Orientalism and sympathy in Maria Susanna Cummins's El Fureidis.
El Fureidis ("The Paradise") is unique among Cummins's works, not only because its setting, Lebanon, is a far cry from Boston, New York City, northeastern New Jersey, and the Illinois prairie (settings of her other works), but also because in El Fureidis conventional meanings of sympathy are continually undercut by an Orientalist point of view. Indeed, El Fureidis is unique among other major antebellum fictions, discussed below, in which the interplay between sympathy and Orientalism is prominent. Cummins so often bends and twists accepted definitions of sympathy in an Oriental milieu that the text's sentimental assurances are negated by its very infatuation with Eastern culture. El Fureidis depicts a contradiction between two discrepant sensibilities--compassion for human beings, no matter what their race, nationality, or religion, and Orientalist assumptions about Lebanese culture. Contained within every sign of sympathy in El Fureidis is a sign of antipathy based in Orientalism, no less disparaging for being genteel and, for the most part, subtle.
Carried along on the tide of what Anna Brickhouse has termed the "transamerican renaissance" (8), Cummins's novel is "riddled with the contradictions and rhetorical impasses attending a nation whose geographic borders were expanding even as its imagined racial borders were narrowing and calcifying" (6-7). Brickhouse's concentration on this transnational dynamic as played out between the United States and Cuba, Haiti, and Mexico in the first half of the nineteenth century sheds light on the literary border crossing undertaken by Cummins in more distant regions and with different connotations for Americans. In El Fureidis, the "racial ideologies" and "cultural fantasies" that Brickhouse sees proliferating and feeding "anxieties about the wider Americas" are expressed in Cummins's sympathy for Oriental culture and the antipathy that permeates Orientalism (23). A "simultaneously affiliative and expansionist" transamerican discourse means that even texts encoded in what Brickhouse identifies as "a language of sublime transcendence" can harbor imperialistic qualities (138,26).
El Fureidis is one such text: It looks beneficently on the Orient (birthplace of Christianity, location of paradise) even as it closes in to colonize it. Cummins channels American ambivalence toward Lebanese manners into sentiment and distills anxiety into a love plot that doubles as an allegory of imperialism, and she does this even though all the evidence suggests that a conscious plan to discredit the East was far from her mind. In spite of itself, the sympathy Cummins manifests in El Fureidis works on behalf of an agenda of expansionism. The novel's English protagonist succeeds in invading paradise, and the Western reader collaborates in his antipathetic enterprise largely because sympathy paves the way.
The obvious and circular point that El Fureidis, an American novel set in Lebanon, reflects an Orientalist outlook may divert readers from seeing the subtle paradox that, while it is a tale that erases signs of a growing American empire, it nonetheless abets the spread of that empire. El Fureidis eliminates all traces of domestic political turmoil and crisis, leaving no clue that the United States is edging toward civil war, and it touches but momentarily on the nation's intentions to take Manifest Destiny (a phrase dating from 1845) to the next, transnational, level. Guided by the commonplaces of sentimental romance, Cummins shields readers from all negative associations with her homeland--war fever, expansionism, racial strife, crass commercialism--but simultaneously reinforces the right of the West to make cultural and commercial inroads into the East. By displacing her faith in American imperialism onto a privileged Englishman who is compelled by romantic love to develop his resources of sympathy, Cummins both disguises and facilitates her affiliation with empire.
A second paradox, perhaps more difficult to discern because of the text's seductive air of calm and its beautiful finish, is that by interweaving two antithetical discourses--Orientalism and sympathy--Cummins nullifies any genuinely good feelings sympathy is supposed to nurture. Page after page unfolds in a display of these contradictory yet entangled discourses. Figuratively speaking, sympathy is at once the blueprint for and material from which El Fureidis is built. At the same time, Cummins may be said to have traveled east in order to appoint her novel with exotic colors, furnishings, and effects. But the text's surface harmony and shimmering prose cannot conceal deeper incongruities. Throughout El Fureidis, Orientalism, a discourse whose antipathetic thrust Cummins seems to have been unable to detect, much less keep in check, undermines compassion.
By its very nature, Orientalism is devoid of sympathy as commonly understood, yet Cummins is insistently sympathetic even as she masks the insidiousness of her text's own imperialist convictions. Her imaginary paradise falters on two counts: First, El Fureidis limns a paradise whose guiding principle, sympathy, is poisoned by the envy and hatred of a key character living within its borders; second, because Orientalist ideology pervades the text--beginning with a preface that honors British explorers of the East, and ending with a farewell that romanticizes "sacred Lebanon" (378)--Cummins's utopia, notwithstanding the novel's title and the abundance of tableaux that illustrate sympathy, does not come to life as a place unmarred by the passions and prejudices of humankind. Orientalism--bidden to create a bravura picture of landscape and indigenous people more or less blissfully busy at work and play--interferes, confirming Western supremacy over anything that the East, even a romanticized version of it, might offer as an alternative.
The hero of El Fureidis is an Englishman named Meredith. Battling ennui and skepticism, he decides at age thirty to tour the Orient. The novel begins with his arrival in Beyrout, whence he soon departs for El Fureidis. (1) This mountain paradise holds no happiness for Meredith because he falls in love with Havilah, the "Rose of Lebanon" (66, 284), a seventeen-year-old Syrian whose father, Augustine Trefoil (a longtime inhabitant of Syria, born in New England, orphaned in France, and raised by French parents), owns and manages a silk factory. Crushed by Havilah's rejection, Meredith wanders for a few months before returning to the village, his passions cleansed of self-interest, his altruism awakened by reflection. Meanwhile, Meredith's guide, Abdoul, a sheik's son, has also been unsuccessful in his attempts to woo Havilah. He disappears into the desert for months at a time, and whenever he is back in Meredith's employ, he tries to sabotage his employer's relationship with Havilah. El Fureidis traces Meredith's transition from "habitual and even morbid sensitiveness" to purpose and faith (113). To win Havilah, he must experience chastened pride and learn that the antidote to self-absorption is sympathy for one's fellow creatures, coupled with an active belief in God.
