Catherine Corman

American Quarterly

Sorting Disciplinary Boundaries

By CATHY CORMAN, Harvard University

The Insistence of the Indian: Race and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century American Culture. By Susan Scheckel. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998. 197 pages. $29.50 (cloth). $16.95 (paper). IN 1978, ROBERT J. BERKHOFER, JR., PUBLISHED The White Man’s Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present. A landmark text in the fields of intellectual history and American studies, The White Man’s Indian was the first synthetic work to demonstrate that “Indian” is culturally constructed, a product of historically situated imaginations rather than being a fixed category with biological determinants. Like so many of the big books of the myth-symbol school, The White Man’s Indian eschewed study of specific individuals and events and instead scrutinized specific texts, looking to them to gauge popular belief. Berkhofer anticipated readers’ possible frustration with this approach when, in his introduction, he wrote that “[i]f ideas seem disembodied from the social groups holding them, ... this results as much from lacunae in the literature as from my proclivity to concentrate on the quintessential patterns of White understanding of the first Americans.’”1

Much has changed in the intervening two decades since Berkhofer published The White Man’s Indian. White men have become “EuroAmericans” deserving their own studies of identity construction and cultural relativism.2 The generic category of "the Indian" has dissolved into a multiplicity of individual identities, each with sufficient agency and voice to tell specific, local stories about what Indians thought of themselves, not just about what whites thought of them.3 Scholars who trade in written texts pave incorporated methodological insights and techniques from diverse fields including history of the book, material culture analysis, ethnography, reader response theory, social history, and performance studies in an effort to reconnect ideas to the persons who may actually have thought them.4 In short, the trend in the past twenty-two years has been to fill in the lacunae and at least metaphorically embody the ideas, rather than to concentrate on what Berkhofer refers to as “quintessential patterns.”

That said, the tension between searching for embodiment and identifying patterns continues to surface in some of the most provocative new works in cultural studies. As Susan Scheckel’s new book demonstrates, those of us trying to get a handle on what our forebears thought and believed continue to struggle to find ways to use convincing evidence. Scheckel’s study led me to consider three other recently published works that further explore the ways scholars respond to such tensions. I found that the way the authors of these works approach the desire to identify big patterns and embody ideas is, in many ways, determined by disciplinary boundaries. Or, perhaps better said: if we ever wonder how to tell who among us belongs in the English department and who in history, we might do well to inspect our attitudes towards the concept of embodying ideas. I have focused on The Insistence of the Indian to highlight a particular strategy concerning literary texts, and I will offer, by comparison, glimpses of three other new studies of nationalism and identity that seem to me particularly helpful in delineating the disciplinary division I am trying to describe: Laura Rigal’s The American Manufactory, Phil Deloria’s Playing Indian, and David Waldstreicher’s In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes. All four works are concerned with issues of race, class, and politics, but the latter two, which define themselves as “histories,” are more preoccupied with embodying those ideas than the first two, which declare themselves to be literary studies.

Although she has traveled a world away from the formalist criticism of Berkhofer’s generation, Susan Scheckel nevertheless finds herself in Berkhofer’s backyard, more interested in “quintessential patterns” than in specific bodies with particular ideas. An assistant professor of English at the University of Memphis, Scheckel practices a decidedly New Historicist brand of literary criticism in The Insistence of the Indian, in which she finds intriguing ways to construct exchanges between a diverse array of texts. Not in league with critics preoccupied with writers and their intent, the identification of genius, or the establishment of a canon, Scheckel expects these textual juxtapositions to represent peoples’ ideas and beliefs and, by extension, to illuminate popular perceptions and “national culture” in the 1820s and 1830s.

Emphatically not about the deeds and thoughts of particularly insistent Indians (not about Cornplanter, say, or Tenskwatawa, or a delegation of anti-removal Indians stalking the halls of Congress, The Insistence of the Indian explores the ways persistent “white” ideas of “the Indian” shaped what Scheckel calls "American national character." Rather than following Berkhofer’s sweeping survey from Columbus to the present, Scheckel focuses on the years surrounding removal, when, she writes, Indians were a “moral” rather than physical or political threat to the new republic (6-7). While others have traced American identity construction during the early nineteenth century to symbolic uses of the Revolutionary War, emerging tensions between concepts of Federalism and Republicanism, and debates about the legitimacy of slavery, Scheckel convincingly demonstrates that without a serious look at the creation of a federal Indian policy we cannot begin to understand the ways Americans during this period were imagining themselves into a unified whole. From 1820 to 1860, she notes, EuroAmerican writers and artists produced a remarkable number of works focusing on Indians just at the time Americans were deeply preoccupied with the project of establishing a nation. “American attempts to define the meaning of the nation during the first half of the nineteenth century became intertwined with efforts to define the status and rights of Indians,” Scheckel writes, concluding that “these interconnected projects of self-definition became aestheticized in popular representations of Indians” (6).

