How can we talk about race in English literature?

[Cross-posted to the Valve]

Last night I attended a particularly fruitful talk by Kim Hall (Director of Africana Studies at Barnard) on sugar production in the seventeenth-century West Indies and the use of “sweetness” in English writings about domestic economy and husbandry. Her talk, “Foreign Encounters with Domestic Economies,” covered a great deal of ground, moving from historical descriptions of the African slave labor that produced sugar from cane (making it, for the first time, readily available to English people outside the very wealthiest class) to the kinds of advertisement writing that appeared in the seventeenth century describing the West Indies to the English, and therefore to prospective investors. Not surprisingly, these latter texts largely skip over the facts of slave labor, instead describing the land as itself somehow yielding up not only ready-to-use sugar, but also candies, cakes, and marmalades. Later, she went on to discuss the use of “sweetness” in C17 English poetry, the valuation of “sugar” metaphors over “honey” ones, and especially how the use of “sweetness” relates to English conceptions of English husbandry, as employed at home and in the colonies.

The range and depth promise good things for her forthcoming book, The Sweet Taste of Empire, which promises to cover all this material in greater depth and detail.

Obviously, narratives of labor and empire have had a wonderful effect on our analysis of historical texts. One can’t imagine reading something like Edmund Hickeringill’s 1661 Jamaica Viewed (one of Hall’s main source texts) without considering the ways that slave labor have been erased from its narrative of production in the West Indies. But what I found quite revolutionary about Hall’s work was the way she goes on to show how anxieties about that erasure appear even in the more “literary” texts of the period. She quotes the following lines from Robert Herrick’s “A Country Life”:

Who keep’st no proud mouth for delicious cates:
Hunger makes coarse meats delicates.
Canst, and unurg’d, forsake that larded fare,
Which art, not nature, makes so rare,
To taste boil’d nettles, colworts, beets, and eat
These and sour herbs as dainty meat,
While soft opinion makes thy genius say,
Content makes all ambrosia.

Here we see sweetness (associated with the class-marker-yearnings of the country gentry) rejected in favor of the humble, local products of English husbandry. Nettles and beets are associated with what one’s own hands can gather, rather than what can be bought from overseas labor. The content he urges is not only content with what is simple or cheap, but with what is readily within one’s grasp. Hall demonstrates how the surpassing sweetness of sugary confections is coded with distance, class, and the labor of foreign hands.

Miriam Burstein’s Valve post on “The historicist’s useful fiction” got me thinking about how much one can read into, for example, Herrick’s treatment of sweetness. After all, the narratives coming back to England from the West Indies, as Hall says, tend to erase the labor that goes into planting cane, harvesting, pressing, rendering, and storing. How much would Herrick have known about the vast industry of slave labor that fueled the sugar production that makes the “delicates” fit for the tables of the upper class?

Not much, probably, but, in the end, does that much change the validity of Hall’s claim that anxieties about sweetness and husbandry begin to infuse the poetry of domestic economy in the seventeenth century?

In conversation with Prof. Hall after the talk, I began to think about the ways that I teach literature of this era as aware of globalization and foreign labor. I’m about to start doing Gulliver’s Travels with my British Lit Survey students, and, for me, it’s clearly not just a satire on British society, but also on imperial English perspectives, foreign labor, racism, and genocide. For some reason, these were never really issues that any of the professors I’ve studied Swift with have ever brought up much. We talked about British religion, philosophy, government, and class, all things that Swift obviously knew and cared about, but we never really discussed whether Swift was concerned about slavery, subjugation, and murder. We know he read Dampier and patterned GT on it closely (and to quite humorous effect, if you’ve read Dampier), but the explicitly racist depiction of the Yahoos is rarely discussed. There is a queasiness about whether Swift aligns himself with the Houyhnhnms who wish to annihilate these beings, or whether he is satirizing Gulliver’s creepy eagerness to distance himself from them. To me, the text suggests the latter, but certainly this requires a bit of faith in the amount to which Swift associates the English treatment of the Irish with the European treatment of other peoples around the world. I’ve taught it before with this assumption, while offering the possibility that I’m wrong.

It’s a difficult, and perhaps uncomfortable question that one may not wish to raise about an author whose opinion of human nature is so low that it’s hard not to see some satisfaction in his character’s willingness to turn away from humanity altogether.

I worry sometimes, though, that in our hesitance to suggest too much about an author’s knowledge or opinions, we may be unwilling to bring up issues of colonial power, slavery, and racism while teaching, even if we willingly accept these issues as valid subjects of critical discussion. Is it wrong to suggest the possibility of an author’s awareness of global struggle to undergraduates?

6 responses to “How can we talk about race in English literature?

  1. Carrie,

    It seems to me that the past 10 years have brought together a fairly extensive secondary bibliography of race and Enlightenment, race and 18c empire, etc. etc., and that these writings have been brought to bear upon Swift in the work of Laura Brown, Felicity Nussbaum, not to mention Rawson and a host of others (names, anyone?). So the general issue of Swift and race feels, at the very least, pretty uncontroversial nowadays.

    After looking at your essay, I read the Burstein piece, and I thought that Burstein’s problem with the underinformed author was usually solved with a Foucauldean notion of “discourse,” which after all doesn’t need to be all inside some individual’s head, because it’s located collectively and institutionally, and works through procedures of normalization, not indoctrination. That’s why MF eschews ideology-critique, for the most part, because a discourse can’t be considered a product of consciousness. So Swift does not need to know, or even have heard of, a particular document in the corpus of travel-literature, if we can plausibly show that GT and that piece of travel-literature are part of the same discourse. This opens up all sorts of possibilities of interpretive abuses, but without it we’re all stuck doing influence-studies.

    The real problem is not about the presence or problem of race in Swift per se, but what kind of function it might have in a text as difficult as GT. The Yahoos are mottled and dusky-colored, for example, but does that signify some kind of racial “degeneracy,” a joke on the native Irish “bestiality,” a blurring of human/non-human species boundaries, or somwhow all of the above? And does it even matter whether Swift was doing all this consciously or subconsciously? So it’s the simultaneous stacking-up or clustering of these multiple meanings and associations, and their relative priorities, that create the biggest interpretive headaches, I think.



  2. Laura Rosenthal

    I agree with Dave. I can’t imagine even how one could teach GT without addressing these issues. Even if you never went near them, the students would bring them up (at least I’m pretty sure mine would). But I also think one needs to distinguish “race” from imperialism/global politics. Race is a vexed and complex issue in the 18th century and of course a different cultural formation than it is now. GT certainly engages its 18th-century formation (as Laura Brown has shown), but it much more obviously and explicitly engages colonialism in ways that I think students don’t need a lot of contextual filling-in to recognize.

  3. I am aware that it’s all over the criticism nowadays, but I am often shocked by how rarely I’ve seen it come up in the classrooms where I studied Swift, which were many. Is this an old-guard issue?

  4. Laura,

    You’re right, race and empire represent distinct cultural formations, irreducible to one another. Yet they also seem hard to separate, at least historically. It’s hard to talk about one without engaging the other (or engaging the Other, I should say). I’m curious, though: in what areas should we avoid conflating the two? This sounds like something that’s come up for you.


    the choice of contexts for GT has been evolving for a long time, and to my knowledge the colonial context didn’t become explicitly thematized (at least in my experience) in teaching until around the time of the New 18th century anthology, edited of course by Laura Brown et al. in 1987, about two years before I entered grad school. But I think that that’s where you might find a generational fault line on these questions.

    Frankly, part of this problem relates to where the texts get taught. In a diverse institution like mine, in a state with a frontier facing that of another, older former empire, race and empire really are inescapable topics for those teaching British studies. It’s harder to pretend that there is only one “culture of reference.” Things are a little different elsewhere, I think, though I remember your post about GT in the various boroughs of NY.



  5. Laura Rosenthal

    Hi Dave,
    That’s of course a huge question, but just in the limited context that we’re talking about it seems that globalization politics would be impossible to avoid in teaching GT. Even in a very traditional approach, some acknowledgement of this would be in order–at the very least, as Carrie mentioned, comparison to Dampier. Discussing the representation of race in GT, however, requires I think reference to a more extensive context and also a lot of historicizing so that students do not immediately transfer their 21st century assumptions. Race is evoked, explored, and constructed in GT, but British global expansion is in some sense the explicit topic. Does that make sense? I agree that it’s hard to imagine talking about one without talking about the other, but surely before 1987 some instructors mentioned the context of the formation of empire at least as “background,” but it’s not clear that race would have come up in such a classroom. Those are some exploratory thoughts; I’m sure much more could be said.

  6. Hey Laura,

    Your formulation about the distinction between imperial and racial contexts in GT seems about right: what is explicitly referenced compared to what is tacitly evoked.

    I suspect the racial context hangs in the background of the “species” debates concerning the Hs and their rather instrumental treatment of the humans and Yahoos, and what it means for Guliver to emulate that attitude, as well.