Inherent in this brief summary of El Fureidis is a narrative voice molded by Orientalism, the two-sided story the West tells itself about the East. The Orientalized East is represented either as an exotic, mysterious, and seductive oasis or as a menacing, indolent, and unregenerate ruin. Inhibiting western fascination with the sumptuous and free is suspicion of a culture incapable of keeping pace with the modern world. Orientalism expresses the West's longing for contact with the origins of its dominant religion, as well as fantasies about the pleasures of the flesh repressed by that same religion. It contains a political interest in the veiled harem wife and a prurient interest in her mirror image, the silk-draped odalisque. Edward W. Said calls Orientalism a myth invented to justify colonial invasions and imperial maneuvers; a series of representations "governed not simply by empirical reality but by a battery of desires, repressions, investments, and projections"; and a "Western style [of discourse] for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient" (8, 3).
Said's major arguments have been questioned since the publication of Orientalism in 1978. Reina Lewis thinks his book falters on the homogeneity of a "unified, intentional and irredeemably male" discourse reflecting "the traditional view that women were not involved in colonial expansion" and thus did not help men script it (17,18). Malini Johar Schueller notes that women novelists "continually critique the patriarchal impulses of imperialism and explore the consequences of racial blurring" so that "traditional gendered dichotomies of mind and body" cannot withstand scrutiny (5). John M. MacKenzie thinks Said overlooks counterhegemonic factors of ambiguity, irony, and resistance within the imperial/colonial relationship (12, 20-21). Such critiques suggest that a reading of El Fureidis should say whether Cummins falls into Lewis's category (female authors as complicit with empire) or Schueller's (female writers as subversive), as well as indicate significant ambiguities in the text.
Granted, the narrator mocks some English tourists and their "stereotyped tour up the Nile" (4), favorably describes Maronite monks (Cummins was a devout Protestant) eking out existence in a mountain convent (84-92), and for a few pages views Bedouin women, free from male surveillance, busy at their tasks inside a harem (334-37). But these moments of potential subversion and ambiguity are not sustained. Mockery of the tourist trade begins and ends at Meredith's hotel; disapproval of such shallowness does not extend to his own self-absorbed itinerary. Moreover, the monks prove through their kindness to Havilah and Meredith to be good Christians. Even Father Lapierre--an aged missionary, intimate of Trefoil, mentor to Havilah, and friend to Meredith--concedes that the Maronites, despite their opposition to "our Protestant faith" (235), are harmless factors in Lebanese religious affairs. The harem scene passes too quickly to make much impression as a celebration of women bonding under the watch of tribal patriarchs. In sum, a Lebanese setting gave Cummins a fresh mis-en-scene in which the power of sympathy could be tested; her fascination with the Orient (voiced in the novel's preface) thus proves to be at best provocative, not subversive.
More than a century before Said sparked the avalanche of scholarship on Orientalism, the Knickerbocker magazine published a portrait of the Middle East for the edification of well-educated American readers. Twenty-six years old and hungry for Eastern romance, Maria Cummins would have devoured this passage: "We frame to ourselves a deep azure sky, and a languid, alluring atmosphere; associate luxurious ease with the coffee-rooms and flower-gardens of the Seraglio at Constantinople; with the tapering minarets and gold-crescents of Cairo; with the fountains within and the kiosks without Damascus." The essay's Christian and nationalist slant would also have appealed to her patriotic Unitarianism:(2) "Into this blue, oriental sky was received the form of JESUS, melting into its soft ether before the tearful gaze of the bereaved disciples ... [N]o power but the ALMIGHTY can prevent the Democratic element of America from making its impress upon the Orient" ("Orientalism" 479, 481, 495).
Postmodern theories of Orientalism would have puzzled Cummins, as would the suggestion that in El Fureidis she herself proved to be an Orientalist. But such is the case. In the preface, she writes of "cravings" for eastern lore and literature that led her to "the [diligent] study and comprehension of that mystical secret which makes the Orient a charmed land" (iv, iii). Orientalism has already taken over a creative process that at no point draws upon first-hand experience of the subject. Having never visited the Middle East, Cummins gathered material from the talk of friends who had toured the region and from popular travel books. The writings of Sir Richard F. Burton, Alphonse de Lamartine, and other continental travelers produced in their American readers what Holly Edwards calls "a strong strain of antipathy and condescension toward the Orient, coupled with a presumption of entitlement, Tightness, and power" (23), while satisfying their readers' aesthetic appreciation of things Oriental: eastern scenery, customs, and art. Listing her precursors, Cummins gushes, "I can but humbly follow their example, and, as they have guided me through scenes of actual romance, pleasure, incident, and danger, invite those who may be so inclined to follow me in my imaginary experiences, trusting that there are some in whom 1 may be so fortunate as to awaken an interest in a land which has aroused my own enthusiasm" (iv). El Fureidis is the byproduct of canonical Orientalists and an author determined to channel their observations into a sentimental romance.
