Hairy Paws and Bald Heads: Anxiety and Authority in W. D. Howells’ An Imperative Duty

Posted in Articles, Health/Medicine/Genetics, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-12-30 02:57Z by Steven

Hairy Paws and Bald Heads: Anxiety and Authority in W. D. Howells’ An Imperative Duty

American Literary Realism
Volume 48, Number 2, Winter 2016
pages 95-111

James Weaver, Assistant Professor of English
Denison University, Granville, Ohio

Intensely concerned with the cultural and personal implications of miscegenation and its resultant social upheaval, W. D. Howells’ An Imperative Duty (1891) documents how late-nineteenth-century racial fears become entangled in the medical discourse of the period. Ultimately a romance that brings together the liberal-minded nerve doctor Edward Olney and the refined but tragically mulatta Rhoda Aldgate, the novel traces the ways in which Olney both contests and affirms a racially and socially conservative point of view. As Michele Birnbaum points out, the novel “narrate[s] the young woman’s coming of age as a medical condition.” We might also see Howells’ novel as the coming-of-age story of its protagonist doctor—a coming of age that relies heavily upon his personal and professional relationship with that young woman. Importantly, we can see Olney’s change over the course of the narrative not just as the expression of his developing love for Aldgate but as the incremental recovery of his professional identity. Despite the personal transformations Olney experiences during the course of Howells’ novel, his professional transformation emerges as the more accurate index of Olney’s attitude toward issues of race and class. As Olney assumes a democratic openness toward Aldgate’s “taint” of dark ancestry, he also assumes a medical authority that transforms his romance with her into a doctor-patient relationship. That relationship is further predicated on Olney’s lingering anxieties over his medical authority and economic stability as well as on a troubling erasure of Aldgate’s racial identity. Reading An Imperative Duty in light of such influential contemporary medical texts as S. Weir Mitchell’s Doctor and Patient and George M. Beard’s American Nervousness, then, enables us to see Olney’s transition from nervous doctor to nerve doctor—a distinction that, however coy, aptly indicates how Howells’ hero-doctor is able to “cure” not only his and Aldgate’s racial anxieties but also his own nagging fears about his social, cultural, and medical authority.

Recent criticism of Howells’ novel has usefully explored the ways in which it engages with the racial discourse of the time, as critics have tried to assess the race politics ultimately articulated by Howells. Many of those essays have situated An Imperative Duty against the backdrop of U.S. immigration debates and concerns over citizenship; in dialogue with developments in realist aesthetics and American pragmatism; or in relation to the tradition of passing novels, the trope of the tragic mulatto, and late-nineteenth-century fears about miscegenation. In this essay I’d like to frame my analysis of An Imperative Duty and Dr. Olney against a different cultural backdrop: the rise of “nervous diseases” and the corresponding efforts in the American medical community to organize professionally and consolidate power and privilege through its possession of scientific knowledge. By folding this consideration of Dr. Olney’s professional identity into our larger understanding of Howells’ novel, I hope to illuminate the ways in which the racial and medical discourses of the novel intersect with and reinforce one another, reasserting an entrenched white male privilege despite initially seeming to question those avenues of power.

Before I turn to Howells’ novel, though, let me contextualize that analysis by rehearsing in general terms the late-nineteenth-century medical discourse regarding neurasthenia and by outlining the power relations embedded in the diagnosis and treatment of the disease. George M. Beard first employed the term “neurasthenia” to describe a state of nervous exhaustion in an 1869 speech to the New York Medical Association. A Yale graduate and two-year veteran of the Union navy’s medical staff during the Civil War, Beard finished his medical degree at New York’s College of Physicians in 1866 and almost immediately began a focused study of nervous diseases that culminated in his 1881 text American Nervousness, his most comprehensive treatise on neurasthenia, its causes and effects, and its national significance. In that text, Beard argues against a faculty psychology interpretation of nervousness, contending that the term does not indicate “unbalanced mental organization” or “a predominance of the emotional” but rather “a lack of nerve-force.” As he writes, “Nervousness is nervelessness.” For Beard, neurasthenia was thus a strictly…

