• Emily E. VanDette


The brother-sister bond held a prominent place in the nineteenth-century American imagination, and it played an important role in the shaping of national ideologies and culture. American artist Abbott Handerson Thayer’s 1889 portrait “Brother and Sister” (figure I.1) wonderfully captures the complex place of the sibling bond in American cultural history, as it reveals the nuances of the private and personal significance of the brother-sister bond on the one hand, while engaging, on the other hand, the artist’s public anxieties about the decline of his national culture. Thayer’s own children, Mary and Gerald, modeled for this portrait, during a sorrowful period when their mother was hospitalized for severe depression, shortly before she would die of tuberculosis. From the time of his wife’s illness and especially after her death, Thayer turned to his three surviving children, Mary, Gerald, and Gladys, for emotional succor, a personal history that is reflected in his extensive use of the children as models for his prolific portrait output.1 Whether posing for the several Angel portraits for which the artist would become most famous, naturalistic Virgin Mary scenes, or ideal human figures, Thayer’s children served as his main study, suiting his various subjects and scenes and revealing his artistic, psychological, and social anxieties.


Sibling Pair National Union National Crisis American Imagination Family Governance 
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  1. 1.
    Richard Murray points out that Thayer’s public exhibition of the major paintings of his family at the same time in 1890 serves as a public testimony to his attachment to his children as “his source of spiritual strength” after his wife’s death. Richard Murray, “Abbott Thayer’s ‘Stevenson Memorial,’” American Art 13.2 (1999): 2–25, 10. Murray also suggests that, by adopting varied subjects and contexts, Thayer could repeatedly affirm his devotion to his children, while obscuring that direct interpretation (14).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    See Kristin Schwain, Signs of Grace: Religion and American Art in the Gilded Age (Cornell University Press, 2008), 121.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Elizabeth Lee makes a compelling case for Thayer’s social consciousness, and especially his concern over the nation’s declining morality. Elizabeth Lee, “Therapeutic Beauty: Abbott Thayer, Antimodernism, and the Fear of Disease,” American Art 18.3 (2004): 32–51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 4.
    The recovery of the significance of the family to American literary history may be traced to a number of crucial interventions, most famously to Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs (New York: Oxford University Press), which famously refuted the notion that sentimental literature “feminized” and degraded American culture. More recent and influential contributions to the restoring of the role that fictions of family and sentimentalism play in the shape of American cultural and literary history include Kirstin Boudreau, Sympathy in American Literature (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002);Google Scholar
  5. Cindy Weinstein, Family, Kinship, and Sympathy in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004);CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. and Elizabeth Barnes, States of Sympathy: Seduction and Democracy in the American Novel (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997). Conversations of family and sentimental literature have shed light on the significance of affiliation, allegiance, and kinship in the context of national divisiveness.Google Scholar
  7. Elizabeth Duquette’s Loyal Subjects: Bonds of Nation, Race, and Allegiance in Nineteenth-Century America (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2010) particularly situates the concept of loyalty as a distinct and meaningful discursive construct within the context of the Civil War,Google Scholar
  8. and Amy Murell Taylor , The Divided Family in Civil War America (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2005) examines the “divided family” as both a historical reality during the war era and a literary motif, with particular attention to the trope of courtship and marriage as an allegory for the Union.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 5.
    The significance of siblings has had more attention in British literary studies than in American. See Valerie Sanders, The Brother-Sister Culture in Nineteenth-Century Literature, from Austen to Woolf (New York: Palgrave, 2004)Google Scholar
  10. and Leila S. May, Disorderly Sisters: Sibling Relations and Sororal Resistance in Nineteenth-Century British Literature (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2001). Elsewhere, May’s attention to an American example situates the brother-sister dynamic of that short story in the context of euro-centric traditions and cultural movements, which, she argues, shaped American literature and culture, as well.Google Scholar
  11. Leila S. May, “‘Sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature’: the Brother-Sister Bond in Poe’s ‘Fall of the House of Usher’” Studies in Short Fiction 30 (1993): 387–396. While these contributions suggest that the nineteenth-century intrigue for sibling love occupied literary imaginations on both sides of the Atlantic, the significance of fictional representations of siblings to the tumultuous history of nineteenth-century America, especially the role of national identity making to that history, has gone mostly unnoticed. In an intriguing exception, Denis Flannery theorizes same-sex sibling representations in examples of American writing from the nineteenth-century to the contemporary period, with a focus on the capacity for lateral dynamics to articulate queer desire; Flannery’s attention to homoerotic implications of sibling love throughout the American canon complements my more historically focused study of the presence of opposite-sex sibling romance in the nineteenth century.Google Scholar
  12. Denis Flannery, On Sibling Love, Queer Attachment, and American Writing (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007).Google Scholar
  13. 7.
