The Swamp Aesthetic

Matthew Rebhorn

in Pioneer Performances

Published in print January 2012 | ISBN: 9780199751303
Published online May 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780199932559 | DOI:
The Swamp Aesthetic

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At the same time as Forrest's Metamora, the frontiersman Wildfire in James Kirke Paulding's drama The Lion of the West (1829) also played a key role in dismantling the kind of performance that led to Buffalo Bill's imperialist melodramas. Wildfire's embodiment of the “wild” frontier challenged the dominant conception of the frontier as sublime, a notion inherited from Edmund Burke, by defining it instead as wondrous. The play represents this aesthetic rift between the wondrous and the sublime through the opposition of its two main characters, the suggestively named Wildfire and the European aesthete, Amelia Wollope. Much to the latter's dismay, Wildfire's performance of the frontier does not identify as the sublime, which uses its reliance on terror and “rules” to reinforce an imperial hierarchy of power. Rather, Wildfire's performance draws from what Philip Fisher calls “the neglected emotion of wonder,” an emotion whose reliance on delight and “play” is inherently destabilizing. In this area of encounter and exchange between Europe and America, this play brings Paulding's audience in contact with a frontier that frustrated rather than facilitated imperialism.

Keywords: wonder; sublime; frontiersman; wildfire; james kirke paulding; lion of the west; rené descartes

Chapter.  10616 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (19th Century)

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