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An Imperative Duty

Posted in Books, Media Archive, Novels, United States on 2012-08-02 02:12Z by Steven

An Imperative Duty

Broadview Press
March 2010 (Originally Published in 1891)
200 pages
ISBN: 9781551119144 / 1551119145

W. D. Howells (William Dean Howells) (1837-1920)

Edited by:

Paul R. Petrie, Professor of English
Southern Connecticut State University

An Imperative Duty tells the story of Rhoda Aldgate, a young woman on the verge of marriage who has been raised by her aunt to assume that she is white, but who is in fact the descendant of an African-American grandmother. The novel traces the struggles of Rhoda, her family, and her suitor to come to terms with the implications of Rhoda’s heritage. Howells employs this stock situation to explore the newly urgent questions of identity, morality, and social policy raised by “miscegenation” in the post-Reconstruction United States. The novel imagines interracial marriage sympathetically at a time when racist sentiment was on the rise, and does this in one of Howells’s most aesthetically economical performances in the short novel form.

Appendices to this Broadview Edition include material on the “tragic mulatta” in literature, interracial marriage, the “science” of race in the nineteenth century, and Howells’s literary realism.

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • W.D. Howells: A Brief Chronology
  • A Note on the Text
  • An Imperative Duty
  • Appendix A: Contemporary Reviews and Responses
  • Appendix B: The “Tragic Mulatta” in Literature
    1. From Grace King, “The Little Convent Girl” (1893)
    2. From Matt Crim, “Was It An Exceptional Case?” (1891)
    3. W.D. Howells, “The Pilot’s Story” (1860)
  • Appendix C: Interracial Marriage & the “Science” of Race
    1. From Joseph-Arthur, Comte de Gobineau, Essay on the Inequality of Human Races (1853)
    2. From J.C. Nott, Types of Mankind (1854)
    3. From Frederick L. Hoffman, The Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro (1896)
    4. Pace v. State of Alabama, 1883
    5. From Henry W. Grady, “In Plain Black and White” (1885)
    6. From Charles W. Chesnutt, “The Future American” (1900)
    7. From W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Conservation of Races” (1897)
  • Appendix D: W.D. Howells’s Theory of Realism—The “Editor’s Study” Columns
    1. May 1886 [Realism and Romance]
    2. November 1886 [Aesthetics and Ethics]
    3. April 1887 [Art, Truth, and Morality]
    4. September 1887 [Realism and Democracy]
    5. Dec 1887 [The Real and the Ideal Grasshopper]
    6. March 1888 [Can Fiction Help the People It Depicts?]
    7. December 1888 [Christmas Literature]
  • Select Bibliography

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Slippery Language and False Dilemmas: The Passing Novels of Child, Howells, and Harper

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2012-06-28 02:00Z by Steven

Slippery Language and False Dilemmas: The Passing Novels of Child, Howells, and Harper

American Literature
Volume 75, Number 4, December 2003
pages 813-841

Julie Cary Nerad, Associate Professor of English
Morgan State University, Baltimore, Maryland

Conceived in slavery, gestated in racialist science, and bred in Jim Crow segregation, the U.S. race system calcified into a visual epistemology of racial difference based largely on skin color. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this visual schema of biological difference, despite fluctuation within racial categories—even within whiteness itself—was generally reduced to just white and nonwhite. This illusion of racial dichotomy sometimes allowed very light-skinned African Americans to choose between a black or a white identity. “The position of the pale [black] individual,” wrote African American psychiatrist Charles Gibson in 1931, “is analogous to that of a traveler who has come to a forked road. One branch of the fork is remaining Negro; the other is ‘passing for white.'” In Gibson’s schema, light-skinned African Americans could choose to retain their black identity and risk reverse discrimination within the darker-skinned community, or they could pass as white through an identity of deception, trading the ties of their African American family and friends for economic opportunity, a choice often conceptualized as crass materialism. Recent scholarship on passing for white has complicated Gibson’s simple binary of individual choice by recognizing racial passing as an aggressive political challenge to the ideological construct of race. As a form of performative trespass, many have argued, passing exposes race as a performative identity category, like gender and class. Recognizing this dimension of racial identity does not reduce the cultural and psychological significance of race; rather, it attempts to separate race from biology and the fallacious hierarchy of innate difference that has been used historically to justify systemic inequity and violence.

