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  • (Re)constructing the Empire:Catholicism, Color, and Uplift in George Washington Cable’s The Grandissimes
  • Anamaria Seglie (bio)

A descendant of northern Puritans, a devoted Presbyterian, and a long-time Sunday-school teacher,1 George Washington Cable infused religion into his life and work so deeply that he drew this biting comment from Mark Twain to William Dean Howells: “[Y]ou will never, never divine, guess, imagine how loathsome a thing the Christian religion can be made until you come to know and study Cable daily and hourly. Mind you I like him […] but in him and his person I have learned to hate all religions.”2 But while Cable inspired Twain to hate “all religions,” The Grandissimes (1880) makes clear that he intended his readers to despise only one. Employing local colorist conventions, Cable identifies Catholicism as the object of his ‘hatred’ and as the religion underwriting the South’s racial and moral peculiarity.

One New Orleanian Catholic priest critiqued this implicit accusation. In his anonymously published Critical Dialogue between Aboo and Caboo on a New Book: Or a Grandissime Ascension (1880), Adrien-Emmanuel Rouquette argues that Cable is “a pert, waggish, flippant, somewhat bold upstart … who supplied the Northern literary market with that sort of adulterated, but gratifying, stuff.” Rouquette especially [End Page 283] chastises the author for “scornfully” calling New Orleans a “HYBRID CITY” plagued by a “fusion and confusion” of “diverse colors.” Contemplating such a “betrayal,” Rouquette highlights Cable’s Protestantism: “[The Grandissimes] is the finical refinement of disguised puritanism, assuming the fanatical mission of radical reform and universal enlightenment.”3 While literary culture’s broader, primarily northern audiences ignored these prejudiced critiques, Rouquette’s attention to Cable’s Protestantism suggests that The Grandissimes both provoked anxieties about Creole racial purity and evoked long-seated tensions concerning New Orleans’ religious and moral institutions. Cable’s novel depicts a racially hybrid, local Catholic culture to demonstrate how Catholicism threatened the national project and also to illustrate how the U.S. might contain that threat.

This treatment of Catholicism exemplifies local color writing’s pervasive imperialist discourse. Evoking New Orleans’ distinctively Creole Catholicism, The Grandissimes positions the local within a narrative of religious othering that centrally shaped an expansionist national mission. Scholars over the past twenty years have recognized the multifaceted relationship connecting local color, regionalism, and U.S. expansionism. They have, for instance, noted local color’s “experimental imperialism” (Brodhead), its recognition of increasing ethnic diversity in an expansionist era (Foote), and its ability to “expand the boundaries of the imagined community” (Kaplan).4 Local color’s underlying imperialism has, in fact, become such a distinguishing generic feature that scholars like Judith Fetterley and Marjorie Pryse have argued it represents a critical divergence—a difference between those writers whose regional depictions further nationalist and expansionist ideologies (local colorists) and those who position region as challenging such ideologies (regionalists).5 [End Page 284]

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The American River Ganges. 1875. Artist, Thomas Nast. Anti-Catholic cartoon from Harper’s Weekly magazine. May 8, 1875. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. {{PD-US}}

[End Page 285]

In this recent critical attention to local color’s imperial frames, scholars often analyze race, gender, and dialect but overlook religion. The secularization narrative’s shaky but continuing predominance has influenced scholars to position local color as a less religious or even nonreligious genre; as James Nagel and Tom Quirk argue, it exemplifies American literature’s transformation from a “spiritual Romanticism … to a secularized Realism.”6 By challenging this story of American literary history and, as scholars currently urge,7 the secularization narrative underwriting it, we can clarify how a national commitment to Protestantism has fundamentally shaped local color’s formation. The Grandissimes highlights how local color writers forwarded a narrative of religious intolerance that advanced U.S. empire-building. My first section demonstrates how The Grandissimes depicts New Orleans as a Catholic space, thereby framing the South and similar territories as endangering the nation. However, section two shows that this portrait of local culture ultimately helped legitimize the U.S. imperial project because such spaces became opportunities for Protestant uplift and conversion. Rather than lacking religious discourse, local color...


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pp. 283-317
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