Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Outcasts and inheritors: The Ishmael ethos in American culture, 1776–1917
by Ebrahim, Parween Redha, Ph.D., Princeton University, 2011, 208; 3480112
Abstract (Summary)

Critical convention holds Herman Melville's Moby-Dick – renowned for its opening line "Call me Ishmael" – to be the origin point of the fascination with the figure of Ishmael in U.S. literary culture. Outcasts and Inheritors traces the overlooked – yet crucial – prehistory of Ishmael back to the revolutionary period in the late eighteenth-century. It argues for the centrality of what I call the Ishmael ethos in understanding U.S. national formation. More than just a mythological counterpart to the biblical narrative, the Ishmael ethos pertains to an uncanny structure of feeling and meaning that allowed writers and artists to fashion romances of national affiliation (or disaffiliation) by mobilizing an outcast-inheritor dialectic.

Engaging four major contexts – the sectional conflict over slave versus wage labor; the deracination of Native Americans in the Age of Manifest Destiny; the post-Reconstruction disenfranchisement of African Americans; and the U.S. emergence as a global imperial power by the end of the nineteenth-century. I show the persistence of the Ishmael ethos. Chapter 1 narrates how Benjamin West and Thomas Jefferson inaugurated two models of the Ishmael myth – one typological and the other nontypological – which continued to influence antebellum literary and visual representations. The two models illuminate the representational and generic tensions Melville confronted in Moby-Dick as he composed a template for a revised national inheritance based on a non-typological model. Chapter 2, analyzes George Copway's indigenous (Ojibway) History and the way it theorized counter-romance in relation to antebellum historiographies, which fixed Indian presence in North America in a mythological temporality. Chapter 3 reads the private correspondence and narrative romance of African American writer, Henry Francis Downing, and how it formulated a romantic deficit against the web of cultural and economic attachments that located within Liberia an arena of attaining American-ness for African Americans. Finally, Chapter 4, turns to the inheritor side of the dialectic. It complicates readings of Henry James‘ The Golden Bowl (1904) as a novel of empire by highlighting the problem of the inheritance plot and the woman question. The heiress Maggie Ververs‘ dual representation as a princess and Indian squaw (the latter, code for the New Woman), is brought to bear on and contest the novel‘s vision of America as an imperial successor of Europe.

Ultimately, this study reconstructs American literary history against the ideological assumptions of America as a perpetual New World or locus of innocence and forgetting propagated by the myth of the American Adam. The Ishmael ethos, I argue, emerges as a forceful means of differentiation that canonical and non-canonical writers appropriated across boundaries, as they fashioned romances that responded to the challenges of their times. In the process they created and transformed a cultural repertoire of nation and belonging.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Gikandi, Simon, Gleason, William
Commitee:
School: Princeton University
School Location: United States -- New Jersey
Source: DAI-A 73/01, Dissertation Abstracts International
Source Type: DISSERTATION
Subjects: African American Studies, American studies, Black history, American literature, British and Irish literature, Native American studies
Keywords: African-American, Copway, George, Deracination, Downing, Henry Francis, Geographies of belonging, Imperialism, Inheritors, Ishmael, James, Henry, Jefferson, Thomas, Outcasts, Romance, Slavery, West, Benjamin
Publication Number: 3480112
ISBN: 9781124932774
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