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The Specter of Oppression and National Identity in Hobomok

Alex McDonnell


Lydia Maria Child’s Hobomok (1824) advances a national model predicated on tolerance and inclusivity. The novel suggests that the oppressive strictures of Puritanism derive from the psychical trauma of banishment from England. This compels the protagonist Mary to rebel against Salem’s social codes by marrying Hobomok. Her elopement and later return as an accepted member of the community are implicated in Child’s national vision of tolerance. However, the novel’s resolution is ethno-centric as Hobomok chooses self-imposed exile while his son with Mary loses his racial identity. Exploring Child’s narrative through a postcolonial psychoanalytic lens reveals how her narrative reflects upon American identity formation which draws upon yet disavows the Native figure in nineteenth-century literature. Significantly, Child’s novel anticipates a space for Native American subjectivity, which conflicts with her national vision and casts doubt on the legitimacy of the American State.

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1. Introduction

1Lydia Maria Child’s Hobomok (1824) achieved popular acclaim following publication, as evidenced by her contemporary, John Greenleaf Whittier’s contention that she had “placed herself in the front rank of American authorship,” during a period when novel writing was at best a precarious profession (164). However, Hobomok was also a divisive novel for its nineteenth-century American audience, given its provocative premise of interracial marriage. In an 1824 review for The North American Review, one of America’s foremost literary authorities, one critic states:

A high born and delicate female, on the supposed death of her lover, has, in a fit of insane despondency, offered herself as the wife of an Indian chief…. She lives with him three years, and an infant semisavage is the offspring of the union…. Now this is a train of events not only unnatural, but revolting, we conceive, to every feeling of delicacy in man or woman. (263)

2Despite its popularity, critical reactions permitting, Hobomok was eventually overlooked within the nineteenth-century American national canon. This may be partly attributable to Child’s An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans, which alienated the American reading public. Jane Duran notes that Child’s Appeal was radical, if not threatening, to the ingrained attitudes of her time and that readers preferred the fictional world of Hobomok where such ideas were contained (271). In The First Women of the Republic (1994), Carolyn Karcher writes extensively on how Child confronted the racist attitudes of nineteenth-century America and sacrificed her career in doing so. She argues that in contrast to writers such as Cooper, Eastburn and Sands, women authors in the 1820s imagined alternatives to race war, genocide and white male supremacy as solutions to the contradictions of their society (xxii). While Child wrote nationalist fiction with Hobomok there is a tension between this and her criticisms of the nation which we later find in the Appeal. What then can we learn from this historical romance novel which seeks to foment a sense of American national identity while casting doubt on the legitimacy of that project? This article approaches Child’s novel from a postcolonial psychoanalytic perspective to explore how its use of a Native American presence both underscores and complicates its ideal of the nation. Furthermore, the interrelations between Puritanism, exility and gender will be delineated in the context of Child’s national vision and its racial politics.

2. Hobomok’s Literary Influences and Historical Context

3Hobomok is set in 1620 and concerns the story of Mary Conant, who lives in the Puritan settlement of Naumkeak/Salem. She looks after her ailing mother and is in love with Charles Brown, an Episcopalian who invites the disapproval of her Puritan father, Mr Conant due to his religious convictions. At the beginning of the novel Mary performs a magic ritual to determine her future husband. Hobomok, an Indigenous ally of the settlement, steps into the “magic” circle that establishes the theme of their predestined marriage. Charles is eventually exiled from Naumkeak/Salem as a consequence of his beliefs. Mrs Conant subsequently dies and Mary is informed that Charles has been lost at sea. Unable to cope with these twin calamities and the stern autocratic rule of her father, she is driven to marry Hobomok, thereby fulfilling the prophecy of the ritual. They elope and Mary adopts the role of his wife. Charles later reappears and reveals to Hobomok that he has been shipwrecked and imprisoned in Africa. Hobomok voluntarily decides to annul his marriage with Mary and ventures westward. The novel concludes with Mary’s marriage to Charles and a new set of conditions within the settlement that promote religious tolerance.

  • 1 Conversely, Philip Gould contests the readings of critics such as Karcher who asserts that Hobomok (...)

4It is arguable that Hobomok reimagines American history, advancing a vision of the nation that unites women and indigenous people as socially oppressed classes under the patriarchal system of Puritanism, which Child links to the persecution of its adherents in England.1 Mary’s decision to marry Hobomok ends the cycle of intolerance that inheres in her Puritan community and leads to the fulfillment of Child’s inclusive national vision. For example, Barbara Buchenau contends that writers such as Child and Catherine Maria Sedgwick focused on America’s distant historical past with an emphasis on particular values and achievements in order to convey what they considered to be the foundational aspects of American identity (n.p.). In addition, Susan Opfermann argues that Child’s work belongs to the historical romance genre as it contributes to the narrative of American “greatness” and its potential for future progress (32). This is reinforced when we consider that the preface references literary works including Scott’s Waverley (1814) and Cooper’s historical novels, namely The Spy (1821), The Pioneers (1823) and The Pilot (1823). Child also notes John Gorham Palfrey’s influence and states that the “American ground is occupied” by Cooper’s novels while “Scott wanders over every land with the same proud, elastic tread” (3). Child’s reference to “occupied ground” is significant as the frontier romance is concerned with this theme. In view of these readings, Child draws upon the Puritan past to construct a mythic setting which she utilises to substantiate her national ideal. She also traces historical development as a movement towards tolerance and inclusivity, which contrasts with Cooper and Scott who as Buchenau notes, adopted stadialism to detail historical progress (n.p.).

