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  • The Savage in the House
  • Lydia Fisher (bio)

In 'the blithedale romance' Nathaniel Hawthorne captures Victorian America's obsession with domestication: better nature through human intervention. The novel figures Zenobia, one of its two central women, as a spectacular but short-lived, hothouse flower. Miles Coverdale, captivated by Zenobia's distinctive charms, selects her vigorous bloom as preferable to the feminine delicacy admired by the cultivated classes. In his first description of her, Coverdale focuses on the colorful blossom adorning her abundant hair. That "exotic" accessory, "as fresh as if the hot-house gardener had just clipt it from the stem . . . So brilliant, so rare . . . and yet enduring for only a day," he muses, "has struck deep root into my memory." The flower facilitates a reader's understanding of its wearer, whom Coverdale describes as "an admirable figure of a woman . . . with a combination of features which it is safe to call remarkably beautiful, even if some fastidious persons might pronounce them a little deficient in softness and delicacy." Though a flower most commonly represents the beauty of simple, unmolested nature, Coverdale points out that Zenobia's "costly" indulgence, worn in the midst of a New England snow storm, signals the "pride and pomp" that "had a luxuriant growth in Zenobia's character" (15). In a modernizing New England, the distinctive exotic is a commodity made available only through the machinations of international trade and involved horticulture—it is a telling product of a new America, fast moving from its status as an isolated agrarian nation into its role as a significant player in international trade and global politics. And in Coverdale's qualified salute to Zenobia's robust, earthy, and rather theatrical womanhood, we see antebellum Americans' competing desires for untrammeled nature and careful control. An icon of a contradictory age, Zenobia, like the hothouse flower she wears, is both shockingly [End Page 49] natural and stunningly cultivated. She manifests Americans' delight in the signs of their nation's development, and their fears about the potential dangerous outcomes of that development.

In this essay I look at how the concept of domestication functioned in antebellum Americans' negotiations of their ambivalence about the sudden changes taking place in their nation—the emergence of a new age of intellectual, moral, social, and political sophistication and diversity in the United States. Depictions of women like Hawthorne's Zenobia, I argue, are signs of the times—a period in which both domestic ideology and scientific theory had become pervasive elements of everyday life in America. The literature of the day—most notably the sentimental domestic novels that Nina Baym has dubbed "woman's fiction"—is full of women whose selection and cultivation participates in popular and scientific discourses of domestication. Portrayals of such selection and cultivation—what I will call here "domestication narratives"—are sites at which domesticity and science intersect in the cultural imagination, encouraging Americans to see the national population as an endangered crop that requires informed care to flourish.

This period, I will argue, produced a proto-eugenic conception of human cultivation in which domestic ideology participated. My argument necessarily raises familiar questions about the ways in which antebellum science and domestic ideology participated in the racist, classist, and patriarchal projects of nation-building—concerns that have come to characterize American culture of the nineteenth century in the recent work of cultural historians. Scholarly debates about the political significance of domesticity have produced compelling interpretations for nearly thirty years, and most of these interpretations have situated domestic literature and ideology securely in one of two camps—as forces of either cultural containment or cultural critique. Most recent literary studies work on domesticity and nation-making has been in the "cultural containment" line, in reaction to the hagiographic recovery of women's texts in the 1980s, which celebrated domesticity as a political tool of social justice. In response to this recent "containment" phase of interpretation, though, a few critics have pointed out the problems of reducing rich literature to accommodate our limited, often binary, understanding of the ideologies of the past.1 One of my aims in this essay is to think beyond such binary arguments about the politics of domestic...


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pp. 49-75
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