Into her Orientalist fabric of fact and fiction, Cummins weaves many variations on sympathy: compassion, affection, admiration, pity, and condescension. Detecting no subversiveness, one anonymous reviewer believed Cummins's novel had attained "a higher rank than the Lamplighter and Mabel Vaughan" [sic] (Cummins Family Papers). The Atlantic Monthly called it "the most elaborate and the most pleasing expression of [Cummins's] genius" (119), and Charles Card Smith, in the North American Review, noting its "depth of religious feeling," agreed: "As a work of art the book is superior to either of its predecessors" (264). Few scholars interested in either sympathy or Cummins seem to have heard this praise, leaving El Fureidis in relative obscurity. Also helping to marginalize the text is the fact that most of the commentary on The Lamplighter and sympathy in general does not apply to it. It is not quite a domestic novel, since much of it takes place in extreme conditions; its alien setting prevents it from repeating patterns set by Cummins and other sentimental writers during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
For instance, Kristin Boudreau contends that since the publication of The Power of Sympathy in 1789, "sympathy was imagined as a means of resolving tensions within the social sphere" (167). But in the "happy valley" of Lebanon in 1860, tensions within American society, spilling over into debate and violence too incendiary for sympathy to quell, would not have to distract readers. Aside from a few comments upholding Manifest Destiny, the narrator of El Fureidis does not break the sentimental mirage with political remarks save for a reference to the "convulsions and rival feuds, which had ... swept away the property and influence" of the neighboring Maronite priests (84). Nothing else is said about longstanding tensions between Catholic Maronites and Muslim Druzes that erupted in the slaughter of eleven thousand Maronites in 1860.(3)
Also not borne out in El Fureidis is Caleb Crain's point that in the early republic "the power of sympathy [had the] ability to seduce and ruin those, usually young women, who failed to understand its operations" (21). El Fureidis, aside from being published too late to exemplify this point, contains none of the ruinous material in The Power of Sympathy, Charlotte Temple, and other seduction novels that do exemplify it. Furthermore, Julia A. Stern's insight into "protoliberal notions of sympathy" and their relation to "the autonomous individual" in The Coquette does not figure in El Fureidis's study of altruism (73); Cindy Weinstein's idea that in sentimental novels "consanguinity [when compared to sympathy] is a vastly over-rated determinant of family stability and happiness" reveals nothing about El Fureidis (131); and Elizabeth Barnes's argument that sympathy "represented the affective foundation of democratic society" applies to The Lamplighter and Mabel Vaughan, but not El Fureidis (25).
Amy Kaplan's exploration of "the ideology of separate spheres in antebellum America" and its overlap with "domestic discourse" does anticipate the argument that Cummins's Lebanese tale is undercut by racism (583). But even though, as Kaplan asserts, the "extension of female sympathy across social divides could violently reinforce the very racial and class hierarchies that sentimentality claims to dissolve" (581), one would be hard pressed to group Cummins with sentimental authors who "violently reinforce" anything. The prevailing mood of El Fureidis is serenity; a soothing narrative hand keeps human passion in check. And while it is true that Cummins brings both racism and sympathy into paradise itself, Kaplan's belief that in some texts of "imperial domesticity" (586), "the goal of sympathy is not to free [black slaves] but to emancipate white America from their presence" is not realized in Cummins's depiction of a Palestinian paradise far from the race-torn United States (594). In El Fureidis, there is not a racist American to be seen. Yet even in this erasure of a nation manifesting its destiny along racial divides on its own continent, Cummins could not escape the demands of imperialism.
What elucidates sympathy in El Fureidis is Orientalism, the ideology that draws Cummins to the Middle East and then proceeds to corrupt the purity of the sympathy she exports to it. Cummins gives sympathy free reign in a terrestrial paradise that is the figment of an Orientalist imagination. The purple prose of her opening re-creation of Eastern geography establishes the thrust-and-parry of sympathy and Orientalism:
[T]he cedar-crowned heights of Lebanon stand boldly out to view, clothed in the deep purple light of the descending sun ... while the gilded waters of the Mediterranean fold the whole in a sheet of living flame. Now feasting his eager eye upon the harmonious picture ... the Easternbound traveller acknowledges all his longings satisfied, all his day-dreams realized. (2)
Cummins refashions a sprawling land that in real life had been for centuries not a Utopia, but a field of contention among tribes, factions, and nations. She has stepped into the Orientalist trap of using that kind of language that Said later identified as "[trying] to characterize the Orient as alien and to incorporate it schematically on a theatrical stage whose audience, manager, and actors are for Europe, and only for Europe" (71-72). Said's perspective allows us to see that Cummins's mastery of "a set of representative figures, or tropes" allows her to write beautifully--here and throughout El Fureidis--about the Orient without communicating one credible detail about it (71). For Mary Louise Pratt, such linguistic and cultural appropriations characterize the "contact zone": "the space in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality, and intractable conflict" (6). Cummins wastes no time getting to the point of contact, her dreamy prose presenting, Pratt argues, "a utopian image of a European bourgeois subject simultaneously innocent and imperial, asserting a harmless hegemonic vision" (33). Taking in with his jaded Western eyes the fringe of a zone replete with transcendent feminine beauty beyond anything conceivable in Europe, Meredith embodies his creator's "imperial will"--a compulsion described by Muhammed A. Al-Da'mi as "inescapable for both the professional Orientalists and the romantic writers who dealt with Eastern historical materials at large" (2). Cummins had no other option when it came time to produce descriptions or to replicate speech patterns pulled, as Orientalists invariably pull them, from what Said refers to as "a network of related generalizations" that are rooted in a contact zone invaded by a Western imagination no less imperial for being sympathetic to Eastern beauty (119).