5Mary’s cross-cultural marriage symbolizes a fusion of the Native with the European that represents a unique American identity predicated on inclusivity and tolerance, albeit one requiring the assimilation of the Native American figure into the American body politic. For example, Nancy E. Sweet argues that Hobomok’s self-imposed exile reflects Child’s inability to allow a Native American presence in the white society that is reconstituted at the end (121). Echoing these observations, Susan Scheckel highlights that mourning in the form of the vanishing Indian narrative was a popular means of expressing guilt and alleviating anxiety during the first half of the nineteenth century, with The Last of the Mohicans (1826) being one of the most popular works in this vein (33). Moreover, Debra K. Rosenthal states that the novel reflects a superficial understanding of Native American culture, arguing that its use of miscegenation as a fantasy of liberation culminates in the erasure of a Native American presence from the text (31). Philip J. Gould attributes Hobomok’s removal to the theme of female reason and its disruption, which he assigns to Child’s conception of republican femininity (129). Mary’s decision to marry Hobomok represents a breakdown of rationality precipitated by the patriarchal restrictions of her community and father. For Gould, the novel conveys the idea that the dissolution of the female psyche collapses the boundaries of a pure republic (130). Therefore, the assimilationist ending can be attributed to the restoration of Mary’s sense and a reconstituted nationalist vision that excludes misogynistic societal relations. Considering historical reception, Gould also notes how one reviewer describes Mary’s decision as a “fit of insane despondency” while another asserts that her marriage to Hobomok represents “temporary alienation of mind” (129).

  • 2 The way in which Hobomok evokes a Native American epistemology also has points of comparison with N (...)

6I argue that an external Native American autonomous space is evoked in the novel, which calls into question its assimilationist resolution.2 The Native American figure, while an integral part to Child’s national vision, suggests the spectre of an alternate history which conflicts with a mythic American past. These elements are repressed as Child’s racial politics offset her message of equality. This is supported by Domhnall Mitchell’s contention that the novel draws on a seventeenth-century context to justify the Federal policy of removal in the nineteenth, citing as an example, Mary’s dream in which the Great Spirit foretells of Hobomok’s exile (133). Similarly, Ezra F. Tawil states that although writers such as Child and Sedgwick focus on how courtships develop in the context of Anglo-Indian relations and are more sympathetic towards Indians and the principle of cultural diversity, they reinforce race as fundamental property for the channeling of Anglo-Saxon nationalism. Furthermore, Karcher argues that the ending constitutes a betrayal of the alliance that has been constructed throughout Hobomok between women and natives as a response to patriarchal authoritarianism (xxxii). Hobomok is therefore written out of the text so that Mary’s former lover, Charles, can be reunited with her. Although he may be the nation’s figurative father, Hobomok sacrifices himself to legitimize its establishment. His son, Charles Hobomok, also loses all traces of his Native American identity.

7The narrative of Hobomok is beset with a paradox in exploring yet whitewashing a Native American presence, thereby raising issues of territorial expansion for the nineteenth-century American national psyche. This would seem especially relevant considering the novel evinces a colonialist conception of Native Americans. For example, Lucy Maddox contends that Child infantilizes Native Americans in that though they may be instrumental in defining a new American identity, they must voluntarily vanish for the benefit of the emergent American state (101). With respect to Mary’s marriage to Hobomok, Cathy Rex notes how the “flow of desire only moves in one direction—towards the colonizer” (157). Child avoids granting Hobomok too much authority as a representative of the “New World indigene” as to do otherwise would establish his Indianness as the authoritative New World identity, which would undermine Child’s domestic, civilizing model for the nation.

8What then makes Hobomok unique if it relies on ethnocentric conventions? For example, Opfermann provides an analysis of intercultural relations between Natives and Euro-Americans in Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie (1827) that would seem to place the novel on a par with Hobomok (41-42). However, this does not diminish the literary significance of Child’s text in its allusion to the perspective of a Native American space regarding the question of national expansion and the American state itself. Hobomok represses historical memories associated with the expropriation of Native Americans which haunt American nationalism. Conversely, by invoking an Indian perspective, her work simultaneously threatens to resurrect these memories relating to genocidal, territorial expansion and domestic colonialism which would be difficult for the American ego-ideal to assimilate. Though Hobomok may be paralleled by novels such as Hope Leslie, its engagement with the political, historical and psychical dimensions of the nineteenth-century American psyche along with its sustained national focus make it worthy of further study.

  • 3 In Traces of History (2016) Patrick Wolfe’s characterises the U.S. as a “settler democracy.” As he (...)

9Although critics such as Paula Kot and Renée K. Bergland have interpreted Child’s novel with reference to psychoanalytic theory, there has not been an engagement with the text through an approach combining both psychoanalysis and postcolonial theory. As stated, Child’s inclusive model of nation building utilizes yet disavows the Native American, reflecting a broader national tension between Native American assimilation and removal. However, such a seemingly dichotomous position can be more effectively understood through postcolonial and psychoanalytic concepts discussed by Ranjana Khanna in Dark Continents (2003). Khanna focuses on non-European nation states that emerged from colonial rule in the twentieth century, yet it is possible to repurpose certain aspects of her arguments in the context of the development of American identity under the specter of English colonialism.3 Reinterpreting existing arguments through a postcolonial psychoanalytic frame on the novel’s use of spectrality, and the interactions between its principle characters, reveals how it implies a sovereign Native American space, which challenges the legitimacy of the State.

10Khanna argues that national melancholia originates from an historical event or memory which challenges the State’s preferred narrative of national self. This creates a melancholic critical agency whereby the narrative will attempt to repress or erase the memory which ironically points to its continued presence. In light of this, it could be contended that particular postcolonial psychoanalytic ideas concerning patterns of repression, assimilation and melancholia highlight nuances that would otherwise be overlooked relating to Child’s conflicted vision of national identity. In Hobomok negotiations with race and American identity are multifaceted and cannot be simplified as wholly progressive or racially reductionist.

11In view of these considerations, I will detail Child’s negotiation with Puritan patriarchy regarding its melancholic factors and how it initiates and influences the development of her vision of American nationalism. I will also explore how Mary’s marriage to Hobomok conveys Child’s inclusive national model and how it is influenced by Euro-American frontier narratives which draw upon and repress Native American Others. This incorporation and disavowal of the Native American figure introduces further melancholic effects concerning state legitimacy and the partial loss of the novel’s national ideal. The novel is haunted by historically mediated perceptions, which reflect an authoritative nationalism that limits the potential of its inclusive vision of American identity.

