Kate Flint

The Transatlantic Indian

Kate Flint, The Transatlantic Indian, 1776–1930. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008. xv + 376 pp. ISBN: 978-0691131207 (hardback). £32.95 (UK), $46.95 (USA).

 

Reviewed by Laura M Stevens (University of Tulsa) Onine, December 2012.

 

In The Transatlantic Indian Kate Flint examines Britons’ encounters—imaginative and actual— with American Indians over the course of a very long nineteenth century. Beginning with the American Revolution and ending between the world wars, she considers the many ways in which Britons interacted with the Native peoples of North America and responded to the images of Indians they came across in a wide range of media. Covering a vast swath of time, the project is also ambitious in its methodology and geographical scope, drawing upon material culture studies, art criticism, performance studies, gender theory, the history of ideas, and literary history, all while examining an arena of travel and cultural intersection encompassing the British Isles, the United States, and Canada.

Within the Atlantic British world that Flint so effectively delineates, Indians clearly were useful to think with. She asserts—and convinces—that through their contemplations of America’s Native peoples Britons were able more effectively to articulate who they were, how they fit within the world, and how their nation stood in relation to its former and current colonies across the ocean. While Britain shared with the United States an inclination to use Indians in the work of self-contemplation, its engagement with these figures was more variable and diffuse, being less tightly linked to the construction of nationalist identity: “In the United States, the Indian was inseparable—whether positive or negative associations came into play” from the nation’s own identity. In Britain, however “the figure was far more protean. The general connotations of nobility, of savagery, and of the nostalgia attendant on imminent extinction could be adopted extremely easily for a number of ends that had nothing to do with the self-image of the United States” (12). Thus, even as Britons pondered their position within global spaces, Indians served as foils to help them situate themselves within scales of civilization and time. As Flint writes, “the capacity of Indians to inhabit British public, intellectual, and social spaces attests to their participation not just on the troubled terrain of the United States and Canada, but within a yet broader transatlantic context of developing modernities” (10). If there is a unifying impulse or motif among the multitude of texts, events, and reactions she studies, it is this temporal and civilizational sorting—this aligning of Indians with a primitive and lost past, often shrouded with admiration or even poignant regret. It is not so much that Indians made it possible for Britons to conceptualize Britain, as that Indians made it possible for Britons to refine their consciousness of themselves as breaking with the ways of the past, moving forward purposefully in time.

With its omnibus tour of cultural history and textual representation, Flint’s book performs a valuable service to scholars in both literature and history, and it unquestionably will be the starting point for future work touching on this topic. The book is also impressive for the agility evident in its movements between so many approaches and fields. Accompanying or alternating with deft examinations of visual art, museum exhibitions, Britons’ travels to America, and Indians’ journeys to Britain are elegant readings of a startling array of texts—missionary memoirs, adventure fiction, poems, novels, and essays by Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Bram Stoker, Frances Trollope, Charlotte Brontë, and many others. One useful outcome of her study is its foregrounding of the thematically crucial roles Indians play, even when they have just cameo status, in so many centerpieces of the nineteenth-century canon. But strong as the literary studies are, some of the book’s most vibrant sections are focused on performances, exhibitions, and journeys, including William Cody’s Wild West Shows, the Great Exhibition of 1851, and visits to Britain by the poet Pauline Newton, by the Credit Indian Catherine Sutton, as well as by the Ojibwa and Iowa Indians who accompanied George Catlin. The interlacing of text with event often helps to capture the complexity of the British response to Indians, as when a reading of Bram Stoker’s story “The Squaw” frames a subtle examination of Britons’ conflicted reactions to the Sioux and other First Nations peoples in the Buffalo Bill shows. Finally, although her focus is on British descriptions of and responses to Indians, Flint deals directly and carefully with the ethical complexities of such a project, attending to the ways in which American Indians made note of, resisted, or played with the tropes in which they found themselves enveloped. Flint makes note, for example, of how Pauline Johnson, “Deliberately liminal,…set out to deconstruct, as well as exploit, frontier binaries” in her performances, even as “offstage and on she took it upon herself to speak for an Indian, rather than an assimilationist agenda” (279). There is also an especially effective moment in which Flint shows how Nahnebahwequay or Catherine Sutton, a Credit Indian who travelled to England and had an audience with Queen Victoria, “ritualistically employs Pope’s phrase ‘the poor Indian’” in a speech to a Liverpool audience, “using it almost like a refrain, a prompt to activate sympathy along established lines” (274).

