Reflections on Hope Leslie

The Hopelessness of American Indians in Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie

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Attack on the Fletcher family as Magawisca supplicates her father

In her historical fiction novel Hope Leslie, Catharine Maria Sedgwick depicts the interactions and relationships between a small group of American Indians and the settlers of New England and Boston. The story focuses primarily on the actions of and the interactions between Everell Fletcher, Magawisca, and Hope Leslie. Magawisca, an American Indian woman whose loyalties are split between the Fletcher family and her tribe,  is perhaps the most important character of the three and Sedgwick’s treatment of her is revealing of how the “Indian Problem” troubled many white Americans. Unlike many writers of that time, Sedgwick gave a great amount of agency to her female characters and portrayed American Indians in a considerably favorable light. However, it is important to understand that Sedgwick’s novel follows the tradition of writing about what Laura L. Mielke refers to as “moving encounters” between American Indians and American settlers and is therefore not as innocent or straightforward as it appears to be. Moreover, although the novel is set in the 1630s, it was published in 1827 – only three years before the Indian Removal Act was passed and in the midst of pro-removal legislation – and can therefore be analyzed as expressing a position in the matter of the forced removal of American Indians.

samosetpilgrimsMielke defines moving encounters as being “scenes in which representatives of the two ‘races’, face-to-face in a setting claimed by both, [participate] in a highly emotional exchange that indicated their hearts had more in common than their external appearances or political allegiances suggested” (2). In the literature surrounding the time period of the removal of American Indians, there were many instances of moving encounters between Indians and white settlers. These encounters often relied on the stereotype of the “noble savage”, a harmful view that made Indians into “Others” through highly idealized roles. Also, at the heart of these encounters was the “doomed Indian myth”, or the belief in the inevitability of American Indian extinction, and any sympathy depicted for them was “framed by death and departure” (6). In essence, moving encounters had less to do with the welfare of American Indians, and more to do with the white American effort to legitimize their removal without appearing morally indecent (10).The influence of the moving encounters tradition is most pronounced in the depiction of Magawisca, the daughter of a Pequod chief. The first portrait given of her constructs her as a noble savage, possessing both the “wildness and fantastic grace” of the Indians while appearing “beautiful even to an European eye” due to her “expression of dignity, thoughtfulness, and deep dejection” (Sedgwick 23).

indian_maiden In spite of the micro-aggressive sentiments expressed, Magawisca is portrayed as an equal and even a possible romantic partner to Everell Fletcher, the son of a prominent Puritan settler. However, her promising relationship with Everell in the first half of the book is severed at her expense when she interferes in his execution and loses her arm in exchange for his life. The removal of Magawisca’s arm is presented as a symbolic castration, as her cut arm is described as a “lopped quivering member” (97). This castration serves to not only sever from Magawisca her sexuality, but also to “disable [her] reproductive future” (Samuels 63). Indeed, up till that point the prospect of a romantic union between her and Everell existed, but soon after her loss of limb, Magawisca is made asexual in Everell’s eyes: “He threw his arms around her and pressed her to his heart, as he would a sister…” (Sedgwick 97). Significantly, her “barren” future is not limited to her, but rather a metaphor for the barren future of American Indians.

The shift in Everell and Magawisca’s relationship strengthens Mrs. Fletcher’s earlier statement in a letter to her husband which was based on the assumption that a romantic relationship between them would be doomed to fail (33).

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“Two young plants that have sprung up in close neighbourhood, may be separated while young; but if disjoined after their fibres are all intertwined, one, or perchance both, may perish” -Mrs. Flectcher (33)

This sentiment is later echoed by Digby, the Fletcher family guard, when he dehumanizes Magawisca by referring to her as “tawny Indian” and Everell’s response that “nature had put barriers between us” (224). Then, having expressed the unnaturalness and doomed nature of a relationship between an American Indian and a white settler, Digby assumes that Magawisca would have inevitably been “[eclipsed] by Miss Leslie’s coming between you and her”, therefore asserting the naturalness of a relationship between a white woman and white man by opposing it to the abnormality of an Indian/ white relationship (224). This belief is proven not only by Everell and Magawisca, but also by Magawisca’s brother, Oneco, and his wife, Faith – the younger sister of Hope Leslie. The fact that their marriage yields no children is indicative of the disabling of reproduction and of survival that their interracial marriage is supposedly responsible for (Samuels 63).

If the first volume of Hope Leslie functions to remove Magawisca from the spot of “heroine”, the second volume works towards legitimizing Hope’s role as the rightful love interest of Everell and as the heroine of the novel. This replacement, however, is troubling because of its metaphorical significance as a justification for American Indian removal. Sedgwick not only has white characters oppose Indian/white relations, but she also has Magawisca – a representative of the American Indian population – renounce the possibility of coexistence: “Take my own word, I am your enemy; the sun-beam and the shadow cannot mingle. The white man cometh – the Indian vanisheth” (309). During her final appearance in the novel, Magawisca restates the impossibility of peaceful cohabitation by telling Everell, “…the Indian and the white man can no more mingle, and become one, than day and night” (349). She then proceeds to bless the union between Everell and Hope before “disappearing for ever from their sight” (354) – a scene which can be interpreted as the eerie acceptance of the doomed Indian fate by Indians for the prosperity of white settlers. Moreover, in the last chapter of the novel the narrator subtly mentions that the course of history would have gone differently had the quarreling tribes of American Indians been able to cooperate and “combine against the common enemy” (362), thus ending the novel with what Lora Romero has called “”the historical sleight-of-hand crucial to the topos of the doomed aboriginal: it represents the disappearance of the native as not just natural but as having already happened” (385).

Although Sedgwick provided a favorable depiction of Magawisca, the fact that she ultimately removes and replaces her with her white counterpart, Hope Leslie, cannot be overlooked or its importance understated. Having been published in the midst of the movement towards Indian removal, it seems likely that Hope Leslie does what much of the literature at that time did: it attempted to naturalize Indian removal while asserting its inevitability and deploring it (Fetterly 509). Doing so would not only have cleared the American conscience of responsibility or guilt towards American Indians, but it would also have portrayed the removal as unavoidable and, therefore, justified.


References:

Fetterley, Judith. “”My Sister! My Sister!”: The Rhetoric of Catharine Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie.” American Literature 70.3 (1998): 509.

Lora Romero, “Vanishing Americans: Gender, Empire, and New Histori- cism, ” American Literature 63 (September 1991): 385

Samuels, Shirley. “Women, Blood, and Contract.” American Literary History 20.1/2 (2008): 63.

Sedgwick, Catharine Maria. Hope Leslie Or, Early Times in the Massachusetts. Reprint ed. N.p.: Penguin Classics, 1998. Print.

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