Plunging Rowe’s Literary Culture and U.S. Imperialism

Rowe, John Carlos. Literary Culture and U.S. Imperialism: From the Revolution to World War II. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Rowe begins this book with the idea that U.S. culture is shaped in part by a “powerful imperial desire” and a “profound anti-colonial temper,” and that these two seemingly contradictory forces are one way to not only read historical forces in U.S. history, but as ways of reading literature, usually as tending more to one side than to the other. Rowe traces back the “anti-colonial temper” to the imperialist injustices of Western Europe, which “justified the expansion of U.S. territory in North America” (5). In the beginning of the nation’s history, in other words, expansionist war “was rationalized in some quarters in the United States as an “anti-colonial” struggle, in keeping with our best revolutionary principles” (5). Other events that worked along both of these ideas, was in organizations such as the Anti-Imperialist league, which, “rather than defending the rights of foreigners against imperial aggression, most nineteenth century Americans upheld the ideals of “American” racial purity against the “inferiority” of such foreigners” (8).

The second and equally somewhat obvious claim that Rowe begins with is that neoimperialism, which “has been traditionally associated with later modernity and post-industrialism…is recognizable in U.S. culture of the late eighteenth and nineteenth century” (11). The idea of winning “the hearts and minds” of the people and colonizing in an informal, economic and cultural manner, is one that Rowe sees as a common theme throughout much of U.S. history.

So what of literary culture? For Rowe, it is often the promulgator of imperial and anti-imperial ideologies: “Literary culture legitimates the ideological aims of print-capitalism and its residual Protestantism by invading the mind and psyche and transforming the body into a representation of the former, often thereby legitimating prevailing hierarchies of race, class and gender” (12). If literary culture shapes the readers into representations—into simulated being of the representation—then imperialist literature shapes men into soldiers of empire. This claim seems the most problematic of them all, and is perhaps naïve in its view of culture a disseminating force of single ideologies, especially since Rowe’s tactic is to close-read texts—a way their contemporary audiences would not have read them—in order to show what kind of ideologies they are meant to expel, or subconsciously expel. For this, he selects “cultural works in which there is some explicit engagement of internal and extraterritorial forms of U.S. colonialism as they were understood in a particular historical moment” (14). His aim, as he states it, is to “shift our literary attention from literary texts, whose aesthetic values are often commodified, to discursive forces that contribute to larger social, political, economic, and psychological narratives. Having done that, we must then evaluate the consequences of those literary contributions or challenges to this cultural narrative” (17). By evaluate here in italics I take to mean a type of re-valueing of these texts based on their political messages, or as Rowe puts it, their “relative contributions to social consensus and social reform” (19). Does this then become a type of acidity test for the worth of literary texts? This seems to be his overall goal, his “curricular standard” as he calls it, a term he uses to “emphasize the importance of our pedagogical purposes in the selection and organization of cultural texts in scholarship” (23). Put in this way, his project seems less a historical exposition, and more a witch-hunt for texts that do not match our values and standards, in a sense, splitting texts into a rigorous moral order.

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