3. National Haunting

12This section details postcolonial psychoanalytic concepts such as melancholia and historical memory in terms of national identity formation, spectrality and repression. These key ideas will be explored in relation to historical memory concerning the influence of Puritanism and exile upon the novel’s conceptualization of American identity. Child’s narrative projects a white Americanized ideal of the Native American, which reflects a broader impetus to utilize Native figures as part of national identity formation. The idea of latent melancholic critical agency, emerging from a conflict between the national ideal and the repression of historical memories that compromise it, is a significant theme concerning Hobomok.

13According to Khanna national affiliation entails specific forms of haunting, narrative, sites of memory and psychical affect. These forms arguably manifest in signifiers for repression including ideological rationalizations of history and literary tropes, which contain yet conjure a repressed awareness of specific past events. Khanna also adopts Freud’s terms, melancholy and melancholia, demonstrating how they can be used to critique colonialism and its effects. Melancholia constitutes a refusal to mourn, with the incorporation of an inassimilable object. The ego is unable to recognize that which is lost and swallows it whole. In Khanna’s framework, this causes it to split, generating critical agency which leads to the critique of palliatives, alibis and gestures.

14For Khanna, melancholia can be characterized in ethico-political terms as a “remainder” which “insists on its own covert symptomatic presence” (“Post Palliative” n.p.). She proposes that melancholia can be interpreted as a failure to assimilate the ego-ideal of a new group. For example, a postcolonial country would have difficulty predicating its emerging national consciousness on an ego-ideal associated with the European nation state, as such an ego-ideal would be historically linked to exclusivist colonial policies. Thus, she states that in Wulf Sachs’s Black Hamlet (1937), melancholia results in a critical relationship towards lost objects and ideals that one attempts to psychically assimilate (Dark Continents, 257). These include the tribe and the ideal of nation statehood respectively. For Khanna, critical nationalism and haunting are attributable to critical agency or a melancholic postcolonial condition.

15Khanna also adapts Freud’s formulation of critical agency, to consider questions of national affiliation and colonial situations (“Post Palliative” n.p.). In her view, critical agency invites us to consider the loss of an ideal. By taking up this invitation it is possible to expose language and concepts embedded within colonial discourses and those of newly formed postcolonial states, which may take a rigid, reductionist approach to national identity. These discourses reinforce national narratives by repressing certain historical memories. Haunting is symptomatic of this repression and can manifest itself in a variety of ways, from recurrent symbolic patterns to aporias or gaps in historical or literary narratives that may indicate the elision of past events which cannot be reconciled with the national ideal.

16In a U.S. context, Cheng suggests that American national idealism has struggled with incorporation and rejection since its inception: “While all nations have their repressed histories and traumatic atrocities, American melancholia is particularly acute because America is founded on the very ideals of freedom and liberty whose betrayals haven been repeatedly covered over” (10). Taking into consideration this argument, it is arguable that historical amnesia continues to bear the trace of that which it represses through the act of forgetting itself. Cheng acknowledges this in her observations on Toni Morrison’s concept of the phantasmal “African American presence” in American literature. She argues that the establishment of racial categories and the assignment of visibility is a melancholic process, as the act of attributing absence to a racial group implies the idea of presence. Therefore, race as a concept in America is predicated on “denial of a remembrance that refuses to be forgotten” (133-134). Paul Gilroy makes similar observations to Cheng in his analysis of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which he argues explores social memory in terms of historical “terrors” that exceed the limits of language to describe them (217-218). Similarly, Sam Durrant in his analysis of Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1952) contends that the denial of the subjectivity of the racial Other causes it to return as a threatening spectral body (16). Although significantly different, we can draw parallels between these interpretations and Hobomok, as it renders the Native American presence invisible, despite appropriating it to fashion an alternative model of American national identity.

17In Child’s work the colonial gaze represses the identity of the Other, which is primarily represented through Hobomok, by projecting an imagined ideal of it. An authentic Native American space is presented though not directly articulated in the novel. Moreover, it is transformed into an extension of American identity. The Native American is represented in the novel as a symbolic element in the American landscape, embodying a society distinct from European cultural legacies. This is indicated in the following description of Hobomok: “Hobomok, whose language was brief, figurative, and poetic, and whose nature was unwarped by the artifices of civilised life, was far preferable to them” (129). Therefore, it is fitting that by marrying him, Mary eventually closes the divide between Mr. Conant and Charles, transforms her Puritan community and lives in the settlement as a dissident.

18Child’s ability to represent the perspective of the Other is also identifiable in her short stories, The Lone Indian (1828) and She Waits in the Spirit Land (1846). In The Lone Indian Powontonamo provides a critical interpretation of the settlement that has been built upon his ancestral land: “The Englishman’s road wound like a serpent around the banks of the Mohawk; and iron hoofs had so beaten down the war-path, that a hawk’s eye could not discover an Indian track” (159-160). In giving voice to an Indian viewpoint, Child calls into question the presumed benefits of civilization by scrutinizing them within an alternate cultural sphere. Similarly, She Waits in the Spirit Land opens with an epigraph that conveys Child’s intention to explore “a brother’s creed, though not like mine” (192).

