Riding Waves of Dissent: Counter-Imperial Impulses in the Age of Fuller and Melville



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This dissertation examines the interplay between antebellum frontier literature and the counter-imperial impulses that impelled the era's political, cultural, and literary developments. Focusing on selected works by James Fenimore Cooper, Margaret Fuller, Francis Parkman, and Herman Melville, I use historicist methods to reveal how these authors drew upon and contributed to a strong and widespread, though ultimately unsuccessful, resistance to the discourse of Manifest Destiny that now identifies the age. For all their important differences, each of the frontier writings I examine reflects the presence of a culturally-pervasive anxiety over issues such as environmental depletion, slavery, Indian removal, and expansion's impact on the character of a nation ostensibly founded on republican, anti-imperialist principles. Moreover, the later works reflect an intensification of such anxiety as the United States entered into war with Mexico and the slavery debate came to increasingly dominate the political scene. Chapter I emphasizes the ideological contestations bred by the antebellum United States' westward march, and signals a departure from recent critical tendencies to omit those contestations in order to portray a more stable narrative of American imperialism. The chapter concludes by arguing that Cooper established an initial narrative formulation that sought to suppress counter-imperial impulses within a mainline triumphalist vision. Chapter II examines Fuller's first published book, Summer on the Lakes, in 1843, in the context of hotbutton controversies over expansion that informed the 1844 presidential contest; employing the metaphor of the dance as her governing trope for engaging unfamiliar landscapes, peoples, and even modes of community, Fuller placed persistently marginalized counter-imperial impulses at the center of her western travelogue. Chapter III discusses Parkman's sub-textual engagement with controversies surrounding the Mexican War; though thoroughly invested in conquest ideologies, Oregon Trail nevertheless resonates with the war's most popular negative associations. Chapter IV explores Melville's attunement to national ambivalences towards rhetorics of Manifest Destiny from the late 1840s through the early 1850s. During this stage of his career, Melville both payed tribute to the Anglo-American triumphalism freighting the antebellum era, and enacted a powerful articulation of the era's counter-imperial impulse.