Walter Scott, Postcolonial Theory,
and New South Literature
Peter Schmidt, Swarthmore College
The importance of Sir Walter Scotts fiction for U.S. Southern culture has hardly gone unnoticed, from Mark Twains exasperated quip about the Souths Sir Walter disease, or Charles Chesnutts ironic allusions to Ivanhoe in The House Behind the Cedars, to C. Hugh Holmans more recent examination of Scotts influence on William Gilmore Simms American Revolutionary romances, or Laura Doyles study of ideals of race purity that initiates its analysis with Scott. 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 reexamine Walter Scotts 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 were any region in which Scotts 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 Scotts fiction to some current ideas central to colonial and postcolonial studies, with specific focus on Scotts novel Ivanhoe (1820), and, second, on how under-recognized tensions in Scotts classic postcolonial novels may provide crucial insights into the cultural work of New South fiction, especially Thomas Dixons.
From such passages it appears that Scotts novel works primarily through tracing how binary oppositions run through every aspect of Saxon and Norman life, uniting while they also separate. As Scotts best interpreter, Georg Lukács, long ago pointed out, the plots of Scotts 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 societys social cohesion. Through the heros 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 Lukács words,
The role of Jews in Ivanhoe, especially Isaac and his daughter Rebecca, complicate both the Saxon/Norman binary that sets the novel in motion and the narratives of heroic mixture by which Scott attempts to achieve closure. In general, the Jews are cast as the texts immutable Others, eternally to be outside of any English social configuration. The leopard will not change his spots, Friar Tuck says at one point, changing the meaning of Jeremiah 13:23, and a Jew he will continue to be (282).
The story of Ivanhoe, then, is in general the story of how races become ethnicities, which then become simply intermingled family lineages and customs. The Jewish Otherness that contrasts with this Saxon/Norman synthesis, however, becomes increasingly marked as the novel progressesnot just as a different history but as a different blood, race, even species.
Yet the final irony emphasized by Ivanhoes brilliant concluding chapter is that, although exiled, Rebecca remains deeply internalized within Rowenas and Ivanhoes memories. Further, she becomes not just a vision of the strengths of Jewish character (though she is certainly that), but of the strengths of the Saxon race that allowed it to endure its own form of exile. Deep within Saxon cultural identity until it becomes invisible must always be the memory of exclusion, and paradoxically the figure who gives most eloquent voice to that memory is not Saxon but Jewish.
Scotts analysis of colonialism in the Waverly novels, including Ivanhoe, was so influential in the nineteenth century that it became a central feature of the novel in English, a primary way in which it figured historical memory, cultural progress, and Englands supposed destiny as an imperial empire. Let us turn now to the U.S. South and ask why, of all regions in the country, this one would respond most strongly to Scotts historical vision. Scotts influence on antebellum Southern writing, especially William Gilmore Simms historical romances about the Souths role in the Revolutionary war, has been attentively studied by historians such as C. Hugh Holman, who has found the Souths receptivity to Scott an example of the primary difference between the Southern and Northern U.S. In The Immoderate Past Holman argued that the Souths imagination is primarily historical and dialectical, whereas the Norths is primarily typological and ahistorical because it is grounded in the Puritan intellectual legacy.
The relevance of Scott for understanding the post-Reconstruction New South has not received sustained attention. Yet Scott arguably provides the most influential narrative paradigms for both the white Souths understanding of its defeat and subjugation, and for its rebirth. Progressivist ideology of white racial reunion leading to new empire was profoundly influenced by the white New South, which means that it was also enabled by that regions reading of Scott. Conversely, we cannot understand how dissenting voices in fiction conceived their resistance to white New South ideologyvoices such as Mark Twain, Frances Harper, Sutton Griggs, Charles W. Chesnutt, and Pauline Hopkinsunless we consider well the ways in which they too felt they had to engage and revise narrative patterns inherited from Scott.
The postwar U.S. novelist with the most ambitious and popular agenda to adapt Scotts borderland novels to U.S. history isunfortunatelyThomas Dixon. Dixons Reconstruction trilogy (The Leopards Spots, 1902; The Clansman (1905); and The Traitor, 1907) is easy to interpret as unintentionally bad Scott, with chivalric trappings, stilted dialogue, melodramatic reversals, and a predictable mix of romance and martial epic plots. But such an approach trivializes Dixons huge cultural impact, which means that it trivializes rather than squarely faces Dixons appeals to racism. Dixon was so influential not because of his subtlety but because of his audiciousness: he knew that with some crucial revisions (more on that in a moment) Scotts formulas for describing oppression and cultural rebirth in medieval England or eighteenth century Scotland would be well suited for whites trying to come to terms with the cataclysms of the Civil War and Reconstruction.
Dixon adapted Ivanhoe to show how the white North and the white South could finally be reconciled. The invading Normans are the arrogant Northerners, the Southerners the stalwart Saxons, the dangerous but necessary Jews become the blacks; the plot revolves around heroes in eclipse, threatened rapes, set-piece battles, epic debates and historical summaries, unjust trials, villains whose lusts are compulsively detailed, and medieval trappings and combat trials which signify not nostalgia so much as an aggressive and revisionary modernism that sheathes itself under the guise of rediscovering lost values. As Nina Silber, building on Jackson Lears work, has well argued, Dixons fascination with icons of premodern manliness is part of a larger U.S. cultural crisis at the beginning of the twentieth century about gender roles and combatting the perceived feminization of Anglo-Saxon men by high capitalist culture. Southern whites double experience of defeatfirst in the war and then during Reconstructionfueled Dixons drive to create popular melodramas of beset white manhood triumphant.