Scheckel is at her best when she brings disparate texts into focused dialogue. After she lays out the theoretical framework of the book in her first chapter, Scheckel then, in each of the following five chapters, selects texts that illuminate some aspect of national self-definition vis-à-vis Indians. I especially appreciated the second and fifth chapters of Insistence. In chapter two, Scheckel explores parallels between two works published in 1823: James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers and the Supreme Court decision in Johnson and Graham’s Lessee v. McIntosh – a case concerning proper deeding of title to former Indian lands – written by Chief Justice John Marshall. Scheckel argues that in their respective writings, both Cooper and Marshall were preoccupied with “the basis of Euro-American rights to lands possessed by Indians,” as well as the justification of American citizens’ rights to claim title to those lands in hereditary terms (19). By examining these two pieces at the same time, Scheckel is able to demonstrate that in both fiction and non-fiction, in fantasy and in law, Americans were struggling with the legitimacy of their claims to lands they had supposedly won from the British. Not yet the expansive moment of Jacksonian America, the early 1820s, she explains, were filled with anxiety and therefore possibility, years when Americans were plagued with guilt and concerned with the concept of dispossession. In chapter five, Scheckel deftly links Sauk warrior Black Hawk’s published life story to Cherokee resistance against the Removal Act of 1830, when Congress granted President Andrew Jackson the right to remove Indians living east of the Mississippi River to lands in the West. Perhaps ordinary Americans were not actively engaged in subverting federal Indian policies, Scheckel argues, but by reading Black Hawk’s Life, Euro-Americans could involve themselves in a “textual act of justice accomplished within the private space of reading” and thereby absolve themselves of the guilt they felt about public actions (116).

I found other chapters less satisfying, especially when they seemed acutely disembodied and distant from actual thinkers and actors. Scheckel, in chapter three, analyzes two plays about Pocahontas: James N. Barker’s The Indian Princess; or, La Belle Sauvage and George Curtis’s Pocahontas, or The Settlers of Virginia, A National Drama. The playwrights, she concludes, “enlisted the conventions of melodrama to create morally simplified versions of American history and to define national identity in terms that reinforced a sense of social unity and cultural integrity” (68). In her fourth chapter, a close look at the captivity narrative of Mary Jemison, Scheckel argues that nineteenth-century readers hard at work defining American culture would have seen Jemison as a national mother who stabilized society by generating and regenerating moral character (a puzzling conclusion, given two instances of fratricide in the family). In her sixth and final chapter, Scheckel studies both guidebooks to and decorative aspects of the United States capitol building. Guidebooks from the period 1860 to 1870 instructed the Capitol’s visitors to take note of these sculptures and paintings, which portrayed Indians in passive, marginal, feminine positions. These artworks, Scheckel writes, “made the continued political exclusion of Indians seem natural and necessary” (129).

Throughout all six chapters, Scheckel contends that national identity “is articulated through symbolic systems that shape meaning by virtue of their capacity for communal recognition,” but in chapters three, four, and six, these symbolic systems don’t seem firmly anchored to nineteenth-century bodies (10). To Scheckel, Mary Jemison’s narrative is an important source of information about what and how nineteenth-century Americans thought due to the textual Jemison’s “capacity to embody symbolically within a stabilizing narrative and ideological framework the contradictory meanings of removal policy” (96). A play about Pocahontas, likewise, provides a window into nineteenth-century hearts and minds because it “reconciles the motives of conquest with the values of the Enlightenment” and offers “Americans a doubly legitimized, alternative family lineage distinct from the Old World heritage they had rejected through patricidal rebellion” (51). The characters in these plays are important insofar as they represent “the embodiment of the Indians’ resistance,” but stories of actual bodies – of viewers, of actors – are nowhere to be found (65).

