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Cannibal Fictions

American Explorations of Colonialism, Race, Gender, and Sexuality

Jeff Berglund

Publication Year: 2006

    Objects of fear and fascination, cannibals have long signified an elemental "otherness," an existence outside the bounds of normalcy. In the American imagination, the figure of the cannibal has evolved tellingly over time, as Jeff Berglund shows in this study encompassing a strikingly eclectic collection of cultural, literary, and cinematic texts.
    Cannibal Fictions brings together two discrete periods in U.S. history: the years between the Civil War and World War I, the high-water mark in America's imperial presence, and the post-Vietnam era, when the nation was beginning to seriously question its own global agenda. Berglund shows how P. T. Barnum, in a traveling exhibit featuring so-called "Fiji cannibals," served up an alien "other" for popular consumption, while Edgar Rice Burroughs in his Tarzan of the Apes series tapped into similar anxieties about the eruption of foreign elements into a homogeneous culture. Turning to the last decades of the twentieth century, Berglund considers how treatments of cannibalism variously perpetuated or subverted racist, sexist, and homophobic ideologies rooted in earlier times. Fannie Flagg's novel Fried Green Tomatoes invokes cannibalism to new effect, offering an explicit critique of racial, gender, and sexual politics (an element to a large extent suppressed in the movie adaptation). Recurring motifs in contemporary Native American writing suggest how Western expansion has, cannibalistically, laid the seeds of its own destruction. And James Dobson's recent efforts to link the pro-life agenda to allegations of cannibalism in China testify still further to the currency and pervasiveness of this powerful trope.
    By highlighting practices that preclude the many from becoming one, these representations of cannibalism, Berglund argues, call into question the comforting national narrative of e pluribus unum.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. ix

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Preface and Acknowledgments

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pp. xi-xv

In writing this book I often felt cursed like Melville, forever associated with the transgressive, the taboo. I started this book as a graduate student at Jeffrey Dahmer’s alma mater, in the state of his birth; in fact, Dahmer attended Ohio State University only briefly, but it made for interesting gossip in my seminar on the theory...

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pp. 3-25

The word “cannibal” is indelibly linked to notions of Americanness since its entry into the Western lexicon coincides with the founding moment of “the Americas.” The Carib Indians’ name, bastardized to canibale by Columbus, came to signify, in the English and Spanish...

Part I: Colonial Performances

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1. P. T. Barnum’s American Exhibition of Fiji Cannibals (1871–1873)

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pp. 29-76

In one of the many amended chapters to his autobiography, The Struggles and Triumphs of P.T. Barnum, the renowned American showman states that he had recently fulfilled one of his lifelong goals: to procure some real live cannibals: “But perhaps the most rare and curious addition to my great show, and certainly the most difficult...

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2. Literacy, Imperialism, Race, and Cannibalism in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes

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pp. 77-102

The first epigraph, desperately breathless, comes from the seventh chapter of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1914 American classic, Tarzan of the Apes.1 Titled “The Light of Knowledge,” this chapter marks the moment when Tarzan returns to the cabin that, unbeknownst to him, had once belonged to his parents. During an earlier...

Part II: Postcolonial Transformations

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3. The Cannibal at Home: The Secret of Fried Green Tomatoes

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pp. 105-129

In the previous chapters, it was the heroic task of the white man to fend off man-eaters and protect white civilization. But such a narrative was often bifurcated by an appeal to the civilizing mission, the errand of bringing civility to the heathen. Thus emerged a deeply ambivalent discourse, simultaneously estranging and familiarizing...

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4. Turning Back the Cannibal: Indigenous Revisionism in the Late Twentieth Century

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pp. 130-169

Steven Yazzie’s (Navajo/Diné) multiple-panel mural “Fear of a Red Planet” (8 feet by 160 feet), in the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, features in an initial frame a bloody eagle eating its own tail (EastWall).1 This symbol of democracy is eating itself, caught in a perpetual, solipsistic loop of self-destruction. Its eyes are sewn shut, blind to...

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Epilogue: Abortion Politics, Focus on the Family, and U.S. Feminists in Beijing

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pp. 171-185

Before I leave you, like Ishmael floating to safety on the coffin of the dead cannibal Queequeg, I want to consider one further case study that illustrates how the subject of cannibalism or “the cannibalistic” is always materially connected to race and imperialism and thus, by extension, to religion, gender, and the political. As has been...


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pp. 189-208


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pp. 209-225


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pp. 227-233

E-ISBN-13: 9780299215934
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299215941

Publication Year: 2006