- Republican Mothers and Indian Wives:Lydia Maria Child's Indian Stories
In 1820, Sydney Smith notoriously inquired of the Edinburgh Review's readers, "In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?" In the wake of his widely publicized remark on the paucity of noteworthy American literature, a significant subgenre of the American romance emerged: the Indian novel, founded on the premise that a uniquely American experience—the indigenous encounter—could generate a unique national literature, answering the call for cultural independence that sounded throughout literary America in the antebellum period. Appropriating the Indian as a distinctively American figure even while extermination and removal policies sought to eradicate that same Indian from the national landscape, the genre offers insight into the complex relationship between imaginative practices and political realities in nation-building. But a more narrow focus on American women writers and the figure of the Indian yields a complicating set of insights into the relationships among gender, authorship, and the emerging national narrative. Many critics have turned to Lydia Maria Child's Hobomok (1824) and Catharine Maria Sedgwick's Hope Leslie (1827), finding that the Indian novel offered these women both access to the national literature and a set of tropes through which to challenge—if obliquely—the patriarchal authority of the new nation. Both novels, though disappointing in their dim view of the Indian's place in nineteenth-century America, seem to offer an alternative origin story, leading some scholars [End Page 33] to conclude that they forward, as Carolyn Karcher writes of Hobomok, "a revolutionary insight into the connection between male dominance and white supremacy."1
While Sedgwick turned her attention to other matters, Child continued to write Indian stories throughout her career. These subsequent stories, which have received surprisingly little critical notice, reveal a more complex approach to the figure of the Indian and allow us to trace a trajectory in Child's thinking—both about the status of Native peoples in the new nation and, more pointedly, about the status of American women in the nineteenth century. As Lucy Maddox observes, "the discourse generated by 'the woman question' established the kinds of binary categories that were rhetorically consistent with the distinctions between savagery and civilization and that therefore invited a rhetorical merging of the two issues."2 A survey of Child's writings about Native peoples reveals this rhetorical merging in varying degrees of explicitness, suggesting that Child found "Indianness" to be a flexible—and valuable—imaginative construct. From Hobomok in 1824 to her Appeal for the Indians in 1868, Child found in this national "other" a means of confronting questions much closer to home.
The texts I will consider show a consistent emphasis on the meaning of home and tropes of motherhood, a fluid set of metaphors that mark the intersection of the "woman question" and the "Indian problem." "Home" offers a way of thinking about Indian policy—about Native peoples' relation to their homelands, their status in the national family and claims upon the domestic space of nationhood—while authorizing women's participation in debates about what Child presents as "domestic economy" writ large. At the same time, by implicitly conceptualizing questions of sovereignty and entitlement in terms of familial relations, Child engages the terrain of white women's rights: images of domesticity evoke the antebellum American home constituted by the laws of marital coverture and structured to reflect a conception of uniquely maternal authority that both enlarges and circumscribes the role of women in national life.
In recent years, there has been significant critical interest in how antebellum women writers use notions of domesticity to [End Page 34] expand the scope of their texts. Finding the received history of gendered spheres inadequate to explain the manifestly public nature of domesticity, critics have explored how tropes of home allowed women to circulate beyond the imagined boundaries of a space erroneously marked private. Child's writings offer an interesting perspective on the flexibility of such constructs, illustrating a double move by which the immediate domestic space of the familial home extends outward to national policy and, at the same time, the national family offers a vehicle for obliquely...