Despite its impetus, however, recent critical work on race often illustrates the degree to which the one-drop rule still has a toehold on American racial consciousness. “One drop” of “black blood” continues to imply a responsibility to blackness that academic deconstructions of race have not significantly altered. One goal of my essay is to investigate how continuing misconceptions about race as a biological imperative influence our readings of novels about racial passing, despite our acknowledgment that race is performative. The cause I identify here is twofold. First, the ideology of racial uplift and the tenacious persistence of the one-drop rule converge to influence our perceptions of race and our reading of passing novels. Racial uplift, with its debt of responsibility, has become a significant part of our racial ideology: if one’s family is African American, if one has any “drop” of black blood, then one has a responsibility to the race and should proclaim oneself black. That is, no matter how “white” one’s skin, we assume that passers are black and censure their attempts to live outside the bounds of that identity. This assumption evinces the tenacity of—and simultaneously reinforces—the one-drop rule.

Second, in focusing almost exclusively on passing as an intentional act of racial identification, scholars have regarded it as primarily a political challenge to the racial status quo. In many novels of passing, however, the characters’ sense of racial identity develops less consciously, in conjunction with (not simply in conscious opposition to) the racially marked socioeconomic and cultural spaces they inhabit. Legally black but corporeally white, these passers are initially unaware that their genetic heritage includes a “drop” of black blood. I call these critically neglected characters unintentional passers. They do not know that in the eyes of the law they are passing. Texts of unintentional passing, and there are many, destabilize notions of biologically constructed racial identity precisely because the passers are unaware that they are transgressing legal boundaries. The discrepancy between legal race categories and racial self-perceptions reveals how race functions in the United States to maintain socioeconomic inequalities by controlling an individual’s sense of identity and her place within family, community, and nation. Our own tendency to conceptualize these fictional characters as…

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Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in U.S. Drama and Fiction

Posted in Books, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, United States on 2012-06-27 03:20Z by Steven

Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in U.S. Drama and Fiction

University of Minnesota Press
July 2012
336 pages
9 b&w photos
5 1/2 x 8 1/2
paper ISBN: 978-0-8166-7099-4
cloth ISBN: 978-0-8166-7098-7

Diana Rebekkah Paulin, Associate Professor of English and American Studies
Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut

Imperfect Unions examines the vital role that nineteenth- and twentieth-century dramatic and literary enactments played in the constitution and consolidation of race in the United States. Diana Rebekkah Paulin investigates how these representations produced, and were produced by, the black–white binary that informed them in a wide variety of texts written across the period between the Civil War and World War I—by Louisa May Alcott, Thomas Dixon, J. Rosamond Johnson, Charles Chesnutt, James Weldon Johnson, William Dean Howells, and many others.

Paulin’s “miscegenated reading practices” reframe the critical cultural roles that drama and fiction played during this significant half century. She demonstrates the challenges of crossing intellectual boundaries, echoing the crossings—of race, gender, nation, class, and hemisphere—that complicated the black–white divide at the turn of the twentieth century and continue to do so today.
Imperfect Unions reveals how our ongoing discussions about race are also dialogues about nation formation. As the United States attempted to legitimize its own global ascendancy, the goal of eliminating evidence of inferiority became paramount. At the same time, however, the foundation of the United States was linked to slavery that served as reminders of its “mongrel” origins.


  • Introduction. Setting the Stage: The Black–White Binary in an Imperfect Union
  • 1. Under the Covers of Forbidden Desire: Interracial Unions as Surrogates
  • 2. Clear Definitions for an Anxious World: Late Nineteenth-Century Surrogacy
  • 3. Staging the Unspoken Terror
  • 4. The Remix: Afro-Indian Intimacies
  • 5. The Futurity of Miscegenation
  • Conclusion: The “Sex Factor”and Twenty-first Century Stagings of MiscegeNation
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Index
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Crossing the Color Line: Narratives of Passing in American Literature

Posted in Course Offerings, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United Kingdom on 2012-01-03 22:58Z by Steven

