The Power of Sympathy: European American Women Novelists Imagine Indigenous Absence

By Cox, James H. | ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly), September 2001 | Go to article overview

The Power of Sympathy: European American Women Novelists Imagine Indigenous Absence


Cox, James H., ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)


The narration of inevitable European conquest plays a fundamental role in Europe's colonial storytelling traditions. In these traditions in North America, European and European American authors affirm and enact a conquest by simulating a Native American presence only to write that presence out of the story. Gerald Vizenor discusses these simulated Indian presences as "instances of the absence of the real" (1). Native American characters in texts by non-Natives are inventions with no referent to real Native American lives and cultures, though many non-Natives read these characters as "real" or "authentic." Scholars such as Roy Harvey Pearce, Robert Berkhofer, Jr., Ward Churchill, and Vine Deloria, Jr. have critiqued the consistent misrepresentations of Native Americans in texts by non-Native authors. The stories that these misrepresentations occupy are equally consistent in the trajectory of the plots toward indigenous absence. The plot elements an author employs to secure an indigenous absence include individual and community military action, cultural assimilation, voluntary self-removal of the Indians, and the pronouncement of imminent doom by authoritative European American or Native American characters. These stories effect the imaginative clearing (or "cleansing") of the landscape to prepare the way for the advance of European American empire. As Reginald Horsman, Richard Drinnon, Djelal Kadir, and Robert E. Bieder explain in reference to different historical and critical contexts, authors of narratives of domination and conquest deploy explicitly the discourses of colonial dominance, such as Manifest Destiny and Anglo-Saxon racial and cultural superiority, in the process of constructing stories.(1) The conquest is frequently the most explicit in novels by male authors in which military action leads to the actual physical destruction of Native Americans. In many novels by women authors, assimilation and self-removal are equally conquests in terms of assuming the cultural and racial superiority of Europeans/European Americans and of plotting the absence of Native Americans from the imaginative landscape.

Completed or imminent conquests appear in many genres, from captivity and travel narratives to anthropological writings, but find their most extensive and well-detailed articulations in novels. The conquest ideology which informs the operations of colonialism also informs the novels that narrate the colonial experience for the invading culture, and though novelists who deploy the invader's language construct narratives of European and European American colonialism with widely varying plots, many of these plots also end in conquest, in a landscape empty or soon to be empty of an indigenous population. In spite of the diverse religious and national origins of European American novelists, and the influence of an author's gender on textual production and publication, much of the history of the European American novel in the United States is embedded in a culture defined by a will to dominate and the expectation of eventual conquest. In Culture and Imperialism (1993), a study of the enactment and enhancement of domination through narrative, Edward Said writes, "there is no way that I know of apprehending the world from within American culture (with a whole history of exterminism and incorporation behind it) without also apprehending the imperial contest itself" (56). In addition, there is no way to apprehend the history of the novel in European American culture without also apprehending the cultures, histories, and discourses of colonialism.

Authors use many strategies to articulate these conquests, the complete effacement or destruction of a simulated Native American presence. In novels by male authors, the conquest usually results from the individual and frequently heroic physical prowess of a protagonist and the military effort of that protagonist's community. Novelists such as Charles Brockden Brown, James Fenimore Cooper, William Gilmore Simms, and Robert Montgomery Bird had diverse regional, religious, and literary loyalties. …

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The Power of Sympathy: European American Women Novelists Imagine Indigenous Absence
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