Alas, there are rarely ever smoking guns in cultural studies. Astonishing it would be to find a nineteenth-century vox populi declaring that she had read Black Hawk’s Life and slept, guilt-free, for the first time since May 1830, when Congress passed the Removal Act. Even more difficult to imagine is where one might locate the musings of a nineteenth-century reader who had concluded, upon closing the covers of Mary Jemison’s narrative, that those half-Indian kids of Jemison’s were the hospitable wave of the frontier’s future. But how difficult would it be to step out of one genre into another to find different kinds of evidence, such as ads and reviews in newspapers, to support claims about the significance of plays about Pocahontas? How hard to consider as evidence not just well-crafted texts but also clues hinting at lived experience, such as entries in private diaries reflecting on tours of the nation’s Capitol? In short, how hard would it be to step out of these texts and away from “symbolic systems” to pin the tails of some of these ideas onto specific donkeys?

To do this, one would first have to believe that meaning resides somewhere other than in certain kinds of texts. And this is a big disciplinary “if.” If one believes that well-chosen texts reveal quintessential patterns of thought and symbolic systems representing ideas, why would one be persuaded to venture outside those texts? This, it seems to me, is one of those places where historians and literary scholars actually do not see eye to eye. Literary critics accept artistic productions – novels, plays, paintings, magazines – as windows into popular imaginations while cultural historians nervously leap away from these sorts of stand-alone texts because their approaches to scholarship and evidence leaves them eager to find evidence of individuals – bodies – expressing ideas that shed light on popular thought and belief.

Laura Rigal’s The American Manufactory: Art, Labor, and the World of Things in the Early Republic, an exciting new literary study of cultures of production in the early republic, certainly lends credence to such a supposition.5 Less overtly interested in symbolic systems than Scheckel, Rigal is nonetheless more concerned with identifying ideas in texts than in finding evidence of persons expressing ideas. She seems to be working in an allegorical mode: if we have the expertise to decode the texts, she shows us, we receive the same message and therefore experience the same cultural moment as the original consumers. This is a decidedly different project from trying to catch inhabitants of the past acting on and articulating their own understandings of what they read and viewed.

Treading in the footsteps of labor historian Sean Wilentz, Rigal looks to a stunning array of visual as well as linguistic texts to explain what she identifies as the world view of early national urban dwellers, which increasingly came to be shaped by a “reliance upon underpaid wage labor supplied by a pool of unskilled and semi-skilled casual workers” (7). How do we appreciate the degree to which Americans were preoccupied with issues of labor, class, and federal power from the Continental Congress to Andrew Jackson’s election? Rigal finds her evidence by decoding images and allusions in places such as Francis Hopkinson’s poem, “The Raising: A Song to Federal Mechanics”; deconstructing Charles Wilson Peale’s paintings (her riff on the bowing turkey specimen in the foreground of The Artist in His Museum (111-13) is not to be missed); explaining the significance of a prison roof, cupola, and weathervane in John Neagle’s portrait, Pat Lyon at the Forge; and deciphering the “feathered federalism” of mockingbirds in Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology. The sum total of these individual studies is to illuminate what Rigal identifies as the “cultural production of production” (8) or the “cultural construction of construction” (29). Her goal is less to imagine what early national viewers saw than to appreciate how and what artists and artisans meant to communicate. There is little room to wonder if what they intended was truly what viewers received.

By contrast, I want also to take a brief look at two cultural studies that, in their approaches to the embodiment of ideas, put them squarely into a different camp. Rather than reading through texts or artistic creations, rather than juxtaposing written materials or visual artworks in extraordinary ways, these two works conceive of national ideas in terms of groups of ordinary individuals and the ways they imagined themselves. The closer we move to the actual bodies, these historians argue, the closer we are to knowing what people in the early republic really thought. Both focus on performance, not just texts. Shifting from systems of culture to individual experience, they prefer to watch a variety of early Americans in action, using evidence of such action as a way to get a bead on national identity and culture.

