- Plantation Visions:Reproducing White Ignorance
John T. Matthews, insightful William Faulkner scholar, turns his attention to the nineteenth century, exemplifying how careful historicism and thoughtful presentism may not be mutually exclusive. In June of this year, 2020, protests decrying the loss of Black lives to police brutality and other forms of institutionalized racism have spread throughout the United States, as well as the globe. As a result, another generation of predominantly white Americans find themselves asking why it took them so long to recognize and take action against the racial injustices that still persist. Matthews's Hidden in Plain Sight: Slave Capitalism in Poe, Hawthorne, and Joel Chandler Harris, which originated as a series of lectures, is motivated by a similar question, as were his earlier scholarly examinations of how fiction intersects with cultural habits of disavowal.
In his introduction, Matthews grounds his theoretical framework in two disciplinary areas: 1) philosophical inquiries into the epistemology of ignorance, especially Charles W. Mills's idea of white ignorance, and 2) historical studies, primarily those of Sven Beckert, which demonstrate the centrality of the Atlantic slave trade and plantation economies to the advent of Western capitalism as a whole. Through this framework, his purpose is to examine how nineteenth-century American literature represented the habits of "acknowledging the undeniable but disavowing the known" when it came to the entire nation's utter reliance on the institution of slavery . By doing so, Matthews invokes the history of the global South as already implicating Northerners in the slave trade long before the Fugitive Slave Law fired up pre-Civil War outrage. Matthews connects his analysis of fiction within these parameters to Slavoj Žižek's account of the fetish in The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989). For his purposes, Matthews finds valuable Žižek's "effort to describe social imaginative forms as fetishistic techniques for concealing the antagonisms and inequities that structure 'the Real' of Western capitalism" . Through a close reading of Herman Melville's Benito Cereno (1855), Matthews illustrates Žižek's notion that ideology drives people to register the Real—but to go on acting as if they do not know it. Captain Delano's inability to see Babo's [End Page E12] mutiny "reflects the fundamental structure of ideology in the Atlantic commercial world he represents: the New Bedford captain knows the iniquity of slavery, recognizes the humanity of the black mutineer, yet cannot act to undo the entire social reality he occupies" .
The book's three body chapters apply this framework to analyzing Edgar Allan Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables (1851), and Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings (1881). In the first and longest chapter, "Purloined Letters: Poe, Pym, and the Plantation World," Matthews questions why it took so long for Poe's contemporaneous and subsequent readers to see in his fiction "the presence of race, enslavement, revolution, and the world plantation system that housed them" . Rather than delving into reception history or building onto the well-established body of scholarship which examines how Poe's writings and life confront issues of slavery and racism, Matthews productively places Pym in a larger context of the global South. Interweaving relevant historicizing with strong close reading, Matthews shows how the formal features of Poe's fiction hide in plain sight the indigestible centrality of the Atlantic slave-based economy. His main textual foci are the evasiveness of the narrative—scenes of (mis)reading, contradiction, distraction—and the alternating psychological states of Pym—various moments of his self-absenting from action. Such "formal features of Poe's writing actively wrought the imperceptibility of a foundational problematic—the incommensurable interdependence of Enlightenment ideals and the brutalities of speculative slave capitalism" . The ignorance of Captain Guy, Pym, and Dirk Peters, in other words, is not a simple lack of understanding, but a manufactured denial which converts anxiety-producing knowledge...