Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Earth-Eating, Addiction, Nostalgia: Charles Chesnutt's Diasporic Regionalism

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Earth-Eating, Addiction, Nostalgia: Charles Chesnutt's Diasporic Regionalism

Article excerpt

WHAT MAKES A MAN EAT DIRT? IN THE SLAVEHOLDING NEW WORLD during the early to mid-1800s, the question took on an unexpected urgency. Slaves were dying, and the cause, it appeared, lay in an "ungovernable determination" to consume the earth of the plantation. (1) Planters ought to beware, warned the considerable body of medical writings on the subject; such consumption might well be taking place without their knowledge, for it was typically carried out in secret, and denied most strenuously by those involved. (2) The stakes could not be higher, however. On one Dominican estate, nearly half the slaves were "carried off in a few years" from earth-eating, while more than one Louisiana plantation was purportedly abandoned altogether due to the "extensive mortality, resulting ... from this habit" (Imray 309, Carpenter 148). As a result, masters often resorted to extreme measures, forcing the men and women under their rule to wear iron face masks secured in the back with a lock, as the only means of keeping the "invincible craving" at bay (Cragin 359, Carpenter 149).

What is happening when a person is rendered "ungovernable" because of his appetite? Such a formulation does not pit the slave's will against his master's so much as it pits the "irresistible dominion" of the desire for earth against the dominion of the slaveowner (Cragin 359). Some writers, of course, saw greater intent at work in the practice--a deliberate attempt to escape the conditions of enslavement, through death if need be. For others, however, this view ascribed too great a purposiveness to sufferers seen as driven by a "propensity"--indeed, an "addiction"--over which they showed little control (Carpenter 166, Imray 307). In fact, insisted one observer of Jamaican earth-eaters, the slaves actively enjoyed their strange repast--not just any kind of earth was deemed appealing--and "'express as much satisfaction from it as the greatest lover of tobacco could do'" (qtd. in Carpenter 149).

Suffering and pleasure, death and freedom, will and automatism become hopelessly entangled here, and perhaps suggest only that the medical establishment of the 1830s and '40s might not serve as the best guides to slaves' techniques of survival or self-destruction. Yet surely earth-eating stands out distinctly among other such techniques for more intimately entwining survival with self-destruction: one nourishes oneself, over time, with the very thing that may well also bring about one's demise. In this essay, I argue that this disturbing double capacity may help explain what led Charles W. Chesnutt, "the first African-American writer of fiction to enlist the whitecontrolled publishing industry in the service of his social message," (3) to reconsider the history of earth-eating among the slave population at the turn into the twentieth century.

Most often read as a "regionalist" writer, Chesnutt in the short fiction that made his reputation in the 1890s meditates ongoingly on the relation between southern Americans and their physical environment. Specifically, he considers the situation of the many former slaves who remained in the locality of their servitude after the Civil War--using the spatial metaphor of attachment to place to consider the temporal dilemma, for the postbellum African-American subject, of one's connection to an only recently overcome past of bondage. As we will see, rather than succumb to the ready temptation to repudiate that linkage, Chesnutt hyperbolizes it. Indeed, he does so to the extent that his fiction, like that of other regionalists writing in the rapidly modernizing late nineteenth-century U.S., has often been accused of indulging in a "nostalgic" lament for an earlier time.

To read Chesnutt's actual complexity, then, requires grasping nostalgia's more nuanced meanings in his writing. Nostalgia, like the slaves' earth-eating (which, as we will see, was at times ascribed to a condition of nostalgia among them) has most often been seen simply as a form of unreflective self-indulgence. …

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