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Race and Time urges our attention to women’s poetry in considering the cultural history of race. Building on close readings of well known and less familiar poets—including Elizabeth Margaret Chandler, Sarah Louisa Forten, Hannah Flagg Gould, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Sarah Piatt, Mary Eliza Tucker Lambert, Sarah Josepha Hale, Eliza Follen, and Mary Mapes Dodge—Gray traces tensions in women’s literary culture from the era of abolitionism to the rise of the Plantation tradition. She devotes a chapter to ...
Race and Time urges our attention to women’s poetry in considering the cultural history of race. Building on close readings of well known and less familiar poets—including Elizabeth Margaret Chandler, Sarah Louisa Forten, Hannah Flagg Gould, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Sarah Piatt, Mary Eliza Tucker Lambert, Sarah Josepha Hale, Eliza Follen, and Mary Mapes Dodge—Gray traces tensions in women’s literary culture from the era of abolitionism to the rise of the Plantation tradition. She devotes a chapter to children’s verse, arguing that racial stereotypes work as “nonsense” that masks conflicts in the construction of white childhood. A compilation of the poems cited, most of which are difficult to find elsewhere, is included as an appendix.
Gray clarifies the cultural roles women’s poetry played in the nineteenth-century United States and also reveals that these poems offer a fascinating, dynamic, and diverse field for students of social and cultural history. Gray’s readings provide a rich sense of the contexts in which this poetry is embedded and examine its aesthetic and political vitality in meticulous detail, linking careful explication of the texts with analysis of the history of poetry, canons, literacy, and literary authority.
Race and Time distinguishes itself from other critical studies not only through its searching, in-depth readings but also through its sustained attention to less known poets and its departure from a Dickinson-centered model. Most significantly, it offers a focus on race, demonstrating how changes in both the U.S. racial structure and women’s place in public culture set the terms for change in how women poets envisioned the relationship between poetry and social power.
Gray’s work makes contributions to several fields of study: poetry, U.S. literary history and American studies, women’s studies, African American studies and whiteness studies, children’s literature, and cultural studies. While placing the works of figures who have been treated elsewhere (e.g., Dickinson and Harper) into revealing new relationships, