Book project – Auschwitz & the Plantation: Labor, Sex, and Death in American Holocaust and Slavery Fiction

Auschwitz and the Plantation is about the relationship between American slavery and Holocaust narratives, their evolving and complementary claims as to why these events took place, and the philosophical underpinnings of these claims. Neoliberalism, a socioeconomic philosophy popularized throughout the 1970s, holds that free market privatization and its limits to government interference protect against state corruption, including crimes perpetrated by totalitarian regimes (e.g., the Nazi regime’s responsibility for the Holocaust). As neoliberalism was increasingly celebrated over the 1970s and 80s—and was formally institutionalized during the 1980s movement for legislative privatization and deregulation, often characterized as Reaganomics—so were American narratives of slavery and the Holocaust subtlety but significantly changing. Revisionist fictional and historiographical narratives of these events excise any suggestion of economic structural incentives for mass murder and enslavement, lest the reductively optimistic account of the free market be tainted as a potential force for “evil.” Finally, then, Auschwitz and the Plantation is an exploration of the unexamined outcomes of reinventing and revising history in the service of an American hero narrative in which the state is antagonist and the profit-motive guarantees against brutality. 

I begin by looking at those exceptional works that depict these events as explicitly economic phenomena, like William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner. I then move to Holocaust and slavery narratives that provide causal accounts to the deliberate exclusion of economics, instead positing race and sex as primary motivators. More generally, I argue that, in what is now regarded as the emerging dominance of American neoliberalism—with its emphasis not just on the economic value of efficient markets but also on their moral value as well—an intensified interest in identifying racism as the source of the world’s greatest evils became linked with an intensifying interest in rehabilitating greed. It is this nexus of relations, between the emerging sense of the horror of genocide and the different but, I argue, compatible sense of the value of markets, that is at the center of my project. 

My reading of American texts pointed to the convergence of Holocaust and slavery representations, leading me to question what happens to our notion of the social and political discourses around them when authors begin lining up these distinct events and suggesting that these historiographies inform one another. This comes most explicitly in the form of arguments made by those historians I discuss throughout the book—historians such as Richard Rubenstein, Stanley Elkins, and Orlando Patterson—who make the claim that an authentic account of one event is contingent on a thorough understanding of the other, and vice-versa. When I began looking at literary texts that mirrored these historiographical arguments, I did so in an effort to discover the stakes associated with them. Why did it matter so much that we believe slavery and the Holocaust are two sides of the same coin? 

I open the body of the manuscript with Styron because he deals with these questions most directly and provides his own not-so-subtle answer: that Auschwitz was another plantation. This claim, and his commitment to it as evidence of an insidious economic climate, is perhaps the clearest articulation of stakes by any writer that I discuss. However, Styron is not unique in this regard because his writing is necessarily more political than a novel like Die the Long Day, written by Orlando Patterson, a sociologist very much occupied with his own scholarly and political agenda. Rather, Styron best articulates the significance of aligning slavery and the Holocaust because he comes down on what, over time, has been revealed as the wrong side of the argument. 

In other words, Styron—in the spirit of “never again”—compares slavery and the Holocaust to illustrate an essential lesson should we hope to avoid such barbarism moving forward: the Holocaust must be understood as modernity’s version of plantation slavery, and both must be understood as natural perversions of economic industrialization. And as I discovered when I began to examine Styron’s contemporaries and successors, the Holocaust and slavery were worth considering together to reveal how very much American slavery—as Spike Lee tweeted in his critique of Django Unchained—was, in fact, a holocaust. This distinction, between Styron’s version of Holocaust-as-slavery, and the other writers’ theory of slavery-as-Holocaust, can easily be seen as reductive wordplay. However, bringing the subtleties of this difference together allows me to demonstrate how their narratives of depraved perpetrators are so often in conversation with the emerging American concept of depraved behavior, and its antidote in the form of profit motive. In the end, money and atrocity converge only in the context of totalitarian perversion, because—neoliberalism would have it—the success of private industry is contingent on just employment practices. According to this logic, in unregulated markets, impediments to maximum profit and productivity—like starvation, abuse, and murder—are organically eliminated, as the ideological capitalist would hardly tolerate, let alone perpetrate, behaviors that impair his means of production. If the economy sees its greatest financial returns when Jewish and black people are treated well rather than subjected to state campaigns of annihilation or enslavement, then an unregulated economy is the greatest safeguard against such maltreatment. And the notion of market-as-safeguard is thus theorized as a protection against any and all institutionalized injustice, be that in the past, present, or future. 

Some of the most exciting and widely read American literary criticism today is preoccupied by questions that both synthesize long-standing discourses of race and cultural studies and examine aesthetic iterations of economic politics, typically in the form of neoliberalism. Likewise, the fields of Holocaust and genocide studies are increasingly positioned to remain relevant by anchoring more traditional archival scholarship to the contested role of Holocaust primacy as it takes shape in American narratives—historiographical and aesthetic—of race and class. An inquiry into Holocaust and slavery fiction is the natural next step, but there has been no monograph that specifically places Holocaust and slavery narratives within the American context into conversation, in an effort to see what problems and possibilities emerge. 

As the scholars invested in this discussion would demand, the question of ultimate stakes arise: Accepting that the research can show how texts obscure economic motives in favor of racial and sexual accounts, why should it matter? This matters because it shows how our emerging socioeconomic values change the way we tell stories, even distorting a seemingly static historical record. When the authenticity of a narrative is dependent upon its compatibility with an economic philosophy, history ceases to exist as non-negotiable truth and cultural production is effectively surrendered to ideology. As my contextualized readings suggest, cultural production that reproduces neoliberal logic—thus protecting capitalist interest from moral indictment and denying the role of capitalism in human atrocities—protects greed as a social good and rejects its potential as a social evil. In sum, Auschwitz and the Plantation is my attempt to illustrate two things: first, causal accounts of slavery and the Holocaust are uniquely valuable in positing alternatives to economic readings of history; and two, when slavery and the Holocaust are understood as two versions of the same hero narrative, market triumphs as virtue and hate as the ultimate vice. And when atrocity is morally theorized in this way, “never again” is assured not by a disruptive critique of economic injustice, but instead by a mandate that we more deeply empathize with the racial, ethnic, and gendered “other.” 

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