19However, in Hobomok Child avoids overt expression of this sovereign Native space since it is a vehicle for her national vision, which is reinforced by her adoption of the “vanishing Indian” trope in the conclusion. This dichotomy between alluding to a sovereign Native arena yet evading it is further demonstrated by Corbitant’s speech in the wigwam of Sagamore John, which has a powerful effect on his audience. The sons of the elderly chieftain gaze upon him “till the fire flashed from their young eyes, and their knives were half drawn from the belt” (31). Hobomok admires his rival’s eloquence and pauses as if to validate his perspective on the injustices of the English before re-asserting his allegiance to them. Ultimately, Indians such as Hobomok are depicted as sympathetic characters because of their passivity in the face of civilizational expansion, whereas Corbitant’s resistance relegates him to a background, adversarial role. The colonialist aspect to Child’s representations of Native Americans and the way she uses them to advance her national ideal reflects Khanna argument that the absolute racial Other becomes a template for the projection of subjectivity. Whilst this racial Other can be occasionally perceived with its fragmentation and alienation from the projected image, it is confined to an invisible status.

20This is further evident as Child’s titular character is “whitened” to make him a more engaging character for her white audience. Hobomok is also differentiated from his tribe when Mrs Johnson refers to him as a “clever Indian… that has been of great use to our Plymouth brethren” (98). He may also be considered to parallel Uncas who occupies a similar racial status in Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. For example, Hawkeye states that Uncas is “as impatient as a man in the settlements” (210). By comparing their Indian protagonists to white people, Child and Cooper explore the topic of interracial marriage from a less threatening vantage point. Moreover, Child’s female protagonist in personifying Anglo-America, draws upon Indian culture through marriage to distinguish American nationalism and differentiate the nation from its European predecessors. The Other as a component of American identity is rendered acceptable within the boundaries of the national psyche as it is filtered through this conceit of marriage in which the Indian husband is almost elevated to the status of a white man. However, Child’s incorporation of Indianness into American identity creates an undefined Native American space which calls the nation’s legitimacy into question.

21Child’s use of the domestic historical romance genre in her narrative device of the Puritan manuscript also involves a reflexive communication with the past. In a postcolonial psychoanalytic framework, we may postulate that her novel encompasses historically transmitted cultural dispositions, deriving from former colonial relations between America and England and discourses of national legitimation. The novel also explores the theme of generational trauma to further challenge patriarchal relations within her own literary period.

22In this sense Child’s narrative arguably creates a “useable past.” In his discussion of Van Wyck Brook’s conception of a useable past, Jeffrey K. Olick notes that the past can be viewed in terms of the effects it exerts on a culture in the present. Taken together with the contentions of Cheng on forgetting and invisibility, Olick’s central argument is pertinent as it concerns the persistent resonance of memory in a national context. He contends that in Freudian theory, repression prevents dangerous knowledge from being consciously known. It often holds negative connotations, being associated with the sublimation of instinctual drives and the pathological rationalization of past events which prevent us from working through them. Without working through the past we are inexorably bound to re-enact its repetitions and inherit its fragmented identities (21). According to Richard Bernstein, as cited by Olick, the cross-generational mediation of trauma necessitates preconscious, unconscious and conscious factors. That which is communicated across generations is both explicitly and unconsciously stated (25). Repressed elements in the collective memory are not partitioned from the conscious experiences of a people since they persist in the unconscious as memory traces. In his view, the psychic and the historical are intertwined as cultural history is preconsciously incorporated in the individual (31).

23Hobomok suggests that the qualities of independence and individualism valued by the Puritans derive from their exile to a frontier environment, arising from their assertion of a religious belief system and societal framework which conflicts with the English state. Child traces the most significant aspects of American identity to a Puritan system of patriarchal control, whilst reformulating its ideological conditions as part of her inclusive model of nation-building. In terms of Khanna’s arguments and Olick’s discussion of historical memory, Child’s text may contain implicit historical memories passed down through discourses that structure national affiliation and which simultaneously position England as a cultural forefather and patriarchal oppressor.

24This is suggested in the text when English culture is distinguished from its Salem counterpart, which is characterized as stagnant in its religious rigidity. For Mary, England is a place associated with intellectualism and cultural creativity where she can be her authentic self. Hence, in her mind it is a “fairy place” where she can become “covetous of mental riches” (78). Conversely, Charles is associated with English rule and culture, which makes him an intolerable figure for Mr. Conant and for the Puritan community he represents. A series of charges are brought against Charles which ultimately leads to his exile when he holds an Episcopalian ceremony in a vacant building where the “English ritual” is read and the sacrament is administered by Mr. Blackstone in his “full, canonical robes, according to the ceremonies prescribed by James and his Bishops at the council of Hampton House” (69). The social ties the Puritan settlers have been forced to abandon engender a form of psychical damage, which manifests itself in the reductionist, melancholically inflected narratives of Mary’s community. The oppression faced by a Puritan such as Mr. Conant leads not only to his exile from England but also to his own oppressive treatment of his daughter. This spurs her to marry Hobomok which sets in motion the genesis of a new American national identity.

4. Patriarchy and the Puritan Psyche as Precursors to American Identity

  • 4 In creating a fictional Puritan manuscript, Child relied on several historical sources concerning A (...)

25The Native American figure in Hobomok is appropriated as a symbolic rejection of patriarchal authoritarianism. However, Child’s use of the Native American also reflects upon and inherits the melancholic critical agency that characterized a history of American nationalism, which adopted Indian iconography and customs to distinguish itself. Her goal is not to question the legitimacy of the State but to challenge the repressive aspects of Puritanism and the patriarchal values of her society through her creative interpretation of the past. She characterizes her fictional tale as an actual historical narrative, detailing its construction based upon research into Puritan manuscripts.4 The preface, introduced by an unnamed friend of the main “author” Frederick, establishes this purpose. Karcher points out that Child uses the two principal male narrators, namely the author and his Puritan ancestor, to avoid sanctions against female authorship (xx). The male narrative voices of the narrator and Puritan chronicler yield to Mary’s when the narrative is focalized through her, following her forest ritual at the end of Chapter One. Although she is witnessed from the perspective of the chronicler, he is reduced to a passive bystander and it is from here that a new conception of national identity emerges, when events are set in motion which will alter Mary’s Puritan community.

