Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

"Grand and Sweet Methodist Hymns": Spiritual Transformation and Imperialistic Vision in Harriet Prescott Spofford's "Circumstance"

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

"Grand and Sweet Methodist Hymns": Spiritual Transformation and Imperialistic Vision in Harriet Prescott Spofford's "Circumstance"

Article excerpt

A frontier woman in early Maine journeys home after tending a sick friend. Setting out at dusk, she is surprised by the ghostly vision of a "winding-sheet" and the sound of a "spectral and melancholy voice." Three times the voice cries, "The Lord have mercy on the people!" Hurrying on, the woman refuses to let herself be unsettled by such "fancies and chimeras." But as she enters the woods, she is attacked by an animal called the "Indian Devil" and is swept as its prey into a tree. Through the long night, the heroine prolongs her life by singing to the beast. At dawn she is rescued by her husband. Just as the husband has rescued his wife, however, so has the wife saved her husband and child. In their absence, their small settlement has been attacked by the Indians and, like Adam and Eve at the end of Paradise Lost, the members of this small family find themselves standing alone, facing an unknown future. "The world was all before them, where to choose" (Spofford, "Circumstance" 85, 96). (1)

This, briefly summarized, is the plot of Harriet Prescott Spofford's remarkable story, "circumstance." First published in 1860 in the Atlantic Monthly, the story was based on an event in the life of Spofford's maternal great-grandmother, Mrs. Josiah Hitchings. Only the bare outlines of Mrs. Hitchings's experience appear to have been preserved by family legend. (2) But Spofford had no difficulty re-creating the experience with the kind of lavish poetic detail that had become the trademark of her early fiction. She not only describes the harrowing circumstances that beset the heroine throughout her night in the forest, but also dramatizes the inner workings of the heroine's consciousness as she moves from her fear of a horrific death by mutilation to a transforming experience of evangelical Christian renewal. Spofford specifically grounds the heroine's religious experience in the singing of Methodist hymns, based largely on scripture, and in the memory of her first communion. (3) She also reveals that the ecst atic spiritual experience that results from the singing of hymns has prepared her heroine for a future that, as the passage from Milton suggests, is as limitless as the uncharted wilderness.

Although "Circumstance" depicts the liberating potential of Christian revelation for a white woman on the frontier, the heroine's self-renewal nonetheless is deeply compromised. Her spiritually reconstituted identity and the promise of her family's future depend upon the demonizing of native American people and the rhetoric, however indirect or subdued, of manifest destiny. The end of the story, in fact, expresses an imperialistic vision of the land stretched out "all before" the young family and a confidence in the extension of empire that, in the American nationalist project, was constructed in part upon the Christian ideology of the new nation.

"GRAND AND SWEET METHODIST HYMNS"

No sooner has the heroine of "Circumstance" been attacked by the "Indian Devil" (or panther) than she begins to experience an ordeal both physical and mental. Held in the clutches of a wild animal, facing death by mutilation, she remains highly conscious of her fate: "Let us be ended by fire," she thinks, "and we are ashes, for the winds to bear, the leaves to cover; let us be ended by wild beasts, and the base, cursed thing howls with us forever through the forest" (89). In part, the woman feels a disgust for the "strength of our lower natures let loose" or the animalistic dimension of human nature of which the beast reminds her (89). But she does not struggle explicitly with her own "lower nature," as Anne Dalke suggests (76). She is overtaken instead by a fear similar to that faced by many American women who made journeys into the wilderness--the fear of turning savage and becoming wild themselves. The capacity to go "wild," it was thought, existed just below the surface of civilized existence; it would no t take much for a civilized, Christian woman to descend to the level of an animal or a savage. …

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