Vision to visionary: the New Negro Woman as cultural worker in Jessie Redmon Fauset's 'Plum Bun.'(Critical Essay)
Editorial, The Messenger's "New Negro Woman" issue (1923)
In June 1924, three months after the publication of There Is Confusion, Jessie Redmon Fauset confided in her friend and erstwhile prot,g, Langston Hughes that she planned to begin working on her next novel the following month (24 June 1924). From Paris four months later, she reported her difficult progress with this second novel, a project radically different from her earlier prose: "I like the stuff of my next novel--I have a good title for it too--but I am troubled as I have never been before with form. Somehow I've never thought much about form before except for verse. But now I think I am over zealous--I write and destroy and smoke and get nervous. I hate these false starts" (8 October 1924). The resulting novel, Plum Bun, represents a struggle with form on several fronts. As a feminist, anti-racist project, the novel explores the intersections of race and gender constructions of black and white American women. Written at the height of both the New Negro and New Woman artistic and political movements, it represents the aims, outcomes, and implications of both movements. While Fauset and her text occupy the intersection of the New Negro and the New Woman, both author and text represent the limitations of each movement completely to represent its constituency. At the same time as Fauset and Plum Bun demonstrate a congress between two progressive cultural movements sharing a historical moment, they also underscore the mutual exclusivity and even the contradictions inherent in both movements.
Formally Plum Bun reconciles the New Negro and New Woman movements in a protagonist who embodies both--not, however, at the same time. Not until the very end of the novel, when Angela Murray embraces and trumpets her racial identity and devotes herself to her artistic career in a Europe removed from the cultural sites of both movements in the United States, do both gender and racial advancement coalesce in the unified female subject. Fauset unites the New Negro and the New Woman in a character defined by her inability to recognize two aspects of her identity, two cultural desires, at the same time. In teasing Out the intersection of race and class through a character whose racial passing bypasses that intersection of identity, Fauset's novel implies their irreconcilability.
Hazel Carby has analyzed the function of the mulatto figure in African American literature as a "narrative device of mediation" between the two races and "an expression of the relationship between the races" (89). As a passing novel Plum Bun implies the color line's false distinction at the same time as it redefines the terms of its binary. In contrast to Heba Jannath's image of the mulatto's passing "like a shuttle ... back and forth between the two races, spiritually and physically weaving them together" (61), Angela's fractured identity represents the racial apartheid reaffirmed by her social complicity.
Angela's childhood forays into white womanhood with her mother produce a superficial notion of the life in which she later immerses herself, a life whose ethos is limited to stereotypes of women as decorous consumers. Angela and Mattie Murray spend their passing Saturdays shopping and lunching in Philadelphia's elite shops and hotel dining rooms, and Angela learns in those spaces that "the great rewards of life--riches, glamour, pleasure,--are for white-skinned people only" (Plum Bun 17). Unlike her hardworking, purposeful sister Virginia (who spends her Saturdays exploring historic districts with their father), Angela seeks an identity based on the "fashionable and idle elegance" she learns on those excursions (18):
Angela had no high purpose in life; unlike her sister Virginia, who meant some day to invent a marvelous method for teaching the pianoforte, Angela felt no impulse to discover, or to perfect. True she thought she might become eventually a distinguished painter, but that was because she felt within herself an ability to depict which as far as it went was correct and promising. Her eye for line and for expression was already good and she had a nice feeling for color. Moreover she possessed the instinct for self-appraisal which taught her that she had much to learn. And she was sure that the knowledge once gained would flower in her case to perfection. But her gift was not for her the end of existence; rather, it was an adjunct to a life which was to know light, pleasure, gaiety; and freedom. (13)
That Angela's creativity is a thing apart, a distraction from her central ambition, demonstrates the extent to which she embraces the codes of white femininity which her New (white) Woman peers are at that moment rejecting. Angela's deployment of her whiteness passes her from one form of oppression to another. Her unwitting choice of female domestication as an improvement over racial exclusion exposes the political blind spot that renders black female subjectivity invisible.