The Transatlantic Indian is daunting in its topical and methodological scope, even as it seems to sacrifice little in the way of penetrating analysis while covering so much and such varied ground. Ironically, such vast and ambitious projects often leave their readers wanting more, because the demonstration that so much can be woven together so effectively in one book expands readers’ awareness and expectations. “What about…” questions constitute an almost inevitable response, as in: What about the other objects of Britain’s imperializing energy? What about Britain’s contemplation of its own oppressed so-called primitives, the Irish and the Highland Scots? What parallels or divergences existed between depictions of Native Americans and aboriginal Australians? What continuities were there between transatlantic Indians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? The list could go on.

On this question of what has been left out it is helpful, I think, to consider Flint’s book within a cluster of recent work on American Indians in the Anglophone Atlantic world. For all the attention that colonialism, imperialism, and Euro-American contact have received over the past few decades, the cultural and intellectual impact of American Indians on Britain was, until recently, the topic of a fairly sparse collection of studies often narrowly focused. This state of affairs has changed over the past few years with the appearance of several books examining the response to Native American peoples or to representations of them in Britain. These publications, such as Troy Bickham’s Savages within the Empire: Representations of American Indians in Eighteenth-Century Britain (2005), Alden T. Vaughn’s Transatlantic Encounters: American Indians in Britain, 1500-1776 (2006), and Tim Fulford’s Romantic Indians: Native Americans, British Literature, and Transatlantic Culture, 1756-1830 (2006), stake out various eras and aspects of this topic, and their approaches differ significantly. They are unified, however, in their effort to consider the place of Indians in Britain over long swaths of time and broad stretches of cultural terrain, with attentiveness to the circulatory systems that facilitated the movement of peoples, texts, and ideas between continents.

In their documentary inclinations, in the broad arc of their narratives, and in their shift of focus somewhat away from the grim events and rhetoric of conquest to the dynamics of intercultural interaction amidst conquest—even as they retain attuned to that terrible history—they are distinct from the previous decade’s studies of the writings of colonial encounter. The scholarly conversation in which they are engaged is clearly one of the present, deeply influenced by the now quite extensive work that has been undertaken within Native American history, postcolonial studies, and transatlanticism. These books on the whole embrace models of fluidity, circulation, and conversation, in which people, texts, and ideas move, interact, and come away forever altered. Such approaches yield enormous positive results, including the restoration of agency, subjectivity, and complexity to American Indians, but they also show the paradigm of transatlantic studies hitting against that of the transnational and the comparative, focused as they often are on Britain, on North America, and on Anglophone documents.

This is not a failing of these studies, which are quite clear about their goals, and which are already accomplishing a significant recalibration and expansion of historical vision. The focus on the North Atlantic and on British, Anglophone arenas does delineate an edge around them, however—an intellectual frontier in these texts that have so thoroughly broken away from Frederick Jackson Turner’s sense of a frontier—and it is worth noting that for many of these studies a significant limit point of the transatlantic proves to be the comparative. That is, these approaches are implicitly cast against each other as offering juxtaposed schematics for interpretation. Sometimes this means that analysis simply halts at the boundaries of the nation, with all the attendant payoffs and failings. It can also mean, however, that comparative work sharpens transatlantic analysis and vice versa, even as the friction between these two approaches prompts a productive reassessment of what we mean when we use both terms.

Flint’s book might best be understood as pressing against this line between the Anglophone transatlantic and the comparative, leaving us with a rich account of nineteenth-century Britain’s encounters with American Indians. It edges into the arena of comparative analysis by attending to distinct cultural developments taking place in Britain, Canada, and the United States even as it focuses on movements and exchanges among these three regions. There is potential for a great deal more comparative work in connection with this topic, however, most obviously between different nineteenth-century empires’ responses to non-European indigenous peoples, or among the various peoples Britons encountered—personally or vicariously—through the labor and representation of empire. To say that such work still needs to be done is not to say that The Transatlantic Indian should have done it. Rather, the very boundaries of this book’s analyses make visible the kinds of comparative projects that now can and should be undertaken, building on the foundations of these prior transatlantic studies.

 

© Symbiosis, 2012