Out of the kitchen of the house of fiction.
These concerns are particularly relevant for nineteenth-century African American literature, often still considered "more valuable as artifact than artistry" (Foster xx). Here I will focus on a specific, but not singular, case study: Charles W. Chesnutt. Despite his relatively established status, critical and editorial interest in his work coexists with old, problematic interpretive frameworks fraught with ambivalence. My examination will focus on editors' introductions to anthologies of Chesnutt's work and to critical essay collections, where implicitly low literary expectations and white-centered cultural hierarchies reduce Chesnutt to a second-class dweller in the Jamesian house of fic-fion without due critical process.
Privileging normative white standards of comparison and, more marginally, evoking the rich context of black literature, editors Joseph R. McElrath, Robert C. Leitz III, and Jesse S. Crisler praise Chesnutt for his acceptance by the contemporaneous mainstream publishing establishment and also blame him for "wield[ing] the tar brush" so vigorously as to "alienat[e] one of the most distinguished white advocates of the African American": William Dean Howells (xxiv). (1) Evoking binary critical categories of earlier decades (art versus protest), they describe Chesnutt as a protest writer (and a "decidedly minor player" at that) who "barks" his disapproval, a wording that reveals how intrinsically flawed such a literary category is in the editors' estimation (xxix, xxxii). In ostensibly contrasting but equally problematic ways, they also portray him as a participant "in a western humanistic tradition" whose 1899 speech made the black "Bethel Association ... almost indistinguishable from white America's Chautauqua Assembly" (xxiii). The less-than-flattering connotations of this seeming praise are reiterated when they conclude that Chesnutt was a "talented amateur" and marvel that "he was at all able to do the reading he did and fashion these speeches in such a competent manner" (xxxvi).
It comes, then, as no surprise that, with such blunt tools for literary analysis, the editors end up confirming the limited literariness that their very definition of protest (elsewhere less euphemistically described by McElrath as "literary invective") presupposed ("W. D. Howells and Race" 499). This assessment apparently entitles them, for instance, to reduce Chesnutt's essays on "The Negro Problem" to a list of "themes ... easily identified, given how frequently they recur" (McElrath, Leitz, and Crisler xxx). (2) As the critics project onto the writer the limitations of their own analytic approach, protest functions as a self-fulfilling prophecy of literary mediocrity, leading the editors to legitimize Howells's (in)famous 1901 accusation of bitterness: since Chesnutt was "far from a detached observer of the 1898 race riot in Wilmington," Howells "had to lament the 'bitter, bitter' tone" of The Marrow of Tradition (xxiv). Now, as then, the critic(s) (3) disagreement with the author is cloaked under summary aesthetic evaluations.
Similarly problematic statements also appear in critical essays like that by McElrath where readers are told, rather than shown, that in "Chesnutt's canon ... content is often as problematic as form" or that the supposed "failure of ... [Chesnutt's] major flirtation with Realism" is not to "be perceived as an indictment," because Chesnutt "did not care one bit that such was the case" ("Why Charles W. Chesnutt Is Not a Realist" 92, 106). Underestimating Chesnutt's knowledge of his literary times, McElrath notes how, "serendipitously, his African Americans in both 1899 collections conformed in almost all cases to Howells's preconceptions" (94; emphasis added).
Such comments are less a debatable critique than a form of silencing through condescension; this is confirmed by McElrath's acknowledged surprise at fellow Chesnutt scholar Gary Scharnhorst's "wholly unanticipated discovery of a deftly ironic author who was capable of parody and satire" (Introduction 22). McElrath's surprise speaks volumes on low literary expectations and on the consequent ease with which Chesnutt can be summarily sent to the back door, so to speak, of the house of fiction, to the kitchen of diminished literary awareness. (3)
At stake is not whether such (mis)readings were done on purpose, but rather what it means that they were done at all, that they went unchecked by major presses, and that they may continue to do so. What unspoken assumptions of cultural entitlement underlie such critical and editorial practices? Because clearly the scholarly standards by which Chesnutt can be described as an "amateur" have not been applied by or to the editors. To foreground and challenge the impact of established cultural and aesthetic hierarchies on the praxis of literary analysis is to remind ourselves, as individual scholars and members of the profession, of the need to question why some discoveries seem so unanticipated and to interrogate our own interpretive approaches at least as much as we do the author's artistry. Embracing the intellectual responsibility to "try to hear a writer's voice," as Christian put it, demands that we "call attention to the form, show how it comes out of a history, a tradition," because if we "don't understand ... that it is a form, we can't even hear what she's [or he's] saying or how meaningful it is" (xv, xiii).
LEGACY, VOL. 31, NO. 1, 2014. PP. 66-69. COPYRIGHT 0 2014 THE UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS
Christian, Barbara. Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers. New York: Pergamon, 1985.
duCille, Ann. "The Occult of True Black Womanhood: Critical Demeanor and Black Feminist Studies." Signs 19.3 (1994): 591-629.
Foreman, P. Gabrielle. "A Riff, A Call, and A Response: Reframing the Problem That Led to Our Being Tokens in Ethnic and Gender Studies; or, Where Are We Going Anyway and with Whom Will We Travel?" Legacy 30.2 (2013): 306-22.
Foster, Frances Smith. Introduction. Minnie's Sacrifice, Sowing and Reaping, Trial and Triumph: Three Rediscovered Novels. By Frances E. W. Harper. Boston: Beacon, 1994. xi-xxxvii.
McElrath, Joseph R., Jr. Introduction. Critical Essays on Charles W. Chesnutt. Ed. McElrath. New York: G. K. Hall, 1999. 1-25.
--. "W. D. Howells and Race: Charles W. Chesnutt's Disappointment of the Dean." Nineteenth-Century Literature 51.4 (1997): 474-99.
--. "Why Charles W. Chesnutt Is Not a Realist," American Literary Realism 32.2 (2000): 91-108.
McElrath, Joseph R., Jr., Robert C. Leitz III, and Jesse S. Crisler. Introduction. Charles W. Chesnutt: Essays and Speeches. Ed. McElrath, Leitz, and Crisler. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1999. xxiii-xxxvii.
McKay Nellie Y. "Naming the Problem That Led to the Question 'Who Shall Teach African American Literature?'; or, Are We Ready to Disband the Wheatley Court?" PMLA 113.3 (1998): 359-69.
Wilson, Matthew. Whiteness in the Novels of Charles W. Chesnutt. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 2004.
(1.) The tendency to criticize Chesnutt for alienating his readers (which seems to put the blame for such alienation on the writer, rather than on the prejudices of the audience) reappears also in more recent volumes. See, for instance, Wilson 149.
(2.) To explain such supposed repetitiveness, and possibly also to anticipate objections for their reductive assessment, the editors add that those themes "had to be repeated, since conditions did not improve during his [Chesnutes] lifetime" (xxx). This vague sociohistorical justification (conditions may not have improved, but they did change between the 1890s and the 19305) does not add complexity to or evidence in support of their reading of Chesnutt's essays. It adds instead only an aura of necessity that further disempowers Chesnutt as an author, going back full circle to the original assumption of the sociological, rather than literary, quality of his essays.
(3.) The image of the kitchen is drawn from Langston Hughes's poem "I, Too, Am America."
M. GIULIA FABI
University of Ferrara
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|Author:||Fabi, M. Giulia|
|Publication:||Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2014|
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