26Child foregrounds the interpretation of seventeenth-century history from a nineteenth-century perspective, using the frame narrative to revise the history of the nation and by implication, its present. While Child reframes the past to critique the social restrictions of Puritan society, she also highlights some of their positive characteristics which she links to a sense of American identity, as suggested by narrator’s following reflection:

27In this enlightened and liberal age, it is perhaps too fashionable to look back upon those early sufferers in the cause of the Reformation as a band of dark, discontented bigots…. Whatever merit may be attached to the cause of our forefathers, the mighty effort which they made for its support is truly wonderful; and whatever might have been their defects, they certainly possessed excellencies, which peculiarly fitted them for a van-guard in the proud and rapid march of freedom. (6-7)

28Their banishment from England results in a partial loss of the ideal of affiliation to the English state, which establishes the basis for the construction of an alternative national identity. The conditions of their exile are implied to germinate into what will become uniquely American characteristics relating to perseverance and liberty, as suggested by the image of a “rapid march of freedom.”

29Child also links the fundamentalist characteristics of the Puritan ideology to psychical haunting, with respect to relocation and its associated social and familial schisms. If postcolonial states define their identity in contradistinction to their former European masters according to reductionist narratives deriving from critical or melancholic nationalism, then it is arguable that a similar process is at work in the emergence of American national identity. Child articulates the idea of Puritan trauma in the following lines:

They were struck off from a learned, opulent, and powerful nation, under circumstances which goaded them and lacerated them to ferocity;—and it is no wonder that men who fled from oppression in their own country, to all the hardships of a remote and dreary province, should have exhibited a deep mixture of exclusive, bitter, and morose passions. (6)

30If England as the colonial father is cast as an oppressor concerning notions of independence and freedom, then the original trauma of the Puritans arguably contributes to the idea that England is an aggressor to be defeated. Ironically, the Puritan doctrine is oppressive for women like Mary. Child’s novel suggests that the memory of Puritan trauma is passed down through generations as an aspect of American identity thereby making it melancholic at an inherent level. This is indicated when we consider the pretext for the American nation’s establishment in terms of exility as noted by Richard Slotkin, who asserts that the wilderness, its harshness and fecundity, the absence of European cultures and the presence of natives in “untamed” landscapes exerted physical and psychological effects on the colonists.

All emigrants shared the anxious sense that they had been, willingly or unwillingly, exiled from their true homes in the motherlands of Europe…. All felt impelled to maintain the traditions of religious order and social custom in the face of the psychological terrors of the wilderness. Later, the sons of these emigrants strove to justify their title to the land they took for their own. (Slotkin 18)

31The aftermath of the War of Independence, which arguably represented a form of symbolic patricide and the removal of Indians, which contradicted the founding tenets of the Revolution also inform this sense of conflicted national identity.

  • 5 Paula Kot provides an analysis in terms of gender concerning how the Puritans re-enact English oppr (...)

32The melancholic condition of the Puritan psyche is explored through Mr. Conant’s early life in England. “Frustrated in his plans” and “thwarted by his rivals,” Mr. Conant is driven to renounce the religion of his fathers in converting to the Puritan faith (8). By falling in love with a noble lady he invites the displeasure of her father. 5This prompts the couple to elope to America where they endure a life of poverty and struggle. The relocation, also necessitated through flouting the royal authority, leads to his two sons dying from illness and starvation. The novel establishes a link between the trauma he experiences in defying the father of his lover and his actions as a tyrannical paternal figure who forbids Mary to marry the Episcopalian Charles. Mr. Conant is compelled to prevent his daughter from marrying an individual that he associates with experiences which have left bitter imprints upon his psyche. Consequently, he passes the effect of his traumatic experiences to Mary, which exemplifies the idea of generationally mediated trauma. Mr. Conant’s marriage was forbidden by his wife’s father and thus he forbids his daughter to associate with her Episcopalian suitor. However, by repressing the relationship he only strengthens her resolve to pursue it, just as he was determined to elope with his future wife. It is significant that patriarchal repression centers on the idea of the daughter as an object that it is the power of the father to give away. It gives rise to haunting in each case due to its failure to erase the inassimilable object, namely personal or feminine liberty.

33It is in nature and the alternative social framework of Hobomok’s tribe that Child draws upon such inassimilable elements to fashion her vision of American identity and reject patriarchal legacies. The Indian and the wilderness are co-opted into the American ego-ideal to distinguish it from the colonial Other, namely England. However, the American psyche also defines itself in opposition to the racial Other, which is reflected in the distinctions made between Mary and Hobomok: “There, in that little group, standing in the loneliness and solitude of nature, was the contrast of heathen and Christian, social and savage, elegance and strength, fierceness and timidity” (89). Nonetheless, they are described as being almost mutually dependent on each other through the use of these contrasting adjectives.

34Child’s symbolic use of the Native American figure in Hobomok was not without precedent. Philip J. Deloria’s detailing of Tammany Hall societies provides an insight into the role of the Native American figure in Child’s novel. Deloria notes that for the colonist, misrule and carnival were a means to perform a revolutionary identity (14). The carnival forms that the Tammany societies adopted implied revolution and transition to a new American identity, which necessitated the overthrow of the Crown. Significantly, in the late eighteenth century, American colonists in Pennsylvania and New England began to internalize the Native American as part of this formative American identity while externalizing the English as adversaries (22). Advancing on Deloria, it can be argued that the appropriation of Native American cultural elements reflects a conflicted and melancholic nationalism. Although the early American state sought to differentiate itself from oppressive European governmental models, it enacted its own form of frontier colonialism. This generated a conflict within the national narrative of the State as a civilized institution and historical memories of frontier genocide which ran contrary to it. The critical agency borne from such a conflict is also present in Child’s Hobomok in the way it negotiates with the Native American.