Crossing the Color Line: Narratives of Passing in American Literature

St. Mary’s College of Maryland
English 400.01
Fall 2008

Christine Wooley, Assistant Professor of English
This course will consider representations of passing (and thus also miscegenation) in nineteenth- and twentieth-century U.S. culture. While passing has often been depicted-and dismissed-as an act of racial betrayal, more recent criticism has suggested that we view these depictions of racial transgression and deception in more complicated ways. In this class, we will analyze various narratives centered around passing and miscegenation as sites through which we can better examine-and understand-the construction of racial identities in particular historical and political contexts. We will ask whether or not narratives about passing and miscegenation challenge the stability of racial categories. Likewise, we will pay close attention to how such narratives also engage issues of class, ethnicity, and gender. Syllabus may include works by authors such as Harriet Wilson, William Wells Brown, Lydia Maria Child, Frances Harper, William Dean Howells, Pauline Hopkins, Mark Twain, Charles Chesnutt, Kate Chopin, James Weldon Johnson, Nella Larsen, George Schuyler, Toni Morrison, and Philip Roth. In addition, this class will also draw on a selection of historical and legal documents, current critical works on race, and films such as The Jazz Singer and Imitation of Life.

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“Entirely Black Verse from Him Would Succeed”: Minstrel Realism and William Dean Howells

Posted in Articles, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2011-12-16 03:56Z by Steven

“Entirely Black Verse from Him Would Succeed”: Minstrel Realism and William Dean Howells

Nineteenth-Century Literature
Volume 59, Number 4 (March 2005)
pages 494-525
DOI: 10.1525/ncl.2005.59.4.494

Gene Jarrett, Associate Professor of English
Boston University

In the early months of 1896, James A. Herne returned to his hotel in Toledo, Ohio, the city where he was directing and performing in his most popular play to date, Shore Acres. The hotel clerk informed the preeminent actor and playwright that one Paul Laurence Dunbar had left him a gift. Indeed, after attending and enjoying Shore Acres, Dunbar decided to leave Herne a complimentary copy of his second and latest book, Majors and Minors (1896). Fortunately for the African American poet, Herne was well acquainted with the most authoritative literary reviewer, cultural critic, editor, and publisher at the time, the so-called Dean of American Letters, William Howells. Howells was already a household name for mentoring and helping to publish the works of such well-known writers as George Washington Cable, Henry James, Sarah Orne Jewett, Joel Chandler Harris, and Mark Twain. Readers of Harper’s Weekly in particular had come to know and appreciate Howells’s columns, which for a decade had epitomized the magazine’s long-standing identification and review of instructive and entertaining literature. When Dunbar dropped off the book at Herne’s hotel, the thought that Herne would hand Majors and Minors to Howells, who would then review the book for Harper’s Weekly and thereby launch Dunbar’s literary career, was far-fetched, to say the least.

Remarkably, these events occurred in this exact way. Herne did not respond to Dunbar while Shore Acres was playing in Toledo, but he did later in Detroit, where the play relocated and from which he sent the poet a letter: “While at Toledo a copy of your poems was left at my hotel by a Mr. Childs,” Herne wrote; “I tried very hard to find Mr. Childs to learn more of you. Your poems are wonderful. I shall acquaint William Dean Howells and other literary people with them. They are new to me and may be to them.” Herne passed Majors and Minors on to Howells, who decided to review the book in the 27 June 1896 issue of Harper’s Weekly.

Majors and Minors was “new” to both Herne and Howells not because of its two main genres, British Romantic and American local-color poetry: Herne was well read in American literature, while Howells specialized in classic and contemporaneous Western literature. Actually, the frontispiece of Majors and Minors, an image of Dunbar at age eighteen, made the poems “new” (see Figure 1). Howells found the image so compelling that, for the benefit of his readers, he decided to describe Dunbar’s phenotype and physiognomy, those biological traits that affirmed the poet as a “pure African type.” So captivated was Howells by the frontispiece and its implications that, reportedly, he wrote a substantial portion of the review—the sections regarding the idea of someone like Dunbar—without yet reading all of the poems in the book. For Howells the frontispiece verified Dunbar’s identity as an African descendant born in the postbellum New World. The image influenced Howells’s encounter with Majors and Minors in much the same way that a “paratext” influences a reader’s encounter with a text, although Dunbar’s book lacks a comprehensive paratextual frame. Aside from the printer’s information (“Hadley & Hadley, Toledo, Ohio”) and the dedication to Dunbar’s mother, Majors and Minors, as Howells puts it in the review, was “dateless, placeless, without a publisher.” Initially unable to “place” the work, Howells focused on the discernibly Africanphysiognomy and dark phenotype in the frontispiece in order to “place” Dunbar and his work…

