UC San Diego
Exceptional vengeance : revenge and the rule of law in nineteenth-century American literature
- Author(s): Thomas, Lisa Michelle
- et al.
People often characterize revenge as unlawful and undesirable because it challenges the primacy of mercy, forgiveness, proportionality, and deterrence. Relying in part on the theories of Giorgio Agamben, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Carl Schmitt, and Walter Benjamin, I examine how nineteenth-century authors in the Americas treat revenge as a potentially law-making, law-preserving, and law-challenging form of violence. Specifically, the texts I analyze from the 1830s to 1850s employ the notion of exceptionalism to suggest that revenge is justified and even sometimes necessary for purportedly heroic protagonists when established law is in flux, is absent, or is unreliable--especially in borderlands or frontier spaces and during wartime. The authors have their individual protagonists rewrite law and act as sovereigns, blending biblical interpretations, natural law, lex talionis, and other beliefs to impose particular kinds of order on these exceptional locations and moments. In Chapter 1, I examine William Gilmore Simms's The Yemassee and how frontier romance authors generally depict Natives as vengeful, untrustworthy savages and whites as defenders of self and nation. In Chapter 2, I discuss how retellings of Hannah Duston's captivity and Robert Montgomery Bird's Nick of the Woods celebrate the acts of unlikely, feminized heroes as they kill and mutilate Native Americans. Chapter 3 focuses on the Parker captivities in Texas and George Lippard's 'Bel of Prairie Eden, wherein white, male Texans are depicted as defenders of white women's virtue and go on vengeful quests against the Comanche and Mexicans (respectively), ultimately exhibiting some ambivalence about whether revenge is fulfilling and justified. Finally, in Chapter 4 I analyze Maxwell Philip's Emmanuel Appadocca, the story of a black, Trinidadian pirate who challenges the rule of law and readers' ability to accept a mixed-race hero who uses his pirate ship and the space of the ocean to write revenge into law. This study informs scholarship on law and justice, race and gender, and American exceptionalism by linking literary studies to legal and political philosophy and considering revenge as a specific kind of violence that, when justified by individual authors and their protagonists, has had great effects on past and present politics