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  • The Spectral Indian Presence in Early American Literature
  • Sarah Rivett (bio)
On Records: Delaware Indians, Colonists, and the Media of History and Memory, Andrew Newman. University of Nebraska Press, 2012.
Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England, Jean O'Brien. University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
English Letters and Indian Literacies: Reading, Writing, and New England Missionary Schools, 1750-1830, Hilary E. Wyss. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.

Explicit or implicit, the Africanist presence informs in compelling and inescapable ways the texture of American literature. It is a dark and abiding presence, there for the literary imagination as both a visible and an invisible mediating force.

Toni Morrison, "Romancing the Shadow"

Six years of uninterrupted happiness had rolled away, since my brother's marriage. The sound of war had been heard, but it was at such a distance as to enhance our enjoyment by affording objects of comparison. The Indians were repulsed on the one side, and Canada was conquered on the other. Revolutions and battles, however calamitous to those who occupied the scene, contributed in some sort to our happiness, by agitating our minds with curiosity, and furnishing causes of patriotic exultation.

Charles Brockden Brown, Wieland

Toni Morrison's seminal formulation of the haunting Africanist presence in American literature could serve equally well as a template for the spectral presence of American Indians in early American texts. Spectral presence refers to the contours of representation engaged in by early American writers as they attempted a literary adjudication of a haunted history. From settlement to the antebellum period, American Indian and European relations went through the phases of early missionary encounters to the escalation of eighteenth-century imperial wars, from fighting with Iroquois and Algonquian tribes as the central arbiters between the French and the British, to the rise of Jeffersonian and Jacksonian policies of assimilation and [End Page 625] removal. Out of this context, and often in explicit contrast to the historical reality of disposed lands, the Anglo-American literary imagination emerged through an attempt to grapple with the tension between constructed narratives of noble savagery and the trauma of loss that resulted from colonial and early national violence and policy toward indigenous populations.

A spectral Indian presence haunts early American literature, residing at the gap between romanticized Indians and a forcibly displaced population. Early American writers faced the challenge of how to narrate a history that included genocide, violence, and displacement, but the Anglo-Americans persistently sought to deny their implication in it through recourse to a more palatable story of Enlightenment evolution and bifurcated distinctions between the primitive and the civilized. Often eliding the levels of abstraction necessary to aesthetically render the portrait of a primitive race naturally nearing extinction, American Indians appear in early American texts as specters of historical representation.

Take, for instance, Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland (1798), the gothic novel written the year before Edgar Huntley, which more conventionally scripts the captivity narrative through the psychological terrors of frontier warfare. As if anticipating the violence of Edgar Huntley's dream, the action of Wieland takes place between the French and Indian War and the War of Independence. Canon balls sound so faintly on the landscape that they transform into a lyrical quality for the main characters and all but escape the notice of the reader, whose attention is directed to the interior world of Mettingen, the Wieland farm on the banks of the Schuylkill, just a few miles of Philadelphia. The events that unfold between the ill-fated foursome—Theodore, Clara, Catharine, and Henry—seem detached from a larger historical frame. Yet we learn before he spontaneously combusts that Wieland, Sr., originally went to the New World to convert the Indians until a life of leisurely contemplation replaced his missionary zeal.

The story of Wieland is emblematic. It is "An American Tale," as the subtitle announces. After the father's unexplained and inexplicable destruction, the tale unfolds as one of a deeply singular and inwardly directed trauma. This may be a novel of incest, of madness, of a mind caught between the competing extremes of Enlightenment rationality and evangelical fervor, but it is not—overtly at least—a story of...


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