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  • Race, Romance, and Rebellion: Literatures of the Americas in the Nineteenth Century by Colleen C. O’Brien
  • Sharada Balachandran Orihuela (bio)
Race, Romance, and Rebellion: Literatures of the Americas in the Nineteenth Century. Colleen C. O’Brien . Charlottesville : University of Virginia Press , 2013 . 224 pages. $65.00 cloth; $24.50 paper; $65.00 electronic.

Colleen C. O’Brien’s Race, Romance, and Rebellion: Literatures of the Americas in the Nineteenth Century examines American rebel-romances written in the era of reform (1835–70) that engage with concepts as broad and contentious as race, gender, and rights in nineteenth-century America. In part, this project is indebted to the close relationship O’Brien sees between romanticism, with its ideals of freedom and emancipation, and rebellion, the necessary political outcome of a quest for freedom. Such rebellion is transfigured into the romances O’Brien studies, since a number of novels she examines center on transcendent affective relationships with liberatory outcomes. New world romances, she suggests, envision the expansion of rights and freedom to a range of different populations and respond to the changing geopolitical climate ushered in by colonial expansion. O’Brien thus directs her attention to cross-racial romances as existing in dialogic relation to the “myths of revolutionary origin in the United States and Haiti and the definitions of freedom each created” (xi).

For O’Brien, these myths of revolutionary origin or rebellion allude to the revolutionary fights for freedom in the American and Haitian contexts, as well as to the rejection of patriarchal authority. However, as demonstrated in her first chapter, American rebellion is also used to justify the white supremacist backlash that resulted from increasing demands for rights across the Americas. Rebellion thus addresses possibility as much as anxiety about national expansion and possible incorporation. O’Brien examines amalgamation—taken to mean both literary and geographical expansion—as well as the literary representations of cross-racial love and “the amalgamation of abolition and suffrage interests through the expansion of citizenship rights.” In this context, stories of romance and rebellion do more than simply look back to a mythic revolutionary past; these [End Page 198] works, read at a time when the United States was expanding in the nineteenth century, also try to imagine a forward-looking cosmopolitanism structured by more egalitarian race and gender relations across the Americas. These rebel-romances, as O’Brien calls them, both imagine and create new models of intimacy and political engagement: “romance and rebellion actually shaped political rhetoric, particularly as it pertains to race, gender, and rights” (7). Under this model, romance is not an impediment to political action but rather creates a new model of identification that enables more expansive and inclusive ideas of rights and freedom. O’Brien provides readers with a thorough consideration of the origins of the romance genre while also adding to the examination of this literary form in the nineteenth century.

The book is organized into six short chapters, each looking at sources that depict the promises of race, gender, and national amalgamation. While O’Brien generally devotes a full chapter to a single rebel-romance, the first chapter begins by examining anti-reform print culture, popular discourses of white supremacy that are structured on the necessary separation, rather than amalgamation, of races. Cross-racial sexual relations represent the most radical and rebellious act, and as O’Brien notes, at this time “activists perceived their role more like insurgent colonial subjects than potential citizens” (21). Interracial romance, in this context, is a vestige of American rebellion as much as an amalgamated racial futurity that threatens the integrity of the white US body politic.

Chapter Two responds to the anxieties about racial rebellion explored in the previous chapter by discussing Harriet A. Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). More specifically, the chapter examines the undertheorized references to the transnational in the narrative and picks up on how Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl gives us glimpses into a model of racial cosmopolitanism that help the reader understand the chapters that follow. O’Brien examines Jacobs’s rebellious political views of a sacred self-sovereignty in the construction of...


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pp. 198-201
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