"Relocating the Revolution": The American Revolution and Social Reform in Historical Romances of Antebellum America

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Date
2014-06-01
Authors
Lauzon, Autumn
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Middle Tennessee State University
Abstract
This dissertation examines American historical romances published between 1820 and 1860 by authors who situated contemporary concerns and social critiques within the historical setting of the American Revolution. The eight major texts treated in this study are James Fenimore Cooper&rsquo;s <italic>The Spy</italic> (1821); Lydia Maria Child&rsquo;s <italic>The Rebels; or, Boston before the Revolution</italic> (1825); Nathaniel Hawthorne&rsquo;s short story, &ldquo;My Kinsman, Major Molineux&rdquo; (1832); Catharine Maria Sedgwick&rsquo;s <italic>The Linwoods; or, &ldquo;Sixty Years Since&rdquo; in America</italic> (1835); George Lippard&rsquo;s <italic>Blanche of Brandywine; or, September the Eleventh, 1777</italic> (1846); William Wells Brown&rsquo;s <italic>Clotel; or, the President&rsquo;s Daughter</italic> (1853); William Gilmore Simms&rsquo;s <italic>Woodcraft; or, Hawks About the Dovecote</italic> (1854); and Herman Melville&rsquo;s <italic>Israel Potter</italic> (1855).
By looking deeper into stories that, on the surface, appear to be mere historical romances glorifying the Revolution, I evaluate the ways these authors covertly expressed nineteenth&ndash;century social anxieties during a period that was experiencing rapid and dramatic political, social, and cultural change. Chapter one describes the social changes of the antebellum period that inspired, and are subtly addressed in, the romances; chapter two analyzes the treatment of George Washington, moving from the mythologized version by Sedgwick to a more ambivalent depiction by Lippard; chapter three discusses the use of Skinners, violent marauders who took advantage of the disruption caused by the Revolution for material gain, to represent social tensions attending class mobility; chapter four examines how women writers voiced their concerns about women's roles in the domestic, social, and political spheres through their progressive portrayals of intelligent Revolutionary&ndash;era women; chapter five investigates the treatment of slavery, racial inequality, and black characters who have major roles in the plots of the historical romances; and chapter six discusses the writers who were skeptical of the popular trend of glorifying the Revolution and wrote more realistically about the complications and negative consequences many people endured because of the American Revolution and its aftermath.
Ultimately, this study responds to a call put forth in Betsy Erkkil&rsquo;s 2003 article &ldquo;Revolution in the Renaissance,&rdquo; in which Erkkil suggests American Renaissance literature be reevaluated by privileging the connections between literature and the historical events that inspired it. This dissertation analyzes the texts in relation to each other, thus creating conversations between these historical romances that have been missing from current scholarship on nineteenth&ndash;century American literature.
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Catharine Maria Sedgwick, George Lippard, Herman Melville, James Fenimore Cooper, Lydia Maria Child, William Gilmore Simms
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