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How to Read a Banana: Global Modernism and Global Food Chains

 United Fruit Company, 1921).
Fig. 1. “Banana Shipping Routes,” from the back cover of United Fruit Company’s The Story of the Banana (Boston, MA: United Fruit Company, 1921).

While the supply chains for certain foods, such as spices, tea, or coffee, operated on a global scale for centuries, it was not until the early twentieth century that imported perishable foods, like bananas, became widely available to US consumers of all socio-economic classes. Bananas belong to a class of imported tropical foods that were absorbed into the US diet and foodways during the modernist era, changing from “their” foods to “our” foods in ways that parallel changing attitudes toward tropical countries during the early stages of US expansionism into the Caribbean, Hawaii, and the Philippines. In this regard, bananas are not a unique commodity, but they are quite important in that the history of US and corporate neocolonialism in Latin America is inexorably linked to the banana trade, as numerous studies have pointed out.[1] Attending to the supply chains for these imported foods offers scholars the opportunity to weigh their figurative value against the power dynamics of their production and often reveals surprising connections between disparate places, people, and texts.

Food studies frequently proceeds by focusing on a single commodity and carefully examining the supply chain involved in its production as well as its cultural impacts. Sidney Mintz’s study of the sugar industry, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (1986), is a classic example of this approach, and there are many others. However, as Kyla Wazana Tompkins points out, single-commodity studies run the risk of contributing to “unreflective collaboration in the object-based fetishism of the foodie world.”[2] To avoid this pitfall, literary studies need to consider the conditions of production involved in growing, distributing, and consuming these foods, an approach that Purnima Bose and Laura E. Lyons describe as “critical corporate studies.”[3] Such studies analyze the signifying practices of global corporations by questioning the narratives they craft for themselves, which “tend to weave the story of corporate development into progress-driven and triumphalist narratives of . . . an inevitably expanding, always rational capitalism” (Bose and Lyons, “Introduction,” 8). Critical corporate studies provides an antidote to the danger of uncritically adopting narratives about food, eating, and culture that were designed to bolster corporate power and profits.  

The image of a singular “food chain” implies a neat, linear progression from producer to consumer, but what emerges from assembling an archive that, in addition to artistic texts, might include everything from advertisements and annual reports to jingles and local tax codes, is less a tidy chain than a dense, tangled food web. Reading the food web of particular foods is one way that modernist scholars can create projects that scale from the local to the global. Further, because of modernism’s enmeshment with the networks of colonialism, food studies scholars are well-situated to pursue Dipesh Chakrabarty’s injunction to “provincialize Europe.” For Chakrabarty, this project entails “understanding that this equating of a certain version of Europe with ‘modernity’ is not the work of Europeans alone; third-world nationalisms, as modernizing ideologies par excellence, have been equal partners in the process.”[4] Another essential step in this process is to “write into the history of modernity the ambivalences, contradictions, the use of force, and the tragedies and ironies that attend it” (Provincializing Europe, 43). Further, grounding these studies in their material histories and conditions of production helps to prevent global modernist studies from becoming too diffuse by establishing a concrete framework for analysis. To illustrate the approach, I want to turn to William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930) and Claude McKay’s Banana Bottom (1933), two novels that bookend the United States/Caribbean banana supply chain. These novels are connected not only by the banana trade, but also by a shared figuration promoted by the banana industry of the topics as a space destined to enrich the United States through consumption.

Bananas and Bundrens

As I Lay Dying follows the hapless Bundren family as they journey from their rural home to the city of Jefferson, where they bury Addie Bundren. The Bundrens’ journey from their farm to Jefferson is a symbolic journey into modernity that unfolds as the novel moves from an agrarian landscape to an urban one. When the new Mrs. Bundren arrives in the final scene, then, it is fitting that she brings a consumer good—a “graphophone” that comes with the promise of mail order records—that signals the Bundrens’ arrival into a modernity defined by consumerism.[5] Two of the Bundrens, Dewey Dell and Vardaman, are eating bananas in this final scene, and Faulkner makes a point of highlighting the “half-et bananas in their hands” when she arrives (As I Lay Dying, 149). When I first began researching tropical foods, I assumed that the bananas in As I Lay Dying must have been quite rare and exotic, a potent symbol of the tropics.