    Recently, the subject of siblings in American history has attracted more serious and extensive critical attention. In her recent study of real-life brothers and sisters in American history, Annette Atkins examines examples of sibling dynamics in a variety of antebellum American families, mostly through personal letters, to demonstrate the significance of that relationship to American family life during that time period. Annette Atkins, We Grew Up Together: Brothers and Sisters in Nineteenth-Century America (Urbana: Illinois University Press, 2001). In a more comprehensive study of American siblings in the nineteenth century, C. Dallett Hemphill contributes a timely overview of the cultural emphasis on sibling dynamics in American history.Google Scholar
  14. C. Dallett Hemphill, Siblings: Brothers and Sisters in American History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).Google Scholar
  15. 8.
    For key interdisciplinary examples of studies that explore the paradigm of family with nation, see, in addition to the works cited in my first note, George B. Forgie, Patricide in the House Divided: A Psychological Interpretation of Lincoln and His Age (New York: Norton, 1981);Google Scholar
  16. Elizabeth Duquette, Loyal Subjects, and Nancy Cott, Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000).Google Scholar
  17. 9.
    Taylor’s examination of the trope of the divided family as an allegory for the divided nation focuses on novels that exhibit what she notes to be the “existing literary association of the Union with a marriage” (125); her examples showcase the tradition of Civil War novels that adopt marriage as a metaphor for the relationship between the North and South (see especially 123–153). Taylor’s chapter on siblings divided by the war focuses mostly on real-life experiences and letters between siblings and on the tradition of “fratricide” discourse. Karen A. Keely considers the “reconciliation marriage” between a Northern groom and Southern bride to be the dominant allegory for the national union in postbellum literature. Karen A. Keely, “Marriage Plots and National Reunion: The Trope of Romantic Reconciliation in Postbellum Literature,” Mississippi Quarterly 51.4 (Fall 1998): 621–648. Also, Duquette examines how reunion romances “disseminate loyalty on the national scale by demonstrating the domestic felicity of coerced consent and propose that companionate unions predicated on loyalty would stabilize rebellious tendencies and harmonize political families” (62). Chapter 5 will add sibling romance to the conversation of familial allegories of national recuperation after Reconstruction.Google Scholar
  18. 10.
    Peter Coviello, Intimacy in America: Dreams of Affiliation in Antebellum Literature (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005). The capacity for the sibling romance trope to support the project of affiliation that Coviello examines particularly surfaces in the last chapter of this study, which demonstrates the ways in which postbellum African American fiction would deploy the solidarity of brother-sister union to expose the limitations of white-centric narratives of affiliation.Google Scholar
  19. 14.
    Here I want to distinguish my use of the term “sibling love” from sibling incest. While the concepts certainly overlap—sentimental sibling representations surely can be read incestuously, and at times my analysis will address incestuous overtones of sentimental love. Likewise, many of the subjects of sibling incest blur the lines between the lasciviousness of incest and the sentimentalism of romance. Elizabeth Dill focuses on sibling incest as a vehicle to understand the literary lineage of such apparently distinct traditions as the sensational and the sentimental. Elizabeth Dill, “That Damned Mob of Scribbling Siblings: The American Romance as Anti-novel in The Power of Sympathy and Pierre,” American Literature 80.4 (December 2008): 707–738. While the implications of sibling incest, especially as it is manifest in psychological dynamics, will sometimes surface in the analytical work of this study, my use of “sibling love” basically refers to an affiliation that does not manifest in overt sexuality, and my study focuses mostly on opposite-sex sibling pairs in nineteenth-century American fiction.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. 15.
    Gillian Brown traces Locke’s influence on American culture in the history of children’s literature, which disseminated the famous Lockean philosophies of consent and of children’s ability to reason. Gillian Brown, Consent of the Governed: The Lockean Legacy in Early American Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).Google Scholar
  21. 16.
