The work of death in the Americas




Sayre, Jillian J.

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This dissertation is a transnational study that argues that a structure of mourning, spoken through and effected by the historical romance, underlies the narrative of national culture as it emerges in the Americas during the early nineteenth century. The writing, consumption and preservation of these texts reveal not only the psychic life of community but also the material basis for that psychic life. Writing and reading, the production and circulation of texts, plays a crucial role in developing this psychic life, and the historical romance was particularly important in the Americas for imagining a national legacy. Current criticism emphasizes the sexual coupling and generative romantic structure of the marriage plot around which many of these novels circulate. This criticism emphasizes the somatic nature of the genre, the corporeal language of romance that is read in the tears of joy and grief spilled by its characters as well as its readers. But while I agree that a libidinal energy is at the heart of both the narrative and its readers’ responses, I argue that the focus on sexual coupling neglects to consider another bodily discourse: that of death and mourning. Mourning enacts a simultaneous identification with and desire for a lost object, a fetishistic relationship that brings together the Freudian “to be” and “to have” and so invests the lost object with both narcissistic and communal attachments. These texts offer their readers the bodies within the narratives, as well as the texts themselves, as the material of a cultural heritage, constructing a nativism that ties the subjects to the land and to the community through a shared lost artifact, their history. Through mourning a common object, the subjects become citizens, native Americans that distance themselves from Europe while supplanting the Amerindian. In combining modern studies of material culture with post Freudian psychoanalytic criticism, the dissertation works to make explicit the relationship between death, citizenship and textuality in order to show the cultural work of fictional historiography in the making of the American nations.



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