A Romance of (Miscege)Nations: Ann Sophia Stephens’ Malaeska: The Indian Wife of the White Hunter (1839, 1860)
Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory
Volume 63, Number 1, Spring 2007
Yu-Fang Cho, Associate Professor of English; Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies
Miami University, Oxford, Ohio
First serialized in The Ladies’ Companion in 1839 and later reprinted in 1860, Ann Sophia Stephens’ Malaeska narrates the tragic interracial union of an Indian princess and a white hunter in northeastern United States during the colonial period. By rewriting the Pocahontas legend, Malaeska allegorizes the dispossession of Native Americans at two significant historical moments in U.S. nation building: the enforcement of the Removal Act throughout the 1830s and westward expansion in the 1850s after the U.S.-Mexican War. The first version of Malaeska was serialized in a women’s magazine tailored specifically for middle- and upper-class female readers, a site of production and reception often characterized as part of the “culture of sentiment.” The second version was the first of the Beadle and Adams’s dime novel series, which often made sensational appeals to audiences across class, gender, age, profession, and ethnicity. Simultaneously inhabiting cultural spaces defined in contemporary analytical terms as mutually exclusive, Malaeska unsettles binary constructions in the study of nineteenth-century U.S. literature and culture. This novel thereby enables an understanding of intersecting racial, gender, class, and cultural formations in relation to U.S. nation building.
Until recently, Malaeska has been dismissed as formulaic, superficial, conservative, and therefore unworthy of scholarly attention. In her important critical re-assessment of Stephens’ Indian tales, Paola Gemme offers an insightful overview of the relationship between the increasingly essentialist dominant racial ideologies from the 1830s to the 1860s and the growing pessimism in depictions of Native American “extinction” in Stephens’ stories. Building on the historical framework in Gemme’s overview (“Rewriting”), this essay examines the ways in which the representation of Indian-white miscegenation in Stephens’ Malaeska simultaneously engages racial ideologies, gender politics, and class formations in cross-fertilized cultural forms. By considering the differences between the 1839 version and the 1860 version, the two contexts of production and reception, and narrative elements beyond the plot, this essay suggests that Malaeska does not necessarily endorse the inevitability of Native American extinction. Rather, Malaeska mobilizes “the Indian question” to critique white supremacy and patriarchy simultaneously: it appeals to women’s shared predicaments as wives, daughters, and mothers to expose the violence of white dominance and its destructive impact on both Native Americans and whites. At the same time, this double critique is limited by its displacement of racial issues onto gender concerns as the text foregrounds women’s alliances across racial and class lines and defines womanhood in terms of the emerging white middle class. The contradiction between the dramatization of racial tensions and their ultimate displacement onto gender issues, this essay suggests, registers an articulation of normative, invisible middle-class white womanhood in the broader context of the emergence of (de)racialized women’s middle-class culture. The term “(de)racialized” highlights the ways in which normative “whiteness” operates as an invisible, “unraced,” universal construction against which all other “races” are defined and thereby racialized. The naturalization and (de)racialization of women’s middle-class culture, this essay suggests, relies on its claim to moral authority and its antithetical relationship to other cultural spheres, such as the heterogeneous cultural spaces where dime novels circulated.
The Elegy of the Vanishing American: Removal, Western Expansion, and the Consequences of the Failed Contract across Racial Lines
From the 1830s to the 1860s, conflicts between whites and Indians were a recurrent theme in cultural representations. As the enforcement of the 1830 Removal Act took place in the late 1830s, Indian tales and poems lamenting the predicament of the “vanishing American” appeared frequently in popular magazines. A generation later many Beadle and Adams dime novels also featured violent encounters between whites and Indians as the clash between white settlers and Indians continued to intensify after the removal era due to westward expansion after the U.S.-Mexican War. While the figuration of different racial others in relation to U.S. national identity varies in different periods, the Indian was particularly important in shaping the emergence of U.S. national identity, most notably perhaps in the republican era when the U.S. struggled to define itself and expanded its territory (Rogin 4). During this period, the Indian functioned as an important icon…
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