Reading Boddo’s Body: Crossing the Borders of Race and Sexuality in Whitman’s “Half-Breed”

Reading Boddo’s Body: Crossing the Borders of Race and Sexuality in Whitman’s “Half-Breed”

Walt Whitman Quarterly Review
Volume 22, Number 2 (Fall 2004)
pages 87-107

Thomas C. Gannon, Associate Professor of English
University of Nebraska, Lincoln

Offers an extended cultural reading of Whitman’s early story “The Half-Breed,” focusing on psychosexual and post-colonial implications of the story in the context of Whitman’s career, and examining Whitman’s half-breed character Boddo as a racial and sexual “border figure.”

He was deformed in body-his back being mounted with a mighty hunch, and his long neck bent forward, in a peculiar and disagreeable manner …. His face was the index to many bad passions-which were only limited in the degree of their evil, because his intellect itself was not very bright …. Among the most powerful of his bad points was a malignant peevishness, dwelling on every feature of his countenance …. The gazer would have been at some doubt whether to class this strange and hideous creature with the race of Red Men or White—for he was a half-breed, his mother an Indian squaw, and his father some unknown member of the race of the settlers.

—Walt Whitman, “The Half-Breed: A Tale of the Western Frontier”

[T]he question of the abject is very closely tied to the question of being aboriginal. …

—Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

The “Noble Savage” and the “Monstrous Abortion”

“They showed the child of the Indian girl—my son!—I almost shrieked with horror at the monstrous abortion! The mother herself had died in giving it birth. No wonder.” (“The Half-Breed” [EPF 272])

WHITMAN’S EARLY TALE, “The Half-Breed” (1846), with its contrived plot, sometimes ludicrous melodrama, and blatant appeal to an audience primed for frontier exoticism, would hardly be included on many people’s “A” lists of required Whitman readings. And yet the relatively scant critical attention it has received from scholars is still rather surprising, given the current interest in cultural studies of race and ethnicity. Indeed, the title character’s sheer physical status as a mixed-blood stuck between the worlds of “White” and “Red” seems to beg for an analysis of the work in terms of recent ideas of racial and cultural “hybridity.” William J. Scheick would read Boddo as simply “the passionate, revengeful hunchback half-blood,” whose deformity and moral degeneracy portray the “unnaturalness” -in Whitman’s view-of interracial union. But might not the title character’s racial ambiguity allow for a consequent ambiguity of meaning, and his mixed-race “body” thus serve as a heterogeneous, contestatory site of competing discourses, perhaps even producing its own “discourse of rebellion,” in Michael Moon’s phrase (80)? The half-breed Boddo would thus not only serve as the “immediate instrument of the friction between the races” (Scheick 37), but also as the liminal site or border upon which the encounter of discordant cultural discourses is negotiated.

Some of the discussions of “The Half-Breed” that do exist seem to get the story only half-right, as it were. It may be symptomatic of a continuing Euro-American uncomfortableness with racial mixing that David S. Reynolds finds the novella’s plot “too tangled to be summarized”—as, in the story, Boddo’s own “blood” is too “mixed up” to be culturally viable? Reynolds should have stopped there, for his own summary is so “tangled” that he goes on to identify one of the tale’s fullblood Natives, Arrow-Tip, as the “wrongly accused half-breed” who “is tragically hanged. ” (In point of fact, Boddo is the half-breed, whose lago-like machinations of revenge lead to the hanging of Arrow-Tip.) Scheick rather muddles the whitelNative American issue in another way, by discussing Boddo as, above all, an emblem of Southern fears of white-black miscegenation (36-38), in line with various readings of Whitman’s early or intermittent sympathy for the South. As for Native Americans, Whitman’s view is characterized as follows: since “racial separation” is an “unalterable natural law,” and the results of racial inter-marriage are so “grotesque” and “unnatural,” Native Americans are doomed to extinction (37). But at last, while Scheick’s move to Southern racist attitudes yields an interesting cultural reading, it also sidesteps the real white-Indian interaction of Whitman’s plot…

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