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  • Cavaliers and Economists: Global Capitalism and the Development of Southern Literature, 1820–1860 by Katharine Burnett
  • Gina Caison (bio)
Cavaliers and Economists: Global Capitalism and the Development of Southern Literature, 1820–1860
katharine burnett
Louisiana State University Press, 2019
328 pp.

Katharine Burnett's Cavaliers and Economists: Global Capitalism and the Development of Southern Literature, 1820–1860 offers an important [End Page 858] contribution to literature from and about the pre–Civil War US South. In many cases, early American literature is left out of considerations of southern literature, and likewise, studies of early American literature tend to favor authors and works from the northeastern United States, and if they do look to literature from the US South, it's rarely considered as such. However, as Burnett demonstrates, a close look at literature from the region during the period before the Civil War yields significant insights into the rise of global capitalism and how literature works to allow audiences to reconcile deeply violent policies with narratives of "progress." Indeed, as much recent scholarship has illuminated, literature can allow readers to imagine the lives of others and envision better futures. However, literature also has the possibility to justify for readers deeply immoral conduct and allow them to see the world as they want to see it: a place where their economic priorities are made consistent with their exclusionary and reductive beliefs about race and religion. Through a number of close readings of often understudied texts, Burnett outlines how this phenomenon occurs and why it is now more important than ever for us to dissect the arguments of these white southern authors of early periods in order to combat the white supremacy we see today.

Burnett's introduction sets up the core strength of the book: its analysis of a transatlantic influence of British economic theories and concerns as well as literary aesthetics in the formation of something that would come to be thought of as southern literature. When she outlines these routes of exchange, the larger arguments are made immediately relevant, and her prose is so direct and lucid that I found myself immediately incorporating key passages into my own teaching. Going beyond the Twain-incited truism about Sir Walter Scott's Waverley as directly contributing to a romanticism that fueled proto-Confederate imaginations, Burnett explains in detail how the circulation of literary form intersects with questions over economic practice. Her opening sentence, "To make the horrific acceptable: that was the primary motivation for early southern literature," makes plain the moral stakes of this investigation (1).

The first chapter, "The Cavalier and the Economist: Southern Historical Romance," examines works by John Pendleton Kennedy and William Gilmore Simms. Although neither of these authors is widely read today, as Burnett explains, they were each significant in their own time. While their works must be handled with care in both scholarship and the classroom, in [End Page 859] order to understand the machinations of how white supremacy manages to sustain itself, reading them is as necessary as it is unpleasant. In their desire to show how a US South based on enslavement could manage to "modernize" under the tenets of an increasingly liberalist global economy, the novelists' use of the historical romance shows how the genre was not simply a Scott-induced holdover but rather a fundamental tool to create a southern genealogy from the professed ideals of the American Revolution. Burnett assembles a convincing body of evidence to demonstrate that southern intellectuals and authors such as Simms saw their use of genre as a necessary tool to reconcile free market capitalism with the realities of a conservative region based on depriving humans of life, liberty, and access to the market.

Chapters 2 and 3 cover old southwestern humor and imperial travel adventures, respectively. These chapters, particularly the third one, strike me as the most interesting of the book in terms of how it assembles its archive. The inclusion of Dickens in the second chapter and Burnett's discussion of the "confidence man" figure as it circulated on both sides of the Atlantic is perhaps the best example of how the perils and pitfalls of socioeconomic mobility played out in literature of...