The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
Tokeah; or, The White Rose (1829)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
Tokeah; or, The White Rose was written by “Charles Sealsfield.” “Charles Sealsfield” was the pseudonym of Karl Anton Postl (1793-1864), a German novelist. Sealsfield’s life is for the most part a mystery, largely of Sealsfield’s own making. He was a Moravian monk who fled from Metternich’s regime in Austria and emigrated to the United States under mysterious circumstances. He wrote journalism and a number of novels. Historically Sealsfield is important in German literature as a post-Walter Scott (see: Rob Roy, Waverley) writer of historical novels. Sealsfield attempted to widen the scope of his historical novels beyond what Scott had attempted and wrote about political movements on the national level in addition to individual characters. Tokeah began the tradition of German novels about the American frontier, a tradition which became a cultural obsession and which has only slightly diminished in intensity today.
Tokeah is the chief of a band of Oconee Indians in Georgia. Tokeah and his men discover a white baby girl, and they bring her to Copeland, a white trader, for safekeeping. After seven years of war with Anglos Tokeah takes the girl back from Copeland and renames her “the White Rose.” Tokeah, White Rose, and what is left of the Oconee move into what will later become Texas. Tokeah makes an alliance with the Comanche and raises White Rose as his daughter, alongside Canondah, his biological daughter. Seven years later Arthur Graham, an English nobleman, escapes from the pirate Jean Lafitte and appears near Tokeah’s camp. Arthur is wounded by an alligator and is found by Canondah and Rose, who both secretly tend to him. They then help Arthur escape, but he is captured by Tokeah, who is infuriated with his two daughters for having harbored a spy and lied to him about it. But when Arthur is attacked by an Oconee, defeats the Oconee, and then refuses to kill him, Tokeah realizes that Arthur is not his enemy. Tokeah allows Arthur to leave, but only on the condition that Arthur will not reveal to anyone the location of the Oconee. Tokeah allies with Jean Lafitte and has previously promised Rose to him as a wife, but Tokeah eventually realizes that Lafitte is wicked and breaks the alliance. Lafitte then attacks the Oconee camp. Tokeah’s ally, the Comanche chief El Sol, helps Tokeah defeat Lafitte and capture Lafitte’s men, but Canondah, who is El Sol’s fiancée, is killed in the battle. Arthur has meanwhile gone to Louisiana, where is captured as an English spy (the English are about to invade New Orleans) and a collaborator with the natives. The trader Copeland sees that Arthur is a good man and places him in the custody of a Creole state senator, whose lectures on democracy convert Arthur to the American way of life. Copeland sends Arthur to General Jackson’s camp for interrogation. But Tokeah, in a dream, is commanded to recover his father’s bones from Georgia, so he, El Sol, Rose, and Lafitte’s pirates go to Georgia. Tokeah eventually releases Arthur from his vow so that Arthur can clear his name with General Jackson. Rose is revealed to be the daughter of a Spanish aristocrat, and she marries Arthur and lives happily ever after in Jamaica.
Tokeah was written in imitation of James Fenimore Cooper’s novels, especially The Last of the Mohicans, and can accurately be described as sub-Cooper in quality. Tokeah was Sealsfield’s first novel in English (although not his first work in English) and the modern reader will probably think, uncharitably though accurately, that it is obvious that English was not Sealsfield’s first language. Writing a novel in a second language is difficult, and Sealsfield must be respected for the attempt, but the final result is not successful. Sealsfield’s phrasing is clearly English by way of German, and his characterization and plotting are mediocre. Tokeah, like Sealsfield’s other novels, does demonstrate a familiarity with his subjects; Sealsfield is not a good writer but the reader never doubts that he at least knew what he was writing about.
