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«By Robert Hilliker M. A., Brown University, 2003 B. A., University of British Columbia, 2000 Thesis Submitted in partial fulfillment of the ...»

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Furthermore, Rowlandson’s own arrangement of family, kin relations, and nation is fundamentally based on a metonymic principle of alliance, whatever her attempts to ground that arrangement in the hierarchical authority of nuclear family. Radisson, meanwhile, is hardly trying to develop some transcendent concept of international relations. His adoption of a policy of non-violent, culturally-aware interaction is formed by his role as an international merchant. Radisson’s captivity certainly makes him ideally suited for this role, yet it remains vital to note that he trades in custom because it furthers his trade in furs.

What Radisson’s and Rowlandson’s texts offer us is not a formula for understanding the essence of kin relations, but rather a glimpse of two of the broad lines that would be taken in the rethinking of kinship identities over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The first of these is an identification of “relations” with nation, an identification that, while it is not based on the same principles as biological race theory, operates in a similar fashion, dividing people into “us” and “them” and removing any symbolic middle ground; the second is an identification of “relation” with interest, which opens the door to a more cosmopolitan sense of identity. Custom plays a key role in the development of these definitions of kinship relations, contrary to what most literary criticism or structuralist anthropology might tell us, because it provides a precedent against which those relations can be judged. In this fashion, it serves as a check, albeit a partial one, upon the transformative powers of language, as represented by the “slatecleaning” tactics of Hobbes and Mather. As Radisson recognized, and Montaigne before him, even the refusal to recognize another’s custom is a custom.

–  –  –


The Indians of Virginia are almost wasted, but such Towns, or People as retain their Names, are hereunder set down; All which together can’t raise five hundred fighting men. They live poorly, and much in fear of the Neighbouring Indians. … Thus I have given a succinct account of the Indians; happy, I think, in their simple State of Nature, and in their enjoyment of Plenty, without the Curse of Labour. … The English have taken away great part of their Country, and consequently made every thing less plenty amongst them.

— Robert Beverly, The History and Present State of Virginia, 1705 (232-233).

The open-ended inclusiveness of the United States was directly proportionate to America’s capacity to incorporate and exclude, and more precisely to incorporate by exclusion. The culture seemed indefinite, infinitely processual, because as America it closed everything else out, as being Old World and/or not-yet-America. And vice versa: the process by which it closed out everything un-American was also the spur toward an ideal of liberal inclusiveness, a vision of representative openness that eroded traditional barriers of nationality, territory, language, and ethnicity, and eventually, perhaps, would erode even the barriers of race and gender—which is to say, would open the prospects of liberalism to women and blacks as it had to the Irish, the Jews, and the far-flung regions of Alaska and Hawaii.

— Sacvan Bercovitch, Rites of Assent, 1993 (14).

Both these epigraphs focus on the horizon where the Native “American” disappears and is replaced by the universal and endlessly copious concept of “America.” This transition occupies a central place in my analysis of the ongoing development of the figure of custom because it signals—if not necessitates—a radical change in the meaning and relative importance of custom. Where custom had responded to the discursive needs of the early colonists by allowing them to argue that by preserving a body of customs they had preserved their religious and national identities, the concrete particularity that such an argument requires does not lend itself to the abstract universalism that Bercovitch identifies as the hallmark of “America” and that was certainly a major component in the writings of North American colonists (and, I would add, their European counterparts) in the eighteenth century. This is not to say that custom no longer has a place in writing about identity by North American colonists after the close of the seventeenth century, but rather that its place becomes a subordinate one in relation to nature and culture. As the Baconian vision of an empirical science was progressively realized, custom, once viewed as a cause, would now be read as an effect of a larger struggle between opposing principles of nature and culture—read, in other words, as a symptom of pervasive physical (or natural) and ideological (or cultural) processes whose understanding required both close, careful observation and a desire to penetrate to the deeper principles underlying the myriad of observable facts.

And so Robert Beverly, having begun his History and Present State of Virginia with the emphatic assertion, “I am an Indian” (9), concludes his copious and systematic discussion of the “Religion, Laws, and Customs” of the native inhabitants of the Chesapeake on a valedictory note before moving on to a discussion of the state of the Euro-American colonies there. His text proclaims the imminent demise of the Native American communities of Virginia, and thus of the very customs he is recording. Beverly can hardly be credited with creating the trope of the “Vanishing Indian”— Thomas Morton, for one, uses it to help justify English colonization in his New English Canaan (22-24)— but the invocation of it here works in a markedly different fashion as Beverly painstakingly enumerates the diminished ranks of Virginia natives town by town, noting how some are “much decreased of late” and that in others there are “a small number yet living.” As perhaps the ultimate proof of the veracity of his close observation, Beverly faithfully notes a pair of exceptions to this general trend: the Nottawayes, “which number about a hundred Bow men, of late a thriving and increasing People” and the town of Nansamond, who have also “increased much of late” (232). Yet, despite all his careful attention to detail, Beverly quickly reduces the Native Americans to an abstract principle by using the same generalizing terms as Thomas Hobbes and Cotton Mather, albeit with a somewhat more idyllic tenor: they are in a “simple State of Nature,” a state of “plenty … without … Labour” (232). Or at least they were, until the English arrived and took “away great part of their Country, and consequently made every thing less plenty amongst them” (233).