Catching sight of Lebanon, Meredith begins to forget "the logical reasonings of a well-schooled brain" (1-2). The view compels him to "prostrate" himself on the deck of the boat (2)--unseemly behavior for a gentleman, but such is the force of the Orient. After all, "[t]he breeze is so light and soft, the air so balmy with a thousand sweets, the sky so serene and cloudless, and the stillness so unbroken, that, lulled into a species of trance, midway between sleep and ecstasy, he experiences, even before setting his foot on land, something of the luxury of Oriental repose" (3). He is aroused from these "Elysian dreams" by "a swarm of savages" whose "shrill voices" are "little less than demoniac" (3)--the negative Orient, spoiling European fantasy. "[S]warthy conductors" take him to the hotel in Beyrout where he chances upon the offending tourists (4).
From the first moments of the novel, sympathy is caught up in Orientalist commonplaces. The hyperbole marking the complimentary descriptions of the Lebanese atmosphere and coastline and exemplifying Meredith's sympathetic embrace of Lebanon is undercut by antipathetic stereotyping of Eastern men. As if playing an ideological game against itself, the text counterbalances every gesture toward sympathy with an Orientalist observation. The converse is also true, and thus Orientalism and sympathy constantly modify and qualify each other. Orientalism, always already double (the East is primitive but utopian,backward but unrepressed, good but bad), helps to generate shades of sympathy beyond its default synonyms of compassion or identification, while expressions of sympathy often run headlong into an Orientalist wall. From the outset, conventional sympathy is established vis-a-vis Meredith's character and background. "[A] model of manly vigor and accomplishments" who has been vexed by his frivolous compatriots (7), this paragon of virtue and virility decides to travel less popular routes alone. Before he departs, however, he sends the English contingent an apology. In short order, Cummins seduces readers into sympathizing with an independent yet courteous European bachelor honorably seeking peace of mind.
This sympathy is soon stretched to a breaking point. With the journey over the mountains east of Beyrout well underway, dangerous terrain challenges Meredith's and Abdoul's fortitude during a stormy night. Disoriented, Meredith suspects that Abdoul is planning to kill him and, pistol in hand, accuses him of treason: "Nothing could be more ... striking than the contrast afforded by the two individuals, each of whom furnished a fitting type of his own race and nation." While Meredith maintains calm resolution, Abdoul, "his loose garments floating over the verge of the precipice," pierces the Englishman with eyes that "might have been deemed the central fires from which radiated the mountain lightning" (11). The Orientalist line has been drawn again, but with more sharpness.
Abdoul disdainfully rebuts Meredith's accusation. But a key question has been raised: With which character should readers sympathize? Meredith has proved unequal to the hardships of weather and terrain, and has, without good reason, insulted his guide. It would seem that unless readers are ruled by a double standard, or unless they are able to divide their compassion, they must sympathize with Abdoul. Cummins clouds the options. Feeling ashamed, Meredith "strive[s] to atone for [his behavior] by manifesting towards his guide the renewed confidence with which the demeanor of the latter had inspired him." Abdoul refuses to acknowledge Meredith's atonement--that is, his cry for sympathy. In this scene Cummins seems to ask whether sympathy should be denied to a man, who under extreme stress has made a mistake and instantly regretted it. One's sympathy for Abdoul is strained by the answer that it should not. But since a man of any nationality or ethnic group would be outraged by a baseless accusation of treachery, how is one to fault Abdoul and exonerate Meredith? Another factor complicates the answer: Minutes after being branded a traitor, but before Meredith's atonement begins, Abdoul, now termed a "skilful Bedouin" (13), prevents Meredith's horse from stumbling on the rocky trail and spilling the rider. If readers see this intervention as a sign of a good work ethic, courage, or both, rather than as Bedouin pride, then they cannot help but side with Abdoul again, at least momentarily, for saving the man who has offended him.
What makes it hard to condemn anything Meredith has done or will do is that he does it quietly, civilly, and passively, projecting the values of a novelist who shapes him according to "strategies of representation whereby European bourgeois subjects seek to secure their innocence in the same moment as they assert European hegemony"--Pratt's definition of "anti-conquest" (7). Pratt discovers the origins of anti-conquest in Europe's global project of natural history, "an utterly benign and abstract appropriation of the planet" conducted by information gatherers who "install[ed] no apparatus of domination" (38, 34). These anti-conquerers waged bloodless war with notebooks, maps, and engravings--the content of scientific travel books that compiled discoveries in fauna and flora and that recorded amazing facts about distant habitats and primitive peoples reduced to homogenized abstractions. The strategies of anti-conquest soon spilled over from scientific discourse to sentimental travel writing and, inevitably, to fiction. In Peter Hulme's words, "Sentimental sympathy began to flow out along the arteries of European commerce in search of its victims" (229).
Meredith is an avatar of anti-conquest. Collector, sightseer, amateur artist, and philanthropist, he traffics in humanitarianism and reciprocity (or "equilibrium through exchange" [Pratt 80]), two trademarks of historical anti-conquerers such as Mungo Park. Events in El Fureidis will reveal the extent to which the mild-mannered tourist Meredith is actually a cordial conqueror, the kind of man, according to Pratt, "whose imperial eyes passively look out and possess" (7). Meredith disembarks in Lebanon burdened with ennui, celibacy, luggage, sketchbook, checkbook, and muted European arrogance. He insults a Bedouin but then settles into close relationships with the leading citizens of the neighboring "paradise" (14). For many months, he mopes, hobnobs with priests and an industrialist, explores the environs, and falls in love--and then a flood in El Fureidis offers a chance to put muscle and money to work. Successful at these enterprises, he walks away in the end with a silk factory in one pocket and paradise's most eligible woman in the other. (4) The anti-conquest is achieved when the conqueror gets what he desires without going to the cost and trouble of military action.
