The Limits of Literary Realism: Of One Blood’s Post-Racial Fantasy by Pauline Hopkins

The Limits of Literary Realism: Of One Blood’s Post-Racial Fantasy by Pauline Hopkins

Volume 36, Number 1, Winter 2013
pages 158-177
DOI: 10.1353/cal.2013.0049

Melissa Asher Daniels, Assistant Professor of English
University of Alabama, Birmingham

Fiction is of great value to any people as a preserver of manners and customs—€”religious, political and social. It is a record of growth and development from generation to generation. No one will do this for us; we must ourselves develop the men and women who will faithfully portray the inmost thoughts and feelings of the Negro with all the fire and romance which lie dormant in our history, and, as yet, unrecognized by writers of the Anglo-Saxon race.

Pauline Hopkins, Contending Forces

In the preface to her first novel, an excerpt of which appears above, Pauline Hopkins offers a critical assessment of the cultural stakes of fiction. According to the prolific writer and editor, fiction and history should serve mutual ends: the uplifting of the race. Pointing to the artistic and archival merits of both disciplines, Hopkins implores her fellow African Americans to take up the pen. As Hopkins seems to suggest, fiction’s primary power lies in its pedagogical potential. Fiction has the ability to educate literate African Americans about their rich and painful past, and this past can in turn enrich literary production, as it is replete with material that might easily be adapted for the sake of artistic development and political agitation. Addressing African Americans specifically, Hopkins indicates that it is the responsibility of the race to produce the writers who will narrate this past “with all the fire and romance” that it deserves. Calling for a fiction of mimetic detail and romantic affect, Hopkins echoes white writer Albion Tourgée’s claim, made some several years before, that realism alone cannot convey “the grand truth which makes up the continued story of every life” (411).

In Of One Blood; or, the Hidden Self (1902-1903), Hopkins advances her views on the limitations of literary realism and puts her ideas about the aesthetic virtues of romantic fiction into practice. Published serially in the Colored American Magazine, the episodic novel blends realism with romance to explore issues of ancestry, miscegenation, and tangled kinship. In this respect, the novel is generically and thematically akin to much of nineteenth-century African American writing. But in some fundamental ways, Of One Blood is one of the most intricate, if not bewildering texts. Indeed, critics often describe it as “unruly”—taking their cue from the title of an anthology edited by John Cullen Gruesser. To be sure, the novel draws from several romantic traditions—the gothic, adventure, utopian genres—€”and adopts a bifurcated plot line—one American, one African—€”that splits the novel into two separate narratives. The text begins in America, focusing on Reuel’s racial passing, and culminates in Africa with his discovery of a hidden city that doubles as a metaphor for his hidden identity. Together, both the American and African sequences form a “realistic” and “romantic” meditation on blood, genealogy, and fantasies of racial difference circulating in the United States imaginary during the nadir.

Critics, however, have a tendency to overlook the novel’s realism or to under assess its romantic value. Some, following Eric Sundquist’s cue, read the book as “patently escapist” (569); while others, such as Adenike Marie Davidson and Yogita Goyal, more recently, situate it within a constellation of black nationalist and Pan-Africanist discourses advocating emigrationism. My trouble with these readings is twofold: first, critical assessments that describe the novel as “escapist” come off sounding slightly condemnatory; such readings carry a pejorative connotation that seem to suggest that the novel evades pressing political concerns confronting black Americans at the turn of the century or that it disavows literary realism (which it does not); second, analyses that take the novel’s “back to Africa” plot at face value are too literal, neglecting the novel’s fantastic and allegorical qualities in the service of advancing emigrationist readings. And while the novel is clearly in conversation with such discourses, it is more interested in promoting black consciousness and cultural distinctiveness than in advocating actual repatriation. An imaginative take on the problem of American racism,…

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