Taken together, these gestures—close observation of the diminishing native population, that is, coupled with a rapid leap to radically decontextualized generalizations that make Native Americans sound like prelapsarian holdovers—firmly relegate the Native Americans to the pre-history of America, since it is their disappearance that marks the beginning of American history as such. Where Marc Lescarbot and Thomas Morton wrote about Native American customs in order to “rehearse” them and thereby perform a stronger, more coherent European identity, Beverly writes about these customs in order to show that they no longer exist. Beverly’s text thus clears the ground for Bercovitch’s, by effecting an erasure of America’s native inhabitants and their practices in order to make room for Anglo-American expansion. The difference between these two texts is that Beverly makes explicit the role of colonization in the destruction of Native American communities that Bercovitch, even though he does not condone it, virtually ignores.135 One place where Bercovitch does pay attention to Native Americans is in his assessment of Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana, which Bercovitch hails as a “New England Epic” and singles out as the precursor of a string of American epics, from Joel Barlow’s Columbiad to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (“New England Epic” 350).136 Bercovitch rightly identifies Mather’s belief that “the American church-state [represented] the climax of the ‘histories of all ages’” (339); he then goes on to note that the Native Americans in fact had a central role to play in that history, inasmuch as “their destruction would more clearly demonstrate that the Puritan mission stood at the verge of completion” (348). Interestingly, Bercovitch emphasizes that this role was possible precisely because the Native Americans “were an integral part of America” and so helped Mather make a case for the exceptional place of New England in world history (348).

Considering how Bercovitch has repeatedly returned to the same texts and themes over the course of his career in order to refine and elaborate his central argument about the continuities and singularities of American collective identity, it is striking how Native Americans in America have taken up less and less space in his account of the development of American identity. Whereas they are a central feature of his essay “New England Epic,” by the time he comes to write Rites of Assent they are virtually absent, appearing a couple of times in a list of afflictions faced by the Puritans in the New World (79, 108, 114), and having only a single paragraph allotted to their place in the Magnalia (143-44). Moreover, Native Americans are notably absent from his list of groups who have come to be incorporated into the nation (Rites 14).

In an updated version of this list, offered in Rites of Assent, Bercovitch identifies everything from Jonathan Edwards’ Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion (1742) through Barlow (1807), Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), and Whitman’s Democratic Vistas (1871) to Henry James’ The American Scene (1907) as descended from Mather’s ur-text (Rites 115).

It is well worth pausing a moment, then, over Bercovitch’s own investment in this interpretation of Mather’s work, work which occupies a pivotal position in his narrative of America’s capacity for universal assimilation. In Bercovitch’s assessment it is the writings of Mather that create the fundamental link between the theological rhetoric of the Puritan jeremiad and its secularized, though still theologically informed, descendents in later American literature. The culmination of this process is the production of a myth of America—meaning exclusively the United States—as the only “symbol of identity [to] ha[ve] united nationality and universality, civic and spiritual selfhood, secular and redemptive history, the country’s past and paradise to be, in a single synthetic ideal.” (Rites 176). As Bercovitch elaborates, these exceptional characteristics make America able to take dissent against the status quo and recast it as assent to the idealized promise of America—in other words, the United States of America is, in Bercovitch’s assessment, the only nation capable of containing all radicalism within its compass and transforming it into a kind of conservatism. While Bercovitch is openly ambivalent about the relative value of this myth—and takes pains to point out that many of the authors whose work he analyzes were likewise ambivalent about the myth (see Rites 346-352, esp. 350)—he nonetheless grants it a special power by affirming that it is the myth of America, to the exclusion of any other.

Bercovitch’s dependence on Mather reveals a blind spot in his own theory of American identity. Like Mather, he writes Native Americans out of the history of America because to include them would be to expose the limit conditions of its purported copiousness; if Bercovitch insists on America’s ever-increasing ability to include as a function of its ability to exclude, it is the ongoing exclusion of Native Americans that enables his insistence, because to include them would be to say that there was an America before America. One might say that Bercovitch’s definition of America makes Native Americans “universally” excluded. America thus becomes a name given by a European to a vast territory and its people only to be reappropriated by other Europeans as part of the process of colonization. And so these first “Americans” remain eternally qualified by their status as “natives,” living on “reservations” or “reserves,” never completely assimilated into the myth even as they mark off its (historical and imaginary) frontier.137 If Bercovitch is correct inasmuch as he acknowledges the pushing aside of Native Americans as a necessary part of the construction of a myth of America, however, his framing of this myth solely in terms of the United States, and, still more narrowly, New England obscures the larger importance of the rest of Europe—not to mention the importance of the rest of the Americas, both North and South—which have their own conflicted relationships with the mismatch between their Native American heritage and their respective national myths.138 In other words, Bercovitch sees a myth of America as Given the work of any number of scholars in the fields of Native American Studies, New Indian History, and ethnohistory, such an absolute claim may well seem hyperbolic, yet, as Mick Gidley notes in his assessment of the “Vanishing Indian” trope, “despite frequent and sometimes celebrated ‘returns’, the Native American has yet to receive representation as an autonomous being in white American cultural artifacts” (“Repeated Return” 205).

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