[Access article in PDF]
Literary Culture and U.S. Imperialism:
From the Revolution to World War II
John Carlos Rowe. Literary Culture and U.S. Imperialism: From the Revolution to World War II. New York: Oxford UP, 2000. xiv + 377 pp.
Inspired by Edward Said's landmark Culture and Imperialism (1993) yet focusing exclusively on the Americas and pushing beyond earlier influential collections like Cultures of United States Imperialism (1993), John Carlos Rowe's Literary Culture and U.S. Imperialism is a deeply engaging new study. While his topic has recently become quite familiar, his performance here is still a striking one. This work is often trenchant and erudite, subtle in its treatment of ideology, and clear about its theoretical underpinnings and wide-ranging subject matter. Just as important, it should be an extremely helpful resource for teachers who are interested in activist pedagogy and social change.
Rowe dates the United States as imperialist from its eighteenth-century inception. Early on, he delineates how Charles Brockden Brown and Edgar Allen Poe advance colonialist discourses in their literary fiction. By contrast, Herman Melville emerges as sensitive to "how the act of narration can itself be part of the colonial project" and as critical of the analogies between domestic slavery and the antebellum nation's "extraterritorial policies [. . .] for colonization." While these initial chapters can seem rehashed even on first reading, more original discussions soon arise when Rowe turns to literary texts that engage with instances of US imperialism from the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) through the nation's military occupation of Haiti (1915-1934). [End Page 1025]
In a series of suggestive "anti-formal close readings," Rowe takes us further into the writings of Mark Twain, Henry Adams, and W. E. B. Du Bois than we often go. First, he contrasts Twain's perspicacity about the relation between republican sentiments and an imperial will to power with his failure to grasp the emerging form of free-trade, neo-imperialism; then, as a way of exposing how Adams made elite class evasiveness into high art, Rowe juxtaposes Adams's entangling style and opaqueness about imperialism in his published works with his clear and cogent opinions on the topic in private letters to then Secretary of State John Hay; finally, while defending Du Bois's recently attacked gender politics and touting his prophetic understanding of the racial underpinnings of US neo-imperialism, Rowe also treats Du Bois's curious blindness "to the zealous imperialism of Stalinism," as Du Bois became more stridently Marxian in his later years. In each case, the depth and texture of Rowe's scholarship about individual texts enables him to address much larger cultural forces while reading them. Only the chapter on Stephen Crane, which follows too closely the work of Mark Seltzer on masculinity and modernity and focuses too exclusively on Crane's obvious racism in his wartime journalism, lacks such capaciousness and insight.
Rowe sensibly contends that "[i]f we are truly interested in historicizing the literature we teach, then we must develop subtler means of assessing the historical and political functions of literature." In fact, some of the most compelling work found here is when Rowe sorts out various kinds and degrees of ideological complicity detectable in texts by authors who are neither unsullied anticolonialists nor fervently righteous advocates of colonial domination. For example, Rowe argues that John Rollin Ridge's The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta (1854) reflects the "ideological conflicts" generated by the Cherokee Indian removal, the US conquest of California, and the antebellum ideology of progressive individualism. Similarly, the Black Elk narratives are read as critiquing and resisting the dominant ideology despite also "falling prey to ideological traps" of various kinds. And the book culminates with an analysis of Zora Neale Hurston's ethnographic/autobiographical journeys to New Orleans and Haiti to explore, preserve, and retell an African-American and Afro-Caribbean "folk cosmology." While appreciating Hurston's work to demonstrate the religious and cultural influences of...