Before the modern steamship was introduced in the late nineteenth century, bananas were rare because the long sea voyage from the Caribbean to North America frequently meant that the fruit would rot in the hull before reaching port. During this time, bananas were indeed evocative symbols of the tropics. In a history of United Fruit, Frederick Upham Adams recalls visiting the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia as a child. In the horticultural department, Adams encountered “one of the leading attractions” of the Exhibition, a “scrubby banana tree” that to him “was the tangible, living, and expressive symbol of the . . . tropics.”[6] After developing refrigerated shipping containers that slowed the ripening process, the United Fruit Company flooded the US market with bananas, which then lost much of their evocative appeal as they became more common. The United Fruit Company (now Chiquita Brands) is infamous for their neoimperialist business practices: the term “banana republic” was coined to describe their habit of supporting corrupt governments that would be friendly to their interests.[7]

By 1913, United Fruit and its competitors were importing so many bananas that the US Congress considered imposing a five-cent tax on each bunch. Public outcry against the tariff, encouraged by United Fruit, kept it from passing.[8] Adams writes that this protest marked the moment when this “humble tropical fruit” “forgot it was a meek and lowly immigrant with a ‘yellow streak’” and became part of national culture (Adams, Conquest, 334). Opponents of the tax championed the banana as “the fruit of the poor man,” and this trope came to predominate how bananas were represented in popular and commercial media. One argument against the tax, reprinted in the New York Times argued that Americans needed bananas because “the only fruit that comes every day in the year, year in and year out, almost unvarying in price, within reach of all, nutritious, healthy in its germ-proof coat, is the golden ranks of the incoming tide of bananas.”[9] United Fruit’s commercial texts thus constructed a loose narrative that positioned the “fruit of the poor man” as an agent driving both third world development and first world enrichment via tropical consumption.

As I Lay Dying evokes the “fruit of the poor man” trope as part of a larger critique of consumerism’s empty promises. As rural sharecroppers, the Bundrens initially symbolize agrarian ideals of self-sufficiency. Faulkner, however, is critical of their aspirations to self-sufficiency, which he makes most visible in Anse’s pathetic and self-pitying pride at not being “beholden to no man” (As I Lay Dying, 116). So, while the novel critiques consumerism, it also refuses to posit that the solution is to return to a romantic agrarianism. In Jefferson—the most metropolitan space in the novel—things are bought from stores and advertised for sale on billboards, and it is through consumerism that the Bundrens arrive in modernity. The novel’s final scene makes this point by singling out three commodities—bananas, dentures, and a graphophone—as emblems of consumerism. Addie buried and the shopping done, the Bundrens wait “there in the wagon, with Dewey Dell and Vardaman eating bananas,” when they see Anse and the new Mrs. Bundren approach (260). They notice that Anse has new teeth, and Cash thinks that the teeth “make him look a foot taller” (260). The three commodities, the dentures, the graphophone, and the bananas, signal consumerism and bourgeois aspirations. While Anse’s new teeth appeal to his vanity and imbue him with a revitalized sexuality, the gramophone gestures toward both a new entertainment technology and a subscription form of consumerism that supersedes the tools Cash had previously ordered through the mail. The “half-et bananas” are usually read as representing “luxury consumption.”[10] However, bananas were in fact a booming business in the 1920s; while they might have been unusual for the Bundrens, bananas would have been common even in smaller towns like Jefferson by 1929.[11] Indeed, the banana’s unremarkable status in this book indexes the extent to which this tropical fruit became naturalized to US culture.

Since little textual evidence suggests that the Bundrens view bananas as exotic, placing bananas in this scene evokes the “fruit of the poor man” trope, and this figurative use plays out in many of Dewey Dell and Vardaman’s interactions as well. As the character who probably comes closest to having “no ideas but in things,” Vardaman takes bananas very seriously, but not because he desires them. He takes them seriously because they are what he gets instead of what he desires, namely the toy train on display in the Jefferson department store. “Wouldn’t you ruther have some bananas instead,” he recalls Dewey Dell asking, after which he thinks: “Bananas are gone, eaten. Gone. When it runs the track shines again” (65). Vardaman correctly sees bananas as consumable and the train as a durable good. His desire for the train, and specifically his fascination with the track that “shines again,” should be read against Anse’s invective against roads, early in the novel, as an unnatural and destabilizing force of modernization that he sees as bringing another woe to his impoverished life: taxes (22). Contrasting the banana’s consumption and subsequent exhaustion of its use value, Vardaman’s image of the train signals a hoped-for modernity defined by mobility and renewal.

The promise of the “fruit of the poor man” was that tropical abundance, harnessed and capitalized by US industry, would provide a cheap, sanitary, and standardized fruit for all classes of Americans, but Vardaman grasps that access to this consumable good fails to meaningfully alleviate his economic situation or class position, though it does provide for some marginal gains. As I Lay Dying argues that the “fruit of the poor man” fails in the face of the capitalist class structure, according to which view the Bundrens have fallen helplessly “behind” history. In these terms, the novel thus critiques consumer society even as the Bundrens strive to leave agrarianism behind for consumerism. Bananas in As I Lay Dying symbolize the ultimate failure of tropical consumption as a means for improving the life of the “poor man” in America. The tropics operate in the background of Faulkner’s narrative, like a global horizon that has just curved out of sight. Faulkner twists the terms of United Fruit’s “official” banana narrative, insisting instead that it creates, rather than resolves, contradictory economies of meaning.

