Sympathy and the Indian Question in Antebellum Literature
How literary portraits of Indian-white encounters shaped nineteenth-century disputes over Native rights
An old Indian woman comforts two young white children she finds lost in the woods and lovingly carries them back to their eager parents. A frontiersman sheds tears over the grave of a Mohican youth, holding hands with the mourning father. According to Laura L. Mielke, such emotionally charged scenes between whites and Indians paradoxically flourished in American literature from 1820 to 1850, a time when the United States government developed and applied a policy of Indian removal. Although these “moving encounters,” as Mielke terms them, often promoted the possibility of mutual sympathy between Native Americans and Euro-Americans, they also suggested that these emotional links were inherently unstable, potentially dangerous, and ultimately doomed. At the same time, the emphasis on Indian-white sympathy provided an opportunity for Indians and non-Native activists to voice an alternative to removal and acculturation, turning the language of a sentimental U.S. culture against its own imperial impulse. Mielke details not only how such writers as James Fenimore Cooper and Henry Rowe Schoolcraft forecast the inevitable demise of Indian-white sympathy, but also how authors like Lydia Maria Child and William Apess insisted that a language of feeling could be used to create shared community or defend American Indian sovereignty. In this way, Moving Encounters sheds new light on a wide range of texts concerning the “Indian Question” by emphasizing their engagement with popular sentimental forms and by challenging the commonly held belief that all Euro-American expressions of sympathy for American Indians in this period were fundamentally insincere. While portraits of Indian-white sympathy often prompted cynical rejoinders from parodists, many never lost faith in the power of emotion to overcome the greed and prejudice fueling the dispossession of American Indians.
"Mielke's scholarship is exemplary. She shows broad knowledge of historical and literary scholarship in Native American studies and in American history and literature. . . . This text could be quite useful in advanced undergraduate seminars in nineteenth-century literature, and it will certainly be a must-have book for scholars in the field."—Renée Bergland, author of The National Uncanny:
Indian Ghosts and American Subjects