Tim Fulford

Romantic Indians: Native Americans, British Literature, and Transatlantic Culture 1756-1830

Tim Fulford, Romantic Indians: Native Americans, British Literature, and Transatlantic Culture 1756-1830. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 336pp. ISBN: 978-0199273379 (hardback). £62 (UK), $125 (USA).

Reviewed by Lawrence Buell, Harvard University (online, October 2008)

This book provides precisely what its title promises: a critical historicist appraisal, in some ways more complex than any scholar has rendered before, of the transatlantic construction of ‘romantic Indian’ figures, shown here as arising from the contingencies of and interactions among Native American and British peoples—as well as the emerging settler culture literatures of British America.

The three main sections of Romantic Indians respectively concentrate on the impact of late eighteenth-century narratives by soldiers, traders, and other travelers who reported back and reflected upon their experiences (often sensationalized) in the contact zone; on the payoff for selected British romantic writers at the level of their stylistic practices and their visions of civilizational destiny; and on accounts of a handful of celebrity Native American writer-activists (whether themselves actually native, adopted, or bogus) who sought to educate and move transatlantic audiences on behalf of their communities in a context of increasing embattlement as their erstwhile British allies withdrew from the scene and North American Euro-settlers in both the United States and Canada turned from protestations of peaceful coexistence to strategies of forced displacement and/or subjugation of the indigenous populace. On the whole, Romantic Indians succeeds admirably well in unpacking the intricacies of this depressing scene (of cross-cultural miscommunication, on-the-ground realities simplified into polarizing distortions to serve the European cultural imaginary, reform initiatives entailing sometimes heroically purposeful effort derailed by personal self-interest, jealous mendacity, and realpolitik) without getting short-circuited by judgmental moralizing—and in assessing at some length how episodes of Euro-Indian contact and Native history and cultural forms helped give shape to British Romantic literary texts in various genres, especially poetry.

Because Fulford relies to a great extent, especially in Parts One and Three, on organizing his materials in the form of encapsulated portraits of individual persons and texts, often relying heavily on the work of previous scholars (e.g. Barry O’Connell on the Native American writer William Apess and Richard Drinnon on the Anglo-American Native impersonator John Dunn Hunter), Romantic Indians does not stand out as a breakthrough book about white-Native relations on the order of, say, ethno-environmental historian Richard White’s The Middle Ground, Alan Bewell’s Romanticism and Colonial Disease, or Philip DeLoria’s Playing Indian. Fulford’s revisionary interpretations of familiar texts are also sometimes thin and unconvincing, as for example, his rereading of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ as shaped by reported Native American practices of shamanistic curses and spells. The chief virtues of Romantic Indians lie rather in its foregrounding of out-of-the-way exempla likely to fall outside the ken of those specializing principally in one or another national archive; and in the synthetic overview it thereby manages to present of the complex layers of mediation and multiple transatlantic feedback loops that the book demonstrates, with intermittent but ultimately decisive success, co-conspired to produce the era’s versions of romantic Native character and culture.

To develop the second and more far-reachingly significant point first: Romantic Indians bears out this journal’s founding premise: that British-American literary and cultural discourse must be understood as a transcontinental co-construction. Particularly helpful at this meta-level for an Americanist like me is Fulford’s insight that ‘white American authors’ Indians were the end result of a cumulative cycle of literary import/export in which ancient Celts and contemporary Native Americans were imaged in terms of each other over and over again’ (196). Every Americanist knows that James Fenimore Cooper drew heavily on Walter Scott, but not very many of us have realized that Scott’s own Lowlander visions of North British cultural others were inflected by accounts of American Natives. To be sure, multitudinous pertinent small-bore ‘source studies’ of this kind exist, and Fulford’s cultural transatlanticism is increasingly fashionable; but no previous study on this subject known to me has such panoramic scope.

Fulford is at his best, however, when dealing with individual cases, particularly with texts and figures scantly explored. Amongst the exegesis of texts and genres that comprises the book’s central section, I particularly recommend the chapter on ‘The Indian Song’ (focusing especially on circulation of the death chants as reported by amazed and traumatized Anglo-witnesses) and Fulford’s discussions (Chapters Seven and Eleven) of the wish-fulfilling ideological fantasies and bibliographic underpinnings of Robert Southey’s Indian-Welsh imitation-epic Madoc and Thomas Campbell’s tragic-sentimental Whiggish narrative Gertrude of Wyoming, based upon the devastation of a wrongly-reported-to-be-idyllic settlement of upcountry Pennsylvania during the American Revolution by the British and their Indian allies—a poem for obvious reasons hugely popular in the early national United States. Amongst the portraits in Parts One (‘Factual Writing’) and Three (‘Native American Writing’) of men of action who also became writers and attracted some degree of notice in either or both capacities, I was especially instructed by Fulford’s accounts of the eighteenth-century travelers Jonathan Carver, Samuel Hearne, and James Adair, including the publishing histories of their work as well as the context of their careers; and of the charismatic Edinburgh-educated, perhaps part-Cherokee Mohawk adoptee, chief, emissary, and autobiographer John Norton/Teyoninhokawarawen (1760-c.1831), whom Fulford persuasively characterizes as ‘an embodiment of a ‘red’ Atlantic’ that flourished as the black Atlantic was being brought into existence’ (6).

Altogether, the eighteen chapters of Romantic Indians are free-standing enough, and the book’s overarching perspective is sufficiently clear from each vantage point as to permit one either to take in the whole as a continuous narrative or to pick and choose from the various chapters/exempla. The book’s only significant lacuna with regard to coverage is that it focuses on the elder British romantics (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, Scott, Campbell) to the virtual exclusion of the next generation(s) except for Felicia Hemans.

Romantic Indians nonetheless provides an accessible, absorbing literary-cultural history, unprecedentedly broad in scope, of the latter phases of the ‘red’ transatlantic heyday. As such it both demonstrates anew, if further demonstration be needed, the ironic correlation between Euro-romanticization of Native Americans and the actual devastation of Native culture(s) by Euro-settlement. In making this point, and leaving the reader with little more on the Native American side than a declensionist narrative leading to the spectacle of culture in ruins, the book also—contrary to its obvious intent—ironically risks generating its own version of the romanticist death-of-native-culture myth. But it is hard to fault the author for this; after all, the story of the intervening century and a half has been a story of increasing embattlement of first peoples worldwide.    


© Symbiosis, 2008