Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


College of Humanities and Social Sciences



Thesis Sponsor/Dissertation Chair/Project Chair

Monika Elbert

Committee Member

Sharon Lewis

Committee Member

Art Simon


This thesis discusses presentations of American Indian culture and civilization in mid-nineteenth century American literature, especially as written by two northern Abolitionist writers, Henry David Thoreau and Lydia Maria Child. Tracing how these presentations are used to work both with and against developing American nationalism, most importantly in terms of the morality of U.S. expansionism, this paper explores the connections between Indians and land. As race is critical in nineteenth century nationalism, and land is necessary to industrial capitalism and U.S. expansionism, how these constructs are linked ideologically serves to either uphold or challenge the spread ot the U.S. westward during the nineteenth century, and both Child and Thoreau offer challenges to the dominant ideology of their day.

Renée Bergland, in The National Uncanny: Indian Ghosts and American Subjects (2000), has traced “an obsessive mindset, in which American subjects continually return to the Native American figures who haunt them” (16). This haunting, she argues, results from the notion of the disappearance of Indians and Indian civilization. In " 1 he Indian in the Museum” (1998), Paul Gilmore explains that in the nineteenth century, Indians are portrayed as “‘wild’ Indians uncorrupted by white culture—as stoically vanishing in the advance of a white civilization to which they would not submit” (26), typifying the cultural stereotype. These two notions, of disappearing and of wildness, are critical in understanding the development of the ideology that underlies nineteenth century American nationalism, putting the Indian in a location of necessary disappearance or violent defeat that reinforces notions of American political, economic and geographic progression and growth.

By employing theories of nineteenth-century literary racial tropes, I argue that the dominant depictions of Indians in American ideology exist for reasons traceable to the idea of the “savage” as opposed to the “civil”, and that the divergences from this opposition by both Thoreau and Child highlight not only the guilt that underlies an American consciousness but underscore the necessity of the ideas of progress and race as inherently irreconcilable in American nationalist ideology. While I theorize that while these abolitionist writers dissent from the “ghostliness” of American Indians in order to criticize concepts of land ownership, violent land appropriation, and industrialization emerging during the pre-war period, they can only do so by creating images of Indians that symbolize abstract ideals that do not necessarily conform to the historical accuracy of the lives and cultures of American Indians.

But while they do not strictly adhere to Bergland’s definition of the “Indian Ghost” nor to completely accurate depictions of Indian people and life, these writers create spaces where the ideology of the disappearing and violently “savage” Indian is challenged, and through this many contradictions within nationalist ideology are exposed. The irruptions these writers expose are important within the framework of the importance of literature to developing notions of the nation. Through close readings of several of their texts, including Child’s Hobomok and Indian stories, and Thoreau’s Walden and The Maine Woods, I explore how upholding American Indians as both in- and outside the realm of the American social, political, and economic landscape while tying them physically to the actual land works to provide a critique of an American nationalism that justifies violent land appropriation.

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