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Reviewed by:
Jeremy Wells. Romances of the White Man’s Burden: Race, Empire, and the Plantation in American Literature, 1880–1936. Nashville: Vanderbilt UP, 2011. x + 238 pp.

At the outset, it must be said that there is a predictable quality to this book. As Jeremy Wells observes in his introduction, the keywords of his subtitle—race, empire, and the plantation—have been floating around American literature for a while now, as has, of late, the relationship between Kipling and America. Published just a year after Gretchen Martin’s Shadowing the White Man’s Burden: U. S. Imperialism and the Problem of the Color Line (a book that, apart from a chapter on Thomas Dixon and a focus on Kipling, has little in common with this one), Romances of the White Man’s Burden, then, strikes one as having a certain permutational inevitability. Happily, however, this book is much more than that: Wells persuasively demonstrates how the postbellum plantation was represented and understood as national in scope and significance, at once a founding institution of [End Page 216] the nation and a paradigm through which America’s imperial ambitions, which necessitated the management of darker-skinned races, might be imagined.

Wells frames his opening chapter with a discussion of George Cary Eggleston’s Love is the Sum of It All, a 1907 novel in which the inheritor of a run-down plantation also runs a commercial empire as a civil engineer bringing “modernity to far-away places” (26). Asking how the linkage of these two unlikely scenes would have appeared conventional to readers of the day, Wells demonstrates how the image of the plantation had itself been reengineered in the preceding decades, transformed from an icon of cultural backwardness to one profoundly useful to a imperializing nation ready to assume what Kipling had labeled the white man’s burden.

Wells begins his study with a thoughtful reading of Joel Chandler Harris, whose Uncle Remus tales offer a quasi-colonialist fantasy of understanding “‘negro’ oral culture” (52) while strategically withholding that understanding from articulation in print. Harris’s genius—his skill at communicating that “he gets it” while conveying that he cannot exactly “convey the full measure of what it has to say” (52)—worked, Wells argues, to consolidate racial expertise in white southern hands. So consolidated, that expertise would ground the more explicitly political projects of Thomas Nelson Page and Henry Grady, the subjects of chapter two. As Wells presents it, the work of Page and Grady, less “provincial” than Harris’ and more committed to the idiom of nationalism, imagined a “plantation South that had in many ways built ‘America’” and whose white male descendants would drive the nation’s “historic mission on an even greater global scale” (75).

Thomas Dixon, the subject of chapter three, would reconfigure that mission in even more histrionic and explicitly white supremacist terms, even if, as Wells thoughtfully demonstrates, the racial solidarity necessary to take up the white man’s burden is placed under threat in Dixon’s fiction by the “perpetual dissolution of the white race” (137). A final chapter interrogates William Faulkner’s belated engagement with a “mythology that had made the plantation South seem universal by the turn of the century” (146), primarily through analyses of Joanna Burden, the regional outsider to whom Faulkner assigns the white man’s burden in Light in August, and Thomas Sutpen, whose story, Wells suggests, is saliently dissociated from the nationalistic mythologies of empire-building to which it might well have been linked (164–65).

Throughout the study, Wells’s close readings are supple and nuanced; often, they are dazzling in their rich engagement with both intra- and extratextual materials. Wells is adept both at identifying [End Page 217] the deep structures of discursive forms—Page’s eternal return to the theme of “a white southern family expanding to accommodate sympathetic Yankees” (102), for example, or Dixon’s core “two-word sentence” plot: “it [the white race] wins” (116)—and the variations within them necessitated by a shifting sociohistorical field: Grady’s plantation, for example, as it evolves over the course of his career from an “outmoded” institution to one oriented...

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