piece, concerns the captivity and metaphorical rape of a white woman by a wild animal known as the "Indian Devil." In "The Black Bess" (1868), the white male protagonist, a train conductor, experiences nightmares in which his engine (Black Bess) is the instrument of his betrothed's death. The white American protagonist in "The Godmothers" (1896) fantasizes about a Nordic, feminine American ancestor, an "original savage," who erases U.S. colonial and expansionist history Feminist critics, in the process of recovering Spofford's work, have prefaced their remarks with disclaimers about her race politics. In her groundbreaking anthology Provisions, Judith Fetterley introduces "Circumstance" with the recognition that Spofford's fiction "exemplifies the insidiousness and pervasiveness of the racist imagination" (267). …

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