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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Finding Edith Eaton

Posted in Articles, Asian Diaspora, Canada, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Women on 2012-11-27 03:47Z by Steven

Finding Edith Eaton

Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers
Volume 29, Number 2, 2012
pages 263-269
DOI: 10.1353/leg.2012.0017

Mary Chapman, Associate Professor of English
University of British Columbia

Since her critical recovery in the early 1980s, Edith Maude Eaton has been celebrated as the first Asian North American writer and as an early, authentic Eurasian voice countering “yellow peril” discourse through sympathetic literary representations of diasporic Chinese subjects. Eaton, a half-Chinese, half-English writer who wrote under variants of the pseudonym Sui Sin Far, is best known for Mrs. Spring Fragrance, her 1912 collection of Chinatown stories, and for the stories and uncollected journalism reissued in the 1995 collection Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings. Recent discoveries of unknown works by Eaton made by Martha J. Cutter, Dominika Ferens, and June Howard have begun to complicate our scholarly understanding of both her biography and her oeuvre.
Late one night in 2006, I typed Edith Eaton’s name and her best-known pseudonyms (“Sui Sin Far” and “Sui Seen Fah”) into the search bar of Google Books. Instantly, a link came up (one that is, alas, no longer there) to a story signed “Edith Eaton” that appeared in the April 1909 issue of Bohemian Magazine. “The Alaska Widow” is not mentioned in Ferens’s detailed bibliography, in Annette White-Parks’s biography, or in the collection White-Parks co-edited with Amy Ling. It is also uncharacteristic of Eaton’s works. Unlike the stories collected in Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings, many of which are set in North American Chinatowns and/or feature Eurasian children, this story takes up the cultural dynamic produced by the Alaska gold rush and the Spanish-American War, and it features a child born to a Native American mother abandoned by a Caucasian adventurer father who later dies in the Philippines. “The Alaska Widow” is also unlike most of the works Eaton published after 1898 in that it is signed “Edith Eaton” without any parenthetical reference to her pen name. Because “The Alaska Widow” is so different from other works by Eaton, it made me wonder: How many other unknown stories by Eaton exist, and how might they challenge scholars’ understanding of the author?
In the years Eaton actively published (1888-1914), US print culture changed profoundly. The number of newspapers and periodicals quadrupled. While nascent mass newspapers cultivated advertising dollars by becoming politically neutral and purportedly objective, many periodicals marketed themselves to niche audiences organized by class, age, gender, aesthetics, vocation, and other categories. Together Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings have made available to scholars only about fifty (mostly Chinatown-themed) publications by Eaton. My archival research, combined with contributions from other scholars, including Cutter, Ferens, and Howard, has uncovered nearly two hundred additional texts of diverse genres, themes, styles, and politics published in more than forty different Canadian, United States, and Jamaican periodicals between 1888 and 1914.
In her early career, between 1888 and 1896, Eaton placed signed poetry and fiction in small-circulation Montreal publications such as the Dominion Illustrated and Metropolitan Magazine. She also filed regular, unsigned journalistic contributions (primarily about Montreal’s Chinatown) and sent impassioned letters to the editor (signing herself E. E.) about racist policies toward the Chinese in Canada to two local newspapers: the Montreal Daily Witness and Montreal Daily Star. In addition, she filed stories about smallpox outbreaks, fires, and murders from northern Ontario, where she worked as a stenographer from 1892 to 1893. Between 1896 and 1897 she wrote daily society and women’s page news for Jamaica’s Gall’s Daily Newsletter. But Eaton recognized early on that it would be almost impossible to earn a living publishing fiction in Canada. In 1896, therefore, she began to submit Chinatown stories, signed “Sui Seen Far,” to periodicals in the United States—the fin de siècle little magazines Fly Leaf and Lotus, as well as the regional emigration magazine Land of Sunshine and popular magazine Short Stories. On the basis of her success placing these stories, Eaton moved to the United States, relocating to California (San Francisco and Los Angeles), probably…

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Coloring History and Mixing Race in Levina Urbino’s Sunshine in the Palace and Cottage and Louise Heaven’s In Bonds

Posted in Articles, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Slavery, United Kingdom, United States, Women on 2010-05-17 14:31Z by Steven

Coloring History and Mixing Race in Levina Urbino’s ‘Sunshine in the Palace and Cottage’ and Louise Heaven’s ‘In Bonds’

Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers
Volume 24, Number 2 (2007)
E-ISSN: 1534-0643, Print ISSN: 0748-4321
DOI: 10.1353/leg.2007.0018