Written in the midst raging debates for and against the recent U.S. accession of Puerto Rico and the Philippines, Dixons Reconstruction trilogywhich we should of course call the anti-Reconstruction trilogy provided a blueprint for how Anglo-Saxons could control and exploit colored peoples without being polluted by them. In Dixons quasi-millenial vision, the New Souths rejoining the United States would, like the cultural synthesis celebrated in Ivanhoe, spur the country to a new phase of its development and a new phase of understanding its racial destiny. For Dixon, one of the Souths greatest contributions to the new American empirea contribution that would erase the Souths great mistake about slaverywould be to supply expertise to the U.S., the new champion of the Aryan race (To the Reader), in the proper control necessary for empire of the colored races at home and abroad. As Scott Romine has argued, whiteness even more than the cottom bollwas at the turn to the twentieth century the Souths most significant export to the rest of the nation. And Dixons brand copped big market share.
Walter Benn Michaels makes a significant error when he argues in Our America that Dixon was an anti-imperialist because he abhorred race mixture. Michaels is quite right to stress that Dixons imagination, unlike Thomas Nelson Pages, was explicitly nationalist and statist; the maturity of his heroes is always defined as submission to state authority, properly defined. But Dixons statism was not just concerned with healing the white nation; he linked this healing to empire, to the nations expansion. Once victorious, the heroism of the Klan, the Invisible Empire, is to serve as a national model for a visible American empire with colonies: the New South will teach the nation as a whole how to realize its imperial destiny, which includes learning to control colored labor without becoming subordinate to it. A climactic speech in The Leopards Spots that Michaels has no comment on runs as follows: The young [post-Reconstruction] South greets the new era and glories in its manhood. He joins his voice in the cheers of triumph which are ushering in this all-conquering Saxon. Our old men dreamed of local supremacy. We dream of the conquest of the globe. Threads of steel have knit state to state. Steam and electricity have silently transformed the face of the earth, annihilated time and space, and swept the ocean barriers from the path of man (435).
If Ben Cameron in The Clansman is Dixons Robin Hood, and the KKK a rebel organization that, as in Ivanhoe, must yield its authority to the new state, Phil Stoneman, the Northerner converted to the romance of Southern heroism, becomes Dixons Ivanhoe, the scion of the future. What Phil represents at the novels end is best embodied in his Eagle and Phoenix cotton mills (yes, the name is symbolic). These mills unite Northern capital and Southern labor while also, for Dixon, finding the proper middle economic way between premodern agrarianism and the evils of unregulated, wage-slavery capitalism. Mill owners and other businessmen became the Souths new economic and political elite and, as Dixon well shows, were both in alliance with the KKK and also sought to restrain its use of terrorism within what they felt were acceptible limits. This new white elite made its hegemony stable by dividing the subaltern class, the mill-workers and other laborers, via the Jim Crow color line, the crop-lien system, and other modern inventions for social stratification that proved as adaptable to the new Southern cities as it did for its rural areas. C. Vann Woodward long ago made this essential point about the new world order of the New South, and José Limón has given it a vibrant new configuration in the opening chapter of his American Encounters. In sum, we cannot understand Dixons appeal to both Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilsontwo American presidents with rather different personalities, domestic policies, and imperial visionsunless we understand the ways in which Dixon updated Scott to body forth how a global U.S. empire could outmatch its British rival. Eagle and Phoenix indeed.
Let us now change direction and read more contrapuntally, as Edward Said has urged us to do. Despite Dixons assurance that Scott provided the best model for his narratives of subjugation and victory, a number of elements in Scott, particularly Ivanhoe, were bound to prove troubling to Dixon. For ultimately Scotts vision of the racial nation was incompatible with Dixons. One obvious example of this contradiction is Rebeccas role in Ivanhoe.
As well as being eloquent defenders against tyranny, Scotts Jews are, as I have emphasized, associated with racial Otherness; they are spotted, not Anglo-Norman. Yet for readers who know Ivanhoe well, as many of Dixons readers did, the clear parallels between Rebeccas and Phils trial and rescue by heroic knights inevitably means that Phil will be associated with Rebeccas key character traits as well as her threatened martyrdom. We may call this the leopards spots paradox: whiteness in formation contrasted with racial Otherness inevitably also becomes spotted, that is, incorporating what it defines itself against. Dixons mode of melodrama (which as a genre constantly pushes toward the separation of opposites) has no way of coping with such paradoxes, other than to be silent about them.
Even more difficult for a novelist like Dixon to manage was Scotts repeated cultural synthesis theme, brilliantly orchestrated in Ivanhoe but also prominently featured in many of the Scottish Waverly novels. Scott explicitly grounds both the strength of the British empire and the beauty of the English language on mixture and amalgamation, two terms that we know were anathema to Dixon. Perhaps one of the reasons why Dixons images of blackness are so compulsively negative is that he felt he had to go out of his way to exorcise Scotts mixed feelings of admiration and repulsion for the Jews, an ambivalence that gives Ivanhoe much of its power. In Dixons Reconstruction trilogy Dixon tries and fails to make his adaptation of Scotts cultural dialectic apply only to white Northerners and Southerners losing hate for each other via their common bond in whiteness. Eternally haunting Dixons novels, however, is the possibility of adapting Scotts dialectic in a different way, shaping a narrative of U.S. reunification that would find strength in multiple languages, ethnicities, and perhaps even races.