In Reconstructing the World, Harilaos Stecopoulos makes an important contribution to the growing body of work examining the literatures and cultures of the US South within a global context. If anyone still thinks that studies of region have only regional significance (and too many people still do), this book proves otherwise. Compellingly written and impressively well researched, Reconstructing the World reconsiders the works of eight major writers to show how the South figures centrally within modern forms of US imperialism. In addition to giving us a fresh perspective on the region itself, the book emphatically demonstrates why the South is a crucial concern for any study of transnationalism, empire, globalization, and postcolonialism where the US is involved.
Stecopoulos begins with the premise that “the tradition of representing the South as a strange and colonial space [within the nation] urges us to reread its relationship to the federal government in a broader imperial context” (3). As the failure of Reconstruction spurred national policies for maintaining and managing racial inequalities within the region, he argues, those domestic policies likewise shaped imperialist designs for US dominance over other nonwhite populations abroad. Thus, to understand the dynamics of US empire in the “American century” between the Spanish-American War and the Vietnam War, we also need to understand the domestic forms of colonization practiced in the South between post-Reconstruction redemption and Richard Nixon’s southern [End Page 408] strategy. Stecopoulos explains, “To focus on the complex entanglement of U.S. imperialism and U.S. regionalism is to recognize that the strength and flexibility of the modern capitalist state depended partly on its capacity to help produce colonial geographies within and without the putative borders of the nation” (10–11).
Stecopoulos approaches this “entanglement” by focusing on high profile public intellectuals who “invoked the racially divided region as a means of intervening in contemporary debates about state power at home and abroad” (11). Of these writers only Thomas Dixon portrayed the region in a way that aggressively supported the project of empire. Stecopoulos argues that Dixon’s depictions of the white southern man’s efforts to combat “the terrible prospect of the black rapist and the defiled white woman” laid the ground-work for a model of fraternity shared by all Anglo-Saxon males, northern and southern, that also had the potential for “sustaining the nation as it entered new global arenas” (24). By contrast, the seven other writers that Stecopoulos discusses “seized upon the South’s peculiar reputation to posit transnational and often cross-racial relationships that challenged the putative coherence of an appetitive nation eager to claim the world as its own” (4). In the same chapter with Dixon, Stecopoulos carefully reveals how Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901) critiques US expansionism and argues that only “a frank acknowledgment of amalgamation”—which Chesnutt knew would be just as inevitable in colonial spaces as in the South—could help the nation salvage “some prospect for true democracy” (51).
The next chapter reads James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912) in the context of Johnson’s own connections to both the US South and Latin and South America during his early diplomatic career. Stecopoulos argues that the excolored man, like Johnson himself, seeks greater enfranchisement for African Americans by participating in the project of empire, only to lose his sense of solidarity with African Americans and other people of color in the process. This ambivalent conclusion explains why it was just after the publication of The Autobiography that Johnson began speaking out against US imperialism and joined the NAACP’s fight for racial equality in the US South. The discussion of ragtime in this chapter is excellent. Reading the text against contemporary depictions of ragtime as an authentically US form of music, Stecopoulos shows that where the ex-colored man initially believes that the global export of this music will give African Americans the “ability to play an important role in the burgeoning U.S. empire” (67), he soon discovers that anyone might...