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Whitewashing America

Whitewashing America: Material Culture and Race in the Antebellum Imagination

Bridget T. Heneghan
Copyright Date: 2003
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    Whitewashing America
    Book Description:

    Even before mass marketing, American consumers bought products that gentrified their households and broadcast their sense of "the good things in life."

    Bridging literary scholarship, archaeology, history, and art history,Whitewashing America: Material Culture and Race in the Antebellum Imaginationexplores how material goods shaped antebellum notions of race, class, gender, and purity.

    From the Revolutionary War until the Civil War, American consumers increasingly sought white-colored goods. Whites preferred mass-produced and specialized products, avoiding the former dark, coarse, low-quality products issued to slaves. White consumers knit around themselves refined domestic items, visual reminders of who they were, equating wealth, discipline, and purity with the racially "white."

    Clothing, paint, dinnerware, gravestones, and buildings staked a visual contrast, a portable, visible title and deed segregating upper-class whites from their lower-class neighbors and household servants.

    This book explores what it meant to be "white" by delving into the whiteness of dishes, gravestone art, and architecture, as well as women's clothing and corsets, cleanliness and dental care, and complexion.

    Early nineteenth-century authors participated in this material economy as well, building their literary landscapes in the same way their readers furnished their households and manipulating the understood meanings of things into political statements.

    Such writers as James Fenimore Cooper and John Pendleton Kennedy use setting descriptions to insist on segregation and hierarchy. Such authors as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Herman Melville, struggled to negotiate messages of domesticity, body politics, and privilege according to complex agendas of their own. Challenging the popular notions, slave narrators such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs wielded white objects to reverse the perspective of their white readers and, at times, to mock their white middle-class pretensions.

    Bridget T. Heneghan, a lecturer in English at Vanderbilt University, has been published inNineteenth-Century Studies.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-046-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-2)

    In Nathaniel Hawthorne’sThe Blithedale Romance(1852), the narrator Coverdale marks the beginning of a Transcendentalist experiment with a simple tea ceremony. Although the experimenters aim for a classless society, Coverdale cannot elude the material markers of class even at the outset: in a show of “equal brotherhood and sisterhood,” the group that considers itself “people of superior cultivations and refinement” gathers at the rustic dinner table with the hosts, “unpolished farmers” (23). Coverdale critiques the sincerity of Blithedale’s expressed goals when he boasts that they “saw fit to drink [their] tea out of earthen cups to-night, and in earthen...

  5. CHAPTER ONE THE POT CALLING THE KETTLE White Goods and the Construction of Race in Antebellum America
    (pp. 3-43)

    InI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings(1969), Maya Angelou devotes an entire chapter to discussing a white woman’s china. At ten years old, the autobiographical character, Marguerite, must learn, like all “Negro girls in small Southern towns,” the “mid-Victorian values” of embroidery, elaborate table settings, organized meals, and the language of specialized ceramics (87). In order to do so, she must go to “the source of those habits”: “a white woman’s kitchen.” This white woman, Mrs. Cullinan, keeps house with “inhuman” exactness: “This glass went here and only here. That cup had its place and it was an...

  6. CHAPTER TWO LIVING ON WHITE BREAD Class Considerations and the Refinement of Whiteness
    (pp. 44-85)

    It was back in 1823, Quentin Compson says, that Thomas Sutpen was sent on the errand that changed his life. In William Faulkner’sAbsalom, Absalom!(1936), Sutpen marks for posterity the moment its history was made: he is sent to deliver a message at the plantation mansion, home of his father’s employer. Although poor, Sutpen is unaware of poverty’s importance as he passes the numerous status markers of the grounds, “following the road and turning into the gate and following the drive up past where still more niggers with nothing to do all day but plant flowers and trim grass...

  7. CHAPTER THREE UNMENTIONABLE THINGS UNMENTIONED Constructing Femininity with White Things
    (pp. 86-128)

    When Scarlett O’Hara determines to conquer the heart of Ashley Wilkes in Margaret Mitchell’sGone with the Wind(1936), she understands that it will take the perfect dress and a tiny waist. Therefore, she cannot conquer alone; she calls in Mammy, who urges her to wear the proper style of dress and lectures her about ladylike behavior. Mammy, in fact, shows herself to understand the rules shaping femininity even as she violates all of them. She shuffles into Scarlett’s room with a tray of food in her “large black hands”; she is a “huge old woman” and a “shining black,...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR SEE SPOT RUN White Things in the Rhetoric of Racial, Moral, and Hygienic Purity
    (pp. 129-164)

    Toni Morrison’s narrator, Claudia, inThe Bluest Eye(1970) fixates upon her own convoluted relationship with white women—how she, as black, can be seen to love cleanliness and the image of white femininity represented by Shirley Temple, but how this love is in fact a self-protective “adjustment” that will keep her from dismembering the white girl. The child narrator cannot comprehend the attraction of cleanliness—“irritable, unimaginative cleanliness”—just as she cannot comprehend the elements that make a white girl or a white-girl doll so attractive to society (22). Claudia’s “one desire: to dismember” the doll reflects the subdued...

    (pp. 165-170)

    In 1893 the Unites States celebrated the four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s landing by opening the Columbian Exposition World’s Fair in Chicago. The intentions of its organizers were to present a modern image of the United States, to highlight its progress and mark its accomplishments, while at the same time to educate its citizens in patriotism and art. The Columbian Exposition was, as intended, a self-portrait of American values and a broad advertisement of the nation’s cultural and technological achievements over the last century. Culminating in White City, the exposition laid bare the underlying messages of previous architectural and landscape fashions....

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 171-182)
    (pp. 183-198)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 199-204)