In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, looking at the degenerate Duke and Dauphin, Huck and Jim wish that “we could hear of a country that’s out of kings.” The era of the Cold War would provide such countries with a vengeance, as it remapped the colonial empires whose ascendency culminated with the Treaty of Versailles. Because these remappings were often performed with the wisdom of Solomon, that is, literally by cutting the baby in half, it is worthwhile to remember Jim’s injunction against such “wisdom”: “You take a man dat’s got on’y one or two chillen; is dat man gwyne to be waseful o’ chillen?” “A chile er two, mo’ er less,” Jim argues “warn’t no consekens to Sollermun, dad fetch him!” From Jim’s perspective, lodged in his experience as colonized subject, the maintenance of a family takes precedence over the expedient settling of political disputes. But Jim’s reasoning remains impenetrable to Huck, who regards the discussion as evidence that Jim exists outside of the system of reason endorsed by (Western) “sivilization.” Although Huck’s adventures start with the desire for his own escape, they eventually become dominated by Jim and the need free him from “sivilized” enslavement. Put in what he calls a “tight spot” by his desire to free Jim, Huck bridges the gap between his allegiance to “sivilization” and his quest for Jim’s freedom by evoking quite significantly, the romantic tradition.
It is this peculiar evocation of romance as a way of freeing oneself from the spoils of imperialism that unifies Late Imperial Romance, John McClure’s insightful study of fictions that confront a world populated by countries that are out of kings. Using late nineteenth- early twentieth-century England paradigmatically, he delineates the characteristics of “late imperial romance” in Heart of Darkness, Kim, and A Passage to India, works that “sharply interrogate the popular romance of civilizing mission or ‘development’ and relate in its stead a counter romance of decent into realms of stubborn strangeness and enchantment.” The politics of this genre, McClure argues, is that while “imperialism suddenly [End Page 850] becomes the enemy of romance. . . . the actual history of imperial suffering is curiously rewritten, with ‘romance’ replacing the human victims of imperialism in the story of its expansion.”
McClure’s goal is to show not only that specific romances reflect historical attitudes toward imperialism but also that imperialist activity retains its cogency by virtue, at least in part, of the body politic’s ability to situate itself within an acceptable form of romance. Even texts that critique imperialism, therefore, can foster it to the extent that they present an exotic view of the Other and regard that view as constituting a test of Western identity. That test implies that the “blankness” of the Other externalizes the colonizer’s heart of darkness, uncharted identity, guilt. In this way the (un)colonized becomes once again the colonial subject, subject this time to the colonizer’s own self doubt, expressed in narratives that mark the substitution of romances that compensate through withdrawal for political narratives that impel engagement.
The bulk of McClure’s study focuses on four American novelists—Joan Didion, Robert Stone, Don DeLillo, and Thomas Pynchon—all of whom were born in the 1930s and came of age during the height of the Cold War. In concentrating on these writers, McClure is attempting to demonstrate that the late imperial romance “survived its moment of origination to shape the fiction of another imperial power half a century later.” McClure draws crucial connections between these two groups of fiction with a very astute reading of American Cold War rhetoric as typified by George Kennan’s writing and John Kennedy’s speeches, offset against the “counter romances of anti imperialism” of Che Guevera, Frantz Fanon, and Fidel Castro.
Against this mapping of Cold War discourse, McClure argues that Didion’s novels provide the satisfactions...