Walter Scott, Postcolonial Theory, and New South Literature

By Schmidt, Peter | The Mississippi Quarterly, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview
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Walter Scott, Postcolonial Theory, and New South Literature

Schmidt, Peter, The Mississippi Quarterly

THE IMPORTANCE OF SIRWALTER SCOTT'S FICTION for U.S. Southern culture has hardly gone unnoticed, from Mark Twain's exasperated quip about the South's "Sir Walter disease" (1) or Charles W. Chesnutt's ironic allusions to Ivanhoe in The House Behind the Cedars, (2) to C. Hugh Holman's more recent examination of Scott's influence on William Gilmore Simms's American Revolutionary romances, (3) or Laura Doyle's study of ideals of race purity that initiates its analysis with Scott. (4) But at this juncture in U.S. literary history, when paradigms derived from colonial and postcolonial studies are challenging Puritan-centered narratives of American identity, there has never been a better time to reexamnine Waiter Scott's legacy for U.S., especially Southern, fiction. For Scott is an indispensable novelist for studying narratives of how conquered colonies or border states reclaim nationhood, and if there is any region in which Scott's influence can clearly be shown to be dominant for a lengthy period, that area is the U.S. South both before and after the Civil War. In this paper I focus, first, on an overview of the relevance of Scott's fiction to some current ideas central to colonial and postcolonial studies, with specific focus oil Scott's novel Ivanhoe (1820), and, second, on how under-recognized tensions in Scott's classic postcolonial novels may provide crucial insights into the cultural work of New South fiction, especially Thomas Dixon's.

For readers familiar with some of the central terms and debates of contemporary postcolonial theory, from subaltern, contact zone, and creolization to the issue of how to understand the roles played by nativism vs. hybridity, Scott's narrative voice is experienced with a shock of recognition. Consider Ivanhoe's description of the "miserable" condition of the English nation one-half century after the Norman French invasion, "prey to every species of subaltern oppression." (5) Scott's synoptic opening chapter of the novel provides us with an anatomy and a history of the Anglo-Saxons' colonization:

   Four generations had not sufficed to blend the hostile blood of the
   Normans and Anglo-Saxons, or to unite, by a common language and
   mutual interests, two hostile races, one of which still felt the
   elation of triumph, while the other groaned under all the
   consequences of defeat. The power had been completely placed in the
   hands of the Norman nobility, by the event of the battle of
   Hastings, and it had been used ... with no moderate hand. The whole
   race of Saxon princes and nobles had been extirpated or
   disinherited, with few or no exceptions; nor were the numbers great
   who possessed land in the country of their fathers.... (p. 16)

>From such passages it appears that Scott's novel works primarily through tracing how binary oppositions run through every aspect of Saxon and Norman life, uniting while they also separate. As Scott's best interpreter, Georg Lukacs, long ago pointed out, the plots of Scott's novels are always dialectical, with his heroes embodying the mixed virtues of the "middle way," a sometimes calculated and at other times involuntary synthesis between opposing forces that threaten the society's social cohesion. Through the hero's struggles and moral choices, what could rend the society apart becomes instead the means for a new phase of its growth. And this social transformation always occurs via a redistribution of power in the public sphere and new alliances in the private sphere, especially through marriage. In Lukas's words, "It is [Scott's heroes'] task to bring the extremes whose struggle fills the novel, whose clash expresses artistically a great crisis in society, into contact with one another.... Scott always chose as his principal figures such as may, through character and fortune, enter into human contact with both camps." (6)

The role of Jews in Ivanhoe, especially Isaac and his daughter Rebecca, complicates both the Saxon/Norman binary that sets the novel in motion and the narratives of heroic mixture by which Scott attempts to achieve closure.

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