Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun and the City’s Transformative Potential

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, Women on 2013-12-03 05:47Z by Steven

Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun and the City’s Transformative Potential

Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers
Volume 30, Number 2, 2013
pages 265-286
DOI: 10.1353/leg.2013.0031

Catherine Rottenberg, Assistant Professor
Department of Foreign Literatures and Linguistics and the Gender Studies Program
Ben-Gurion University, Beer-Sheva, Israel

We are mainly indebted to writers of fiction for our more intimate knowledge of contemporary urban life. (3)

Robert E. Park, “The City,” 1925

In a moment of accumulated outrage at the humiliations of everyday racism, Angela Murray, the protagonist of Jessie Redmon Fauset’s 1928 novel Plum Bun, decides to leave what she considers her staid hometown of Philadelphia and launch herself “into a freer, fuller life” that can be had only in a truly great city like New York (80). To avail herself of the greatest possible freedom, she also chooses to cross the color line and pass as white. This is a decisive—if expected—moment in the text, and the rest of the narrative details the various repercussions of Angela’s daring decision to set off as an unfettered woman. Fauset’s novel thus traces Angela’s movement over time and space: from her early years in a respectable black neighborhood in Philadelphia, through her adventures as a young woman passing as a white artist in bohemian Greenwich Village, and eventually to reclaiming her racial identity and moving to Paris to pursue her art. At the novel’s conclusion, Angela is coming into her own as a portrait artist and has been reunited with the love of her life, Anthony Cross.

Set exclusively in various and increasingly cosmopolitan city spaces—from Philadelphia to New York City to Paris—Fauset’s novel participates, at least to some degree, in the “urban aesthetics” of Harlem Renaissance literature that Maria Balshaw details in Looking for Harlem. In her book Balshaw considers the then-nascent discipline of urban sociology as practiced by thinkers such as Robert E. Park, whose words serve as the epigraph to my essay, and Charles S. Johnson. She demonstrates that their progressive ideas about urban space formed an important background to the optimism of the Harlem Renaissance (23). Yet Balshaw does not discuss Fauset’s work at any length, despite the fact that Plum Bun—like Nella Larsen’s Quicksand and Passing—clearly takes part in the ongoing debate about “the embeddedness of African American women in consumer culture and in the city” (97, emphasis added). Because Plum Bun engages in important ways with both urban aesthetics and the concerns of urban sociology, I will demonstrate that the novel can be read as raising crucial and timely questions about the emancipatory potential of urban space for upwardly mobile black women.

By emphasizing the centrality of city space in Plum Bun, I add a new dimension to literary criticism on Fauset while reinforcing Kathleen Pfeiffer’s claim that the novel’s narrative is “neither anachronistic nor marginal” but rather modern, complex, and worthy of serious scholarly attention (80). Susan Tomlinson has convincingly argued that Plum Bun “explores the intersections of race and gender constructions of black and white American women” (90). Angela Murray, Tomlinson suggests, manages to emulate two norms of womanhood: that of the New Negro Woman—characterized by racial pride and sexual respectability—and that of the New Woman—characterized by sexual experimentation and the pursuit of a public career. Yet, according to Tomlinson, not until the novel’s end—when Angela is in Paris, has disclosed her racial identity, and begins to devote herself to her artistic career—”do both gender and racial advancement coalesce in the unified female subject” (90). The impossibility of combining these norms in one female subject in turn reveals their contradictions and mutual exclusivity. Cherene Sherrard-Johnson makes a similar point, suggesting that the passing character as artist is the locus of Fauset’s oscillation between advocating an avant-garde womanhood and endorsing a more conventional New Negro womanhood (Portraits 49). Pfeiffer, on the other hand, examines the narrative in light of its even larger cultural context, suggesting that Fauset uses passing as a way to reflect on “the multivalent transformations in which white American culture at large was then participating” (80). Defending Plum Bun from critics who have summarily dismissed it, Pfeiffer claims that the novel is deeply invested in the larger philosophical question preoccupying contemporaneous US intellectuals, namely, whether “absolute freedom aid[s] or obstruct[s] the development of meaningful identity” (79). Fauset consequently records a general…