At the end of chapter two, Meredith and Abdoul halt on an eminence where Meredith "be[holds.] at a glance what seem[s] to his enraptured vision a more than earthly paradise." "[N]estling in the giant arms of Lebanon," the narrator continues, "a lovely and picturesque village lay[s] before him, its white, flat-roofed cottages gleaming in the unclouded splendor of the now brilliant moonlight." Abdoul translates the vision: "[B]ehold El Fureidis (the Paradise), the happy valley,--watered by the springs of Baruk,--the home of the mountain-rose,--the garden of Lebanon!" (14). Meredith has penetrated the contact zone.
However, along the way, he has become ill, and the privilege of nursing him through weeks of sickness falls to Father Lapierre. From this point on, sympathy for Meredith and whatever he does in and around El Fureidis is never in question. His feverish delirium is a ticket to sympathy and, in time, happiness. Cummins fleshes out his adventures with dozens of dramatic and descriptive forays into which the threads of sympathy and Orientalism are woven. They will be tied into a final knot on the novel's penultimate page where Meredith feels "tender sympathy" for Abdoul (378), defeated in the contest of love but sufficiently tamed to make peace with Havilah, Meredith's bride.
When Meredith emerges from the sickroom and hurries forth to explore paradise, the two discourses of Orientalism and sympathy intensify. Inhaling the "novelty, strangeness, and bewildering beauty" of El Fureidis (34), Meredith watches peasants at work and women tending silkworms; he sets off into the hills, ascending and descending precipices and gorges, eyes flush with idyllic sights, nostrils reeling from summer fragrance, ears filled with the gurgle of fountains and the rush of waterfalls. Soon disoriented in a maze of sensuous delight, he calls out for help. Havilah happens to be nearby with her pet gazelle. She locates Meredith; he, stunned by her beauty, stammers an apology for his rude shout; she laughs. On their way back to the village, as Havilah glides to the tip of an outcrop called Falcon Perch, Meredith pales with fear because his rationalism cannot fathom an apparent incongruity of physics. Havilah notices his pallor and apologizes for causing him to overexert himself (she knows he is convalescent). Her compassion for his exhaustion is countered by his concern for her safety. "[D]eprecating her sympathy" (41), Meredith insists that the cause of his pallor is not personal weakness but fear that the outcrop might collapse beneath her weight. She dismisses the thought, but her independence has already been contaminated by the stranger's paternalism and infatuation. The couple returns to the village where they are greeted by Father Lapierre and Augustine Trefoil, Meredith's future father-in-law. There the exposition of El Fureidis ends, the characters assuming their appointed roles, Orientalism and sympathy locked in a dance of complementary/clashing motives.
The Falcon Perch episode reveals much about the interplay between Orientalism and sympathy. Meredith rejects sympathy--ironically, the very virtue Havilah will make him demonstrate in exchange for her love--in an act of Orientalist presumption. "That rock may provide a magical view of paradise," he could well be thinking, "but it can't support the weight of that beautiful, innocent, wild girl who clearly needs me, an educated man versed in the laws of physics, to protect her from an injury she can't anticipate." During the earlier pistol episode, however, Meredith sought sympathy from Abdoul, the enemy he has created by accusing him of betrayal--an accusation that also shows Orientalist presumption. ("That dark, devious, red-eyed Arab intends to murder me.") Sympathy is not an absolute quality or quantity. Here, as elsewhere in the novel, sympathy adapts itself to a psychological, descriptive, or discursive requirement. On the Falcon Perch, Meredith abjures sympathy because his intrinsic Orientalist point of view necessitates it. On the precipice with Abdoul, however, Meredith turns to sympathy as a way to negotiate with the man upon whom he extends little or no sympathy (except later on when he wishes to impress Havilah with his generosity of spirit). The Lebanese terrain, initially the occasion for glowing description, presents Meredith with a challenge so intense that surviving it activates, for reasons of self-preservation, his instinct for sympathetic conduct.
Orientalism and sympathy attain equilibrium in Father Lapierre. Because of "the depth of his human sympathies," Lapierre has earned the respect of everyone in El Fureidis (52). But precisely because his compassion is so pure, he is subjected to an equally pure Orientalist corrective by the novelist, making him, not the neurotic Meredith, the text's most explicit voice of colonialism. Through the kind lips of Lapierre comes the prophecy of Western dominion over the Orient--seemingly so natural, so desirable even in the mind of a self-effacing Christian:
Western Europe and enterprising America are emulating each other in their beneficent labors in this direction. Science is sounding our harbors, calculating the height of our mountains, surveying our wildernesses, and taking the measure of our streams; and religion lends her aid and sanction to the work, for a faithful band of Christian missionaries are in the van of the reforming army . ...[W]ho can question that the son of the West will make for himself a high-way through [Syria's] deserts? (272-73)
Lapierre does not estimate the amount of death and destruction that will be transported on that highway in succeeding generations, does not factor in the polarization of cultures, nor doubt the West's right to colonization--not because he refuses to see the fallacies of his belief and not because he sees but believes the result will be worth it. Rather, in the moment of speaking, he becomes a ventriloquist's puppet. Cummins props him up to vocalize what she has already seen articulated with like eloquence in the journalism, speeches, and fiction of her day. As she learned from the Knickerbocker, "No one can fail to note that ... a new and more energetic civilization is entering the East" ("Orientalism" 483)--Lapierre's civilization and her own.
Orientalized sympathy clings to character and action. Hunting with Abdoul, Meredith, despite shooting and killing a gazelle, feels sympathy for one wounded by Abdoul. The animal brings to Meredith's mind not only Havilah's pet gazelle, but, because of its "melting orbs" (143), Havilah herself. Havilah is transformed from a human being into the bleeding object of an anti-con-querer's compassion. She is interchangeable with an exotic animal Meredith feels compelled to protect just seconds after he kills one of its kind. Barking orders with no awareness of his hypocrisy (rooted in Orientalized sympathy), Meredith stops Abdoul from finishing off the creature with his khanger. The gazelle will be brought back to town, treated, tamed, and given to Havilah. The Westerner co-opts the hunting customs of Lebanon to suit his whims and Orientalism once again negates sympathy, making it easy for readers to overvalue or misconstrue Meredith's compassion. The implication that only a Bedouin would murder an injured gazelle is paralleled by an implication that bloodthirsty Bedouins need to learn sympathy from the master race. Meredith's compassion thus makes it seem that Orientalism is a positive trait. For what happens next? Abdoul, despite being the one ready to put the injured creature out of its misery, and thus being the sympathetic one, regards the Englishman with "secret anger and disdain" (144), his face twisted in a "malignant scowl." Abdoul is made to look even worse when Meredith turns the gazelle over to another servant, tipping him in front of the humiliated Bedouin. With, the "covetous eye of his race" (145), Abdoul looks on, bested again by the interloper's compassion and coin.
Space does not permit a close reading of every instance of Orientalized sympathy in El Fureidis. Nevertheless, two related minor instances deserve mention: The compassion of Havilah's mother, Ianthe, for the rejected Meredith is juxtaposed with an analogy Cummins draws between heartbreak and "withering" desert winds. Worse, Ianthe expresses "silent indications of a sympathy which had far more power to mortify than to soothe" the proud man (157). When sympathy produces mortification rather than reduces suffering, it ceases to function. One final major example involves eros. In Damascus, the lurking Meredith watches Havilah's young friend, Maysunah, weave a string of pearls in Havilah's hair. In response, Havilah kisses Maysunah and puts the girl's head in her lap, covering it with her bosom. Warmed by Havilah's "generous sympathy" (294), Maysunah "gaz[es]" at her friend "with an ecstasy of satisfaction" (293), and Havilah calls Maysunah "my dove," begging her to return to El Fureidis. The risque potential of this scene is dashed, however, when Maysunah begs Havilah to guide her conversion to Jesus (295). Sympathy is used, or nearly used, here as an erotic link between the two young women and as bait to titillate a male voyeur. Havilah proceeds to sublimate whatever sexual impulses she may feel for Maysunah by delivering a lecture on Jesus, leaving this lesson unspoken: On occasion, sympathy may encompass not altruism but erotic gratification.
In addition to molding sympathy to fit a given moment, Cummins blots her canvas with stereotypes, likely thinking she is dabbing that canvas with colorful bits of truth about Lebanese culture. Platitudes and presumptions run rampant in the form of secondhand phrases, epithets, and indigenous speech patterns designed to be anthropological and edifying and to impart a documentary feel to the action by fine-tuning a personality or adorning a panorama. But each stereotype chips away at the core meaning of sympathy. As Adam Smith observes, cliches help neither the narrator nor the reader "become in some measure the same person with [the person being stereotyped], and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them" (9). Cummins seems oblivious to the antipathetic and contradictory nature of these cliches. Her observation that the Arabian tongue "is ill-fitted for the expression of gentle thoughts" is contradicted by Abdoul's eloquence when, recounting the glories of his clan, he displays "the boastfulness peculiar to his race" (160, 163). At the Bedouin camp, Meredith regales his audience of savage men-children with a technology exhibit. An opera glass, a pocket-knife, and a compass "transported them with delight," "exalted him into a hero," and "prompted them to look upon him as a species of demigod" (340). Meredith's opinion of the cream of Bedouin society is anything but exalted. Referring to Abdoul (the son of sheik Zanadeen), he says "with mingled amusement and compassion" to Havilah, "In my country he would be a subject for the mad-house; but here in the desert they are all wild men" (345). Yet the narrator remarks that "the Oriental, of whatever grade, is a born nobleman in all that pertains to the exterior graces and courtesies of life" (318-19). Although jealous of their liberties, the Lebanese "are nevertheless children in their simplicity and trustfulness of character," which is why "they have long been accustomed to seek shelter under the wing of some feudal protector" such as Trefoil (249). They are at once independent and childlike, loyal and craven. Still, among these illogical, infantile, argumentative, and culturally indigent people, one meets individuals who embellish their speech with "graceful Oriental gesture" (124). Stilted dialogue is of a piece with these slurs and epithets. Abdoul's speech is particularly stagy. Upon taking leave of Havilah, he explains his need "[t]o pursue the desert winds, to chase the fleet gazelle, to spur the Khadhere across the soft sands which are as cushions to her feet" (66). Abdoul's language, like that of Havilah and Ianthe, shows that in El Fureidis Cummins takes her place in a line of what Fuad Sah'ban has characterized as "inveterate romantic dreamers who drifted down with complete abandon into the Oriental world of the imagination," articulating "romantic sympathy" for Arabs such as Abdoul (180,186).
Hyperbole parallels stereotype and overwrought speech. In Damascus, for instance, Meredith "realize[s] that, whether in palace or cot, alone with nature on sacred Lebanon or decked with the costliest gems of Persia and of Ind, Havilah's loveliness could not be rivaled, nor her lustre dimmed" (293). The landscape, too, inspires superlatives grafted onto gorgeous prose:
[T]he moisture of the evening dew filled the air with that intoxicating sweetness never known but in Lebanon. ... The sun had just reached the tops of the higher range of mountains, which enclosed the glen like an amphitheatre, and their bare limestone crests shone like silver crowns, while their misty slopes reflected a brilliant orange, and the deeper valleys and ravines glowed in a rich robing of purple light. (59)
In set pieces such as this lies evidence of Cummins's debt to Burton. His description of an Arabian sunset sets a bar for visionary language that Cummins's great gift could attain without having to plagiarize anything but sensation and tone: "The enemy sinks behind the deep cerulean sea, under a canopy of gigantic rainbow which covers half the face of heaven. Nearest to the horizon is an arch of tawny orange; above it another of the brightest gold, and based upon these a semi-circle of tender sea-green blends with a score of delicate gradations into the sapphire sky" (208).
