- Writing India in Early American Women’s Fiction
It has become an axiomatic truth that one cannot study the early Republic without situating it firmly within transnational networks of empire. Insofar as Britain constituted the common link between the United States and India, British imperial rule facilitated Indo-American interactions in the movement of ideas, goods, and peoples. Beyond British imperial circuits that first mediated the India-US encounter, however, the United States itself has been shaped by ideas of empire from its very inception, as argued by scholars of transnationalism in American studies who have conclusively challenged the abiding notion of American exceptionalism.1 In this context, the presence of India or the East Indies in early American sentimental novels by women writers—the focus of this essay—is testament to the global aspect of early American literature and culture, and offers valuable insights into the tensions and uncertainties surrounding nation and identity making in the early Republic.
Novels such as Sarah Sayward Barrell Keating Wood’s Dorval; or, The Speculator (1801), Moreland Vale; or, The Fair Fugitive (by a Lady of the State of New York) (1801), and Rebecca Rush’s Kelroy (1812) all contain seemingly incidental references to India, primarily to the East Indies trade. These sentimental novels present a remarkably expansive world, one characterized by intense transnational fluidity; they embody what Leonard Tennenhouse calls the “network novel” (“Unsettling Novels” 90): their action stretches across imperial networks of trade and commerce and spans not just the circum-Atlantic world but also the far reaches of Asia—Canton, Batavia, and Bombay.2 India is central to this transnational world. And while the references to India and the East Indies appear casual and cursory, they have a hegemonic force and perform important ideological work in the novels. This essay will examine these understudied novels to tease out the discursive importance and narrative uses of the spare yet significant references [End Page 363] to the “East Indies” in them. Consigned to the margins of the text in stray references, India emerges as a suggestive and pliable symbol, one that registers the enormous profits being generated by the East Indies trade in this era and hints at the contours of the imperial ambitions of a young nation that had itself barely shaken off the yoke of British colonialism. A symptomatic reading of the silences and elisions surrounding India reveals how it represents a determinate absence in these novels (and by extension in the discursive system of the early Republic), which is at the core of gender and national identity issues—something which has yet to be sufficiently explored within American studies scholarship.
The incidental references to India in these novels appear to imply that India was peripheral to the geographic and cultural horizons of Americans in the new Republic; this confutes and belies the extensive traffic with India that marked this period. Mentioned only in passing or in stray references, India comes to function as shorthand for a whole complex of ideas revolving around trade, commerce, individual enterprise, American ingenuity, and masculinity. Read counterintuitively, the very sparseness of the references to India in these texts hints at its hegemonic force within the cultural imaginary of metropolitan America. “Indostan” emerges as a resource to be mined, a mercantile arena that allows not just economic aggrandizement but also a psychological shoring up of the self. Rarely is the East Indies particularized but represented as an undefined blank space that can be filled with whatever ideological burden is needed: as a litmus test of the masculinity and enterprise of the young men aspiring to the hands of the virtuous heroines, or as the far-off distant place where fortunes can be made through honorable trade and commerce (primarily by the scions of the elite), or as a third space beyond the United States and Europe that facilitates serendipitous connections with long-lost relatives who leave a generous inheritance courtesy of riches acquired in India.
References to India—or the East Indies—appeared in a variety of discursive and sociocultural contexts and conversations in colonial America and the new Republic.3 Important national figures—Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson...