My Son, My Son!: Paternalism, Haiti, and Early Twentieth-Century American Imperialism in William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!

By Gerend, Sara | The Southern Literary Journal, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

My Son, My Son!: Paternalism, Haiti, and Early Twentieth-Century American Imperialism in William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!


Gerend, Sara, The Southern Literary Journal


Over the last ten years critics have focused increasingly on the role of the Caribbean in William Faulkner's fiction. According to John T. Matthews, this recent interest in the West Indian component of Faulkner's works has served to uncover long-neglected connections between "new world histories and experiences" (239). For example, several critical studies have centered upon the complex relationship between the U.S. South and the island of Haiti in Faulkner's 1936 modernist novel Absalom, Absalom!, reconfiguring the imaginative geography of Faulkner's South as a kind of Caribbean rimlands. In "Absalom, Absalom!, Haiti and Labor History: Reading Unreadable Revolutions," Richard Godden reads the Haitian dimension of Faulkner's narrative as a direct and powerful comment upon the practice of southern slavery in nineteenth-century America. Godden argues that the Haitian slave rebellion of 1791 and the subsequent establishment of the Western hemisphere's first black independent nation in 1804 transformed Haiti into U.S. slaveholders' worst nightmare; in Absalom, Absalom!, Haiti shadows Faulkner's plantation South as a haunting threat "synonymous with revolution" (686). The Haitian presence in Faulkner's novel has also been analyzed in terms of its relevance to issues of early twentieth-century U.S. empire. In "The Hidden Caribbean 'Other' in William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!: An Ideological Ancestry of U.S. Imperialism," Maritza Stanchich asserts that the black island nation, held under U.S. military rule from 1915-1934, emerges in Faulkner's novel as an imperialist representation of the Caribbean. Through descriptions of "the marginal, unnamed, assumed, but nonetheless useful presence of the Caribbean," one can glean the imperial designs of Faulkner's own generation in the West Indies (605). According to Barbara Ladd, America's imperial interests in Haiti can be discerned most directly in Faulkner's novel through the puzzling and phantasmal character of Charles Bon, who is born there and becomes increasingly associated in the novel with the nation of Haiti. Ladd interprets America's early twentieth-century imperial engagement in the Caribbean directly through the 1910 narrators' "reconstruction" (542) of Charles Bon and his black island origins.

In this essay, I build upon Stanchich's and Ladd's examinations of early twentieth-century U.S. imperialist representations of Haiti in Absalom, Absalom!. I further assert that Faulkner's novel thematically foregrounds the designs of early twentieth-century American empire toward Haiti through the historically prevalent discourse of paternalism. According to historian Mary A. Renda, paternalism served as the primary discursive mechanism that enabled the American invasion and takeover of Haiti for nineteen years. In Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism, 1915-1940, Renda examines a range of cultural artifacts including imperial documents, Marines' magazines, soldiers' memoirs, and best-selling novels, to show how early twentieth-century Americans were encouraged to envision Haiti's black island nation as a "fatherless child" in need of stern paternal guidance from the United States (250). Extending Renda's claims to Faulkner's novel, I argue that Quentin and Shreve's 1910 narrative that reconstructs Charles Bon as the abandoned Haitian son must be recognized as a vital part of the emerging paternalist discourse that came to justify and maintain American imperialism in Haiti. Just as U.S. Marines and ordinary American citizens were taught to imagine the poor black island nation as an orphan in need of adult male guidance, Quentin and Shreve visualize Haiti as a deserted son who craves nothing more than the American father's paternal recognition. When read in the context of U.S. imperialism, Absalom, Absalom! clearly dramatizes America's paternalist ideology regarding Haiti and emerges as a significant text in the culture of early twentieth-century U. …

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