Cumminns absorbed, synthesized, and adapted so many facts, figures, and fantasies that one-to-one correspondences are impossible to prove. Nevertheless, she learned lasting lessons from Burton, whom she honors with a long quotation on the hygienic effects of desert travel (329), and Josias Leslie Porter, the only other writer to whom she directly alludes (310 fn.). Porter's account, in Five Years in Damascus, of arriving in Beyrout, procuring a guide, and setting off for Syria, may have allowed Cummins to imagine Meredith doing the same thing. Porter gave Cummins much material on Damascus, which consumes four chapters (sixty pages) of the novel, and on the Bedouin settlement. Porter scours land, clan, history, and custom, delivering verdicts on everything from the "Bedawy, spare in form and of dark visage" (30), to "hideously ugly" old Arab women, with "malignity m the glance of their piercing eyes, and in the Cummins absorbed, synthesized, and adapted so many facts, figures, and fantasies that one-to-one correspondences are impossible to prove. general expression of their sharp features and withered faces" (193), a portrait mimicked in Cummins's distaste for "the ugliness of the ancient females of the race" (337). The topic of faith among Arab women, however, presents a case of Orientalism used to counter Orientalism. By idealizing the Protestantism of Havilah, lanthe, and Maysunah, Cummins struggles to invalidate Porter's antipathetic allegation that "[t]he light of religion does not shine upon the daughters of Ishmael. Christianity has not raised the powers of their minds to nobler or holier objects than the tending of their flocks and the care of their tents" (193).
Cummins also read Walter Keating Kelly's Syria and the Holy Land, an account that declares Lebanon to be "one of Nature's favourite models, in which she delights to blend together her most sublime creations with her tenderest grace and loveliness" (78). George Washington Chasseaud's The Druses of the Lebanon echoes the superlatives: "[T]he shores of Palestine from Sidon to Beyrout are one inexhaustible chain of treasures ... a picture finished off and framed by that incomparable artist, the Great Workman whose word created the universe" (2). Chasseaud teaches Cummins about the silk industry in Lebanon, spends twenty-five pages on a bridal procession (reduced in scale in El Fureidis), touches upon gazelles, and often reverts to the kind of stereotype that Cummins rehashes.
Finally, Cummins latched onto the myriad points of interest in Lamartine's rhapsodic Travels in the East. The text festers with hyperbole: "Nothing is more imposing and rich than the costume and equipments of these Druze warriors" (52). "One of the most beautiful prospects which was ever presented to the human eye ... is the valley of Hamman" (112). Lamartine etches fabulous vistas a la Burton and Porter and reaches highest pitch in his appraisal of the Savior that Cummins surely would have appreciated: "It was [in Palestine] that the most exalted, the most just, the most wise, and the most virtuous of all men, had arisen from obscurity, misery, and ignorance; there was his cradle, there the theatre of his actions, and affecting sermons!" (59). Lamartine's spectacular scenes may distract readers of both texts from noticing Cummins's borrowings of minutiae, an example being her rendition (in chapters two and twenty) of Lamartine's own description of mountain torrents (112). Nothing surpasses the Orient--for glory, for baseness. The masters ply Cummins with facts about the sublime and the degenerate land she never saw, the noble and the savage culture she never experienced--its peaks, valleys, ruins, peoples, costumes, customs, diet, bazaars, mosques, animals, traditions, and climate, all filtered through the bipolar gaze of Western essentialism, rewritten in El Fureidis to satisfy Oriental obsessions fanned by arbitrary notions of sympathy.
Whereas other antebellum fictions blend sympathy and Orientalism to establish a mood or make a point, Cummins stands alone in sustaining their complementary and contradictory relationship for hundreds of pages. In Royall Tyler's The Algerine Captive, for example, Updike Underhill, a surgeon, decries the mistreatment of slaves on the ship Sympathy. In the second volume's dissection of Algerine society, however, Updike's rationalism prevails and sympathy does not get another airing. Seventy years later, in the middle of a long Orientalist section in St. Elmo, Augusta J. Evans embedded the word "sympathies" to link the novel's embattled lovers (132). Once the couple bonds over the plunder brought home by St. Elmo from his Eastern travels, Evans drops Oriental device, freely scripting scenes of sympathy in a novel that turns out to be predictable in everything but its ecstatic style. Worth noting for its one outstanding moment of Orientalized sympathy is Maturin Murray Ballou's 1850 novel, The Turkish Slave; or, The Mahometan and His Harem, awash in stereotype. The "sympathy" of the Sultan of Constantinople is "vastly promoted by the drug [opium] he was now inhaling" (23)--a damning assessment of Turkish royalty, whose compassion, dependent on addiction, is thereby tainted by it. In Uncle Tom's Cabin, the Orientalist architecture of Augustine's mansion is yoked to sympathy insofar as it mirrors his feminine character, with which his mother had "sympathy" (Stowe 334). Attenuated signs of sympathy dot Herman Melville's Palestinian epic, Clarel, whose theme of doubt is captured in lines such as these: "Bonds sympathetic bind these three--/ Faith, Reverence, and Charity. / If Faith once fail, the faltering mood / Affects--needs must--the sisterhood" (92-95). For Melville, sympathy has no chance against the bleakness of unbelief. Unlike these writers, Cummins does not hitch her plot to a sympathy that is passingly symbolic, psychologically expedient, or dipped in the gall of despair. She does not dabble in documentary, manic, philosophical, or decorative Orientalism. The more exceptional for protracting over the course of a long novel two antithetical sensibilities, Cummins meanders the thin line between them, conveying antipathy in the ostensible act of promoting sympathy. The ending's coup-de-grace shows that even after traveling a long narrative distance, Cummins remains stuck between two-sided Orientalism and the power of sympathy that is anything but absolute.
