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Settler Common Sense

Queerness and Everyday Colonialism in the American Renaissance

2014
Author:

Mark Rifkin

Settler Common Sense

Tracing the unacknowledged effects of colonialism in the canon of nineteenth-century American literature

In Settler Common Sense, Mark Rifkin explores how some of the most canonical of American writers take part in the legacy of displacing Native Americans. Rifkin reveals how these texts’ queer imaginings rely on treating settler notions of place and personhood as self-evident, erasing the advancing expropriation and occupation of Native lands.

A sophisticated and rigorous interdisciplinary work, Settler Common Sense is a wonderful, unsettling contribution to American literary studies, native studies, and queer studies.

Beth Piatote, University of California, Berkeley

In Settler Common Sense, Mark Rifkin explores how some of the most canonical of American writers take part in the legacy of displacing Native Americans. Although the books he focuses on are not about Indians, they serve as examples of what Rifkin calls “settler common sense,” taking for granted the legal and political structure through which Native peoples continue to be dispossessed.

In analyzing Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables, Rifkin shows how the novel draws on Lockean theory in support of small-scale landholding and alternative practices of homemaking. The book invokes white settlers in southern Maine as the basis for its ethics of improvement, eliding the persistent presence of Wabanaki peoples in their homeland. Rifkin suggests that Henry David Thoreau’s Walden critiques property ownership as a form of perpetual debt. Thoreau’s vision of autoerotic withdrawal into the wilderness, though, depends on recasting spaces from which Native peoples have been dispossessed as places of non-Native regeneration. As against the turn to “nature,” Herman Melville’s Pierre presents the city as a perversely pleasurable place to escape from inequities of land ownership in the country. Rifkin demonstrates how this account of urban possibility overlooks the fact that the explosive growth of Manhattan in the nineteenth century was possible only because of the extensive and progressive displacement of Iroquois peoples upstate.

Rifkin reveals how these texts’ queer imaginings rely on treating settler notions of place and personhood as self-evident, erasing the advancing expropriation and occupation of Native lands. Further, he investigates the ways that contemporary queer ethics and politics take such ongoing colonial dynamics as an unexamined framework in developing ideas of freedom and justice.

Settler Common Sense

Mark Rifkin is associate professor of English and women’s studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is the author of several books, including When Did Indians Become Straight? Kinship, the History of Sexuality, and Native Sovereignty and The Erotics of Sovereignty: Queer Native Writing in the Era of Self-Determination (Minnesota, 2012).

Settler Common Sense

A sophisticated and rigorous interdisciplinary work, Settler Common Sense is a wonderful, unsettling contribution to American literary studies, native studies, and queer studies.

Beth Piatote, University of California, Berkeley

Mark Rifkin adds to his brilliant collection of work on settler colonialism by challenging the scholarly tendency to frame settler colonialism as a consistent, already made structure or set of logics that people today simply inhabit.

Andrea Smith

A useful starting point for further analysis, laying the groundwork for future scholars to explore how a variety of cultural products—if subtly—encouraged the dispossession of Native Americans during one of the US’s most important periods of physical growth and ideological development.

CHOICE

Rifkin presents clear, fascinating, and focused readings of texts that offer new questions for how queer studies tools can be used in connection with ethics (queer and Indigenous) to read foundational literary texts.

American Literature

Rifkin has opened a necessary dialogue.

The Year’s Work in English Studies

Settler Common Sense

Contents

Acknowledgments

Introduction
1. Ordinary Life and the Ethics of Occupation
2. Romancing the State of Nature: Speculation, Regeneration, and the Maine Frontier in House of the Seven Gables
3. Loving Oneself Like a Nation: Sovereign Selfhood and the Autoerotics of Wilderness in Walden
4. Dreaming of Urban Dispersion: Aristocratic Genealogy and Indian Rurality in Pierre

Notes
Bibliography
Index