Dissertation Abstract

“Tropical Goods: Modernism and the Global Market”

Dissertation Abstract


My dissertation focuses on four tropical commodities—bananas, chocolate, cocaine, and Coca-Cola—that were either new or were completely transformed within the West during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Technological developments during this period led to revolutions in food and drug processing, distribution, and consumption. For the first time in American history, many kinds of imported goods once reserved for the wealthy became available to consumers of all classes and regions. The four commodities that I study are representative of the rapid growth of imported tropical goods in the United States, and I argue that the naturalizing of these goods into daily life bolstered the growing sense of American exceptionalism and supported American imperialism. My analysis shows that literary representations of tropical commodities do more than simply mirror the growing economic, military, and social power of the United States. For modern writers, tropical goods represented irresistible objects to think with and about; they were new, they came from far-away lands and they were unlike anything else. While literary authors rarely devoted entire works to them, the four commodities I study are peppered throughout modernist art. They appear in strange places at unexpected times, and, like archetypical or “flat” characters, rarely are they introduced, explained, or described in detail. This flatness, however, enabled them to perform important cultural work. Each of these commodities became associated with a defining discourse of American modernity.

My dissertation is thus in conversation with two vibrant directions in new modernist studies. The first, identified by Douglas Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz as the “transnational turn,” interrogates assumptions about the Western origins of modernism and compellingly reevaluates the geographical and temporal borders of modernism. The second direction investigates the relationship between modernism and material culture. My work bridges these two important areas of inquiry by showing how the circulation of material things around the world also both contributed to and problematizes modernism’s cosmopolitan character. My work is also in conversation with a movement within postcolonial studies to consider the ways in which corporate discursive practices are used to maintain and manipulate the power of global corporations. Called “critical corporate studies,” this avenue of research hopes to investigate how such practices influence the public’s ability to “determine the collective good.” “Tropical Goods” dovetails with critical corporate studies in that my project also exposes the ways in which problematic business practices shape daily life in the United States. Yet though I address these concerns, I also show that as these commodities were decommoditfied (to borrow Igor Kopytoff’s term) in literature, their messages and cultural work could be—and was—repurposed.

Chapter One.  I begin with perhaps the most iconic of tropical imports, the banana. This chapter juxtaposes popular and corporate representations of bananas (especially those published by the United Fruit Company, which was by far the largest banana importer) with modernist bananas. The key literary texts in this chapter are Claude McKay’s Banana Bottom and William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. I argue in this chapter that bananas became associated with abundance, which, as T. J. Jackson Lears shows, was a defining myth of American modernity. However, while Lears argues that abundance was primarily associated with the explosion of factory produced goods, my analysis shows that tropical goods also played a key role in establishing the promise of abundance in America. In popular consciousness and texts, bananas replaced nationally produced grapes and plums as “the fruit of the poor man.” Faulkner evokes this powerful trope by including bananas in key scenes of As I Lay Dying in order to critique it as an empty promise. Setting Banana Bottom in Jamaica, on the other hand, allows McKay to show how the mania for banana monoculture in the early 20th century could be devastating for tropical producers. While bananas could be sexualized in modernist art (as they were with, say, Josephine Baker and James Joyce), in the American context they functioned as a symbol of abundance that depended on neo-imperial relations.

Chapter Two. In the 1970s and 80s, cocaine emerged as the drug of glamour and celebrity. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, cocaine was understood in terms of efficiency. To make this argument, I juxtapose early medical writing on cocaine, including Sigmund Freud’s “cocaine papers,” with Frederic Taylor’s The Principles of Scientific Management. This juxtaposition not only reveals how similarly cocaine and Taylorist efficiency were linked. It also enables a new way of reading cocaine in Harlem Renaissance texts. As people learned about addiction in the 1910s and 20s, cocaine became a racial problem; “negro cocaine fiends” were blamed in lurid newspaper articles for all manner of sexual and racial transgressions. The figure of the “negro cocaine fiend” entered into notable Harlem Renaissance texts, including Carl Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven and Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem. I argue that understanding how cocaine was associated with efficiency enables us to read the figure of the “negro cocaine fiend” in these two texts receptively.

Chapter Three. This chapter builds on the analysis of cocaine in Chapter 2. Cocaine was a key tropical ingredient in Coca-Cola, though not the only one, and thus Coca-Cola came under intense scrutiny during the Pure Food and Drug Movement. While cocaine had, for a while, been associated with efficiency, Coca-Cola embodied for modern consumers a sense of democracy. In this chapter, I closely examine the discourse around Coca-Cola in newspapers and advertising, and I analyze Coca-Cola in Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, and D. W. Griffith’s short film For His Son. My argument is that taking Coca-Cola as a metaphor for democracy shows us that democracy itself was distrusted because it reveals upper class fears of the working-class, especially rural working class people.

Chapter Four. The western experience of chocolate goes back to the 16th century, but the perfection of smooth, solid eating chocolate and the creation of the first mass production chocolate factory, Hershey’s, revolutionized how chocolate was consumed in western countries. Hershey’s assembly line lowered the cost of production, resulting in a more affordable product: the first Hershey’s bars sold for a nickel each. This affordable price, combined with Hershey’s success at becoming the first chocolate manufacturer to distribute nationwide, helped to create a craze for chocolate in the early twentieth century. One result of the increased availability and affordability of chocolate in the United States was that chocolate became a timely and appealing metaphor for Harlem Renaissance artists. I will argue that the metaphor of “chocolate skin” was a central strategy employed by Harlem Renaissance artists for revaluing black skin as sensual and desirable, The texts I will examine in this chapter include recordings by The Chocolate Dandies and Langston Hughes’s poetry.