"Spurious delusions of reward": Innocence and United States identity in the Caribbean of William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Russell Banks

Date of Completion

January 2004


Literature, American




This dissertation studies depictions of the Caribbean and its people in Absalom, Absalom!, Tar Baby, If Beale Street Could Talk, and The Book of Jamaica. I argue that these works present the Caribbean as a vehicle for revealing truths about United States-born characters' identities. The novels present and dismantle United States myths of the Caribbean, demonstrating that these perceptions camouflage fundamental, often abhorrent aspects of United States identity that the characters ignore or deny. These novels hinge on the concept of innocence and explode when the United States-born protagonists understand fundamental truths about their own identities after experiences in the Caribbean. “Fictitious” innocence entails issues of race and class, of personal responsibility, and of the foundations of individual and national identity. ^ The introduction presents a historical overview of the United States' official policy toward the Caribbean from 1898 to 1936 and establishes the study's theoretical framework, which is influenced by the work of Edward Said and Albert Memmi. Chapter One shows how Faulkner diverges in Absalom, Absalom! from a deeply embedded discourse of Haiti as the “other” by depicting the oft-maligned Caribbean locale as an analogue of the American South and as a tool for critiquing the anatomy of a white United States consciousness. Chapter Two discusses the ways in which Morrison situates her own concerns with white and black United States identities in the Caribbean setting of Tar Baby and posits the importance of Caribbean spirits to United States identity formation. Chapter Three on If Beale Street Could Talk explores how Baldwin uses Puerto Rico and its people as a source of knowledge and as lens through which his United States-born protagonists become keenly aware of their identities as black Americans. The final chapter analyzes The Book of Jamaica, focusing on Banks' assertion of the irrevocability of perspective, specifically a white American male perspective. The failure of Banks' unnamed character to address honestly the horrifying truth about United States identity echoes throughout my dissertation and suggests a final, if bleak, commentary on the possibility of transformation. ^