35To elaborate, Mary evokes the advantages and disadvantages of civilizational refinement. She enacts a “colonial” process as she later utilizes her Indian husband and his community to assert her own independence. She “plays” the role of an Indian wife as a rebellion against Puritan traditions rather than assimilating into her host society’s culture. Child employs Indian identity as a projection of the values that can be used to distinguish American identity. In this context, Mary symbolizes the American State, which appropriates the Indian to define itself through incorporation and expulsion. By adopting the tropes of the Indian and the wilderness, Child discredits Puritan patriarchy as a national ideal and the patriarchal legacy of England.

36The use of specters in Hobomok establishes a continuum between the Puritan and later American societies. Child depicts the Puritan mentality as fundamentally haunted by the inassimilable elements it seeks to banish in her critique of the oppressive strictures of patriarchy. The very ghosts that plague it are analogous to the ones that haunt the social consciousness of her era regarding race and gender. Child therefore employs spectrality as a conscious rhetorical strategy in her deconstruction of patriarchy. As Bergland discusses in The National Uncanny (2000), Child uses the specter to challenge cultural orthodoxies through writing from the perspective of those marginalized under Puritanism. For example, Hobomok transforms Mary into a specter for her white community, which is substantiated when she takes on a ghostly countenance during their journey (76). Building on Bergland’s argument, I contend that another kind of spectrality in the novel can be connected to the subversion it presents with respect to national legitimacy.

37In this context of the feminine as ethereal, it is significant that Mary’s occult ritual occurs in the forest. The association of the wilderness with the nation’s unconscious desires and unresolved issues infers that her ritual is symbolic of the surfacing of libidinal impulses that have been repressed by Puritanism. It is in this wilderness that Mary can freely rebel against the social prohibitions of her community. The element of danger in her initial fantasy of rebellion terrifies her as she is confronted with its realization in Hobomok who is non-white, non-Christian and not bound by the laws of Western civilization. The ritual signifies her willingness to believe in the anti-patriarchal “fates” of lore and legend and her abandonment of the fatalistic elements of her father’s Puritanism which have affected those she loves.

38By purging the history which Salem represents from her own consciousness, Mary is able to formulate a new American identity. Her initial death like state signifies her subsequent symbolic rebirth as an American. However, as noted, the specter of an outside Native American perspective combined with historically mediated racialist influences haunt this otherwise progressive conclusion. The specter trope is not just a means to bring otherwise peripheral characters such as Mary and Hobomok to the centre as part of an inclusive vision of American national identity. When read within a postcolonial psychoanalytic frame, a different kind of spectrality also emerges from the contradictions within the novel’s formulation of this national vision.

6. Interracial Marriage and The Creation of a New American Identity

39Hobomok conveys the idea of a tolerant American nation yet it rejects the Native figure. This reflects a process of national identity formation through the establishment of racial boundaries, their transgression and subsequent reinstatement. While Child details the connections between white supremacy and male dominance and revises patriarchal scripts, her novel fails to resolve the issues of coloniality that beset the American historical novel and American literary history itself. These issues involve a paradox, namely that white Americans must secure their political freedoms with the annihilation of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans, and that they achieve their cultural independence by depriving non-Americans of an independent identity through their displacement. An attempt is made to resolve America’s racial and sexual paradoxes through interracial marriage, which symbolizes a sense of solidarity between white women and non-whites. However, these paradoxes persist within the narrative in its treatment of Indians as racial inferiors. Although Child may express counter hegemonic sentiments regarding race and gender relations, her conception of the nation bears the influence of inherited cultural dispositions and relies upon historical romance tropes. While she is against the idea of national expansion guided by a white male supremacist order, this does not preclude her from imagining the process under a different telos.

40Nonetheless, in attempting to construct an alternate epistemological domain through the use of Indian culture to rhetorically substantiate her non-androcentric vision of national identity, Child views the State from a non-white perspective. If the author uses proto-American values of individuality and self-determination to reject intolerance and oppression, it is possible to take her own logic of tolerance to its ultimate conclusion as a rejection of the legitimacy of the State itself and its racial basis. Although she cannot and does not articulate this idea, her text gestures towards it as an implicit possibility. Hobomok, in unraveling the conceits of Puritanism, threatens to confront the American psyche with the paradoxes of its own identity.

41Hobomok has a unifying function in representing the autonomous space of Indian culture, which provides the catalyst to end the socio-cultural influence of patriarchal trauma originating from England. This is indicated when Mr. Conant temporarily departs from his Puritanical line to express his fondness for Hobomok ‘“It’s little I mind his heathenish stories” rejoined her husband; “but I have sat by the hour together, and gazed on his well fared face, till the tears have come into mine eyes, that the Lord should have raised us up so good a friend among the savages”’ (98). Additionally, Child inverts the imagery of light and darkness and its association with savage and civilized categories to present Hobomok as a vessel for a uniquely American destiny. This is evident in the contrasts between him and Mr. Conant during the hunting trip: “The wild, fitful light shone full upon the unmoved countenance of the savage, and streamed back unbroken upon the rigid features of the Calvinist, rendered even more dark in their expression by the beaver cap which deeply shaded his care-worn brow” (88-89). Here it is the civilized Puritan whose patriarchal attitudes and religious fundamentalism encapsulate the darkness, while Hobomok signifies the light of the American future that will emerge from the shadows cast by the Old World. The Indian figure is associated with the specter of one form of coloniality as he constitutes a means by which to banish it, although he also points to the historical ghosts of domestic imperialism.

42Whether Mary truly loves Hobomok is doubtful since she uses him to purge patriarchal legacies. She inverts her objectification in the Puritan community into a form of power over Hobomok, who is a dutiful yet racially subordinate husband. This is substantiated when he displays a “tender reverence” towards her whilst responding to her changing expressions “till her very looks were a law” (135). Child inadvertently replicates the power structures of the patriarchal society she criticizes through her racial values. Furthermore, she reproduces the hierarchical racial distinctions of colonialism in the idealization of a white woman by the colonised. By defining American identity through a selective focus on principles such as freedom and beginning anew, Child re-enacts the paradox within the narrative of American exceptionalism, whereby the nation defines itself in contradistinction to oppressive regimes in Europe despite its implementation of colonial policies at a domestic level.