After her parents' deaths, Angela relaunches herself on a racialized New York landscape that emerges as a metaphor for her splintered identity. Fauset portrays 19205 Harlem, behind its glossy offensive-defensive facades, as a site of womb-like safety and nurturance. Just as the imposingly classical facade of Anthony Cross's brownstone belies its shabby and uncomfortable interior, so is Harlem a "deceptive palace" of vice and thrill that masks what Plum Bun posits as its familiar reality (277). Fauset locates her protagonist both geographically and psychologically on the other side of town from this Mecca of the New Negro. (1) Angela discovers Harlem's attractions as a visiting white woman and comes to appreciate its cultural familiarity as she gradually reincorporates her racial background into her identity.
Just as Fauset locates Virginia in a young professional Harlem setting as a natural extension of and surrogate for her family--a space which
Angela herself eventually longs for--so, too, does she place Angela in a culturally and historically marked geographical setting. If Harlem represents a racial center, Union Square is Angela's artistic focal point. In her early days in New York, Angela gravitates to this bustling and rapidly changing commercial center and spends hours watching the people whose lives have taken a wrong turn and left them stranded at the crossroads of pre-Depression-era New York:
It was Spring and the Square was full of rusty specimens of mankind who sat on the benches, as did Angela herself; for hours at a stretch, as though they thought that the invigorating air and the mellow sun would work some magical burgeoning on their garments such as was worked on the trees. But though these latter changed, the garments changed not, nor did their owners. They remained the same, drooping, discouraged down and outers. "I am seeing life," thought Angela, "this is the way people live," and never realized that some of these people looking curiously, speculatively at her wondered what had been her portion to bring her thus early to this unsavoury company. (89)
While Angela's identification with these people remains constant, the meanings of that self-recognition change with her growing sophistication, social awareness and self-knowledge. Angela, unaware of their circumstances, sees herself in Union Square's indigents and gradually recognizes her own lonely, directionless stasis mirrored in the expressions of people whose despair she had previously objectified.
Harlem in Plum Bun is synonymous with the New Negro, embodied in Virginia who, shunned by her sister at the railway station, knows to head for the 135th Street Y. Angela lives in bohemian Greenwich Village but spends her private time in and draws her artistic inspiration from the area associated most specifically with the New Woman. Without specifically naming it, Fauset places Angela at the center of the group of painters known as the Fourteenth Street School. Deborah Barker, the first critic to analyze Plum Bun's specific reference to the Fourteenth Street School movement, argues that in Fauset's positioning of her artist protagonist within a historic artistic movement, "[w]hat emerges from the intersection of these social, racial, and aesthetic discourses, but what none is able fully to represent, is what might be called the New Negro Woman Artist" (163). The Fourteenth Street School movement, which flourished in the 1920s and 1930s, reinscribed classical figurative painting on an American cultural landsca pe. The artists rented studio space in and drew inspiration from the Union Square area, which John Hart called "a polyglot of nationalities, a clash of ideologies, a roar of violence and chaotic action; in its honest and genuine concern for betterment it had always been American to the core.... Union Square is the past forever being overthrown; the future forever being coaxed into existence. It is the vortex of change, it is America in transition (qtd. in Todd 85). The subjects of such painters as Isabel Bishop and Raphael Soyer included street vendors, resting workers, and, very frequently, window-shopping working women. The artists represented in working-class people, particularly sales-girls and office workers, the dignity, complexity, and grace of classical goddesses or European royalty.
