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Romances of the White Man's Burden

Race, Empire, and the Plantation in American Literature, 1880-1936

Jeremy Wells

Publication Year: 2011

“Take up the white man’s burden!” So wrote the English writer Rudyard Kipling in 1899, in a poem aimed at Americans at a time when colonial ambitions were particularly high. The poem proved especially popular among white southern men, who saw in its vision of America’s imperial future an image that appeared to reflect and even redeem the South’s plantation past. Romances of the White Man’s Burden takes on works in American literature in which the proverbial “old plantation” is made to seem not a relic but a harbinger, a sign that the South had arrived at a multiracial modernity and harmony before the rest of the United States. Focusing on writers such as Joel Chandler Harris, Thomas Nelson Page, Henry W. Grady, Thomas Dixon, and William Faulkner, Jeremy Wells reveals their shared fixation on the figure of the white southern man as specially burdened by history. Each of these writers, in his own way, presented the plantation South as an emblem, not an aberration, of America.

Published by: Vanderbilt University Press


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Title Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. ix-x

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Introduction: White Southern Men and the Burden of Empire

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pp. 1-31

In a very bad novel published in 1907 and titled Love Is the Sum of It All: A Plantation Romance, the former Confederate soldier turned popular writer George Cary Eggleston wondered whether the old plantations of the antebellum South might provide evidence that nature intended the United States to dominate the world: ...

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1. Uncle Remus's Empire

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pp. 33-71

The first academic study of the image of the plantation in American literature was published in 1924. Titled The Southern Plantation: A Study of the Development and Accuracy of a Tradition, it was written by Francis Pendleton Gaines, a native of South Carolina who had grown up and gone to college in Virginia but then, like some of the other white southern men whose writings and careers I examine in this book, had needed to travel northward before ...

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2. "The Old South under New Conditions": Henry W. Grady, Thomas Nelson Page, and New Southern Manhood

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pp. 73-110

The previous chapter made a great deal of the idea of proximity and the fact that Joel Chandler Harris’s celebration of the old plantation was based primarily on his belief that close contact with black southerners had afforded white southern men forms of comprehension and even culture that few others could claim legitimately to possess. Given the emphasis thus placed upon propinquity, it is worth noting at the outset of this chapter that one of its ...

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3. Manifest Destinies, Invisible Empires: Thomas Dixon's Imperial Fantasies

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pp. 111-142

In his unfinished, posthumously published autobiography, Thomas Dixon Jr. recounts a conversation he had had with his publisher, Walter Hines Page, shortly before Page published The Leopard’s Spots (1902), Dixon’s debut novel and the first in his trilogy celebrating the rise of the Ku Klux Klan: ...

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4. "White Babies . . . Struggling": William Faulkner and the White Man's Burden

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pp. 143-171

The fiction of William Faulkner is replete with images of burdened white manhood. In The Unvanquished (1938), for example, a young Bayard Sartoris is informed by his aunt of the scandal caused by his cousin Drusilla’s having dressed as a man and fought under the command of Bayard’s father during the Civil War. The only solution, his aunt informs him, is for his father and Drusilla to marry: “Bayard, I do not ask your forgiveness for this because ...

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Conclusion: Plantation Nationhood and the Myth of Southern Otherness

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pp. 173-184

One narrative of how southern literature achieved national and global recognition during the 1930s and afterward goes like this. In 1917 H. L. Mencken, the Baltimore-born editor and essayist who by that time had become a fixture of a New York–based literary establishment, published “The Sahara of the Bozart,” an essay disparaging the South for its failure to have contributed to American “civilization” since the end of the Civil War. Broad ...


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pp. 185-209

Works Cited

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pp. 211-228


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pp. 229-238

E-ISBN-13: 9780826517586
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826517562
Print-ISBN-10: 0826517560

Page Count: 265
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 709606332
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Romances of the White Man's Burden

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • American fiction -- 19th century -- History and criticism
  • American fiction -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • American literature -- Southern States -- History and criticism
  • Plantation life in literature.
  • Literature, Modern ‡x History and criticism.
  • Southern States -- In literature.
  • Southern States -- Intellectual life -- 20th century.
  • Southern States -- Intellectual life -- 19th century.
  • Race in literature -- Congresses.
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