The frontispiece created certain expectations for Howells about the kind of writing that should exist in Majors and Minors Whenever Dunbar’s book defied these expectations, skepticism tempered Howells’s enthusiasm. In his review Howells suggests that, in order to assure both critical acclaim and commercial success, the poet should dedicate himself to writing verses only in “Black” dialect, similar to those filling the second and smaller section of Majors and Minors. For Dunbar is “most himself,” Howells insists, when he writes in such informal or colloquial English. Accordingly, he maintains that Dunbar should refrain from writing poems in formal or “literary” English, such as those filling the first and larger section of the book. Howells subtly reiterates this assessment one month later in a letter to Ripley Hitchcock, then serving as literary editor and adviser at D. Appleton and Company. Dated 29 July 1896, the letter belongs to a long-running conversation between Howells and Hitchcock about promising American writers, most notably Stephen Crane. After informing  Hitchcock of his laudatory review of Crane’s two books, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) and The Red Badge of Courage (1895), in the previous Sunday’s World, Howells closes the letter with a couple of sentences about Dunbar: “Major Pond is going to platform young Dunbar next winter, and I believe a book of entirely black verse from him would succeed. My notice raised such interest.”‘

These words are remarkable for three reasons. First, Howells is referring to Major James A. Pond, a prestigious literary agent who had previously directed the lecture tours of Twain and Cable, among other popular American writers. Dunbar had secured Major Pond as an agent by the time he decided to travel to England in February 1897 to lecture and recite his poems.  Second, the reason that Dunbar interested Major Pond in the first place had much to do with that “notice”—Howells’s term for his review of Majors and Minors in Harper’s Weekly. Third, and most important, Howells’s assertion that “a book of entirely black verse from [Dunbar] would succeed” values the racial authenticity of African American literature, particularly the orthography of dialect that came from the pen of a “pure African type.” This appreciation, I argue, belongs to a larger critical and commercial demand for what I call “minstrel realism” in postbellum nineteenth-century American culture.

Although “minstrel realism” sounds oxymoronic, it makes sense when placed within the proper context of how certain ideologies of race (racialism) and realism interacted in the nineteenth century. In this essay I intend to show that the racialism of blackface minstrelsy, performed by individuals darkened usually by burnt cork, created a cultural precondition in which postbellum audiences regarded Black minstrelsy (that is, minstrelsy performed by Blacks) as realistic. This reaction resulted from the commercialization of Black minstrelsy in American culture as an avant-garde cultural performance of racial authenticity. An analogous reaction occurred upon the publication of Majors and Minors in 1896. Howells and other reviewers, editors, and publishers appreciated the particular section “Humor and Dialect” for what happened to be the protocols of minstrel realism: the humor and dialect of African American culture. My argument has several implications. Minstrel realism united realism with what George M. Fredrickson calls “romantic racialism,”” a relationship that flies in the face of the historical conflict between these genres in American culture. While characterizing Anglo-American literary realism as the eschewal of romance and sentiment, Howells in particular defined African American literary realism in these very terms. This apparent inconsistency points to the racialism that helped to perpetuate this definition in the dramatic and literary cultures of minstrelsy.

