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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.2 (2001) 329-355



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Accounting for Slavery: Economic Narratives in Morrison and Faulkner

Erik Dussere


[A]ccounting is no longer to be regarded as a neutral device that merely documents and reports "the facts" of economic activity. Accounting can now be seen as a set of practices that affects the type of world we live in, the type of social reality we inhabit [. . .] the way in which we administer the lives of others and ourselves.

--Peter Miller, "Accounting as Social and Institutional Practice:
An Introduction"

The critical pairing of Toni Morrison and William Faulkner has received a great deal of scholarly attention in the last few years, although the affinity between the two writers has long been a topic of discussion. 1 At the 1985 Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha conference in Mississippi, Morrison described her interest in Faulkner as a concern with writing history in the novel: "My reasons [. . .] for being interested and deeply moved by all his subjects had something to do with my desire to find out something about this country and that artistic articulation of its past that was not available in history" (Morrison, "Faulkner" 296). In this [End Page 329] essay, I am concerned especially with the ways in which Faulkner's and Morrison's books are constructed in relation to texts and practices which have shaped the history of slavery and its telling. I argue that both writers encounter slavery as a set of ideological, formal, and historical discourses, formed by and formulated through economic terms. Thus, the oeuvres of both writers represent crucial moments in the ongoing engagement of American--and particularly African-American--literature with what Houston Baker calls the "economics of slavery." 2 I begin with a discussion of the ledger, and of the accounting system in which it is employed, in order to open up a series of questions about the way that Faulkner and Morrison write about the movement of their characters out of slavery and how the legacies of slavery linger in the lives and actions of these characters.

It is only in the past two decades that scholars, working in the field of "critical accounting," have begun to examine the historical importance of bookkeeping not just as a commercial tool but as a social, legal, rhetorical, and narrative practice. 3 Although its development dates back at least five hundred years, the system of double-entry bookkeeping underlies any system of modern accounting, and it continues to have effects in the modern world--most notably its broad diffusion as an organizational principle in nineteenth-century American commerce. Double-entry bookkeeping provides a system by which merchants and businesses can account for the value of their holdings and transactions over a given period of time. For a brief and nontechnical explanation of the double-entry system, I defer to Mary Poovey, who writes:

In addition to the ledger, the double-entry system consisted of an inventory, in which a merchant's stock was described in considerable detail; a memorial, which recorded complete accounts of daily business transactions; and a journal, in which the narrative accounts contained in the memorial were translated into numbers, which signified prices recorded in a single currency, the money of account. From the journal, which consisted mostly of numbers, it was but a short step to the ledger, where those numbers were simply rewritten and rearranged. ("Accommodating" 2-3)

The innovation and cornerstone of double-entry bookkeeping is the ledger. The ledger serves as the master-book in which all the transactions [End Page 330] of the year are recorded finally, in matching columns on facing pages, one side representing credits and the other, debits.

By the time these commercial events have passed through inventory, memorial, and journal, each one has been reduced to its most concise form, most of the narrative description having been converted to numbers. In the ledger the assessment of accounts can be made quickly and easily, as it displays that the balance has been kept. This balance is the powerful and necessary fiction of the ledger; as...

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