Fauset's placement of Angela at the center of the Fourteenth Street movement is supremely suggestive. Angela's identification with the artistic movement is defined by her own movement (development) within Plum Bun as a text, her movement (emergence) as an artist, and her movement (mediation) between her two roles, Fourteenth Street artist and Fourteenth Street "type." An implicit aim of the Fourteenth Street School was to represent the humanity of an alienated working class and the increasing social commodification which contributed to that alienation. Throughout much of the novel, particularly the section "Plum Bun," Angela resembles a figure in Soyer's Window Shoppers; steeped in the very ideologies of white American womanhood which exclude her by class (and, for Angela, race), Angela covets the products in the commercial marketplace that will increase her value on the sexual marketplace. As she develops an artistic vision and concomitantly a self-definition, Angela changes role and moves from the front of the canvas to behind it, from subject to artist, from the gazed upon to the gazer, the visionary.
Soyer and Bishop explored through visual media the issue of an emergent urban white female labor force. Ellen Wiley Todd's analysis of the New Woman in the Fourteenth Street School examines the artists' shared and divergent visions of this new American subject:
Raphael Soyer addressed the problems and Isabel Bishop the possibilities of feminized occupations. Soyer's shopgirls, working-class figures, represent alienated female labor, quietly interrogating a social order that systematically ignored their plight. Bishop's images of office workers carve out a transitional space... in the public arena where women were most on display. Unlike Soyer's, her pictures tend to blur class distinctions, thus perpetuating the myth of access to individual female success. (314)
Fauset positions squarely between those poles an artist protagonist who articulates and performs their school as a psychological and social movement. Angela's evolving subjectivity and her resulting, award-winning work embody an organic feminist project. Rather than renouncing the commodification of women, she naturally outgrows it.
The "Plum Bun" section opens with Angela, spinning fantasies of a fairy-tale rescue on a Union Square bench. Fauset depicts Angela as no more a simple gold-digging adventuress than Soyer's Shop Girls or Bishop's Tidying Up represent cheapness and vulgarity. Paintings of the Fourteenth Street School neither idealize nor demean the New Woman; rather, as Todd points out, their stark realism and psychological suggestiveness foreground the women marginalized by the "New Woman" myth and most directly affected by the changing gender roles:
At a time of feminist conflict and heterosexual and domestic retrenchment, the Fourteenth Street School artists were among the few easel painters to acknowledge woman's growing participation in public life. The spaces of consumption and work in which women appeared signified to the liberal mainstream viewer both the progress and the integrity of democratic society. At a time of economic crisis and social concern, the artists broadened their viewers' social world, inscribing class and sometimes ethnicity into their female imagery. In addition to suggesting possibilities for women, they occasionally staged quiet inquiries into the circumstances in which women shopped and worked. (316)
Fauset inscribes Angela in the discourse of Fourteenth Street as a non-WASP white working woman, an individual member of a community in transition. If the New Woman's associative vestiges are sexual experimentation, bobbed hair, and taped breasts, its culturally obscured reality, then as now, remains underpaid women rendered by their fantasies complicit in their exploitation. Like her peers, Angela aspires to a life of comfort and luxury and is defined by her embrace of and exclusion from those myths.
