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Mixed Bloods and Other Crosses

In this series of essays Betsy Erkkila considers the historical and psychological dramas of blood—as marker of violence, race, sex, kinship—that have stood near the center of American literature, culture, and politics since the eighteenth century.

Mixed Bloods and Other Crosses
Rethinking American Literature from the Revolution to the Culture Wars

Betsy Erkkila

2004 | 288 pages | Cloth $69.95
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Table of Contents


1. Blood, Sex, and Other American Crosses
2. Mixed Bloods: Jefferson, Revolution, and the Boundaries of America
3. Revolutionary Women
4. The Poetics of Whiteness: Poe and the Racial Imaginary
5. Whitman and the Homosexual Republic
6. Emily Dickinson and Class
7. Beyond the Boundaries: C.L.R. James to Herman Melville


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


The United States has been and continues to be constituted out of the international flow of capital, people, writing, culture, and goods across the borders. What Frederick Jackson Turner called "the Frontier" was not a vacant or virgin wilderness upon which the United States imprinted itself: the land was inhabited by thousands of indigenous Natives and hundreds of different cultures with multiple languages, customs, rituals, myths, and traditions. During the eighteenth century, the North American continent was also the site of an imperial war among the British, French, and Spanish empires for colonial possession and rule in the Americas. In the years leading up to and following the revolt of the American colonies against the British Empire in 1776, the American struggle to define itself and its destiny in the New World was marked not only by scenes of blood violence and contest over the land; it was also marked by scenes of cultural confrontation, exchange, and mixture across boundaries that were never finally settled or secure.

Mixed Bloods and Other Crosses focuses on this historical and psychological drama and trauma of blood and boundaries at the center of American New World culture and politics. Beginning with a chapter on the symbolics of blood in American literature and history, the book moves from a consideration of contests about blood and boundaries—territorial, sexual, racial, class, national, cultural, and aesthetic—in the Revolutionary period and the nineteenth century to a discussion of the ways anxieties about blood, mixture, and crossing inform recent debates about the boundaries of culture, the canon, and the disciplines and the relation between aesthetics and politics, identity and difference, nationalism and cosmopolitanism, the local and the global. Rethinking American literature as a dynamic and fluid field of cultural and political struggle, I examine scenes of mixture and crossing, miscegenation and incest, doubling and hybridity, inversion and reversal that subvert, alter, or undo the boundary-building imperatives of American history.

Mixed Bloods draws on the work of theorists of linguistic, racial, cultural, and border hybridity, particularly the writings of Mikhail Bakhtin, Homi Bhabha, Edward Said, James Clifford, and Gloria Anzaldúa. As a term that emerged simultaneously with the classificatory imagination of the Enlightenment, hybridity was originally used to describe crosses of different species of plants and animals in botany and zoology. While the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) records a few examples of this word in the seventeenth century, as Robert Young has observed, "'Hybrid' is the nineteenth century's word," a word that came into its fullest human usage with the ascendancy of capital, nation, and empire in the West and Western prohibitions against sexual, racial, and cultural mixture with the dark others of the imperial imaginary.

And yet, as I argue in Mixed Bloods, in the Americas mixture of all kinds occurred from the moment of historical contact. The first recorded use of the term mulata in English—"a maid-childe, that is borne of a Negra, and a fayre man" (OED)—occurred in 1622, only a few years after the first Africans debarked in Virginia in 1619. Almost two centuries later, Thomas Jefferson responded to the question of what constituted a mulatto under Virginia law by using the terms pure blood, Negro blood, mixture, and cross to calculate mathematically how many "crossings" of "white pure blood" and "mixed blood" it would take to "clear" Negro blood from white blood: the "third cross clears the blood," and the offspring "is no longer a mulatto," he determined.

