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Dustin Hixenbaugh on "Race, Romance, and Rebellion: Literatures of the Americas in the Nineteenth Century"

cover art for Race, Romance, and Rebellion: Literatures of the Americas in the Nineteenth Century

Colleen C. O’Brien

Race, Romance, and Rebellion: Literatures of the Americas in the Nineteenth Century

University of Virginia Press, 2013
200 pages

Reviewed by Dustin Hixenbaugh

Americanists tend to remember the nineteenth century for racial violence, pseudo-science, and emerging United States imperialism, but according to Colleen C. O’Brien, Associate Professor of English at the University of South Carolina Upstate, it should also be remembered as a century of missed opportunities. In Race, Romance, and Rebellion, she highlights the particular opportunity certain nineteenth-century writers saw in the active promotion of interracial love—what she calls “amalgamation”—to challenge the violent hierarchies of race, gender, and nation that by the century’s end would ultimately prevail. Foregrounding narrative texts that portray love and sex between people of black African and white European descent, the book suggests a critical framework that scholars of sentimental literature, historical romance, and perhaps African American and other ethnic US American literatures will find applicable to a number of additional works and authors.

 In the Introduction, O’Brien attends to the exclusionary nature of rights discourse in the United States by applying Giorgio Agamben’s concept of the “state of exception” to the country’s founding documents. This is not, in itself, a novel gesture, as many people have observed that states choose to name the beneficiaries of privilege only to withhold privilege from the unnamed Others. However, O’Brien’s approach differs in that it takes a longer view, insisting that state and popular perspectives on the ideal composition and rights of US citizenship remained in flux for much of the century, no matter what Constitutions had been ratified or laws passed. On one side of the conversation we find John Adams, who provides the example of a white, male policy-maker defending his privilege, and whose letters to his wife, Abigail, betray his fear that the “tribe” of disgruntled US American women could topple the republic’s young government if it chose to revolt. On the other, we have the writers the book profiles in its six chapters, including Charles Chauncey Emerson (Ralph Waldo’s younger brother), Harriet Jacobs, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, Elizabeth Livermore, Julia Collins, and Frances Watkins Harper. O’Brien characterizes these writers as “insurgents” or “colonial subjects of a sort” because through their depictions of interracial, often international love they “disrupt and reshape the contours and boundaries of the ‘nation’ entirely,” rather than simply negotiate their inclusion within it.

Continuing her critique of what has become the nineteenth century’s master narrative, in Chapter One, O’Brien examines the uses to which various transcendentalist writers put Haïtian independence and the image of an all-black nation in the antebellum US press. Again, her work here is not exactly original—a number of texts, particularly Ifeoma Nwankwo’s Black Cosmopolitanism (2005), argue that Haïtian independence bound leaders and thinkers in many parts of the Americas together in a necessarily transnational dialogue about the sustainability of slavery—but her tight focus on texts by white US American writers looking positively, even romantically, upon Haïti’s slave rebellions, helps distinguish her project in this chapter from the pack. Ultimately, this brief but integral section of the book focuses on an 1835 lecture by (Charles Chauncey) Emerson that sees in Haïti a lesson in the costs and sins of continuing slavery. In O’Brien’s view, the abolitionists of Emerson’s generation initiated a project of “imagining this expanding, amalgamated, loving world of freedom” beyond the institution of slavery and the United States’ physical borders, and the writers who would realize this project most fully are the women she analyzes in in Chapters Two through Six.

The narratives O’Brien studies in these chapters vary somewhat in genre, and in each she strives to discern rebellious attitudes that are articulated with reference to interracial desire and the threat that excepted Others, namely white women and black slaves, would pose to the state if they formed an oppositional alliance. Jacobs certainly draws from the nineteenth century’s common romantic tropes in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861); however, her true account of her brutal enslavement and self-concealment sits incongruously alongside fictions like Avellaneda’s Sab (1841) and Livermore’s Zoë; or, The Quadroon’s Triumph (1855), which treat slavery’s abuses indirectly and may in fact be more invested in using slavery as a metaphor for white women’s oppression than advocating equal citizenship for African slaves and their descendents. Similarly, in Chapter Three, O’Brien seems pressured to defend her inclusion of the Cuban author Avellaneda in a book otherwise committed strictly to US Americans, and Caribbeanists may find her attempt to contextualize Sab, an immensely popular Spanish American novel, for US American readers superficial and a bit peculiar.

Generally, the authors explored in Chapters Two through Six challenge their exception by suggesting alternate models of enfranchisement that privilege virtue—admittedly a subjective property—over white masculinity. Bearing out two variations on the “economy of virtue” model, Jacobs pursues a relationship with a neighboring white man of her choosing, thwarting her own master’s coercive sexual advances, and then, in O’Brien’s cleanest-cut example of rebellion, notifies her master that she shall permit God, and not him, to judge her virtue. Jacobs’s invocation of God and some kind of law higher than white, national patriarchy is repeated by several of the other authors profiled in these chapters. In Chapter Three, for example, O’Brien argues that Avellaneda refutes white, Cuban patriarchy by characterizing her (white) female protagonist as the object of black slaves’ affection and the heir to the secrets of the island’s indigenous past. Disappearing, finally, into the landscape, Carlota turns back the clock to a time preceding patriarchy, slavery, and Conquest. Looking optimistically to the future, Livermore (Chapter Four) and Collins (Chapter Five) ask readers to prepare for the enfranchisement of women and the descendants of African slaves. While Livermore accomplishes this by promoting a kind of “Christian Republic” in which citizens are judged by the color of their souls, not their skins, Collins constructs a model of respectful white-black interaction that refutes the prevailing white stereotypes of black men and women. Chapter Six brings the book to its close by reading Minnie’s Sacrifice (1869), by Harper, as an example of the distrust black women increasingly felt for white women calling upon them to support their struggle for equal citizenship. Minnie’s Sacrifice questions whether black and white women can locate common ground in the period of Reconstruction and documents the ultimate failure of the amalgamationist project the other texts had nurtured for a quarter century.

That O’Brien squeezes an Introduction and six chapters, each of them analyzing distinct texts, into fewer than two hundred pages speaks to her efficiency and her project’s narrow focus. While non-specialists may not bother reading past Chapter One, I expect specialists will find something lacking in the readings of individual texts (Chapters Two through Six), which, while providing ample examples of interracial love and rebellion, do not fully explain how the selected texts together demonstrate a progression from Emerson’s transcendentalist rebellion to Harper’s critique of white women. Still, the book is likely to inspire similar inquiry into other texts depicting interracial love and friendship as a response to racial, patriarchal, national oppression—the novel Caballero (written in the 1930s and early 1940s, published in 1996), by Jovita González and Margaret Eimer, is one obvious candidate—and it will sit snugly on the bookshelf of any scholar of the nineteenth century between Anna Brickhouse and Doris Sommer, two forerunners to whom O’Brien is clearly indebted and does not quite surpass.