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  • The Burning House: Jim Crow and the Making of Modern America by Anders Walker
  • Erin D. Chapman
The Burning House: Jim Crow and the Making of Modern America. By Anders Walker. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018. Pp. xiv, 290. $30.00, ISBN 978-0-300-22398-9.)

In this interdisciplinary work, Anders Walker analyzes writer Robert Penn Warren's ambivalence about segregation and integration. Walker argues that Warren and a range of American writers, white and black, endorsed forms of "pluralism" rather than integration as they considered the American "'dilemma'" of race politics and the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education (pp. 1, 4). In chronologically organized chapters of ten to twenty pages each, Walker moves through the twentieth century, providing engaging, brief analyses of each writer's major contributions to the U.S. racial canon. Walker reads each writer, and the recurring Warren, closely and yet [End Page 198] makes some questionable assumptions and leaps of argumentation as he compares their racial politics.

Throughout his analysis, Walker conflates the meanings of integration—the elimination of legal, economic, and institutional barriers to black opportunity and ambition—and cultural assimilation, by which African Americans would necessarily relinquish their ethnic particularities for the questionable privilege of full inclusion in the American polity. Walker implies that the writers he studies also conflated these terms and their implications. This conflation allows Walker to posit unlikely agreements among opposites such as William Faulkner and James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston and Flannery O'Connor, and Robert Penn Warren and Ralph Ellison. Those southern white writers who used their words to defend segregation and southern folkways apparently held views startlingly similar to those of incisive critics of mid-twentieth-century America such as the black writers James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Richard Wright.

At the center of Walker's analysis is his reading of Baldwin's characterization in The Fire Next Time (1963) of the United States as a "'burning house'" with which African Americans should not and did not want to integrate (p. 101). In comparing Baldwin's incisive critique of the white psyche with Martin Luther King Jr.'s concern for white people's moral deficiencies and Ralph Ellison's "notion that whites suffered a type of moral narcolepsy and needed to be shaken awake," Walker concludes, "All agreed that whites, not blacks, needed to change, and that African Americans certainly did not need to abandon their institutions and traditions to advance" (p. 100). From this argument Walker extrapolates that black writers' commitment to the maintenance of African American institutions and traditions was tantamount to their endorsement of southern racial pluralism, the notion that the races could and should coexist separately in the South and throughout the nation. In surprising agreement with his longtime intellectual antagonist William Faulkner, then, "Baldwin would seek to carve out a pluralist vision of the United States, a vision that included a heavy emphasis on the black experience as a source of truth about the nation's history, an awareness that whites lacked" (p. 103). Furthermore, "Baldwin saw [black people] playing a redemptive role in the struggle against bourgeois materialism as well, their very poverty a virtue" (p. 104).

Ultimately, Walker argues, the pluralist tradition in U.S. letters has triumphed legally, and it behooves us, therefore, to remain attentive to the tradition's twentieth-century evolution and its ongoing impact. Perhaps. But we must also remain attentive to the motives and the larger meaning of cultural prophets such as King, Ellison, and Baldwin. As Baldwin admonished, "If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks … do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world" (The Fire Next Time, p. 119). [End Page 199]

Erin D. Chapman
George Washington University


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pp. 198-199
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