Decolonizing U.S. Literature
19TH CENTURY LITERATURE IN THE U.S. LEGITIMIZED “INDIAN REMOVAL”
At Yates Hall, Chicago Cultural Center
The arches in the Washington Street Lobby of the Chicago Cultural Center are inscribed with the names of some of the notable writers whose books were collected by the Chicago Public Library that this building originally housed: classical Greek and Roman authors in the first, high arch, and 19th century United States authors in the lower arch in front of the staircase that led to the library's delivery room. Selected quotes from some of these authors are featured over the entry doors to this room, which used to be the library’s reading room.
When the Chicago Public Library opened in 1897, the U.S. government’s project of “Indian Removal” had recently ended. "Indian Removal" forced Native Americans to give up tribal lands for territory west of the Mississippi River and, in many cases, practically amounted to extermination as Indigenous people were removed from the land and resources that they sustained and that sustained them in turn.
As Indigenous people “disappeared” into the west, the United States literature that the library was partly built to house became increasingly preoccupied with explaining this disappearance. These explanations typically revolved around the savagery or primitiveness of Indigenous people and their corresponding incapacity to fit into the emerging modernity of cities like Chicago and nations like the United States.
The renowned United States authors whose names are written in mosaic tile on the arch of what was the Chicago Public Library’s majestic lobby and quoted in its former reading room (now Yates Hall) were each invested in romanticizing and thereby legitimizing the supposed disappearance of Indigenous people through Indian Removal.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s fictions made ample use of savage and uncivilized Native characters,as did the poetry of William Cullen Bryant. Henry Wordsworth Longfellow’s renowned poem, “The Song of Hiawatha,” consolidated the 19th century concept of the Native American as a noble savage who belonged only in the prehistory of the nation. In "The Indian Question," poet and essayist John Greenleaf Whittier argued that Indians could be "enlightened and civilized, taught to work ... and take delight in the product of his industry" through education at Indian schools.
In "Traits of Indian Character," essayist and short story writer Washington Irving described his subject in terms of a primitive nature that "resembled those wild plants, which thrive in the shades of the forest, but shrink from the hand of cultivation, and perish beneath the influence of the sun." Even philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous "Letter to Martin Van Buren," which criticized the U.S. government's removal of Cherokee people from their territory, praised the Cherokee as able to "redeem their own race from the doom of eternal inferiority" because they could "borrow and domesticate in the tribe the arts and customs of the Caucasian race."
In contrast to these openly racist statements, Emerson’s quote above this door points us to a world of lofty ideas over trade. But precisely by transforming Indigenous people into the objects of nostalgia and fantasy in their writing, these authors materially contributed to the effort to remove Indigenous people from contemporary political, social, and geographical space in the United States and transform their land into a territory which profited from the very cotton and iron this quote seems to dismiss."