But over the course of the novel, Angela develops an artistic eye and complicates the reader's gaze on its subject. Having broken up with Roger, her racist white lover, distanced herself from their shared friends, and exhausted her savings, Angela finds both solace and a means to earn money in her art and turns naturally to her favored themes--psychological studies of the people of Fourteenth Street:
She remembered the people in Union Square on whom she had spied so blithely when she had first come to New York. Then she had thought of them as being "down and out," mere idlers, good for nothing. It had not occurred to her that their chief disaster might be loneliness.... And between them and herself she was able to detect a terrifying relationship. She still carried her notebook, made sketches, sitting watching them and jotting down a line now and then when their vacant, staring eyes were not fixed upon her. Once ... she would have said with a shrug: "Oh they wouldn't mind, they're too far gone for that." But since then her sympathy and knowledge had waxed. How fiercely she would have rebelled had anyone from a superior social plane taken her for copy! (239-40)
Angela's work is both the measure and the performance of her evolving identity. By identifying Angela by her very specific cultural work, Fauset emphasizes that work's relevance and gives as particular a cultural reference as 1920S Harlem. Fauset does not depict Angela's life as shuttling from Harlem to "the rest of New York" or even just downtown; rather, she locates Angela in a specifically white but ethnically and socially heterogeneous cultural space which is enriched by her presence and aestheticized through her work. Quite on her own Angela finds a cultural niche which she ultimately broadens to include herself, a black woman. As an ingenue who deliberately launches herself on the marriage market at its most commercial level, later as an experienced woman who knows firsthand the dehumanizing price of that game, and finally as an artist who seeks to articulate the individual in relation to fate and to re-humanize individual members of the urban mob, Angela herself comes to embody a crucial theme of the F ourteenth Street School: the changing role of women in society and the material and psychological effects of that change. Fauset's inscription of her protagonist as a member of the Fourteenth Street School produces a construction of New Womanhood that not only includes black women artists but which is to some extent determined, defined, and articulated by a black woman artist. Fauset demonstrates through her character's cultural work that the black woman offers unique and essential perspectives on the changing roles of women.
Angela's professionally successful and personally satisfying career alters the downtown artistic scene portrayed in Plum Bun; Fauset makes an art for Angela that allows that protagonist to make a lasting difference in her cultural moment by changing the very terms by which that fictionalized moment is represented and remembered. In her own artistic project, however, Fauset's representation of the New Negro Woman remains ambivalent, particularly in the area of sexual autonomy. (2) In the figure of Paulette Lister, Fauset takes the opportunity to explore female sexual autonomy more radically and with fewer political ramifications than in Angela's depiction. Plum Bun merges the New Negro and New Woman phenomena while representing the inherent and external limitations of each movement. Upon arriving in New York, Angela cloaks herself in a New (white) Woman persona--complete with bachelorette apartment, art classes, free-thinking friends, and eventually extramarital sex--without believing the hype. In the disillus ioned aftermath of her affair with Roger, Angela embraces the old-fashioned values she learned on Opal Street; this knowledge offers her the perspective from which to examine the subjectivity of her friend Paulette, the text's prototypical New Woman.
Like Vera Manning in There Is Confusion, Paulette's subjectivity haunts both the text and its protagonist. As a secondary character, one of Angela's artistic set, Paulette dominates, even steals her scenes, as much because of her characteristic audacity as her thematic roguishness. Just as her insistent sexuality tests gender boundaries, so do the ideological questions her representation poses raze her formal function.
Like There Is Confusion and the novels to follow, Plum Bun represents a struggle between formal and material integrity. Paulette cannot just represent the New Woman; her character must provide an analysis of New Womanhood, a subject in herself.
Angela's sense of sexual propriety derived as much from the moral conventions of her upbringing as from her investment in the marriage economy, is challenged by her friendship with Paulette, a struggling artist who becomes Angela's role model of the New Woman. "She was so alive, so intense, so interested, if she were interested, that all her nerves, her emotions even were enlisted to accomplish the end which she might have in view" (100). Fauset represents Paulette through Angela's gaze in androgynous terms; her fragility is more childlike than feminine, and her appetite startles Angela in its "working man" heartiness (104). But perhaps most suggestive to questions of egoism are Paulette's gendering of her own traits, which are revealed when Angela compliments her new friend on her "conspicuous" femininity:
To her surprise Paulette resented this last statement. "There is a great deal of the man about me. I've learned that a woman is a fool who lets her femininity stand in the way of what she wants. I've made a philosophy of it. I see what I want; I use my wiles as a woman to get it, and I employ the qualities of men, tenacity and ruthlessness, to keep it. And when I'm through with it, I throw it away just as they do. Consequently I have no regrets and no encumbrances?." (105)
Ambition and its means are gendered male, coquettishness and submission female, but Paulette's proclaimed ability to step outside social constructions and use the devices of both categories to fulfill her individualist desires deessentializes the gender roles through which Angela seeks to reconstruct herself. Paulette eats, drinks, and smokes lustily; to Angela's "amazemen" (104), she also lets her overnight guests leave their razors and brushes in her bathroom. This friendship reveals to Angela the possibilities for women's liberation at the same time as it represents the line Angela's individual morality draws.
