- Jane Johnston Schoolcraft’s Sentimental Lessons: Native Literary Collaboration and Resistance
Critical efforts to recover the oeuvre of neglected Native women writers have generally treated these authors’ engagement with sentimental social values and literary conventions as an embarrassing historical affectation that must be downplayed in order to foreground sincere expressions of subaltern protest. As can be seen from Karen L. Kilcup’s introductory remarks on the poetry of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (1800–1842), the earliest American Indian female author recovered to date, even influential exponents of indigenous women’s “double-voiced discourse” (6) must tactfully contain literary sentimentality’s disaffecting resonances as an imitative, Anglo-American departure from legitimately indigenous self-expression: “Although Schoolcraft writes romantic poems ... that are indistinguishable from those of her white American and European contemporaries, she also writes poetry that affirms the power of her Indian grandfather” (5). The unease or even outright suspicion that, in Cari M. Carpenter’s assessment, “many scholars of American Indian literature and history” express when encountering sentimentality can be attributed to sentimental texts’ troubling history as “a keytoolof nineteenth-century colonization” (5): “Lucy Maddox treats ‘sentimental’ as a synonym for ‘stereotypical’ ... . [and] Robert Allen Warrior links sentimentality to assimilation” (7).1 This tendency to minimize American Indian sentiment also reflects a commonly held and arguably commonsense skepticism toward the authenticity of sentimental literature itself.
Given scholars’ increasingly nuanced understanding of nineteenth-century women’s writing, the thematic breadth and stylistic diversity displayed by women’s poetry over the century have called into question the assumption that sentimental “women’s genres” offer a transparent, reliable representation of either gender or race. For example, contrasting the hyper-textualized lyric voice of belles lettres against the subversive self-expression emanating from women’s experience of gender and racial injustice, Paula Bernat Bennett marginalizes literary sentimentality as a self-alienating echoing of eighteenth-century European males’ pensive introspection, tear-stained sympathy, and fantasies of “mother-love and home” (24). Bennett’s critical approach illustrates Mary Loeffelholz’s assertion that recent recovery efforts have privileged “authentic” lyric voices that express a “spontaneous domestic realism” with its concomitants of anger and resistance while dismissing “derivative” perspectives or overtly collaborative voices with the prejudiced themes and gendered conventions of sensibility (17). [End Page 98]
In the name of highlighting and preserving authentic voices of indigenous tradition and struggle, however, the critical diminution of indigenized sentimentality can obscure the notable cases in which Native women’s collaboration with Anglo-American pedagogy and sensibility gave rise to nineteenth-century authorial acts of resistance. This essay’s exploration of Schoolcraft’s sentimental poetry demonstrates that acknowledging the impact of transatlantic sentimentality on indigenous women’s poetic endeavors can also bring to light these authors’ resilient, creative commitment to their respective Native cultures. On the one hand, Schoolcraft’s biography and verse support Loeffelholz’s identification of the “domestic-tutelary complex” as the gendered disciplinary regime that shaped the consciousness and thematic concerns of antebellum poetesses (15–16, 22). On the other hand, drawing on Craig S. Womack’s rejection of “the supremacist notion ... that Indian resistance has never occurred in such a fashion that things European have been radically subverted by Indians” (12), this analysis of nineteenth-century education and authorship shows that Anglo-American approaches to Native female pedagogy were not a one-way street or limited to an indigenous woman’s passive reception of the dominant culture’s literary values and patriarchal schemes of social control. Rather, Schoolcraft’s strategic deference to her sentimental lessons produced a remarkable, bicultural version of literary sentimentality that seeks to translate the political concerns of her Ojibwe people into the language of a Eurocentric culture while also consolidating her own familial legacy of tribal leadership and privilege. As she engages with the sentimental conventions of sensibility, sanctuary, and complaint as well as the popular figure of the Celtic bard, she conveys a compelling critique of ascendant Anglo-American culture. Exceeding the binary-driven discourse with which critics have opposed collaboration to subversion, Schoolcraft’s mixed-blood poetics provide a Native iteration on Loeffelholz’s assertion that “the domestic-tutelary complex” gave rise to sentimental poetry produced simultaneously in...