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  • Race, Religion, and Nationalism in the Early Pocahontas Plays
  • Paul Thifault (bio)

During the first half of the nineteenth century, American theatergoers and playwrights became fascinated with Pocahontas. At a time when Native American themes were seen as building blocks for a unique U.S. literary tradition, Pocahontas was, in Susan Scheckel’s words, “the single most popular subject of Indian dramas.”1 These historical plays portray Pocahontas’s affection for Virginia’s settlers as a point of origin for U.S. nationhood and a symbolic validation of American expansionism.2 The Pocahontas plays also helped to enshrine the romantic Noble Savage motif, which constituted a departure from then-standard representations of Native Americans as brutal and animalistic.3 While critics underline Pocahontas’s part in the construction of mythic national and racial identities, little attention has been paid to her early role in brokering Protestant anxieties about Roman Catholicism.4 Yet in her initial appearance in American drama in Joseph Croswell’s A New World Planted; or, The Adventures of the Forefathers of New-England (1802), Pocahontas’s romance with a white settler is one brief episode in a larger nation-building narrative in which American colonists exercise native diplomacy to combat the spread of Catholicism.5 James Nelson Barker’s The Indian Princess; or La Belle Sauvage (1808) also uses the Pocahontas motif as a platform for expressing American national identity [End Page 1]

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Pocahontas Saving the Life of Capt. John Smith. Boston: New Eng. Chromo. Lith. Co., c. 1870. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. LC-USZC4-3368.

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in recognizably anti-Catholic terms. The friendly relationship between whites and natives that Pocahontas fosters early in the play by rescuing John Smith is ultimately threatened by a climactic struggle against a conniving Indian shaman who represents the threats of “superstition” and “priesthood.”6 In both cases, the Pocahontas story helps to structure a national origin myth that entwines cultural anxieties about the presence of Catholics and Indians on U.S. soil.

Pocahontas’s theatrical emergence must be understood within a matrix of overlapping concerns over Catholic immigration and Indian sovereignty in the early republic. Fully appreciating the aesthetic and cultural work of these early Pocahontas plays means recognizing how Indian figures encode Protestant ambivalence about the role of Catholics in the United States, just as Catholic characters subtly introduce questions of native sovereignty and U.S. territorial conquest that would come to dominate Pocahontas plays and other Indian-themed literature in succeeding decades. In recovering this Catholic-Indian relationship, my argument contributes to our understanding of the complex triangulation of race, religion, and nationhood in the development of American literary nationalism. In recent years, scholars have rejected the assumption that racial or religious others act merely as foils for a white Protestant nation in early U.S. literature. Echoing Homi K. Bhabha’s assertions of the inherent ambivalence of narratives of nationhood, Robert S. Levine has examined the “instabilities, contradictions, conflicts, and confusions” within and among early American literary texts that seek to define national identity in racial terms.7 In a similar treatment of religion’s problematic role in early U.S. fiction, Elizabeth Fenton presents Catholicism not as a stable antagonist for notions of a Protestant nationhood but rather as an experimental subject that allowed writers to test the limits of the nation’s commitment to religious pluralism.8 Such parallel approaches to race and religion in literary nationalism have encouraged other scholars to envision an even more dynamic relationship between categories of religious, racial, and national identity. As Henry Goldschmidt has recently suggested, these three concepts have “borrowed and at times contested [End Page 3] each other’s rhetorical authority, reinforcing and undercutting each other’s social hierarchies, mixing and mingling in unresolved dialectics irreducible to any one term.”9

Early U.S. drama seems especially suited to an examination of this entangling of race, religion, and nation because, as S.E. Wilmer points out, the stage provides a “public forum in which the audience scrutinizes and evaluates political rhetoric and assesses the validity of representations of national identity.”10 Moreover, early...


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