Oedipal and Prodigal Returns in Alejo Carpentier and William Faulkner(*)
Handley, George B., The Mississippi Quarterly
Though my Flight never pass the incoming tide of this inland sea beyond the loud reefs of the final Bahamas, I am satisfied if my hand gave voice to one people's grief
--Derek Walcott ("The Schooner Flight")(1)
IN THE WAKE OF SLAVERY, MANY NATIONS OF PLANTATION America were forced to make the difficult transition from an agriculturally based economy undergirded by a paternalistic plantation family model, to an industrialized economy sustained by liberalist ideologies. In the Spanish-American War of 1898, the U.S. exacerbated its own postslavery contradictions by bringing to the recently emancipated territories of Cuba and Puerto Rico, among others, the neo-colonial strategy of absentee ownership along with new notions of egalitarianism.(2) The war's much-trumpeted liberalist rhetoric often disguised liberalism's marriage to older paternalistic ideologies; this allowed the U.S. to effect the consolidation of an "American" nationality by denying the South's broader relationship to slavery elsewhere in the Americas and by pretending to treat slavery's symptoms beyond U.S. borders. Among a variety of remaining legacies, our practice of literary criticism has yet to recover fully from the effects of this pretense to national innocence; we will continue to be complicitous with U.S. imperialism unless we begin to read across the various national lines of slavery and produce, as this article aims to, hemispheric readings of slavery's legacies.
It is important to remember that paternalism was not solely an ideology of the plantocracy nor was liberalism strictly an import from the North, which brought increasing technological innovations. The plantocracy itself was riddled internally by a contradiction regarding history's relevance to legitimacy; it was caught between the dream of ascendency and that of descendency, the dream of an economic rise from obscure origins and that of status determined by origin. The landed plantocracy in the Americas was, in essence, a class that sought to combine European models of aristocracy with the New World ideal of the rise of the individual.
As a result of modernization, the ideologies of the plantocracy escaped dissolution because they were integrated into the very institutional fabric of postslavery societies, and those contradictions were heightened. The paternalism of the landed classes was threatened during slavery from both ends, by bourgeois liberalism and by proletarian socialism. Once slavery was abolished, these classes found themselves in more direct competition with, and in many cases losing to, these two sectors. Consequently, they surrendered their "organic view of society and the idea that men were responsible for each other, while they retained the worst of their traditions, most notably, their ever deepening arrogance and contempt for the laboring classes and darker races."(3) The symbolic justification of the hierarchical, feudal, and paternalistic structures of the plantation family shifted from a private genealogy of the biological family to that of a public populist affiliation. The landed classes became in many cases wage earners, subject to the volatile economic changes of the early twentieth century with no genealogical hold on their own status and security. This, in turn, contributed to the growth of what Doris Sommer has called the "corporate nation," which represented "a father-figure of national proportions" to which these classes forfeited their authority.(4)
Much early twentieth-century literature represents the failure of the generative impulse with stories of childless couples, orphans, and other family crises because modernization presented the challenging task, according to Edward Said, of finding "new and different ways of conceiving of human relationships" in order to "substitute for those ties that connect members of the same family across generations."(5) That process of substitution brought to the fore "institutions, associations, and communities whose social existence was not in fact guaranteed by biology but by affiliation" (p. …