    Jay Fleigelman’s classic study has established this philosophical history and its implications in American discourse history. Jay Fleigelman, Prodigals and Pilgrims: The American Revolution against Patriarchal Authority, 1750–1800 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 12–21. Also, see Elizabeth Barnes’s explication of the Lockean underpinnings of Thomas Paine’s antipatriarchal discourse in Common Sense. Barnes, 26–31.Google Scholar
  22. 18.
    Miriam Leonard traces what she calls “psychoanalysis’s backward gaze to Hegel” (135), pointing out that of the philosophers who interrogated the connection between psychoanalysis and Hegelianism, Derrida intervened most productively, especially in the conceptualization of sexual difference. Miriam Leonard, Athens in Paris: Ancient Greece and the Political in Post-War French Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. For another brilliant intervention in the Oedipal legacy in the twentieth-century Anglo and Germanic imagination, see Jill Scott, Electra after Freud: Myth and Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005). It is beyond the scope of this project to interrogate or debate Hegel’s theories of the dialectic and their impact on gender identity theory, as I mainly invoke Hegel here to demonstrate the salience and relevance of the sibling dialectic to the tradition of sibling representations in nineteenth-century siblings. That said, the remainder of this book will engage in a close analysis of literary representations of siblings and their implications surrounding issues of gender and social difference, revealing the rich and varied engagement with these debates in nineteenth-century American fiction.Google Scholar
  24. 19.
    David V. Ciavatta intervenes in long-standing assumptions about the importance of the marriage bond to Hegelian philosophy (and, by extension, modern psychology) with his insistence that “the logic of the marriage bond, as Hegel…articulates is, is actually closer to the prepersonal logic of sibling relations (and of parent/child relations) than it seems.” David V. Civiatta, Spirit, the Family, and the Unconscious in Hegel’s Philosophy (New York: SUNY Press, 2009), 170.Google Scholar
  25. 20.
    Judith Butler points out that “The Hegelian legacy of Antigone interpretation appears to assume the separability of kinship and the state, even as it posits an essential relation between them.” Judith Butler, Antigone’s Claim: Kinship between Life and Death (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 5. For new psychoanalytic and feminist pragmatism, recognizing the legacy of this logic, and redefining the implications of Antigone within the contexts of contemporary crises (à la Butler) has become a central tool for reorganizing and blurring the lines between kinship and the state, and understanding the liminal spaces of figures on the margins of historically normalized culture.Google Scholar
  26. 21.
    Hegel’s reading of Antigone, a definitive interpretive performance for his philosophy of human psychological development, appears abruptly with a statement that, along with its meaningful footnote, would come to symbolize the gender distinctions that premise his philosophy of the ethical life: “The loss of a brother is thus irreparable to the sister, and her duty toward him is the highest.” The simple and straightforward literary reference he would append as a footnote to this assertion—“Cp. Antigone. 1, 910.”—sheds light on the classical source for the Hegelian model of gendered psychological and civic development, at the same time that it reifies the definitive interpretation of the tragic Sophoclean heroine that celebrates her supposed filial and spiritual submission. G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1967), 477.Google Scholar
  27. 22.
    Kelly Oliver argues that the brother-sister dialectic central to Hegel’s philosophy on ethical order undermines the premise of his philosophy of self-consciousness, which, as she points out, insists that mutual recognition is contingent upon desire. Kelly Oliver, Witnessing: Beyond Recognition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001).Google Scholar
  28. 23.
    As George Steiner demonstrates, “Between c. 1790 and c. 1905, it was widely held by European poets, philosophers, and scholars, that Sophocles’s Antigone was not only that finest of Greek tragedies, but a work of art nearer to perfection than any other produced by the human spirit” (1). George, Steiner, George, Antigones (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984). See also May’s invocation of Steiner in her contextualization of sibling representations in nineteenth-century British literature (Disorderly Sisters, 37).Google Scholar
  29. 24.
    See Caroline Winterer, “Classicism and Women’s Education in America: 1840–1900,” American Quarterly 53.1 (2001): 70–93.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. 25.