Eric Gardner, Professor of English
Saginaw Valley State University, Michigan

While the figure of the “tragic mulatta” is writ large in American literature and literary criticism, this essay shares a recognition most recently advanced by William L. Andrews and Mitch Kachun: “What is remarkable though not always acknowledged . . . is the fact that the majority of beautiful mulattas in American novels before 1865 . . . do not end up unfulfilled” (xliii). Andrews and Kachun note that Metta Victoria Victor’s Maum Guinea, H. L. [Hezekiah Lord] Hosmer’s Adela [The Octooon], John T. Trowbridge’s Neighbor Jackwood, [Thomas] Mayne Reid’s The Quadroon, and E. D. E. N. Southworth’s Retribution feature mixed-race female characters who, though they “must endure a stint in slavery and withstand intimidation by lascivious slave owners and brutal overseers,” “more often than not . . . eventually encounter a northerner or a European on whose love they can rely” (lxv, n. 45; xliii). While it is still too early to make judgments about “the majority”-especially given that Andrews and Kachun’s own work illustrates that we need to be hesitant about assuming any “complete sets”-this essay shares the sense that mixed-race characters who are not “tragic mulattas” have been absent from our discussions for too long.

This absence is complicated by the disproportionately larger presence in our scholarship of archetypal examples of the tragic mulatta type in works such as Lydia Maria Child’s “The Quadroons,” William Wells Brown’s Clotel, and Elizabeth Livermore’s Zoë, even though these works were neither more popular nor exceedingly better than some of the novels noted by Andrews and Kachun. The reasons for this imbalance are complex and beyond the scope of this essay; it may come in part from Child’s early imprint on a vast amount of antislavery literature (including Brown’s story) and in part from the limited senses of racial definition that have dominated much contemporary scholarship. Regardless, the dominance of the figure of the tragic mulatta in our scholarship has limited our consideration of race and racial identity. This imbalance seems to me, for example, to be partially to blame for Lauren Berlant’s dismissal of the full range of types of political efficacy available to mixed-race characters-a formation scholars such as P. Gabrielle Foreman have challenged when applied to Black women’s texts. It has also, among other gaps, led many of us to locate the first real resistance to the figure of the tragic mulatta in works such as Child’s Reconstruction-era Romance of the Republic and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s Iola Leroy.

This essay thus begins by acknowledging that there were several early examples of a discourse of mixed-race heroines running counter to the figure of the tragic mulatta-one in which the mixed-race heroine not only avoids a tragic end but actually embraces her genealogy, uses her visual racial indeterminacy to aid nation-building and self-empowerment, and finds fulfillment in a multi-racial family housed within the larger Black community. Specifically, I examine two previously unknown mixed-race heroines who are ultimately far from tragic-indeed, who seem almost consciously constructed as revisions to the tragic mulatta type. This essay argues that, in different ways, the protagonists of both Levina B. Urbino’s Sunshine in the Palace and Cottage (1854) and Louise Palmer Heaven’s In Bonds (published in 1867 under the pseudonym Laura Preston) explode many of the expectations of the tragic mulatta type. Through this work, I hope to begin to re-imagine the contours of our sense of the mixed-race female character (tragic mulatta and otherwise) in American literature.

I focus on a pair of now unknown novels by now relatively unknown authors for a set of reasons. Both were popular in their day: Sunshine went through four editions (under different titles) in six years, and In Bonds, published in both San Francisco and New York, seems to have launched a successful if spotty career. Both have publication circumstances of interest to students of race: the publisher of Sunshine’s fourth edition (which carried the entirely new title The Home Angel) was Thayer and Eldridge, who also contracted to publish Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl before bankruptcy forestalled their doing so; the publisher of In Bonds founded the Overland Monthly and was a colleague of Mark Twain (who would, of course, write works key to considerations of race in American literature). Indeed, both books demonstrate a rich awareness of the literary discourses of race and race-mixing swirling around them. Though evidence about their composition is lacking, Sunshine repeatedly invokes and rewrites the language of the tragic mulatta figure, while In Bonds actually makes specific reference to Uncle Tom’s Cabin as part of the driving force in the novel’s plot (128-29). Though both novels and both authors are absent from contemporary critical work, Sunshine and In Bonds offer fascinating counterpoints to the dominant sense of the figure of the tragic mulatta and presage works that critics have treated as more revolutionary, such as Child’s Romance of the Republic and Harper’s Iola Leroy. Indeed, both Sunshine and (albeit a bit less so) In Bonds suggest that a mixed-race heroine who overcomes potential tragedy is central to America’s future…

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