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Race and Ethnicity in “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” and “The Rise of David Levinsky”: The Performative Difference

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Papers/Presentations, United States on 2012-05-24 22:53Z by Steven

Race and Ethnicity in “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” and “The Rise of David Levinsky”: The Performative Difference

Volume 29, Numbers 3/4, (Autumn-Winter, 2004), Pedagody, Canon, Context: Toward a Redefinition of Ethnic
American Literary Studies
pages 307-321

Catherine Rottenberg, Assistant Professor
Department of Foreign Literatures and Linguistics and the Gender Studies Program
Ben-Gurion University, Beer-Sheva, Israel

Contemporary critics have questioned the reliance on the blac-white binary as the defining paradigm of racial formation in the United States. Eric Goldstein contends that despite the black-white dichotomy’s power “it was never a sufficient framework for understanding the much more complex set of categories through which Progressive-Era Americans understood and spoke about race” (398). Susan Koshy warns us of the dangers of leaving “the intermediary racial groups” untheorized (159). Racialization has indeed been a complex and uneven process in the US, and the black-white divide is insufficient for explaining how racial categories have operated on the level of social practices. However, I argue that the very intelligibility of intermediary racial groups and ethnicity depends on the prior construction of the black-white binary. In effect, the black-white axis has operated to secure the tenuousness of race to a framework of stable boundaries, which in turn has provided the necessary grounding for the ideology of white supremacy (Wiegman 9).

In what follows I examine two seminal novels from the Progressive Era: Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky (1917) and James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912). These texts, now canonical within Jewish American and African American literary traditions respectively, were written just a few years apart. Both novels explicitly query what it means “to be American,” and they do so by exploring how “race” affects one’s chances of success in the Progressive Era US. Werner Sollors sums up the similarities between the two novels in the following way: “Both books depict the externally upward journeys of protagonists from poverty to material success, from ethnic marginality to a more ‘American’ identity, and from a small-town background to the urban environment of New York” (170).

While Sollors underscores the affinities between the two novels, I highlight the differences by juxtaposing specific scenes from each text, scenes that have certainn arrativea nd structurals imilarities. I examine the distinctive modalities of race and ethnicity as manifested in these Progressive Era texts, arguing that the texts reveal three aspects of racial discourse in the United States. First, racial discourse has largely evolved around an ideology of a binary opposition: the black-white divide. Second, racial discourse has created a very patent racial stratification; while black and white have, for the most part, served as the reference points and the defining terms, there have been “intermediary” racial groups. Third, the constructions of race and ethnicity have had very different historical trajectories in the US context. The texts, in sum, gesture toward both the historical difference between the racialized status of African Americans and the racial in-betweenness of other minority groups, as well as the way in which the black-white divide informs the construction of these in-between groups…

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Passing: Race, Identification and Desire

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing on 2012-05-23 01:42Z by Steven

Passing: Race, Identification and Desire

Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts
Volume 45,  Number 4 (Fall 2003)
pages 435-52

Catherine Rottenberg, Assistant Professor
Department of Foreign Literatures and Linguistics and the Gender Studies Program
Ben-Gurion University, Beer-Sheva, Israel

IN THE SECOND HALF of the nineteenth century, African-American writers such as William Wells Brown and Frances Harper began invoking the phenomenon of passing in their texts as a way of investigating the complexities and contradictions of the category of race in the United States. The light-enough-to-pass Negro (but usually Negress) would play a central role in the imagination of African-American writers for the next fifty years. Charles Chesnutt’s The House behind the Cedars, Jessie Faucet’s Plum Bun, and James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man are perhaps the best-known examples. Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella, Passing, the text under discussion in this essay, can thus be seen as inheritor and perpetuator of a long tradition of such narratives. In recent years, Larsen’s text has become the most celebrated instance of a story about passing in African-American literature, eclipsing the tradition that preceded it. This is not coincidental, for Larsen is a master of ambiguity and intrigue, and the enigmatic finale of her novella has generated heated debates and countless interpretations.

Many analyses have attempted to determine whether or not Larsen’s use of passing can be seen as a subversive strategy, that is, whether the narrative serves to reinforce hegemonic norms of race or whether it ultimately posits passing as a viable survival strategy, which has the potential to disrupt “the enclosures of a unitary identity.” While this question still informs several critiques, in the past few years commentators have been concentrating more and more on how passing interrogates and problematizes the ontology of identity categories and their construction. Rather than trying to place passing in a subversive recuperative binary, these articles and books use passing as a point of entry into questions of identity and identity categories more generally.

In this essay I contend that Larsen’s text can assist critics in understanding the specific and, as I will argue, irreducible features of race performativity. That is, the novella can help us begin mapping out the differences between gender and race norms since it uncovers the way in which regulatory ideals of race produce a specific modality of performativity. Passing is especially conducive to interrogating the modality of race performativity because, unlike other passing narratives of the period, Larsen’s presents us with two protagonists who can pass for white; yet only Clare “passes over” into the white world. The depiction and juxtaposition of these two characters reveal the complexities and intricacies of the category of race. While Irene can be seen to represent the subject who appropriates and internalizes the hegemonic norms of race, Clare’s trajectory dramatizes how dominant norms can be misappropriated and how disidentification is always possible.

This essay commences with a theoretical discussion of race. Although much has been written on the constructed nature of the category of race, very few analyses have offered a convincing and rigorous account of how race might be conceived of as performative reiteration. The second section offers a reading of “passing” scenes from the novella in an attempt to unravel some of the distinctive mechanisms through which race norms operate. On the one hand, the novella suggests that race in the United States operates through an economy of optics, and the assumption of whiteness is one of the consequences of this economy. On the other hand, the novella reveals that skin color (i.e., optics) does not really constitute the “truth” of race.

Invoking Homi Bhabha’s notion of mimicry as a supplement to Butler’s concept of gender performativity in the third section, I interrogate and theorize the ways in which the definitional contradiction of race (“can be seen” versus “cannot be seen”) produces race as performative reiteration. While there are two idealized genders under regimes of compulsory heterosexuality, albeit with a very great power differential between them, there has historically been only one hegemonic and ideal race under racist regimes. This difference, I argue, has far-reaching implications, one of which is the need to rethink the desire/identification nexus, a nexus that operates differently in race and in gender. Understanding the particular relationship between desire and identification in the novella also helps us begin to gauge the critical question of disidentification.

At least one clarification is needed at this point, however. This essay focuses on the ways in which power—in the Foucauldian and Butlerian sense—operates on the hegemonic level and does not make a claim about the multiplicity of social practices per se. Hegemony, though, as we will see in the last section, is never complete, indicating that there are always counterdiscourses and alternative norms circulating within any given society…

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Posted in Books, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Novels, Passing, Women on 2009-10-26 20:23Z by Steven


W. W. Norton & Company
September 2007
584 pages
5.2 × 8.4 in
Paperback ISBN: 978-0-393-97916-9

Nella Larsen

Edited by

Carla Kaplan, Davis Distinguished Professor of American Literature
Northeastern University

Nella Larsen is a central figure in African American, Modernist, and women’s literature.

Larsen’s status as a Harlem Renaissance woman writer was rivaled by only Zora Neale Hurston’s. This Norton Critical Edition of her electrifying 1929 novel includes Carla Kaplan’s detailed and thought-provoking introduction, thorough explanatory annotations, and a Note on the Text. An unusually rich “Background and Contexts” section connects the novel to the historical events of the day, most notably the sensational Rhinelander/Jones case of 1925. Fourteen contemporary reviews are reprinted, including those by Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Mary Griffin, and W. E. B. Du Bois. Published accounts from 1911 to 1935—by Langston Hughes, Juanita Ellsworth, and Caleb Johnson, among others—provide a nuanced view of the contemporary cultural dimensions of race and passing, both in America and abroad. Also included are Larsen’s statements on the novel and on passing, as well as a generous selection of her letters and her central writings on “The Tragic Mulatto(a)” in American literature. Additional perspective is provided by related Harlem Renaissance works. “Criticism” provides fifteen diverse critical interpretations, including those by Mary Helen Washington, Cheryl A. Wall, Deborah E. McDowell, David L. Blackmore, Kate Baldwin, and Catherine Rottenberg. A Chronology and Selected Bibliography are also included.

Table of Contents

A Note on the Text
The Text of Passing
Backgrounds and Contexts

  1. Mary Rennels – “Passing” Is Novel of Longings (April 27, 1929)
  2. Beyond the Color Line (April 28, 1929)
  3. Margaret Cheney Dawson – The Color Line (April 28, 1929)
  4. The Dilemma of Mixed Race: Another Study of Color-line in New York (May 1, 1929)
  5. Alice Dunbar-Nelson – As In a Looking Glass (May 3, 1929)
  6. W. B. Seabrook – Touch of the Tar-brush (May 18, 1929)
  7. Esther Hyman – Passing by Nella Larsen (June 1929)
  8. Aubrey Bowser – The Cat Came Back (June 5, 1929)
  9. Mary Griffin – Novel of Race Consciousness (June 23, 1929)
  10. W. E. B. Du Bois – Passing (July 1929)
  11. Mary Fleming Larabee – Passing (August 1929)
  12. Do They Always Return? (September 28, 1929)
  13. “M. L. H.” – Passing (December 1929)
  14. Passing (December 12, 1929)


  1. When Is a Caucasian Not a Caucasian? (March 2, 1911)
  2. [Publisher’s Preface to the 1912 Edition of Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man]
  3. Writer Says Brazil Has No Color Line (October 1925)
  4. Blood Will Tell (July 24, 1926)
  5. Don Pierson – Does It Pay to “Pass?” (August 20, 1927)
  6. Juanita Ellsworth – White Negroes (May-June 1928)
  7. Lewis Fremont Baldwin – From From Negro to Caucasian, Or How the Ethiopian Is Changing His Skin (1929)
  8. Emilie Hahn – Crossing the Color Line (July 28, 1929)
  9. Caleb Johnson – Crossing the Color Line (August 26, 1931)
  10. Langston Hughes – Passing for White, Passing for Colored, Passing for Negroes Plus (1931)
  11. 75,000 Pass in Philadelphia Every Day (December 19, 1931)
  12. Careful Lyncher! He May Be Your Brother (January 21, 1932)
  13. Blonde Girl Was ‘Passing‘ (January 23, 1932)
  14. Swedish Negro Baby! (April 28, 1932)
  15. Virginia Is Still Hounding ‘White’ Negroes Who ‘Pass’ (June 29, 1935)


  1. Mark J. Madigan – Miscegenation and “the Dicta of Race and Class”: The Rhinelander Case and Nella Larsen’s Passing (1990)
  2. Selected newspaper articles on the case (list pending)


  1. About Nella Larsen
  2. Miss Nella Larsen Bids for Literary Laurels (May 12, 1928)
  3. Thelma E. Berlack – New Author Unearthed Right Here in Harlem (May 23, 1928)
  4. Mary Rennels – Behind the Backs of Books and Authors (April 13, 1929)
  5. [Letter about Nella Larsen] Jean Blackwell Hutson to Louise Fox (August 1, 1969)
  6. Thadious M. Davis – Nella Larsen’s Harlem Aesthetic (1989)
  7. George Hutchinson – Nella Larsen and the Veil of Race (1997)
  8. Larson on birth, Passing, and death
  9. Davis on birth, Passing, and death
  10. Hutchinson on birth, Passing, and death

