K. A. Burnett: Cavaliers and Economists

Cavaliers and Economists. Global Capitalism and the Development of Southern Literature, 1820-1860

Burnett, Katharine A.
Southern Literary Studies
280 S.
€ 48,00
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Deniz Bozkurt Pekár, Leibniz-Institut für Geschichte und Kultur des östlichen Europa (GWZO) an der Universität Leipzig

Ever since its nascent years, the space demarcated as the South of the United States as a distinct entity within the nation, or an “internal other” (p. 1) to use Jennifer Greeson’s apt terminology [1], the formerly slave-holding region of the US occupied an ambivalent position in collective imaginings: a provincial, secluded region of conservative values and a most cruel labor system in such complex socio-cultural, political, and economic entanglements with the rest of the world that the formation of global capitalism cannot be fully comprehended without its role. This dubiousness of the most persistent images associated with the South, however, was long partially ignored, especially in academic circles, for the benefit of American exceptionalism, a paradigm that has served to whitewash the history of the US by condemning the South for the less-than-desirable legacies of the country’s antebellum and postbellum histories. In the last decades, different fields of area studies, including but not limited to American, Southern, and Transatlantic and Hemispheric American studies, have shown a robust inclination to change this exceptionalist historiography. Scholars have been vastly prolific in seeking to locate the region on the globe, putting on display a South that goes beyond being home to local color stories and a “peculiar” economic institution and economically, politically, and intellectually influences and is influenced by the Interamerican, Circumcaribbean, and Transatlantic structures.

Katharine A. Burnett’s book substantiates this paradigm shift experienced in southern literary studies (beside other related fields) with the impact of critical regionalism from an understanding of the region’s literature as provincial, closed-off and local, to one that takes southern literature as one that has been entwined in a much larger space than the region’s assumed boundaries. What differentiates Burnett’s work from others that similarly locate southern literature in global settings is its emphasis on economic connections. Studying rather canonical and popular examples of antebellum southern literary production as media where the US South’s distinct economic position, simultaneously as a major agrarian slave economy and an integral part of global industrial capitalism, is conceptualized and negotiated, Burnett illustrates how southern literature from its formative years on found itself located in the midst of a transnational scenery. However, in doing so, her book does not neglect the transnational literary and intellectual entanglements that marked the development of a distinct southern literature. Putting examples of southern US American and British literature side by side, it shows how the financial and the literary often went hand in hand. This parallelism that can and has in its history often presented southern literature as an imitation of the British is carefully handled by Burnett who clearly articulates how the British literary influence contributed to the formation of a distinctive and original regional literature in the antebellum US South.

The book consists of five chapters interceding the introduction and epilogue. Focusing on a single defining genre of the antebellum southern literature (namely, historical romance, southwestern humor, adventure novels, proslavery social problem novels, and slave narratives), each chapter covers two or three works of literature. Taking the financial crisis and panic of 1837 as a milestone, these chapters provide an overview of the literary reflections of altering opinions of southerners about agrarianism, industrialism, slavery, wage labor, and territorial expansion in the region before and following 1837, that is, during the decades when cotton became the “king” and when its throne was in danger. Each genre allows the book to cover a different financial and social concern. For instance, influenced by the patterns and themes of British romances, William Gilmore Simms’s and John Pendleton Kennedy’s novels employ US history to reflect on changing economic and social life in the region. Burnett shows how these romances sought ways to ensure the future of southern institutions, including and most importantly that of slavery, while securing a stable position in an increasingly globalized and industrialized market for the region.

In reading these novels, Burnett employs the more established close-reading approach of literary studies, illustrating how diverse themes, plotlines, and common figures of antebellum southern fiction allow for various financial and societal considerations. Yet, these readings often distance themselves away from the immediacy of the texts to define patterns, parallels, and points of divergences both within the southern literary scene and in the context of the influences of British literature on it. Such distant readings also provide overviews of the overall economic and political atmosphere and other existing debates surrounding the issues on which these works of fiction deliberate. In this sense, the book touches upon notions that may concern scholars of other fields, such as economic history, who maybe mislead by the emphasis on economics in the book’s title. But, the book nonetheless remains most relevant for those engaged and interested in literary studies.

The last chapter, in which Burnett studies slavery narratives by perhaps the most significant African American authors of the era—a chapter that she defines as “a departure from the previous” (p.20) ones—sadly constitutes the weakest section of the book. Having stated “the primary motivation for the early southern literature” as “to make the horrific acceptable” and to justify slavery (p. 1) in the very beginning of her book, Burnett’s decision to include abolitionist slave narratives remains largely ungrounded. The chapter, indeed, provides an intriguing insight on the ways in which formerly slave authors had to conceptualize their forced labor as a contribution to the liberal capitalist market while simultaneously seeking to condemn and abolish slavery within the context of labor movements of both the US and England. Yet, clustering all slave narratives in a single chapter, next to the four lengthy chapters devoted to various defenses of slavery, the book cannot escape unintentionally reducing the genre into a rather monolithic category that had only a single point of concern when it came to financial developments surrounding the US South. Although one sympathizes with the author’s position in the face of more practical aspects of academic publishing—answering to legitimate concerns regarding inclusivity within the limitations of a single book—, it is hard not to feel that the positioning of the abolitionist literature of the era within the global capitalist economy deserves an equally complex representation.

The book defines its main objective as “delineat[ing] the connection between the development of literary form and economic shifts and to reveal the primary role played by representation of the U.S. South and slavery in global and national discussions of economic and social development” (p. 21). Burnett’s inventive take on the intersection of different and rather distinct fields, however, reaches beyond this goal. Her book does not only show how literature can be read for insights on economic history. It also offers a new historiography of the development of southern literature.

[1] Jennifer Rae Greeson, Our South. Geographic Fantasy and the Rise of National Literature, Cambridge 2010.

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