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Passing and the Rise of the African American Novel. (Reviews).

M. Giulia Fabi. Passing and the Rise of the African American Novel. Urbana: U of Illinois P. 2001. 187 pp. $32.50.

M Giulia Fabi's Passing builds on a number of well-known studies that have reexamined, reclassified, and reinterpreted nineteenth-century African American novels, including Barbara Christian's Black Women's Novelists (1980), Claudia Tate's Domestic Allegories of Political Desire (1992), and Ann duCille's The Coupling Convention (1993). What distinguishes Passing from these critical works are its insistence that nineteenth-century African American novels are still a maligned fiction, and its objective to correct this problem.

Situating nineteenth-century African American fiction in a predominantly literary rather than a socio-historical context, Fabi appropriates the tropes of passing and miscegenation to lay the foundation for an African American novelistic tradition. She argues that nineteenth-century African American novelists used the subversive passing trope within familiar literary forms to articulate their social views. Chapter one demonstrates how William Wells Brown's sentimental romance Clotel (1853) and Frank Webb's domestic novel The Caries and Their Friends (1857) use crossover characters to magnify the superficial and even virulent forms of slavery and race prejudice. Chapter two discusses how Sutton Griggs's Imperium in Imperio (1899), Frances Harper's Iola Leroy (1892), and Edward A. Johnson's Light Ahead for the Negro (1904) subvert the traditional utopia by their "anticipatory vision" of a better societal regime and their depiction of characters who, through literary "race travel," pass or journey mentally from t he old South of racial violence to the new South of celebratory liberation. Chapter three explains how Chestnutt's The House Behind the Cedars (1900) employs the passing trope as theme and narrative structure to stealthily subvert the "feeling of repulsion toward the Negro" in his white readers. Chapter four examines how James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912) uses parody to depict the coloured man passing for white as a result, not as the cause, of societal alienation, and argues that this enables the author to expatiate on white supremacist values and racial division.

Fabi devotes her fifth chapter to an overview of critical commentary contributing to a declining interest in nineteenth-century African American fiction on passing. She offers two assumptions to explain why nineteenth-century African American fiction has had a literary setback: (1) that African American critics, faced with the continued exclusion of black texts from the American literary canon, owing to aesthetic evaluations proffered in "white supremacist, nationalistic agendas," set among themselves a standard for discriminating against pre-Harlem Renaissance fiction of the color line and (2) that the marginality of critical commentary on nineteenth-century African American fiction is linked to nineteenth-century black women novelists' concentration on mulatta characters and to male critics' disinterest in gender concerns. From the intellectual criticism of Benjamin Brawley and W. E. B. Du Bois of the 1920s, to the "goodwill" commentaries of Margaret Just Butcher, A. P. Davis, and J. Saunders Redding in the 1950s, to the "separatist agenda" of black nationalist critics in the 1970s--all, according to Fabi, have consistently devalued or omitted nineteenth-century mulatto fiction.

As interesting as M. Giulia Fabi's study is, problems exist. First, her premise that an internal critical standard existed among black critics who avoided early black American fiction of the color line overlooks the pioneering efforts of critics who did not have available to them much of the pre-Harlem Renaissance fiction that has recently been discovered. Second, her claim that the marginality of nineteenth-century fiction stems from male critics' disinterest in gender concerns demands restitution of neglected black female texts. Fabi's privileging black male texts in her study on subversive passing tropes follows the grain of the male critics whom she censures and substantially ignores the substantial fictional contributions of African American women at the end of the nineteenth century, a period touted as the black woman's era. As Henry Louis Gates attests in the foreword to the numerous volumes in his monumental reclamation project on black women writers, "Black women published more works of fiction [betw een 1890 and 1910] than black men had published in the previous half-century."

Despite its shortcomings, Passing and the Rise of the African American Novel is important. It makes a good case for studying nineteenth-century African American novels as literary forms rather than as sociohistorical treatises and for supplanting the slave narrative as the "foundational genre" of the African American literary tradition. But, most importantly, it makes clear the critical work that still needs to be done to give nineteenth-century African American fiction the status it deserves.
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Author:Dandridge, Rita B.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2002
Words:748
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