Soon after Havilah rejects him, Meredith embarks on a tour of the Holy Land. This is the best thing he could have done to advance his personal and philanthropic designs in Palestine. His journey accomplishes the passive revenge, as it were, of Pratt's anti-conquerer, because what the sight of ruins leaves undone, his own suffering achieves. Meredith realizes he must return to El Fureidis to fulfill his destiny, toward which he has been inching all along, as a compassionate human being who believes, serves, and acts. Within two days of his return, earthquake and flood devastate the village. He steps into his new role as Man of Sympathy, plunging into danger and chaos, saving lives, and, later, subsidizing the recovery effort. Of him it can finally be written, "his deeper sympathies were aroused, his human instincts quickened. Each day brought duties which could not be postponed or delegated to another; the welfare of a whole community was involved in them. The cry for help appealed first to his purse, then to his time, finally to his heart" (251). Yet Meredith's transformation from proud outsider to compassionate insider actuates the novel's supreme irony: Havilah, the Rose of Lebanon, would not have Meredith until he showed sympathy for his fellow man and faith in God. Upon proving to her that he has become an altruist and a Christian, he becomes Havilah's husband. Then Meredith goes back to England with the spoils of paradise, his radiant bride.
What does the ending of El Fureidis teach its readers? That without sympathy, there is no paradise. With sympathy, however, paradise must forfeit the female embodiment of sympathy and beauty who has made it paradise in the first place. She becomes the property of the male embodiment of sympathy, who subsidizes its economy and seduces its most desirable female. As their boat pulls away from the Syrian coast, Meredith thanks Palestine for his wife, his wife hugs her master, and their hearts are "uplifted yet,, for above them still was Heaven and its stars" (379). This benediction of Orientalism would be less remarkable without the foil of sympathy. Havilah deserts Lebanon in favor of setting up house in England. Meredith not only saves the flood-wasted El Fureidis with solid English currency (a Western aid program in microcosm), but he also bests Abdoul on his own ground by taking the female prize (5) Sympathy turns out to be the invader's best weapon.
Sentimental formula demands that Meredith marry ("conquer") Havilah, but because Havilah is biracial, (6) this anti-conquest cannot occur without the deployment of a racial fail-safe. Her Mediterranean blood raises the specter of miscegenation, yet Havilah's American blood redeems her for anxious western readers, making her eligible for marriage to the Englishman. She is a bridge between two cultures, a bridge bolted and welded by Orientalism: "Havilah was at once the imaginative, impassioned child of the Orient, and the active, intelligent representative of a race as diverse to the Asiatic type as is the point of the sun's rising to that of his going down" (62). Abdoul's failed courtship reinforces this Orientalist message: A sheik's son cannot rival an Englishman's virility. Meredith plucks the Rose from the garden of Lebanon and carries it back to England. (7)
In order to satisfy American readers and reviewers, this Oriental tale must end with an imperial marriage made possible only after the Western hero proves his capacity for sympathy to the Eastern maiden. Paradise is the tradeoff. El Fureidis's two avatars of sympathy desert a paradise whose inhabitants owe their livelihood to the Westerner's cash flow and, in an earlier epoch, to the benevolence of his predecessor--the silk manufacturer, father of the Rose whom the interloper has picked from the garden of Lebanon--who is also on board the westbound boat. Their farewell puts the finishing touch on this Orientalist canvas. Abdoul accepts his fate and slinks back to the desert; Trefoil is back in business, doing better than ever; and for the Rose of Lebanon, paradise is now portable: It is wherever her husband stands. The West clears out with the goods. The wedded couple will settle in England, and El Fureidis, running on Meredith's capital, will be their summer home.
(1.) Present-day El Fureidis (Al-Firdaws) is a Palestinian village thirteen miles south of Haifa and three miles east of the Mediterranean Sea--about seventy-five miles from the location of Cummins's imaginary paradise.
(2.) At Cummins's funeral, Nathaniel Hall recalled her "enthusiasm for whatever was morally lovely and noble and heroic and self-devoting. How it flamed in patriotism, during our country's trial hour!" (14).
(3.) Peter Mansfield explains, "The Druze landlords of Mount Lebanon wished to curb their Maronite tenants, who were increasing in numbers and wealth, and attacked and massacred them in the thousands. This sparked off a wave of persecutions of Christians in other parts of Syria" (118).
(4.) Like other fiction-writing anti-conquerers, Cummins "invoke[s] conjugal love as an alternative to enslavement and colonial domination, or as newly legitimated versions of them" (Pratt 86).
(5.) Taketani argues, "In the logic of the Western patriarchal economy, [Havilah] is an item of exchange cementing the homosocial (and pecuniary) bond of two men, Trefoil the enterprising American and Meredith the wealthy Englishman" (183).
(6.) Of Havilah, we learn that on a business trip to Smyrna, her Franco-American father, Augustine, met and later married Havilah's mother, Ianthe, born in Greece, after which the couple settled in Lebanon (55-56).
(7.) According to Taketani, "The ending of El Fureidis thus dissolves into a horticultural allegory of Havilah's uprooting and replanting" (181).
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Coastal Carolina University
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|Publication:||Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2008|
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