“A Yankee Fruit”

To shift locations from Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County to Claude McKay’s Jamaica is also to shift focus from white poverty in the southern United States to black poverty in the global south, and the history of banana production provides a compelling link here. In their promotional pamphlets, United Fruit frequently included maps that showed the sea routes between Caribbean and US ports their bananas would take. The map in Figure 1 shows that Jamaican bananas frequently shipped to New Orleans and Mobile, the distribution hubs through which any banana in Mississippi would probably have come. As I Lay Dying’s limited tropical imagination exemplifies what Frederic Jameson calls a “spatial disjunction,” a term referring to an epistemological condition created by colonial systems of production. Jameson argues that imperialism moves vital parts of the system of production overseas, and consequently no single person can gain a total understanding of production.[12] “Spatial disjunction” thus names the epistemological and representational predicament in which physical distance compounds the experiential and affective distance between sites of production and consumption. Claude McKay’s late novel Banana Bottom, set in the rural Jamaican agricultural community of the same name, also represents bananas as a North American fruit, though McKay does so to expose how the growing hegemony of US food power impacts the lives of tropical producers. As a Jamaican immigrant to the United States, McKay was in an ideal position to take up the problem of spatial disjunction in a novel intended for US readers.

Banana Bottom is the least studied of McKay’s novels, partially due to its significant departures from the modernist aesthetics he used in Home to Harlem (1928) and Banjo: A Novel without a Plot (1929). I argue, though, that McKay’s engagement with the global market recasts these departures not as a regression, but as continuation of his investment in radical politics and as a skillful investigation of the epistemological fallout of spatial disjunction. Banana Bottom tells the story of Bita Plant, a Jamaican girl who is educated in England after she is raped as a young woman. When she returns to Jamaica, she finds herself torn between the middle class she was groomed to join and the more exuberant native culture. In the background of this story, Banana Bottom exposes how the fluctuating world market for tropical agricultural products, a crucial element of the setting, makes it impossible for his Jamaican characters to thrive by growing goods for the US food system. Like As I Lay Dying, Banana Bottom focuses on agrarian life and investigates modernity primarily through consumerism’s impact on agrarian communities. While the Bundrens experience modernity by participating in consumer culture, McKay’s Jamaican characters experience it, in part, by producing goods for global commodity and labor markets.

Near the novel’s end, as the Plants prepare for Bita’s wedding, an economic crisis threatens their community. The banana crisis starts when the towns of Banana Bottom and Jubilee are struck with a drought that lasts for three years and proves “one of the most catastrophic in the annals of the island.”[13] For the farmers of Banana Bottom, this crop-destroying drought is an economic disaster in its own right, but the disaster is compounded by the fact that the majority of the farmers depend on one cash crop: the banana. Despite native knowledge and the teachings of the Agricultural Society, which encourage growing a diversity of crops and rotating fields, the “boom in bananas had turned the heads of many of them to planting that fruit only” (McKay, Banana Bottom, 219). When a rainstorm finally comes, it causes a “destruction of farm products [that is] sweeping and paralyzing,” and pushes farming families “families right up against starvation” (224). The Plant family, however, is one of the few to survive this disaster, for Jordan Plant is a “shrewd cultivator, never planting all of his best land with banana” (233).

McKay then links the banana crisis with another world-changing event, the building of the Panama Canal. Repairing the storm damage gives the “transient Negro workers . . . a fat season of work” (234). Afterwards, McKay writes, “they used their savings to take ship to Panama. The Panama Canal was the big hope of the poor disinherited peasant youths of Jamaica and all those islands of the Caribbean Belt” (234). In the next paragraph, the narrator explains that “[a]fter experimenting with different kinds of labourers to do the spadework of the Canal Zone, the Yankees had found that the West Indian spades were the most reliable” (234). Blending discourses of race, international economics, agriculture, and domestic production, McKay’s narrator slips with deceptive ease from describing Jordan Plant’s farm to the global movement of “transient Negro workers” around the Caribbean. At first glance the paragraph break seems to signal a totally new topic, but these transient workers who “take ship to Panama” need to be understood as part of the same economic system as Jordan’s farm and the international banana trade. This section zooms out from a locally defined place (Jordan Plant’s farm) to nationally defined places (Jamaica and Panama), and then again to internationally defined places (the Canal Zone and the Caribbean Belt), indicating the complex food web that connects the whole Caribbean.

