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Blackening Character, Imagining Race, and Mapping Morality: Tarring and Feathering in Nineteenth Century American Literature
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This study examines the ritual of tarring and feathering within specific American cultural contexts and literary works of the nineteenth-century to show how the discourse surrounding the actual and figurative practice functioned as part of a larger process of discursive and visual racialization. The study illustrates how the practice and discourse of blackening white bodies enforced embodiment, stigmatized imagined interiority, and divorced the victims from inalienable rights. To be tarred and feathered was to be marked as anti-social, duplicitous and even anarchic. The study examines the works of major American authors including John Trumbull, James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, analyzing how their works evidence a larger national conflation of character, race, and morality. Sometimes drawing on racial imagery implicitly, and sometimes engaging in the issues of race and slavery explicitly, their works feature tarring and feathering to portray their anxieties about social coercion and victimization in the context of the “experiment” of democracy. Trumbull’s mock-epic genre satirizes the plight of the Tory and diminishes the forms of the revolution; Cooper’s novel works as a rhetorical vehicle to prevent a perceived downfall of the republic; the short fiction of Poe exaggerates the horror of uneven and racialized power relations; and Hawthorne’s body of work ironizes the original parody of tar and feathers to expose the violent nature of democratic foundation. Relying on an interdisciplinary approach, this first, in-depth study of tarring and feathering in America reveals that the ritual is a fertile ground for understanding the multivalent social constructs of the time. Examining tarring and feathering incidents can tell scholars about the status of racial feeling, moral values (including sexual and gender norms), and economic fissures of the context in which they occur. Abjecting the body of the victim, the act rewrites the individual’s relationship to the body politic, and the performance of the ritual reveals the continuously emergent, publically sanctioned forms of belonging to the community and the nation. Moreover, examining the representation of tarring and feathering can tell scholars about an author’s relationship to the ideology of an American way.
Subjectnineteenth-century American literature
eighteenth-century American literature
tarring and feathering
James Fenimore Cooper
Edgar Allan Poe
Trninic, Marina (2013). Blackening Character, Imagining Race, and Mapping Morality: Tarring and Feathering in Nineteenth Century American Literature. Doctoral dissertation, Texas A & M University. Available electronically from