In this essay I urge another re-categorization of American literary realism. Elizabeth Ammons has already recommended an expansion of this genre to include a variety of realisms, to move beyond the “white, middle-class ideas” of Howells, Henry James, Stephen Crane, and Edith Wharton, among others, and accommodate the diverse approaches of African American, Native American, and Chinese American authors. But Howells’s notion of literary realism included Dunbar as well as other “ethnic minority” writers, such as Charles Chesnutt and Abraham Cahan. In order to explain, then, the fact that Howells cites both Crane and Dunbar in the same letter to Hitchcock as the avant-garde of American literary realism, I suggest that, for Howells and his contemporaries, racial authenticity determined the aesthetic value of literary realism. The contrasting racial identities of Crane and Dunbar, for example, created different sets of expectations for the kinds of realism that they could and should have produced…

…Of all these writers, only Douglass, Chesnutt, Dumas, and Pushkin appeared in essays that Howells wrote elsewhere. None, as we shall soon see, could match Dunbar’s literary potential in Howells’s eyes-not even Chesnutt. Though Chesnutt was a writer who was well respected for publishing in the Atlantic Monthly several Black-dialect short stories (which he would later compile for his first book, The Conjure Woman [1899]), he did not appear as racially authentic as he sounded in these volumes. In a to November 1901 letter to Henry Black [Blake?] Fuller, a Chicago novelist, Howells suggests that Chesnutt could pass for White: “You know he is a negro, though you wouldn’t know it from seeing him.” Thinking similarly, anthologists in the early twentieth century tended to omit Chesnutt from the African American canon, due to his ostensible lack of Black authenticity (see Figure 2). Thus, Dunbar’s impact on African American canon formation at the turn of the century-a period spanning from his rise to prominence in 1896 to the eventual disappearance of his work from national periodicals and from anthologized canons of American literature by World War I-exceeded Chesnutt’s, insofar as Dunbar’s perceived racial “purity” enabled critics and publishers to authenticate his dialect writing in ways initially inapplicable to the dialect writing of Chesnutt and other African American authors of ostensibly mixed racial ancestry.

In Howells’s eyes, the sort of interracial complexion that characterized not only Chesnutt, but also Dumas and Pushkin, disqualified them from the tradition of authentic African American literature. In his introduction to Dunbar’s third book of poems, Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896)-an introduction that incorporates but also modifies his review of Majors and Minors—Howells argues that though Dumas and Pushkin antedated Dunbar as renowned writers of African descent, “these were both mulattoes, who might have been supposed to derive their qualities from white blood … and who were the creatures of an environment more favorable to their literary development.” Dunbar, by contrast, was more authentic:

the father and mother of the first poet of his race in our language were negroes without admixture of white blood….

… Paul Dunbar was the only man of pure African blood and of American civilization to feel the negro life aesthetically and express it lyrically….

… There is a precious difference of temperament between the races which it would be a great pity ever to lose, and … this is best preserved and most charmingly suggested by Mr. Dunbar in those pieces of his where he studies the moods and traits of his race in its own accent of our English.

(“Introduction,” pp. vii-ix)

Howells’s investment in the discourse of blood in his introduction to Lyrics of Lowly Life followed in the wake of the Supreme Court decision for Plessy v. Ferguson,  which legalized the biological discourse of interracialism and supported public notions that one could subject racial identity to biological measurement. This discourse both pervaded the literary criticism and art of African American authors and determined the politics of  racial representation. By the time that Howells wrote his introduction to Lyrics of Lowly Life between September and December 1896, the biological language of Plessy v. Ferguson had already seeped into American popular consciousness for close to half a year. For Howells one drop of “Black blood” did not so much detract from the intellectual potency of “White blood”; rather, this drop became, in its “unmixed” state, a racial virtue—just as it was in the minstrel industry…

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Race Passing and American Individualism

Posted in Books, Identity Development/Psychology, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, Passing, United States on 2011-01-17 00:19Z by Steven

Race Passing and American Individualism

University of Massachusetts Press
February 2003
176 pages
Cloth ISBN: 1-55849-377-8 (Print on Demand)

Kathleen Pfeiffer, Professor of English
Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan

A literary study of the ambiguities of racial identity in American culture

In the literature of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America, black characters who pass for white embody a paradox. By virtue of the “one drop” rule that long governed the nation’s race relations, they are legally black. Yet the color of their skin makes them visibly-and therefore socially-white.

