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Review of Kate Flint, The Transatlantic Indian, 1776-1930 (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2009. $45.00 cloth). Pp. xv+376 ISBN 978-0-691-13120-7



Kate Flint’s book, The Transatlantic Indian, represents a groundbreaking contribution to what is generally considered a rather narrow field of scholarship – transatlantic studies during the Victorian age. The book adds a remarkable scholarly effort to several recent titles examining the place and role of the Indian in the British mindset during the “long nineteenth century”, Troy Bickman’s Savages within the Empire (2005) and Tim Fulford’s Romantic Indians (2006) being two of the best. By examining a broad range of sources, from literary works to visual arts, the author seeks to demonstrate her central thesis, which is that the figure of the Indian as generic cultural construct played a central role in the discourse of British colonization and imperialism and especially in the way the British Empire placed itself in contrast to its former American colonies. Specifically, Kate Flint analyses “the exchange of representations and points of view in the northern hemispheric transatlantic space” (12) in the timeframe spanning the birth of the American Republic and the aftermath of the war of independence against Britain to the turbulent 1920s. Generally speaking, the predominant idea in the British sources quoted by the author is that the empire’s attitude towards “its” Indians – that is, the members of the various native tribes residing in Canada, known as the “First Nations” – was far more humane and civilized than the treatment of natives in the United States, where they were gradually pushed off their lands and forced to live in reservations, in which they enjoyed very few rights and were subject to frequent discrimination and distress in their position as the “undesirable Other”.

The book begins by examining the figure of the Indian in the British Romantic literary tradition of the nineteenth century, where the overwhelming focus is on the trope of the “dying Indian”, the member of a race associated with “the positive connotations of bravery, loyalty, dignity” (20); as the author demonstrates with pertinent examples from the works of British Romantic poets William Wordsworth, Joseph Wharton, and Robert Southey, Gothic novelist Mary Shelley, and American writer Philip Freneau, these authors deplore the passing of a great race decimated by a kind of “cultural genocide” perpetrated by modernity. The “dying Indian” provided them with an opportunity to draw on their fondness for melancholy and for “le bon sauvage”. However, the author’s perspective in this first chapter is somewhat limited: by discussing only literary representations of the Indian that had actually rather little to do with the people they were trying to depict, the author gives the impression that the figure of the Indian in the British imagination during the first half of the nineteenth century was solely based on such representations, as she fails to mention the reaction of British society to the visits of important transatlantic Indians such as Joseph Brandt or Joseph Norton, both of whom visited Britain during the period in question.

However, the impression made by live Indians on British society and, conversely, the natives’ reactions after being exposed to the zenith of Western civilization, is thoroughly analysed in the book’s third chapter dealing with George Catlin’s visits to Britain in the 1840s: the description of his travelling exhibition and of how the marriage of a half-Ojibwa to a young London lady provoked widespread controversy, raising prejudiced questions about race relations, is one of the most thought-provoking parts of the book, especially considering that here, the author gives a voice to the Native Americans who are otherwise often presented as passive objects of ethnological observation. The same controversial issues about slavery, mixed marriages and sentiment are further explored in the fourth chapter, dealing with the portrayal of Native Americans in the works of British women writers such as Charlotte Bronte, Felicia Hemans, Frances Trollope, Mary Howitt, Eliza Cook and George Eliot. Some of these representations, especially the earlier ones, are clearly influenced by Romantic tropes, while others (especially those present in Eliot’s works) avoid sentimentality and are marked by clear notes of anger.

Chapter five of Flint’s work crosses over, in a sense, because it mainly deals with the representation of the Indian in Longfellow’s well-known poem, Hiawatha, and its reception in both America and Britain; the central question of this chapter is whether the Indian was identified in Britain with what a genuine American was like; in other words, whether “the Indian functioned as a figure of American national identity within Britain” (20) at a moment when, during the 1851 Great Exhibition held in London’s Crystal Palace, America was presenting itself as a thoroughly modern country. The somewhat stereotyped image of the Indian depicted in Longfellow’s poem is analysed in more detail in chapter six primarily through Charles Dickens’s accounts, but also through the impact of James Fenimore Cooper’s works on British readers. Certainly, Dickens had first hand-knowledge of America gathered through his travels across the Atlantic, yet his attitude towards natives was ambivalent: in an 1853 essay ironically entitled “The Noble Savage”, Dickens claims that “the savage, even if he has established his right to the name of man, cannot be painted black enough” (143). Yet somewhere else he deplores their fate and argues that “they are a fine people, but degraded and broken down” (145). As the author argues, these inconsistencies can be explained by the fact that they are part of “Dickens’ more general diatribe against the dehumanizing tendencies inherent in American institutions” (149), of which the most outrageous to him was slavery, followed closely by the dispossession of Indian lands. This condemnation of American practices and policies is part of a quite widespread attitude on the part of British society displaying what the lieutenant governor of Upper Canada, Francis Head, termed “a concern with the underdog”. The author is right in pointing out that Dickens’s ambivalence is characteristic of the fact that different, even competing narratives of the Indian “ran in tandem with one another in Victorian Britain. Dickens’s writing typifies the way in which Native Americans mattered less in their own right than because they readily provided rhetorical tropes, something that subordinated them as racial subjects” (154).

Of particular importance, I believe, is chapter eight, dealing with various missionary encounters with Indians: these encounters take place on both sides of the Atlantic, and include British missionaries travelling to Canada and First Nations spokespeople and missionaries touring Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century. What appears interesting is the evidence of considerable sympathy between the middle and lower class British missionaries (who had first-hand experience of land expropriation to the benefit of upper classes) and the Indians facing similar problems. The accounts of these missionaries (figures like William Howitt or Egerton Ryerson Young) are far less romanticised than most literary fiction and represent, therefore, a more truthful and nuanced source of information.

Chapter nine addresses a phenomenon well-known in Britain at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, that is, the image of the Indian presented in William Cody’s (better known as Buffalo Bill) Wild West shows. These shows were particularly effective in providing the British public with a heroic version of how the West was conquered and how the American frontier was pushed westwards at a time when the question of frontiers within the British Empire itself was beginning to occupy a more important place in public discourse. These shows can also be seen as an incipient expression of American imperialism, of a desire to project a certain kind of national identity, emphasising heroism, progress and the celebration of individualism. Flint’s last chapter shifts the perspective again, as the author examines how the visits to London of the well-known Indian female poets and performers Catherine Sutton and Pauline Johnson contributed to a change in Britain’s attitudes towards First Nations people at the dawn of the twentieth century. This change occurs in the context of discussions about individual rights and racial equality, which were becoming more acute.As the author herself argues, the transatlantic space was disrupted by “apparently neat binaries of ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’, ‘savage’ and ‘civilized’, on which nineteenth-century ideas of the frontier rested so heavily: ideas that were, indeed, directly challenged by the mobility, and visibility, of certain pioneering native individuals” (287).

The arguments made by the author throughout the book are extensively documented by carefully selected bibliographic materials that provide the interested reader with further scholarly documentation. Written with verve, The Transatlantic Indian is a thoroughly researched, insightful and largely original approach to a topic that has often been somewhat neglected by scholarship – in the author’s own words, we need to take greater account of “the complex social, emotional and cultural importance of transatlantic relations to Native American culture and […] the ways in which native culture, both real and represented, throws light on the developments and attitudes that characterized British modernity” (296).


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