Banana Bottom, while ostensibly concerned with Bita Plant’s integration back into Jamaican society, flips the script on the usual narrative of capitalism’s march toward ever-greater prosperity. Instead, the novel shows that the opportunities created by US demand for tropical goods are economic bubbles that cause mass suffering after they burst. US demand for the “poor man’s fruit,” in other words, creates both opportunity and catastrophe in Jamaica. Though McKay calls them peasants, Banana Bottom’s farmers are in fact practicing sound Western capitalism: replacing sustenance polyculture fields with export monoculture fields is the theory of trade known as “competitive advantage” that can be traced back to both Adam Smith and David Ricardo. In a post-colonial situation, however, the cards are stacked against the small producers, who despite their economically rational actions end up subject to the whims of the global market and the weather.

Just as Bita and Jubban’s marriage is usually read as a vindication of Jamaican culture over British manners, so too is the banana crisis a vindication of Jamaican polyculture planting over market-driven monoculture. Through the Plants’ economic situation, Banana Bottom ends up making an economic argument that looks like localvorism, the food ethos that advocates polyculture planting and local eating. Allison Carruth has recently argued against the theory that globalization simply increases commodity fetishism by separating spaces of consumption and production. She complicates this claim by arguing that “globalization . . . also provides the imaginative frameworks and material structures for the contemporary movement to re-localize food and reconnect producers and consumers.”[14] Building on Carruth’s insight, I would argue that Banana Bottom is an early manifestation of this realization and a poignant critique of US consumerism’s effects on the nations that supply its goods. Humanizing their production, as McKay does, is an attempt to bridge the spatial disjunction between consumer and producer. It is a narrative choice with a didactic intent; it teaches readers something about full cost of the cheap “fruit of the poor man” and the interconnection of global industries.

What I’ve presented here is just a small piece of the story of one food and its supply chain. Similar approaches to literature are an opportunity not only for further scholarship, but also for our teaching. The material, social, and symbolic histories of modernisms and the foods that fueled them are just now starting to be written. These projects will help us to see the networks that stretch all from Jamaica to Yoknapatawpha and that reveal the global within the local.


[1] See, for example, Catherine Cocks, “The Pleasures of Degeneration: Climate, Race, and the Origins of the Global Tourist South in the Americas,” Discourse: Journal for Theoretical Studies in Media and Culture 29, no. 2/3 (2007): 215–35; Gary Y. Okihiro, Pineapple Culture: A History of the Tropical and Temperate Zones (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009); Valérie Loichot, The Tropics Bite Back: Culinary Coups in Caribbean Literature (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013). Mimi Sheller, Consuming the Caribbean: From Arawaks to Zombies (New York: Routledge, 2003

[2] Kyla Wazana Tompkins, Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century (New York: New York University Press, 2012), 2.

[3] Purnima Bose and Laura E. Lyons, “Introduction: Towards a Critical Corporate Studies,” in Cultural Critique and the Global Corporation, ed. Purnima Bose and Laura E. Lyons (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), 1–27, 8.  

[4] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 43.

[5] William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying (New York, Norton, 2010), 149.

[6] Frederick Upham Adams, Conquest of the Tropics: The Story of the Creative Enterprises Conducted by the United Fruit Company (New York: Doubleday, Page and Company, 1914), 20, 21.

[7] There are many excellent histories of United Fruit, but see especially Lester D. Langley’s The Banana Wars: An Inner History of American Empire 1900–1934 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1983), and Steve Striffler and Mark Moberg’s collection Banana Wars: Power, Production, and History in the Americas (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).

[8] This bill was the Underwood-Simmons Tax. See Dan Koeppel, Banana: Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World (New York: Hudson Street Press, 2008), 67.

[9] “Fight to Preserve ‘Poor Man’s Fruit,’” New York Times, July 13, 1913, 3.

[10] Susan Willis, “Learning from the Banana,” American Quarterly 39, no. 4 (1987): 586–600, 591.

[11] Numerous sources attest to the banana’s ubiquity in the 1920s. See for example Jesse T. Palmer, “The Banana in Caribbean Trade,” Economic Geography 8, no. 3 (1932): 262–73.

[12] Frederic Jameson, “Modernism and Imperialism,” in Terry Eagleton, Frederic Jameson, and Edward W. Said, Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990), 43–68, 51.

[13] Claude McKay, Banana Bottom (London: X Press, 1998), 181.

[14] Allison Carruth, Global Appetites: American Power and the Literature of Food (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 7.