Although I will use the primarily nineteenth-century term hybridity in particular historical and theoretical contexts, it is not the overarching figure of this study. I have chosen to focus instead on the dialectics of blood and boundaries, mixture and crossing because this dialectics comes closer to describing the linguistic and metaphoric frames, lived histories, and fluid and contested political and cultural field at the center of this study. While the term hybrid has been used historically to describe the offspring of racial and sexual mixture and by recent theorists to describe the doubleness of language, the potentially subversive and resistant relationship of colonized to colonizer, and the mixed identities of those who inhabit the borderlands, it does not convey the blood violence that accompanied America's boundary-building imperatives in the New World; nor does it adequately signify the anxieties about class mixture, black and female sexuality, sexual inversion, same-sex merging, and even capitalist exploitation that were expressed through the metaphorics of blood in the Americas.

Thus, for example, in the following passage from Edward Long's Candid Reflections . . . On What Is Commonly Called the Negroe-Cause, By a Planter (1772), anxieties about class mixture, black and female sexual appetite, bestiality, and sodomy are all signified through the figure of Anglo-Saxon blood and the specter of its corruption through the circuits of exchange and generation—of capital and slaves, migrants and goods—that linked Africa, Europe, and the Americas in the eighteenth century: "The lower class of women in England, are remarkably fond of the blacks, for reasons too brutal to mention; they would connect themselves with horses and asses if the laws permitted them. By these ladies they generally have a numerous brood. Thus, in the course of a few generations more, the English blood will become so contaminated with the mixture . . . as even to reach the middle, and then the higher orders of the people."

In 1775 John Adams made use of a similar metaphor of English blood purity to mark his identification with a particular class, race, sex, region, and nation, and his fear of corruption by other non-English inhabitants of the New World. Confessing his "overweening Prejudice in favour of New England" in a letter to Abigail Adams, he writes: "The People are purer English Blood, less mixed with Scotch, Irish, Dutch, French, Danish, Sweedish &c. than any other; and descended from Englishmen too who left Europe, in purer Times than the present and less tainted with Corruption than those they left behind them." Adams expresses the widespread and persistent American belief in the superiority of Anglo-Saxon blood, a superiority that would lead to fear of mixture not only with blacks, Indians, Mexicans, and Asians but with other European nations, including Scotland and Ireland.

As I argue in Chapter 1 and other chapters in this study, it is in and through the metaphorics of blood and its various New World permutations as space, race, sex, class, region, nation, and globe that Americans have struggled and continue to struggle over the meanings of democracy, citizenship, culture, and national belonging, and the idea of America itself as it was constituted and contested in its relations with others and the world. In fact, as this study will suggest, the persistence of phobias and fantasies of blood mixture and contamination in the national imaginary may account for the fact that despite the country's constitutional commitment to an ideology of justice, freedom, and rights, the American republic continues as a house divided in which some are more equal, more human, and more entitled than others to the founding ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

While Mixed Bloods and Other Crosses is centrally concerned with the "crosses" of sex, race, class, and blood in American literature and culture, it also focuses on other crosses: the ways acts of crossing out or repression in the official writings of the culture—the deletion of the antislavery passage from the original version of the Declaration of Independence or Jefferson's decision to cross out his admission that the "purchases" of Indian lands "were sometimes made with the price in the one hand and the sword in the other" in Notes on the State of Virginia—come back to haunt American history and the national fantasy; the ways history and "blood" impinge on the putatively "pure" realms of culture, literature, and aesthetics in the writings of Jefferson and Phillis Wheatley, Poe and Dickinson, Melville and C. L. R. James; the ways the mixture and hybridity of language become a force for resistance and New World transformation in the writings of Wheatley and Abigail Adams, Whitman and C. L. R. James; and the ways modern subjectivity and the Freudian unconscious bear the historical markings of the dark, savage, sexual, and alien others that were expelled by the disciplinary logic of the Western Enlightenment and its legacy of blood in the Americas. As Gloria Anzaldúa writes in an address to whites in Borderlands/La Frontera: "Admit that Mexico is your double, that she exists in the shadow of this country, that we are irrevocably tied to her. Gringo, accept the doppelganger in your psyche." My title, Mixed Bloods and Other Crosses, is meant to suggest this historical dialectics of blood and boundaries, mixture and crossing, at the center of American New World culture and the ways this dialectics has come to function as one of the sacred fetishes and central "crosses" that the culture bears.

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