    The ideology that discouraged women from political activity is well established, beginning with the landmark essay by Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood,” American Quarterly 18.2, Part 1 (Summer, 1966), 151–174.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. For foundational studies on gender spheres, see Nancy Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood: “Woman’s Sphere” in New England 1780–1835 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977)Google Scholar
  32. and Linda Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980).Google Scholar
  33. For examples of the vast amount of literature that challenges the notion of separate spheres, see Cathy Davidson and Jessamyn Hatcher, eds., No More Separate Spheres (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002);Google Scholar
  34. Linda Kerber et al., “Beyond Roles, beyond Spheres: Thinking about Gender in the Early Republic,” The William and Mary Quarterly 46.3 (1989): 565–585,CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. and Laura McCall and Donald Yacavone, eds., A Shared Experience: Men, Women, and the History of Gender (New York: New York University Press, 1998). While recently scholars have sought to debunk the history of separate spheres, nineteenth-century discourse nevertheless reveals a strict, if nuanced and contested, proscription against female agency in the public sphere. This book’s exploration of the nationalizing capacity of the sibling romance, a trope that appears in mostly domestic fiction, takes as its premise the politicizing potential in domesticity. In that way, it aligns with Amy Kaplan’s suggestion that antebellum women’s novels “of domesticity and female subjectivity [are] inseparable from narratives of empire and nation building” (“Manifest Domesticity,” American Literature 70.3 (Sep. 1998): 581–606, 584.Google Scholar
  36. 26.
    R. D. Hinshelwood and Gary Winship take as their classic Greek example of the sibling paradigm Orestes and Electra, a pair that, according to their argument, symbolizes not only the extreme form of sibling devotion, but also, in Aeschylus’s rendering of their dynamic, the anarchist potential in democratic experiments. Given the matricidal union of Orestes and Electra, it is noteworthy that during the nineteenth century, an era characterized by unquestioning acceptance of the democratic ideal, would favor the Antigone model of sisterly loyalty. R. D. Hinshelwood, and Gary Winship, “Orestes and Democracy,” in Sibling Relationships, edited by Prophecy Coles (New York: Karnac, 2006).Google Scholar
  37. 27.
    Mary Kelley, in Learning to Stand and Speak, recognizes that, in Woman in the Nineteenth Century, Fuller “contested common definitions of masculinity and femininity. She severed the common link between femininity and dependence. And she called for opportunities that enabled women to develop their potential, not only as wives and mothers whose lives were defined by domesticity but also as individuals, each of whom had particular inclinations, desires, and talents.” Mary Kelly, Learning to Stand and Speak: Women, Education, and Public Life in America’s Republic (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 222.Google Scholar
  38. 28.
    In this famous epistolary exchange, Abigail Adams urges her husband to “remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands…. Why, then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity?” to which John Adams’s responds: “Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems. Although they are in full force, you know they are little more than theory. We dare not exert our power in its full latitude. We are obliged to go fair and softly, and, in practice, you know we are the subjects. We have only the name of masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope General Washington and all our brave heroes would fight.” Abigail Adams and John Adams, The Book of Abigail and John: Selected Letter of the Adams Family, 1762–1784, edited by L. H. Butterfield, et al. (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2002), 121, 123.Google Scholar
  39. 30.
    Juliet Mitchell (2000) notes that “Siblings are the great omission in psychoanalytic observation and theory,” and she redresses that omission by reclaiming the role of sibling enmeshment as a primary source of the death drive. Juliet Mitchell, Siblings: Sex and Violence (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003), 23. Also, Prophecy Coles asserts that “the Oedipus complex, as the fulcrum of our psychic development, is an oversimplification,” and she postulates whether “we fear the power of sibling relationships.”Google Scholar
  40. Prophecy Coles, The Importance of Sibling Relationships in Psychoanalysis (London: Karnac, 2003), 2. Despite the fundamental difference in their conclusions (that is, Coles objects to the death-drive as a necessary element of the human psyche), both psychoanalysts turn to literary representation to complement, and at times, fill in the holes left by the dearth of sources in clinical literature. Another major contributor to the new turn toward lateral psychoanalysis is Jill Scott, whose recovery of the impact of Electra to modernist literature suggests a compelling alternative to the Oedipal master narrative.Google Scholar
  41. Jill Scott, Electra after Freud: Myth and Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005).Google Scholar

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© Emily E. VanDette 2013

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