In this book, Kathleen Pfeiffer explores the implications of this dilemma by analyzing its treatment in the fiction of six writers: William Dean Howells, Frances E. W. Harper, Jean Toomer, James Weldon Johnson, Jessie Fauset, and Nella Larsen. Although passing for white has sometimes been viewed as an expression of racial self-hatred or disloyalty, Pfeiffer argues that the literary evidence is much more ambiguous than that. Rather than indicating a denial of “blackness” or co-optation by the dominant white culture, passing can be viewed as a form of self-determination consistent with American individualism. In their desire to manipulate personal identity in order to achieve social acceptance and upward mobility, light-skinned blacks who pass for white are no different than those Americans who reinvent themselves in terms of class, religion, or family history.

In Pfeiffer’s view, to see race passing as a problematic but potentially legitimate expression of individualism is to invite richer and more complex readings of a broad range of literary texts. More than that, it represents a challenge to the segregationist logic of the “one drop” rule and, as such, subverts the ideology of racial essentialism.

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The White Blackbird: Miscegenation, Genre, and the Tragic Mulatta in Howells, Harper, and the “Babes of Romance”

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2010-01-07 22:40Z by Steven

The White Blackbird: Miscegenation, Genre, and the Tragic Mulatta in Howells, Harper, and the “Babes of Romance”

Nineteenth-Century Literature
Volume 56, Number 4 (March 2002)
Pages 495–517
DOI 10.1525/ncl.2002.56.4.495

Debra J. Rosenthal, Associate Professor of English
John Carroll University

In this essay I construct a literary genealogy that situates William Dean Howells in the middle of a call-and-response literary conversation with popular women writers about race, gender, and genre. Since Howells correlated racial questions with realism, his only novel that treats intermarriage, An Imperative Duty (1891), offered Howells an opportunity to deploy his presumably objective, scientific, realist knowledge about race in order to challenge women’s romantic miscegenation plots found in Margret Holmes Bates’s The Chamber over the Gate (1886) and Alice Morris Buckner’s Towards the Gulf (1887), two novels that he had recently read and reviewed. Yet the tragic mulatta stereotype, a stock figure of romanticism and sentimentality that was resistant to scientific discourse, ruptures Howells’s goal of representing the figure according to the tenets of realism. In Iola Leroy (1892), Frances Ellen Watkins Harper cunningly recasts the tragic mulatta stereotype both to critique Howells’s project and to represent the potential of black womanhood. Knowledge of Bates and Buckner can change critical conversation about the influence of women writers on Howells, the understanding of the role of the racialized woman in his fiction, and his conception of the link between the romantic mulatta and realist representation. Likewise, Harper takes issue with Howells’s supposed ironic sophistication about race, and in Iola Leroy she rewrites many of his views in order to show the ways that miscegenation is at once a novelistic and a national problem.

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Race Mixture in Nineteenth-Century U.S. and Spanish American Fictions: Gender, Culture, and Nation Building

Posted in Books, Caribbean/Latin America, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, Social Science, United States on 2009-10-21 03:07Z by Steven

Race Mixture in Nineteenth-Century U.S. and Spanish American Fictions: Gender, Culture, and Nation Building

University of North Carolina Press
October 2004
192 pages
5.5 x 8.5, notes, bibl., index
Paper ISBN:  978-0-8078-5564-5

Debra J. Rosenthal, Associate Professor of English
John Carroll University

Race mixture has played a formative role in the history of the Americas, from the western expansion of the United States to the political consolidation of emerging nations in Latin America. Debra J. Rosenthal examines nineteenth-century authors in the United States and Spanish America who struggled to give voice to these contemporary dilemmas about interracial sexual and cultural mixing.

Rosenthal argues that many literary representations of intimacy or sex took on political dimensions, whether advocating assimilation or miscegenation or defending the status quo. She also examines the degree to which novelists reacted to beliefs about skin differences, blood taboos, incest, desire, or inheritance laws. Rosenthal discusses U.S. authors such as James Fenimore Cooper, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Walt Whitman, William Dean Howells, and Lydia Maria Child as well as contemporary novelists from Cuba, Peru, and Ecuador, such as Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, Clorinda Matto de Turner, and Juan León Mera. With her multinational approach, Rosenthal explores the significance of racial hybridity to national and literary identity and participates in the wider scholarly effort to broaden critical discussions about America to include the Americas.

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