- "I Went to the West Indies":Race, Place, and the Antebellum South
In William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! the Mississippi planter Thomas Sutpen reminisces about the Caribbean as if it were both mythic and concrete, fantastic and utilitarian. "I learned," he recalls of his youth, "that there was a place called the West Indies to which poor men went in ships and became rich, and it didn't matter how, so long as that man was clever and courageous." Describing a planter's coming-of-age, he continued, "So when the time came, when I realised that to accomplish my design I should need first of all and above all things money in considerable quantities and in the quite immediate future, I remembered . . . and I went to the West Indies" (196). The consequences of Sutpen's later return to the South—he carried with him bodies of knowledge, the bodies of slaves, and the ghosts of a past life—are at the core of Faulkner's fictional portrait of the slaveholder-as-synecdoche, with Sutpen's downfall, rooted in a West Indian past, standing in for the fate of the South. It is also, scholar John Matthews reminds us, a reflection of the "open secret" of Faulkner's broader word-painting of the South, a region marked, Matthews assures us, not by "indeterminacy but hybridity" (218).
This essay is about the meaning and makeup of that hybridity. Here, in two sections on "Northern" and "Southern" perspectives, I focus on the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, the great switching point for commercial traffic, human bondage, and racial fantasy in the nineteenth century. Through the close reading of a number of different kinds of travel accounts, I attempt to locate the South in the hemisphere in the angry decade before the Civil War, to identify its shifting contours, and to expose its transnational, composite nature, well noted by contemporary abolitionists and well understood by contemporary slaveholders. Such an approach challenges the supposedly all-encompassing power of the nation-state in the history of the South. It may well be, as George Fredrickson once argued in his [End Page 446] 1981 classic White Supremacy, that nationally shared legal and philosophical traditions constrained Southern racism in a peculiarly "American" way, but the region was, I think, just as tightly tied by custom and culture—specifically by the customs of slaveowning and the cultures of labor-intensive agriculture and agrarian commerce—to other, more "tropical" and more deeply southern latitudes. What emerges from this study of a wide range of travelers is a pair of regional portraits: one features the self-aware, "hybrid" South (to paraphrase Deborah Cohn in History and Memory in the Two Souths: Recent Southern and Spanish American Fiction ), as much a geographical location as a political concept, and as much an imagined part of the First World as of the Third World; the other features the North, less composite perhaps, but still no less aware that the growing difference between slavery and freedom, and between North and South, could be most clearly understood when one looked as well at the whole of the Americas. With Civil War looming, debates in the US about the futures of slavery, emancipation, freedom, and citizenship were structured not just by internal political disputes but also by hemispherically shared experiences and experiences of sharing, by the "failures" of Jamaica and Haiti, and by the troubling chance that Cuba might become a slaveholding state or, conversely, home to the largest "free" population of former slaves in the New World (Guterl and Skwiot 41).
The close, even intimate, association of the Old South and the Caribbean assumed by Faulkner was hardly fictional. In the nineteenth century, regular travels to the slaveholding Caribbean produced a large number of literary landscapes of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean that featured (in one way or another) the Southern planter class as one aspect of a larger, hemispheric slaveholding "master class." The place of the South in all of this is worth exploring. Southern planters, themselves routine travelers in the Caribbean, may have understood the US to be "exceptional" in the Americas, but they also...