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Pioneer PerformancesStaging the Frontier$
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Matthew Rebhorn

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780199751303

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199751303.001.0001

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The Swamp Aesthetic

The Swamp Aesthetic

James Kirke Paulding's Frontiersman and the American Melodrama of Wonder

(p.48) Chapter Two The Swamp Aesthetic
Pioneer Performances

Matthew Rebhorn

Oxford University Press

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

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