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"Dark Catastrophe of Passion": The "Indian" As Human Commodity in Nineteenth-Century British Theatrical Culture.

Studies in Romanticism 2002, Winter, 41, 4

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THE MELANCHOLY NATIVE AMERICAN MAY HAVE GAINED CULTURAL ASCENDANCY in England through the popularity of American writers like James Fenimore Cooper and William Cullen Bryant, but the sorrows of the "Indian" appealed to the nineteenth-century British subject for reasons different from those for which the mourning "Indian" attracted Americans. The appropriation of Native American land by the American government and the possible Celtic origins of the Native American tribes are two themes that surface in the Gentleman's Magazine and other British periodicals of the 1810s and 1820s. (1) These themes in combination reveal the British public's identification with the Native American as the victim of American imperialism and the public's association of the Celt, the original British person, with Native Americans. This identification with "Indian" suffering occurred as Britain mourned for the American colonies lost in the American Revolution and again in the War of 1812. What Nancy Moore Goslee describes as the "violent expropriation of Indian territory" was now the fault not of the British colonists but of the Americans, who were also responsible for the territorial losses of the British. (2) The loss of empire installed a compensatory imperialist fantasy in British culture. In the first three decades of the nineteenth century, the cult of the Native American grew as William Wordsworth, Amelia Opie, Felicia Hemans, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and others wrote poems and plays featuring the tragic "Indian." (3) All of these British writers portrayed the colonized "Indian" as mourning over a lost relative, tribe, or homeland, or over imminent personal demise. In tracing a resemblance between the "Indian" and British losses of American lands, British writers legitimated the British imperial right of possession by portraying white Americans as the robbers of innocent "Indians" and Britons alike. Yet British artists not only appropriated the image of the sorrowing "Indian" to justify British empire, but also marketed this figure for money and prestige. The mourning "Indian" serves British imperialism and exemplifies a widespread romantic economic melancholia. Here seen in British cultural production, the displacement of mourning through ambivalent identification with an impoverished object is symptomatic of melancholia. Well-known to nineteenth-century British culture, the theories of melancholia developed by early modern medical thinkers like Robert Burton were eventually given a psychological structure by Sigmund Freud. (4) Freud describes the cause of melancholia as the subject's refusal of the loss of a beloved object. Unlike the melancholic, the subject who successfully mourns the lost object prolongs the existence of the object while testing the reality of that object's absence. Finding the object irretrievable, the subject severs his attachment in order to preserve himself. But instead of gradually weakening his attachment to this lost object, the melancholic subject refuses to let go of the object. Faced with loss, the melancholic subject refuses it by identifying himself with the lost object. This identification is painful because "identifications are never brought to full closure; identifications are inevitably failed identifications," as Diana Fuss observes. (5) The subject thus emerges through his melancholic refusal of his own incompleteness: desire sustains subjective identity while testifying to its impossibility. Like Fuss's melancholic subject, Britain defined itself through its melancholic identification with a surrogate object that was outside the nation and yet belonged "inside" it due to the nation's attachment to it. (6) When romantic artists offered up the surrogate object of the "Indian" image, melancholy Britain's imperial loss was transformed into a symbolic gain for commodity culture.

"Dark Catastrophe of Passion": The "Indian" As Human Commodity in Nineteenth-Century British Theatrical Culture.
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  • Category: Language Arts & Disciplines
  • Published: 22 December 2002
  • Publisher: Boston University
  • Print Length: 34 Pages
  • Language: English
  • Requirements: To view this book, you must have an iOS device with iBooks 1.3.1 or later and iOS 4.3.3 or later, or a Mac with iBooks 1.0 or later and OS X 10.9 or later.

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