Paulette's sexual curiosity aboul the prominent black lecturer Van Meier also provides the text's explicit representation of an implicit cultural desire. While Van Meier's Harlem oration inspires in Angela racial pride, sustenance, and "thickness of life" (216), Paulette can experience Van Meier's vitality only in terms of his imagined construction of and desire for her white female privilege. "'I gave him my prettiest smile, grand white lady making up to an "exceptional Negro" and he simply didn't see me; took my hand,--I did my best to make my grip a clinging one--and he passed me right along disengaging himself as cool as a cucumber and making room for a lady of color.'" She finished reflectively, "'I wonder what he would be like alone"' (220). Just as Van Meier disengages himself from Paulette's cringe-making flirtation, so does the text disengage itself from the ideological constructions of racialized desire and envy. Paulette mistakenly assumes that as a "grand white lady" she might gain intellectual an d even sexual access to this most prominent of black men; through her sexualizing gaze she objectifies him and erases his political and intellectual self-projection. Fauset inscribes a possibility erased by the dominant construction: black indifference to white interest. Paulette's comeon reduces Van Meier to a sexual challenge; visiting him later in his office, she is hustled out of the building. Fauset portrays Paulette's anecdote as embarrassing to all her friends; the woman's own lack of embarrassment embodies the depths of what Fauset represents over and over as white self-absorption. (3)
Fauset opens her female characters' dressing tables and medicine chests and usually reveals bath salts and cold creams; Paulette's vanity table--her vanity--is her unapologetic display of her lovers' masculine accoutrements. Angela's astonishment at Paulette's lifestyle demonstrates the degree to which the protagonist's definitions of liberation transcend race but stop at gender:
Certainly, Angela thought, she was in a new world and with new people. Beyond question some of the coloured people of her acquaintance must have lived in a manner which would not bear inspections, but she could not think of one who would thus have discussed it as calmly with either friend or stranger. Wondering what it would be like to conduct oneself absolutely according to one's own laws, she turned into the dark little vestibule on Jayne Street. (107)
Angela's need to read Paulette's irreverence toward her reputation through a racialized lens represents Fauset's commentary on female sexuality as still a red zone in African American literature and middle-class culture.
Her disastrous relationship with Roger and her emerging love for Anthony awaken Angela not only to her own sexual subjectivity but also to the societal and individual barriers to complete sexual autonomy. Through the gaze of a mature protagonist who has crossed the line of female sexual propriety and discovered through that transgression and its price her own subjectivity, Fauset teases out the individual and political potentials of New Womanhood, as Angela measures her own capacity for independence against her erstwhile New Woman role model. The text resanctifies marriage from the other side, as an institution which the whole woman makes, as opposed to that which makes the woman whole. The text reinvests marriage with an intrinsic value rather than its market value through a character who learns through experience, not mythology, its "real" meaning:
Until she had met Roger she had not thought much about the institution [of marriage] except as an adventure in romance or as a means to an end; in her case the method of achieving the kind of existence which once had been her ideal. But now she saw it as an end in itself; for women certainly; the only, the most desirable and natural end. From this state a gifted, an ambitious woman might reach forth and acquit herself well in any activity. But marriage must be there first, the foundation, the substratum. Of course there were undoubtedly women who, like men, took love and marriage as the sauce of existence and their intellectual interests as the main dish. Witness, for instance, Paulette. . . . Paulette might vary her lovers but she never varied in the manifestation of her restless, clever energy . . . .But this was Paulette, a remarkable personage, a woman apart. But for most women there must be the safety, the assurance, of relationship that marriage affords. Indeed, most women must be able to say as did men, "You are mine," not merely, "I am yours." (274-75)
This possessive shift marks also the shift in subject and object as the woman becomes in marriage a possessor of, parallel to, her husband. Angela recognizes and embraces her own desire, here for marriage, and thereby her own subjectivity. But Paulette remains the excess of this epiphany, the riddle, the unanswered, textually unanswerable question. In leaving unresolved not only Paulette's fate but also her meaning, her place in the sexual economy, Fauset leaves open the potential for female sexual autonomy. Paulette stands as a representation of a woman living, even thriving, outside sexual convention but very much within the text's code of acceptability.
