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Joyce Green MacDonald. Women and Race in Early Modern Texts.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. x + 188 pp. index, bibl. $55. ISBN: 0-521-81016-7.

This study locates "the operations of ... racial consciousness in the early modern period" (19) in a pattern of "representational practices" that favors "allusion and displacement" (4), whereby "race is communicated as a quantity that can be split, re-formed, erased" (5). MacDonald focuses particularly on the act of "substitution" in which "black women are represented as white in the period" (11). Her characteristic approach is to gather and compare a series of literary works that share a common figure such as Cleopatra, Dido, Sophonisba, or Imoinda. This strategy, which gives special weight to the word Texts in her title, allows MacDonald to deploy the concept of erasure with startling precision as, for example, when she traces the literal transformation of Imoinda from black in Aphra Behn's Oroonoko to white in subsequent versions. With Behn's prior example of a black Imoinda as a baseline, MacDonald uses comparative analysis to pinpoint and formulate racial implications with convincing force and subtlety.

MacDonald combines this attentiveness to detailed micro-interpretation with an extraordinary range in the variety of critical resources at her command, from classical culture to contemporary African American studies, and she coordinates these resources with a firm but deft touch. Especially noteworthy is the breadth MacDonald achieves through her expanded scope of "early modern." Rather than limiting herself to the single moment of the Renaissance in the narrow definition of early modern, she draws texts from three distinct historical periods--Renaissance, Restoration, and eighteenth century. This spectrum means that history is in motion over the course of MacDonald's study and that historical contrasts are built into its structure and method. In particular, MacDonald's analyses take place on both sides of the before/after historical dividing line marked by the emergence of slavery and "an imperial culture fully supported by the slave trade" (16). Her multiple-period awareness gives added substance to MacDonald's insistence that "[sleeking to recover black women entirely from within slavery inaccurately foreshortens what might be termed their representational presence in the west" (16).

This elegant, innovative book fulfills and extends the promise of early modern race studies of the past decade. Such work poses a double historical challenge: to be a highly focused and historically specific contribution to the Renaissance period and yet also explicidy to serve as a contribution to the overall history of race. Exclusive emphasis on specificity fosters disciplinary isolation that risks losing sight of the large-scale picture of cross-period historical development. MacDonald gets the balance right. She conveys with equal strength that early modern conceptions of race are different from our own and that these earlier conceptions matter for a comprehensive understanding of where we are now. Her achievement is consistently to demonstrate that it is possible to be equally sophisticated in the pursuit of both specialist and generalist perspectives.

As her positive citation of Emily Bartels' argument about the unpredictability--from the standpoint of the early Renaissance--of the historical outcome (16, n. 28) indicates, MacDonald's commitment to a larger historical vision does not imply a model of seamless, straightline progression toward our current moment. Nonetheless, freeing us from total compartmentalization in period enclaves, the spirit of her book puts us within reach of being able to take the next step, for instance, to Catherine Hall's recent nineteenth-century account, Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination, 1830-1867 (Chicago, 2002). Our ability not only to look ahead to Hall but also to look back to MacDonald gives us an expanded historical framework that is cause for renewed intellectual excitement.


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Author:Erikson, Peter
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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