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American Literary History 16.2 (2004) 238-262

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Recalling the West Indies:
From Yoknapatawpha to Haiti and Back

John T. Matthews

In Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! (1936), Thomas Sutpen relates how, as the overseer of a sugar plantation in Haiti, he put down a rebellion at the outset of his career as a new-world planter. He explains that at first he did not register his danger; a US Southerner in the West Indies, Sutpen failed to "know, comprehend, what he must have been seeing every day because of [his] innocence" (203). As Sutpen never looks more deeply into the circumstances of his original insult at the door of Pettibone's Tidewater Virginia mansion, so he shows little interest in understanding the place where he set out to make his fortune. In going to sea, the 14-year-old Sutpen acted solely on his teacher's assertion that the West Indies were where "poor men went in ships and became rich" (195). He knew nothing about where the West Indies were, how he would get there, or what he would do there—only that he would make money—"it didn't matter how" (195). Sutpen launches his design with that obliviousness that is American innocence. Once on Haiti, Sutpen disregards the manifest evidence of impending "slave" revolt and hybrid racial ancestries. Sutpen's famously preserved innocence amounts to the habit of looking without seeing. The noir rebels themselves mock the American overseer's blind spot: when Sutpen searches for a missing house servant, the body shows up several days later "where he could not possibly have missed it during the first hour of the first day if it had been there" (203). When a voodoo warning appears on the planter's pillow one morning—a pig bone, some chicken feathers, a rag with pebbles tied in a sack—Sutpen does not even understand it as a sign, let alone recognize its stain as "neither dirt nor grease but blood" (203). The fetish object epitomizes the reality Sutpen disregards, "overseeing what he oversaw and not knowing that he was overseeing it" (203). For Sutpen, to look is to overlook.

Tellingly, the Caribbean has suffered similar disregard for half a century in critical considerations of Faulkner's great novel of the [End Page 238] plantation South. Only during the 1990s did the presence of the West Indies in the novel "achieve" visibility.1 It is sobering to acknowledge how assumptions of US exceptionalism, imperial indifference to prenational colonial origins, the peculiarization of the slaveholding South by the rest of the country, and other forms of self-conceptual insularity carried over into the neglect of what Faulkner's South shares more broadly with new-world histories and experiences.2 My preliminary point is that such obliviousness may correspond to the colonial representational technology of fetish. Sutpen's "innocent" "mistakes" about his West Indian situation exemplify an extensive cultural apparatus dedicated to preserving masterly innocence in new-world colonial Souths, and US imperial innocence in the postcolonial world. Like its narrators, readers of Absalom, I shall contend, have always had before their eyes Faulkner's evidence that the plantation South derives its design from new-world models, owes a founding debt to West Indian slave-based agriculture, extracted labor and profit from African-Caribbean slave trade, and practiced forms of racial and sexual control common to other hemispheric colonial regimes. But there is a kind of knowledge that can be held while being ignored, a kind of vision that looks but does not see. Such knowledge does not disappear into the depths of its repression—the prevailing model for the work of Faulknerian evasion or deferral. Instead, such knowledge goes into open hiding on the surface of the Faulknerian text, where, like Edgar Allan Poe's purloined letter, it is perhaps too obvious to be seen.

1. Fetishized Knowledge

Homi Bhabha has described the operation of cultural fetish in his well-known essay on stereotype, "The Other Question," in The Location of Culture. Although I will not be discussing the specific forms...


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