Rattlesnakes in the Garden: The Fascinating Serpents of the Early, Edenic Republic

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August 2011, Volume9(Issue3) Page677To715


This essay considers the various ways in which writers and visual artists deployed the rattlesnake to advance and, later, destabilize nationalist agendas between the French and Indian War and the Civil War. During the intervening century the rattlesnake, with its powers of fascination, evolved into a multifaceted symbol used to represent a wide range of ideas: British colonial unity; American national identity; white fears of interracial conflict and miscegenation; and the lingering belief that original sin represented a serious threat to a secular republic whose well-being could be ensured only by the virtuous behavior of its citizens. Between 1751 and 1861 visual artists like Benjamin Franklin and Charles Gadsden, together with writers such as J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur and Oliver Wendell Holmes, made the rattlesnake a symbol of the national transition from imported art to endogenous culture, from indigenous inhabitants to European emigrants, from innocence to experience.

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doi: 10.1353/eam.2011.0022