Researcher’s Book: Nationalist Literature Wrote Over Native People in 19th-Century Americas

By Tom McLaughlin

Nationalism, says Jillian Sayre, relies on the stories we tell ourselves about the spaces we occupy.

In creating emotive ties – allegiance, love, fidelity – to these spaces, explains the assistant professor of English at Rutgers University–Camden, these stories often omit the violence of how we came to occupy them, and try to silence the voices that view these stories and spaces in a different light.

“I hope to illustrate how such ‘nationalist’ stories work, but also how we might position ourselves more ethically to hear, see, and feel the other stories that we’ve been ignoring,” says the Haddon Township resident.

In her illuminating new book, Mourning the Nation to Come: Creole Nativism in Nineteenth-Century American Literatures (LSU Press), Sayre shows how newly independent countries in North and South America imagined themselves as nations, rewriting colonial identifications as nativist ties which connected European Americans to the land and its history.

In order to do this, she argues, European Americans used a discourse of mourning – a genre known as Indianist romance – to both claim antique ties to the land that they defined as the nation and eliminate contesting claims of a nativist inheritance by writing over Native peoples.

“That is, they created a body of writing – poetry, fiction, even religious texts – that insisted on Native disappearance as part of a foreclosed past,” she says. “It attached the reader to those figures of the past by a sense of shared loss, a lament that refused a Native present – and so Native presence – and positioned the Creole reader – those of European and Indigenous descent – as the inheritor of an indigenous claim to place.”

According to Sayre, Indianist romance takes Indigenous people as some of its central figures, usually during the period of conquest or colonization, but not in a realistic fashion. Rather, it uses romantic tropes of pursuit, seduction, and death in order to make them “pathetic engines that gather the emotions of the readers – the sighs and tears – in such a way that it creates a sentimental attachment.”

Jillian Sayre

“This attachment does not create an identification between Creole reader and Indigenous figure – the reader cannot be the Native because the Native is dead – but it does separate out the Creole reader from those who have caused such a death – the English, the Spanish, the Portuguese,” says Sayre.

The Rutgers University–Camden researcher posits that such stories go hand-in-hand with New World nationalism, a nativist history that refuses to acknowledge Native history. Independence in the New World, she explains, emerges within an interesting bind for the work of identification required by nationalism: those who would claim these national identities were themselves directly connected to or descended from those who colonized this place.

“Nationalism has to disavow this legacy and proclaim another in its place,” she says. “What I locate in the book as New World nationalism is the particular form this takes in North and South America – Creole patriots not simply ‘playing Indian’ in order to dump tea in Boston harbor, but creating significant sentimental attachments to Indigenous history by mourning what they insist is the disappearance of Native people.”

In Mourning the Nation to Come, Sayre describes this phenomenon as a form of what political theorist Achille Mbembe calls “necropolitics,” one that “gives death” as the foundation of community by creating a shared loss around which the nation gathers in commemoration.

Sayre recalls first noticing how this phenomenon transcended cultural barriers and regions when she began to make connections between her early research on “indianismo” in Spanish-American fiction, Brazilian romanticism, and the Vanishing American trope in American fiction.

“While they weren’t happening at the same time chronologically, they were happening in very similar cultural situations in terms of the development of nationalism in the areas,” she says.

She thus started to consider how this shared sentimental treatment of Indigenous people was really a form of violence, an affective work of settler colonialism that, ironically, appeared as complaints against the violence of colonization – and so imagined independence movements as an extension of an original Indigenous resistance to colonization.

“With this book, I wanted to draw out the ways in which identification itself – nationalism as a form of identification – functions as a kind of violence,” Sayre says, “and nationalism, even those forwarded in the affectionate discourse of commemoration and mourning, rely on this consuming, appropriative force.”

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