Angela's anxiety toward her white friend's sexuality suggests that despite her own individualism and desire to break with her racial past, her sexuality is bound to and by the morality of racial uplift. Concurrent with the white female egoist's rejection of chastity codes is the New (Negro) woman's desire for inclusion in its definition of female; the ideology which upheld white women as virtuous, black women as licentious, was being challenged with both sides demanding the right to define their sexuality, the one as sexually autonomous, the other as potentially chaste, neither as sexually objectified. As a middle-class black woman brought up to be conscious of her sexual stereotyping and now passing into a community as a bohemian white woman struggling to overcome the opposite side of this objectification, Angela embodies the convergence of two conflicting feminist projects whose shared aim is a woman's control over her body and her destiny.
(1.) I borrow this phrase, of course, from the special Survey Graphic issue (March 1925) entitled "Harlem, Mecca of the New Negro."
(2.) For an invaluable analysis of this theme in Fauset's work, see McDowell.
(3.) Fauset's suspicion of white interest in Harlem and in all things black is well documented. In his autobiography, Langston Hughes contrasts Fauset's genteel parties with the louche Harlem gatherings he clearly preferred. "White people were seldom present there unless they were very distinguished white people, because Jessie Fauset did not feel like opening her home to mere sightseers, or faddists momentarily in love with Negro life" (247). And in an earlier letter to Hughes, Fauset voices her suspicions about Carl Van Vechten and other Negrophiles: "I don't know what his motives maybe for attending and making possible these mixed parties. But I do know that the motives of some of the other pale-faces will not bear inspection" ("Tuesday"). In Plum Bun's Harlem lecture scene Fauset depicts as suspect not only Angela's friends but also Angela herself, whose specular consumption of the black faces and voices around her differs from the others' only in her remembered childhood familiarity with their colors and cadences.
Barker, Deborah. Aesthetics and Gender in American Literature: Portraits of the Woman Artist. Lewis-burg: Bucknell UP, 2000.
Carby, Hazel. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.
Editorial. Messenger 5 (1923): 757.
Fauset, Jessie Redmon. Letter to Langston Hughes. 24 June 1924. Langston Hughes Papers. James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
-----. Letter to Langston Hughes. 8 Oct. 1924. Langston Hughes Papers. James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
-----. Letter to Langston Hughes. "Tuesday." Langston Hughes papers. James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
-----. Plum Bun: A Novel without a Moral. 1928. Introd. Deborah E. McDowell. Boston: Beacon, 1990.
Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea. New York: Knopf, 1940.
Jannath, Heba. "America's Changing Color Line." Negro: An Anthology. Ed. Nancy Cunard. 1934. Abr. Ed. Hugh Ford. 1970. New York: Continuum, 1996. 60-66.
McDowell, Deborah E. "The Neglected Dimension of Jessie Redmon Fauset." Conjuring Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition. Ed. Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985. 86-104.
Todd, Ellen Wiley. The "New Woman" Revised: Painting and Gender Politics on Fourteenth Street. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2002|
|Previous Article:||Gendering the debate over African Americans' education in the 1880s: Frances Harper's reconfiguration of Atticus Haygood's Philanthropic model.|
|Next Article:||"Somewhere along the line I lost myself": recreating self in the war diaries of Natalie Crouter and Elizabeth Vaughan.|