43This is reinforced when we consider that Mary’s love for Hobomok is ultimately superficial, which is apparent when Hobomok contemplates killing Charles and decides against it: “Mary loves him better than she does me; for even now she prays for him in her sleep. The sacrifice must be made to her” (139). He realizes that with Charles’s reappearance, he must relinquish his position as her husband and disappear into the wilderness. The narrative implies that Charles, as a white man, has a rightful claim to Mary. Hobomok’s purpose has been served in helping her to create a new, distinctly American identity and is written out of the text for the nation’s establishment and “future” to take place.

  • 6 In her readings of The Last of the Mohicans, Hope Leslie and Hobomok, Shirley Samuels makes note of (...)

44In a postcolonial psychoanalytic context, Child acts out historically informed assumptions pertaining to race, rather than consciously betraying the vision of an inclusive nation state.6 The conclusion does not fundamentally compromise the potential impact of the radicalism of her novel. Therefore, it is significant that Hobomok perceives “the ghost of his rival” in Charles (138). Where writers like Cooper or Robert Montgomery Bird might rely upon the Indian phantasm trope, Child decides to have a white man, Charles appear to Hobomok as a specter and figment of his imagination. By providing a mirror image of the psychical processes involved in spectralization, she confronts the nineteenth-century white male psyche with its tendency to render non-whites as ethereal Others. This rhetorical strategy is foregrounded when Charles is described as an “intruder” (138). While Cooper’s Indians accept their own disappearance as a natural process, Hobomok experiences a personal conflict over his decision. Charles’s reappearance is “more dreadful to him than all the ghosts that could have been summoned from another world” (138) and “for a long time, however it seemed doubtful whether he could collect sufficient fortitude to fulfil his resolution” (139). Child therefore suggests an independent non-white perspective on the expansion of the State, which colors the novel’s homogenously “white” ending and calls into question the validity of US expansion.

45Hobomok’s choices and imaginative vision bring about the novel’s outcome and its ideal of America. The power relations in this section indirectly allude to a space independent of Patriarchal-American/Puritan power, which constitutes the latent content in Child’s conception of American identity. Hobomok is implied to be the founder and guardian of Child’s national vision: His faithful services to the “Yengees” are still remembered with gratitude while the tender slip which he protected has since become “a mighty tree, and the nations of the earth seek refuge beneath its branches” (150). Therefore, despite his exile, he is memorialised through the image of the tree as a symbol for the American State. The words “tender slip” also cast the nation in feminine terms and infer Mary as its maternal figure. This feminine-maternal representation of America is reinforced by the reference to nations that “seek refuge under its branches.” Child reins in the potential of her narrative to challenge American supremacy since Hobomok is incorporated as a validating and distinguishing aspect of this national vision. However, the possibility of a non-American, uncolonized space is left open to preserve the differentiating function of the Indian. The novel is again haunted by the Native presence it negotiates with and erases in fashioning a uniquely American subjectivity.

46Concordantly, Charles’s attempts to locate Hobomok in the wilderness reflect upon the novel’s incorporative process. He disavows that he would rather Hobomok disappear but in doing so, he justifies himself as a moral actor and his own claim to Mary. The American psyche seeks out the Indian to set itself apart from its European forebears, yet it simultaneously represses his existence to legitimate its territorial claims. This action can be described as uncanny as it involves misrecognition, thereby leading to the fiction of a coherent identity. Where the Puritans denied their investment as creators of a fictional world in which they established absolute categories between good and evil, the nineteenth-century American polity misrecognises its own involvement in fashioning a revised history and cultural conception of national identity, which represses events that threaten the legitimacy of American civilization.

47Child subtly alludes to the historical reality of Indian displacement through Hobomok’s reluctant decision to disappear yet she does not explore it, instead focusing on Mary’s return to Salem and marriage to Charles. Nonetheless, Mary’s marriage to Hobomok brings about a narrative outcome whereby the principle of an inclusive societal model is heralded. The community and Mr. Conant, accept Mary’s return out of a sense of loss regarding her disappearance, which points to the social corrosiveness of patriarchal prejudice and its unequal power relationships. Through this sequence of events involving elopement, interracial marriage and Charles’ reappearance, Child crystallizes her discourse of tolerance in an ideal image of familial and social reconciliation. Charles’s marriage to Mary also symbolizes the dissolution of hostilities pertaining to Anglo-American relations. His role in the creation of American identity is evident when he proclaims that his future is with Mary: ‘“Wherever I am,” replied Brown, “my home shall be most gladly shared with Mary’s father”’ (75). As a representative of England he is absorbed into the American future through his marital union.

48Charles Hobomok is the physical manifestation of Mary’s decision to abandon Salem and the historical melancholia of patriarchy: “Under such circumstances, his birth was no doubt entwined with many mournful associations” (136). However, he is also a blank slate for the inscription of a new American destiny. He parallels his mother who is “reborn” within Hobomok’s tribe and liberated from the oppression of her original society. However, Child’s American ideal depends upon the removal of Hobomok’s name. Mr Conant requests the allocation of half the family’s legacy towards the education of Charles Hobomok who distinguishes himself at Harvard before completing his studies in England. The text’s brief treatment of his story indicates that he loses all traces of his Indian identity by effectively becoming white. Significantly, the narrator notes that “his father was seldom spoken of, and by degrees his Indian appellation was silently omitted” (150). This narrative maneuver reinforces his role as an emblem of American identity that differentiates itself through the native and the frontier.

49Child’s narrative implies that it is through tolerance that American subjectivity can be realized. Within this logic, Hobomok’s disappearance is a matter of choice. Additionally, his marital union with Mary is linked with Salem’s social transformation. The integration of their son into the white community consolidates this altered state of affairs. While the novel’s racially homogenous ending means that Child censures her own move in approaching a societal alternative to the American state, her politics of toleration allow for an abstracted, autonomous space of the racial Other as a defining feature of American identity.

