Talking American Literature and Culture: “Sentimental ‘Potlatch’ and the Making of the Nation”

  • Date: –17:00
  • Location: Zoom https://uu-se.zoom.us/j/67020387033
  • Lecturer: Alexandra Urakova (Johan Peter Falck Fellow, Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study, Uppsala: Senior Researcher, Gorky Institute of World Literature, Russian Academy of Sciences, Russia)
  • Website
  • Organiser: Department of English, Uppsala University
  • Contact person: Daniel Kane
  • Föreläsning

This talk explores controversial antebellum attitudes to the indigenous rituals of gift exchange and the use of the sentimental language of the gift in rewriting and revising American colonial history. Capitalizing on the much-discussed portrayals of Native Americans in frontier fiction – a ferocious avenger or “Indian giver” on the one hand, and a selfless “savage” on the other – I will focus on Lydia Maria Child’s debut novel Hobomok (1824). Contrary to the traditional interpretation of Hobomok’s “gift” in terms of heroic sacrifice, I argue that the novel exhibits a complex relationship between interracial antagonism as plotted in frontier fiction and the sentimental discourse it employs as a form of substitute or sublimation. The novels’ male antagonists, the native Hobomok and the Englishman Charles Brown, replace fight with gentility and shed tears instead of blood; however, the potlatch-like structure of their confrontation reminds us that self-sacrifice and murder, generosity and violence, sensitivity and cruelty are the two sides of the same coin. Contrary to Fenimore Cooper who will later romanticize, trivialize, and emblematize the indigenous self-sacrifice in The Last of the Mohicans, Child explores the ambiguity of sentimental gift exchange that reconciles readers with American national history but also obscures its origins.