Cooper’s influence on Tokeah is most obvious at the thematic level. Like Cooper, Sealsfield strikes a balance (sometimes incoherently) between showing sympathy for the natives and attributing their final fate to implacable destiny. Sometimes Sealsfield decries what white Americans have done to the natives, and sometimes Sealsfield states that contact with white Americans has helped civilize the natives. Sealsfield’s portrayal of Tokeah, Canondah, and the other Oconee is influenced as much by François-René de Chateaubriand and Jean-Jacques Rousseau as it is by Cooper. Rousseau’s “Discourse on the Origin of Inequality” (original: “Discours sur L’Origine de L’Inegalité,” 1755) introduced the idea of the Noble Savage to the European public, and Chateaubriand’s popular Atala (1801) spread the idea widely. Cooper’s work further spread the notion. Sealsfield’s novels were the beneficiary of his predecessors as well as further propagators of the idea. But Sealsfield’s natives are much less idealized than Cooper’s or Chateaubriand’s. There are still trace elements of the Noble Savage idea of Rousseau and Chateaubriand, but the Oconee are much closer to the real thing than Cooper’s Mohicans had been.
Sealsfield’s portrayal of white Americans is influenced more by contemporary German stereotypes of Americans than by Cooper’s work. Sealsfield takes the same positions that Alexis de Tocqueville would take a few years later in his Democracy in America (original: De La Démocratie en Amérique, 1835-1840); “Sealsfield criticizes American materialism and coarseness, especially in comparison to a superior German culture, but he glorifies the westward movement and the hardy American frontiersman and is full of praise for American liberties, especially the freedom of the press, and he underscores the importance of such freedom for Germans who were struggling through a troubled era of repression and reaction.”1 The Metternich government, which valued absolute governmental power and distrusted liberals and radicals, was highly restrictive, and the appeal to German readers of a wide-open frontier in which men and women were allowed to do what they wanted was powerful. Similarly, any news of the American frontier, which was becoming increasingly popular as a destination for German immigrants, was welcome.
Sealsfield was the first German author to write a novel about the American frontier. As mentioned Sealsfield was influenced by James Fenimore Cooper and, at slightly greater distance, Walter Scott; Tokeah is a historical romance. But Tokeah’s focus on the natives, and its theme of democracy vs. traditional, European-style inherited leadership, influenced Sealsfield’s German readers differently than Cooper’s work influenced his American readers. In later novels Sealsfield’s version of manifest destiny, and his approval of the white triumph over the natives, became far less nuanced and less complicated and much more approving than Cooper’s equivocal treatment of same. Tokeah was initially popular with German readers, but Sealsfield only achieved fame in Germany in 1842, when the influential German critic Theodor Mundt claimed that “Charles Seatsfield” [sic] was a major American writer who was the superior of both Cooper and Washington Irving. This led to a discussion of the identity of “Seatsfield” as well as to American translations of Sealsfield’s work and reprints of Sealsfield’s work in Germany. This gained him a new generation of readers, and Sealsfield’s success was undoubtedly an effect on the decision of Friedrich Gerstäcker (see: The Regulators of Arkansas) to write Westerns. Sealsfield was far from the only German (or Austrian, or Swiss) writer to be inspired by the idea of a new land in which to escape to and flourish in, but he was the most popular of these writers.
Of interest to modern readers are Tokeah’s attempt “to reconcile Indian legitimacy and the inexorability of white dominance;”2 the novel’s narration from the native perspective—something that provoked fierce contemporary criticism,3 but something likely to find favor with modern readers; and the ending, in which Sealsfield “does nothing to mitigate the horror”4 of the condition of native territory once it has been occupied by whites. Positive portrayals of natives were not rare or unusual at the time, but “such early nineteenth-century treatments are…overlooked in favor of portrayals of Indian barbarism and bloodlust:”5
At the very least, such literature reveals that in the nineteenth-century quest for national identity, the Indian’s symbolic function was two-fold: not only as an anti-image against which Americans distinguished themselves, but also a positive image with which they sought to be associated.6
Print: Charles Sealsfield, The Indian Chief or, Tokeah, the White Rose. New York: Hildesheim Olms Presse, 1972.
1 Cracroft, “World Westerns,” 161.
2 Paul D. Naish, Slavery and Silence: Latin America and the U.S. Slave Debate (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), 97.
3 One critic wrote, “It lacks the interest of probability, and the style is burdened with mawkish attempts at sentimentality, amusing only as they are ridiculous.” Qtd. in Naish, Slavery and Silence, 98.
4 Naish, Slavery and Silence, 99.
5 Naish, Slavery and Silence, 98.
6 Sherry Sullivan, “A Redder Shade of Pale: The Indianization of Heroes and Heroines in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction,” Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 20, no. 1 (Spring 1987): 57.