Like Scheckel, Philip J. Deloria concludes in Playing Indian that “we must constantly return to the original mysteries of Indianness” if we want to understand how Americans came to think of themselves as members of a unified nation.6 Unlike Scheckel and Rigal, however, Deloria seeks to move away from what he calls “the exclusive world of texts and images” (6). Interested in very literally connecting ideas to bodies (and in avoiding the kind of disembodiment Berkhofer identified), he examines disguise, costume, and performance to tell the history of whites who have used their own bodies as texts, dressing and imagining themselves as Indians. Deloria does not claim to identify metaphors that readers or viewers may have recognized in texts. Instead, he interprets textual evidence of the actions and behaviors of common folk who were “giving human form to this imagined Indian,” clearly making metaphors for themselves (60). Starting with the Boston Tea Party and reaching forward into the near past of hippie communes, Grateful Dead concerts, and New Age spiritual quests, Deloria explains that “[t]he donning of Indian clothes moved ideas from brains to bodies, from the realm of abstraction to the physical world of concrete experience. There, identity was not so much imagined as it was performed, materialized through one’s body and through the witness and recognition of others” (184).

David Waldstreicher’s In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776-1820 is similarly interested in the ways that performance reveals idea and intent.7 Not concerned with “the Indian” in America, In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes explores other avenues in which ordinary people in the early republic worked out what they meant by “the nation,” documenting the ways a variety of Americans invented Fourth of July celebrations. Although Waldstreicher claims as his study the legacy of the American Revolution as seen in Independence Day celebrations, he does not limit himself only to scrutinizing evidence from his chosen “texts,” parades. He casts his generous net so widely that he catches evidence from ballads, broadsides, orations, and newspaper reportage to give his readers a sense of the ways Americans literally performed and thought themselves into nationhood. Although, on the surface, festivities in the 1770s may have seemed remarkably similar to celebrations in the 181Os, Waldstreicher argues, close readings around these performative events reveal distinct differences in racial, class, and regional approaches.

While in The Insistence of the Indian Scheckel comfortably refers to national identity and character as one knowable thing, Waldstreicher energetically seeks out moments when he can perceive Americans in different regions or from different classes or with different skin colors using received images of the Revolution for their own interests and ends. He engages with historiographic debates about nationalism and argues that rather than being a unified concept, the “nation” has always been contested and mediated. “Nationalism, the ideology of the ‘imagined community,’ is certainly an abstraction,” Waldstreicher writes, “but it is imagined and practiced locally in distinct, changing ways by different groups for a variety of purposes” (10).

For instance, in his final chapter, “Mixed Feelings: Race and Nation,” Waldstreicher concretely demonstrates separate groups – working-class whites and African Americans celebrating the formal end of the slave trade – wrangling over rights to public space and public ceremony as they jockeyed to control the meanings of the Fourth of July. Whites ridiculed the African Americans’ attempts at celebration, creating their own anti-tradition of “Bobalition,” in which they made fun of supposed black speech and rhetoric. By documenting the contest around this single development in Fourth of July festivities, Waldstreicher presents a portrait of a people fully engaged with each other over critical concepts and ideas. Rather than looking from a bird’s eye viewpoint, he manages to bring readers down low and close to the ground so that they see a diversity of specific individuals working through grand concepts in particular ways.

By considering evidence of individuals engaged in performance, both Deloria and Waldstreicher seem to claim that they are able to move beyond the interpretive limits of opaque linguistic and visual texts. Instead of having to look at canvases and read books to figure out what early nationals were thinking, they argue that they have figured out ways to look at the early nationals, themselves. There is something almost irresistible in this reasoning: after all, materialists may argue, how could moving into these persons’ bodies not move us closer to what they believed?

The big “however” here is that even though Deloria and Waldstreicher may bring us closer to the actual bodies than either Scheckel or Rigal, they nevertheless must engage in the same kind of genre identification and interpretation as do the literary critics. Although Deloria’s and Waldstreicher’s subjects were themselves performing (and not just watching performances), they were nonetheless engaging in and experimenting with existing, performative genres. Ultimately, readers must rely on these historians’ ability to interpret and explain visual and linguistic evidence of behavior, costume, and action. In the end, the historians are paddling around in a row-boat that looks an awful lot like the one carrying the literary critics: meaning still comes from reading and understanding evidence. Are these interpretations of what I am calling “embodied ideas” truer or more real than disembodied, symbolic systems? The way you answer this question may in the end depend on the department in which you study and teach.