7. Conclusion

50Child rejects patriarchal value systems such as Puritanism in proposing an inclusive, non-misogynistic national ideal. She sets her narrative in the seventeenth-century past to reframe American identity towards this end. Additionally, she locates patriarchal oppression in the psychical trauma of persecution. While she praises England for its cultural accomplishments, contrasting it to the Puritan settlements to further condemn them as oppressive environments, she also implicitly rejects England’s colonial influence in her vision of American subjectivity, framed by values of tolerance and reconciliation. Furthermore, Hobomok uses spectrality to explore the haunted condition of the Puritan psyche and the effects of English colonialism upon the American national consciousness. Child’s inhabits the perspective of the Other in terms of gender, ideology and less consistently race through the spectral characterizations of her protagonists. This strategy is implicated in the process by which American identity is generated in the text.

51Nonetheless, the novel’s theme of equality concerning gender and religious ideology is offset by its reproduction of trans-historical views of race and state legitimacy. It also relies on historical romance tropes, such as savage nobility and Indian disappearance. Child’s message of egalitarianism is compromised and melancholia emerges Hobomok’s memorialization. This relates to how she contends with the idea of race and native elements in her construction of the American self. Mary never loses her white subjectivity though she plays the role of the racial Other, which is evident in the conclusion when she returns to the settlement as a white, Christian woman. In marrying Hobomok she asserts her own independence from patriarchal codes and separates herself from the historical legacies of the Old World. Charles Hobomok Conant embodies the new American identity that his mother has fashioned. His absorption into white society reflects the novel’s support for assimilation but also underscores his status as the first true “American.” Child articulated some of the inherited values of her time, yet she reformulated gender and racial relations in creating an alternative historical interpretation. While her novel is ethno-centric, reading it purely in this way reduces its complexities and does not fully account for the import of her radicalism in a nineteenth-century context. In presenting a worldview from the perspective of the disenfranchised, Hobomok threatened inassimilable possibilities that challenged the national script of the American State’s political, intellectual and economic elites.

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1 Conversely, Philip Gould contests the readings of critics such as Karcher who asserts that Hobomok revises the “patriarchal script” (Gould, 93). He argues that Hobomok negotiates with Republican discourses of virtue and gender, which underscored representations of Puritanism at the time, and asserts that Child adopted historical romance conventions to fashion her own republican language. Gould’s reading is useful in terms of the dangers of imposing contemporary values upon nineteenth-century texts. In addition, he acknowledges that novels as Hobomok and Hope Leslie were revisionary when considered alongside masculine versions of republicanism (94). However, confining Hobomok to a Republican historical context also runs the risk of overlooking the more radical, latent possibilities towards which Child’s text gestures.

2 The way in which Hobomok evokes a Native American epistemology also has points of comparison with Native American authors who influenced the literary landscape in which Child wrote. Maureen Konkle highlights that nineteenth-century Native American writers sought acknowledgement of their political autonomy by challenging Eurocentric historical accounts of their societies. For example, George Copway in Life, History and Speeches (1847) emphasised the autonomy of the Ojibwe government in abandoning a mode of existence based on the hunt in favour of agriculture. David Cusick’s chronology of the Iroquois confederacy leaders in Sketches of Ancient History of the Six Nations (1827) implied that the Iroquois government preceded European settlement and continued afterward (37-40).

3 In Traces of History (2016) Patrick Wolfe’s characterises the U.S. as a “settler democracy.” As he illustrates, frontier warfare influenced the United States in terms of discourses of economic progress, militarism, notions of democracy and the emergence of settler subjectivity, all of which depended on the removal of Native Americans (75). Throughout this article I highlight a comparable process of removal in the text.

4 In creating a fictional Puritan manuscript, Child relied on several historical sources concerning American colonial history, namely Puritan chronicles such as John Winthrop’s Journal and The History of New England, 1630-1649 (1825), William Hubbard’s General History of New England (1815), and Nathaniel Morton’s New England’s Memorial (1669).

5 Paula Kot provides an analysis in terms of gender concerning how the Puritans re-enact English oppression in the novel due to their lack of an historical consciousness. Reading the novel’s treatment of an emergent American identity in terms of an Oedipal family drama, Kot argues that that the Puritan sons of the English father recreate a new family which resembles the old, in terms of repressing the mother figure as a way to identify with the power of the father (90). Kot also reads Mary’s marriage to Hobomok as a symbolic act of differentiation which navigates the path between the Old and New Worlds. However, each attempt of individuation makes her resemble her mother in terms of associations with the ghostly as a being from “another world.” Kot argues that the uncanniness of this mother daughter relationship conveys how the American psyche is haunted by the legacies of the Old World (97).

6 In her readings of The Last of the Mohicans, Hope Leslie and Hobomok, Shirley Samuels makes note of the conservative dimension of romance literature with respect to national identity, given that it strives towards order while allowing for pleasure in the disruption of boundaries (70). With this in mind historical romance conventions play a role in the outcome of Child’s narrative.

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Electronic reference

Alex McDonnell, The Specter of Oppression and National Identity in HobomokEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 17-2 | 2022, Online since 04 July 2022, connection on 12 August 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Alex McDonnell

Alex McDonnel is a scholar and commentator on nineteenth-century American fiction, in which he holds a Ph.D. from Durham University. In 2017 he won the Adam Matthew Digital Essay Prize for his essay “Satire, Symbolism and the ‘Working Through’ of Historical Ghosts in The Confidence-Man,” which was later published as an article by the Irish Journal of American Studies in 2021. In 2019 his article “‘In Constant Fellowship with One Unseen’: Negotiations with the Native Other and American National Identity in Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona” was published by the Journal of the Southwest. His current research interests include but are not limited to neoliberalism, science fiction, and nineteenth-century literature.

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