- Cavaliers and Economists: Global Capitalism and the Development of Southern Literature, 1820–1860 by Katharine A. Burnett
Cavaliers and Economists: Global Capitalism and the Development of Southern Literature, 1820–1860 provides a compelling analysis of the emergence of southern literature in the antebellum era by drawing on new and old insights from histories of capitalism and slavery. Building on recent economic histories of slavery and the American South such as Edward E. Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York, 2014), Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York, 2015), and Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge, Mass., 2013) (not to mention classic studies by W. E. B. Du Bois and Eric Williams), Katharine A. Burnett corrects a major flaw in standard accounts of southern literature. Rather than see antebellum southern literature as merely a first draft of the Lost Cause pastoralism that dominated romantic depictions after the Civil War, Burnett convincingly argues that, from historical romances to the “anti-Tom” proslavery social problem novels, early southern literature had an eye to both a romantic pastoral past and the modernizing industrial future (p. 150). She posits that the novel, in particular, was where southern authors worked out the contradictions between the sense that plantation slavery was a premodern form of production and social life and the demands of market liberalization and modernization circulating through the free-trade Atlantic world. This intervention succinctly places southern literature into a circum-Atlantic liberal public sphere, rather than holding it to the side. Some of Burnett’s most powerful insights come when she draws connections between British literature and southern authors, such as in a striking comparison of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1854) and the most infamous anti-Tom novel, Maria J. McIntosh’s The Lofty and the Lowly (1852).
Despite the value of this intervention, I often felt that, from a more materialist perspective, the book overstates the supposed contradiction between slavery and capitalist free markets. It is no doubt true that many writers in the Atlantic world saw slavery as incommensurable with emerging liberal political economies, which thus challenged southern writers to sort out the apparent ideological contradiction between capitalism and slavery. But the greatest insight of the new and old economic histories that form the intellectual basis for this study is that the apparent contradiction was a lie of progressive capitalist ideology that did not reflect the material structures of race and production in the Atlantic world. Atlantic slavery was the backbone of early global capitalism, the motor of the Industrial Revolution, and an experimental laboratory for financialization and its attendant epistemologies (as argued by Ian Baucom, among others). Knowing this, it seems clear that what the southern capitalist ideologists were doing in literature was not working out a contradiction but developing [End Page 475] ideological weapons that perhaps were too late to serve slave regimes themselves (although post-1865 continuities in systems of labor and violence should not be ignored) but that did serve global capitalist imperialism in dividing the world between free Atlantic citizen subjects and racialized laboring masses in need of discipline and excluded from the free market.
Nevertheless, Burnett pays careful attention to the transatlantic construction of the global South throughout her period; the bringing into focus of the ideological continuity between the imaginary of the role of the plantation American South in capitalism and the role of the global colonized South in that same regime is a powerful upshot of her work. There was nothing premodern about plantation slave regimes, and just as they cleared the way for future colonial orders (not least of all the Caribbean and Central American adventurism Burnett tracks in a key chapter), the literature of the plantation South cleared the way for imperialist ideology. The myth of the idyllic premodern antebellum South may have been...