Author’s Statements

  1. Nella Larsen Imes, “Author Statement,” 1926
  2. Nella Larsen Imes, Guggenheim Application
  3. [In Defense of Sanctuary]


  1. To Carl Van Vechten [1925]
  2. To Charles S. Johnson [August 1926]
  3. To Eddie Wasserman
  4. To Eddie Wasserman
  5. To Dorothy Peterson
  6. To Dorothy Peterson
  7. To Dorothy Peterson
  8. To Dorothy Peterson
  9. To Langston Hughes
  10. To Gertrude Stein
  11. To Carl Van Vechten
  12. To Carl Van Vechten


  1. Lydia Maria Child – The Quadroons (1842)
  2. Williams Wells Brown– From Clotel (1853)
  3. Frances Harper – From Iola Leroy (1892)
  4. William Dean Howells – From An Imperative Duty (1892 or 83?)
  5. Kate Chopin – The Father of Désirée’s Baby (1893)
  6. Mark Twain – From Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894)
  7. Charles Chesnutt – From The House behind the Cedars (1900)
  8. Georgia Douglass Johnson – The Octoroon (1922)
  9. Countee Cullen – Near White (1925)
  10. Langston Hughes – Mulatto (1927)
  11. Fannie Hurst – From Imitation of Life (1933)


  1. Frank Webb – From The Gairies and Their Friends (1852)
  2. Frances Harper – From Iola Leroy (1892)
  3. Charles Chesnutt – From House behind the Cedars (1900)
  4. James Weldon Johnson – From Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912)
  5. Jessie Redmon Fauset – The Sleeper Wakes (1920)
  6. Countee Cullen – Two Who Crossed a Line (1925)
  7. Walter White – From Flight (1926)
  8. Jessie Redmon Fauset – From Plum Bun (1928)
  9. Rudolph Fisher – From The Walls of Jericho (1928)
  10. George S. Schuyler – From Black No More (1931)
  11. Langston Hughes – Passing (1934)


  1. Joseph Seamon Cotter, Jr. – The Mulatto to His Critics (1918)
  2. Countee Cullen – Heritage (1925)
  3. W. E. B. Du Bois – Criteria of Negro Art (1926)
  4. Nella Larsen [Pseud. Allen Semi] – Freedom (1926)
  5. George S. Schuyler – The Negro-Art Hokum (1926)
  6. Carl Van Vechten – From Nigger Heaven (1926)
  7. From Negro Womanhood’s Greatest Needs: A Symposium (1927)


  1. Nathan Irvin Huggins – [Schizophrenia from Racial Dualism]
  2. Mary Mabel Youman – Nella Larsen’s Passing: A Study in Irony
  3. Claudia Tate – Nella Larsen’s Passing: A Problem of Interpretation
  4. Mary Helen Washington – Nella Larsen: Mystery Woman of the Harlem Renaissance
  5. Cheryl A. Wall – Passing for What? Aspects of Identity in Nella Larsen’s Novels
  6. Deborah E. McDowell – [Black Female Sexuality in Passing]
  7. David L. Blackmore – “That Unreasonable Restless Feeling”: The Homosexual Subtexts of Nella Larsen’s Passing
  8. Jennifer DeVere Brody – Clare Kendry’s “True” Colors: Race and Class Conflict in Nella Larsen’s Passing
  9. Helena Michie – [Differences among Black Women]
  10. Judith Butler – Passing, Queering: Nella Larsen’s Psychoanalytic Challenge
  11. Ann duCille – Passing Fancies
  12. Kate Baldwin – The Recurring Conditions of Nella Larsen’s Passing
  13. Gayle Wald – Passing and Domestic Tragedy
  14. Catherine Rottenberg – Passing: Race, Identification, and Desire
  15. Miriam Thaggert – Racial Etiquette: Nella Larsen’s Passing and the Rhinelander Case

Nella Larsen: A Chronology
Selected Bibliography

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