Acts of Intercourse: “Miscegenation” in three 19th Century American Novels

Acts of Intercourse: “Miscegenation” in three 19th Century American Novels

American Studies in Scandinavia
Volume 27 (1995)
pages 126-141

Domhnall Mitchell, Professor of English
Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway

Until this period of the evening, the duties of hospitality and the observances of religion had prevented familiar discourse. But the regular offices of the housewife were now ended for the night; the handmaidens had all retired to their wheels; and as the bustle of a busy and more stirring domestic industry ceased, the cold and selfrestrained silence, which had hitherto only been broken by distant and brief observations of courtesy, or by some wholesome allusion to the lost and probationary condition of man, seemed to invite an intercourse of a more general character.

James Fenimore Cooper, The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish (Columbus, Ohio; Charles E. Merrill, 1970).

In a 19th century American novel like Cooper’s The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish, intercourse usually means conversation, an important activity which supports, sustains and secures a community’s perception of its shared identity. If we take the above quotation as an example, Cooper manages to convey a sense of common purpose and harmonious enterprise, to such an extent that the people described seem almost to function as members of one family. But intercourse of another, sexual kind also takes place in the novel, between one of the white daughters of this family and a Narragansett sachem. The second kind of intercourse takes place outside the confines of, and disturbs the kind of stability and integrity represented by, the first. The unanimity of social institutions is disrupted and threatened first by the arrival and second by the acceptance of the Indian within the white family. When it is remembered that, in 19th century American history, the word intercourse is further associated with a series of acts regulating the transaction of land and goods between European Americans and Native Americans, and that there was contention about exactly what kind of contact, if any, should be maintained between the two groups, then it can be seen that this single word carries with it a complex sequence of literary and cultural connotations.

Intercourse, then, is a useful term with which to begin looking at aspects of relations between Native American Indians and Europeans in certain 19th Century American novels. For the word can have several definitions. It implies physical intimacy; it can also mean commercial exchange, including the transaction of property: and finally, it suggests discourse, or dialogue. These different meanings indicate different levels we might profitably look at.

In its modern sense, intercourse suggests sexual relations, and several 19th century novels imagine the possibility of union between Indians and Whites. I have chosen three of these; Hobomok, written by Lydia Maria Child and published in 1824; Catharine Maria Sedgwick‘s Hope Leslie, which appeared in 1827; and the second, revised, 1833 edition of The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish (or The Borderers), by James Fenimore Cooper, which was first printed in 1829. Although all three of the works under consideration were written by Americans in the 1820s, the time and place of their narration is 17th century New England, so there is an element of dialogue between texts and historical contexts. The dialogue also involves a reconstruction of early colonial history. These novels integrate or negotiate with Indian versions of historical events as well as attempting to create colourful rather than credible Native characters. For example, in 1653, a woman was hanged for taking the Indian demigod Hobbamock as her husband, and it is therefore interesting that Child’s novel Hobomok begins with Mary Conant going into the forest late at night and meeting the Indian character of the same name, who she later marries and has a child by.  Instead of the dominant 17th century imperatives of war and suspicion, Hobomok dramatizes the possibility of an assimilation which is at once sexual and cultural. And yet, what I intend to show in this article is that Indian loving is in fact not very different in its final results from the kind of Indian hating which characterized later works such as James Hall’s Sketches of History, Life and Manners in the West (1835) and Robert Montgomery Bird’s Jibbenainosay, or Nick of the Woods (1837)…

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