Many scholarly books have short life-spans, appealing to critics for a brief burst of time before their arguments start to feel dated. Only a few unusual books remain invaluable resources. So it has been with Kate Flint’s The Woman Reader (1993), which continues to be read and cited with a frequency that shows no sign of abating. And so it will surely be with her new book, The Transatlantic Indian. In part Flint claims lasting power through her scrupulous and wide-ranging research, which brings together an astonishingly rich storehouse of materials for the use of future scholars. The Transatlantic Indian points us to surprising, intriguing, and little-known nineteenth-century materials on almost every page. But Flint’s work also endures because it does not merely contribute to existing fields—it launches whole new lines of inquiry. The Woman Reader was one of the first major works to inaugurate the history of reading, while The Transatlantic Indian introduces to Victorian studies a fascinating set of conceptual problems and a productive archive for scholarship on race, transnationalism, and modernity. What we have here is the opening of a new scholarly terrain that Flint, in a provocative echo of Paul Gilroy’s celebrated work, calls the “Red Atlantic.”
While there has been a great deal of attention in American studies to the figure of the American Indian in constructions of the United States and American identity, it is startling to read about the frequency, the fascination, and the sheer contradictoriness of real and imagined Indians as they circulated through mid-nineteenth-century Britain. Flint’s book will be especially helpful for Victorian scholars. Until now, there has been nothing like Tim Fulford’s Romantic Indians: Native Americans, British Literature, and Transatlantic Culture 1756-1830 (2006) for the period after 1830. Now Flint prepares us to confront an array of complex Victorian instances: British views towards US westward territorial expansion, for example, which prompts sympathy and nostalgia for the “dying Indian,” on the one hand, and disturbing reflections on Britain’s own imperial conquests on the other. Or consider Flint’s analysis of those Indians who traveled to Britain as Protestant missionaries: they took part in transnational religious and humanitarian networks that included antislavery and temperance societies; they acted as curiosities for inquisitive British onlookers; they interpreted Indian values, beliefs, and customs in sympathetic ways; and they functioned as agents of a European modernity, boasting successful campaigns to impose new educational, technological, and ideological norms on Indian communities.
The Transatlantic Indian largely focuses on the meanings of the American Indian for ideas of Britain and Britishness in the nineteenth century, and Flint’s attention to the transatlantic Indian throws an important light on British national self-consciousness. But it also reflects on the myriad ways that American Indians took part in the circulation, transmission, and critique of national and indigenous identities across the globalizing nineteenth century. The book teems with examples of surprising individual lives: Pauline Johnson, half Mohawk and half English, who wrote and performed complex, liminal identities at the fin de siècle, alternately wearing buckskin dress adorned with symbols of native tribes and European evening gowns; Black Elk, a Lakota Sioux Indian who deliberately joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show to earn money to bring home and to come to know white people’s customs and institutions; and Nahnebahwequay, or Catherine Sutton, a Credit Indian who petitioned Queen Victoria for the restoration of her land in Canada. Flint juxtaposes the impressions of both the Queen and Nahnebahwequay, each of whom recorded the encounter in her own remarkable way.
The Transatlantic Indian is not driven by a single focused argument—though it makes many fascinating points along the way—and it sometimes reads more like a richly descriptive, highly readable sequence of resources than a synthetic analysis. The chapter on American identity, for example, explores two suggestive cases: the Crystal Palace Exhibition and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Hiawatha,” enormously popular in Victorian Britain. These share a time frame and some conceptual questions about national identity and the Indian’s relationship to the past, but they are not related directly; both, however, raise questions about gender, power, and national identity which arise in other chapters. Yet, Flint is deliberate about refusing to impose a simple, clear order on her materials; for her, the “Red Atlantic” is precisely not a single formation (like Gilroy’s “Black Atlantic” in his landmark 1993 study), governed by a clear and coherent ideology. It is a composite terrain, crisscrossed by multiple forces. From English fears of Indian savagery to a Mississauga’s feelings toward Queen Victoria, and from boys’ adventure stories to women’s erotic desire, The Transatlantic Indian traces complex and overlapping pressures and aspirations.
The book follows a rough chronological arc. It begins with images of the Indian in Romantic culture, and includes readings of Wordsworth, Southey, Hemans, Burke, the painter Joseph Wright, Charlotte Lennox, and Fanny Kemble, among others. It then treats the intriguing figure of George Catlin, who brought Indian artifacts and later actual Indians to Britain for shows in the 1840s. Subsequent chapters deal with specific Victorian themes: women writers, the idea of Americanness, popular fiction, gender, missionaries and Buffalo Bill. Flint ends with a discussion of frontiers in the late nineteenth century, and British modernist responses to the American Indian.
It will come as no surprise to Flint’s readers that the book offers numerous examples of visual culture—engravings, cartoons, paintings, photographs, and sculpture. What is more unexpected—though no less rewarding—is Flint’s attention to poetry, which is treated with unusual frequency and seriousness. Indeed, there is a wonderful generic breadth here, as The Transatlantic Indian offers readings of fiction both canonical and uncanonical, memoir, biography, stage performances, journalism, and travel and ethnographic writing. Moving easily among sources, including the famous novels of James Fenimore Cooper, the ambivalent reflections of Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell’s little known story, “Lois the Witch,” and impressions of England written by Ojibwa George Copway (Kah-ge-ga-gah-Bowh), this book fills its pages with references that scholars will be pursuing for years to come.
Caroline Levine is Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the author of two books: The Serious Pleasures of Suspense: Victorian Realism and Narrative Doubt (Virginia, 2003), winner of the Perkins Prize for the best book in narrative studies; and Provoking Democracy: Why We Need the Arts (Blackwell 2007). She has become the nineteenth-century editor of the Norton Anthology of World Literature, and she is working on a new book on form.