Racial Fictions and the Cultural Work of Genre in Charles W. Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-12-29 19:20Z by Steven

Racial Fictions and the Cultural Work of Genre in Charles W. Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars

American Literary Realism
Volume 48, Number 2, Winter 2016
pages 128-146

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

I intend to record my impressions of men and things, and such incidents or conversations which take place within my knowledge, with a view to future use in literary work. I shall not record stale negro minstrel jokes, or worn out newspaper squibs on the “man and brother.” I shall leave the realm of fiction, where most of this stuff is manufactured, and come down to hard facts.

Charles W. Chesnutt, 16 March 1880, The Journals of Charles W. Chesnutt

Fifteen years of life in the South, in one of the most eventful eras of its history; among a people whose life is rich in the elements of romance; under conditions calculated to stir one’s soul to the very depths;—I think there is here a fund of experience, a supply of material. . . . [I]f I do write, I shall write for a purpose. . . . The object of my writings would be not so much the elevation of the colored people as the elevation of the whites.

Charles W. Chesnutt, 29 May 1880, Journals of Chesnutt

In a pivotal scene in The House Behind the Cedars (1900), Judge Straight and John Warwick, the formerly black office boy turned white attorney, discuss the legal loopholes that permit his racial passing. Pleased to see his old disciple, but afraid that John’s stay in Patesville will compromise his new identity, Straight reminds John that “custom is stronger than law” and in matters of race “custom is law.” Alluding to the legal technicality that makes John a white man in South Carolina (where race is determined by reputation and social standing) but a black man in North Carolina (where race is defined by fractions of blood), Straight suggests that when it comes to the color line, the cultural fictions we create (as in the one-drop rule) ultimately organize our reality. In many respects, this critical observation sits at the center of the novel’s racial critique, opening up into a broader analysis of the relationship between the fictiveness of race and fiction in a more literal sense. Exploring the subject of racial passing through the lenses of realism and romance, the text issues a complex metaliterary statement that articulates how generic traditions and conventions produce racial identities.

That genre is tangled up in the novel’s deconstruction of race suggests that literary traditions and their conventions can in fact perform important cultural work. In some ways, the novel’s greatest realist achievement is its insistence that popular fiction can be deployed to bring about social and literary change. In the epigraphs that begin this essay, Chesnutt expresses his desire to use fiction as a means to initiate an ethical and moral revolution to eradicate racism. The first passage promises a more realistic approach while the second one highlights the romantic quality of black life, suggesting that it might provide the ideal material for socially conscious fiction; that is, documenting the unbelievably horrific conditions under which most black people suffer may be the single most effective strategy for softening white people’s feelings towards blacks and stamping out racial injustice. In The House Behind the Cedars, Chesnutt combines both perspectives, playing out the story of racial passing along generic lines to demonstrate the power of fiction to alter the social and literary landscape.

In what follows, I offer a metaliterary critique of the novel’s textual complexity, calling specific attention to the racial uses of genre. In a series of close readings, I explore the at times puzzling and seemingly contradictory aspects of a novel whose formal intricacies have not yet been fully acknowledged or evaluated. Focusing on three major developments that stand at the center of the novel’s subtly ironic deconstruction of race—the opening sequence, the tournament, and the fatal conclusion in the swamp—I investigate how Chesnutt and his characters marshal the discourses of realism and romance to manipulate the fictions of race. Accentuating the ways in which they use genre as a tool to reinvent their racial identities, I want to underscore the connections between literary fictions and racial fictions. By working through these connections, I seek to bring into greater relief the generic significance of Chesnutt’s…

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

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2013-05-20 17:31Z by Steven

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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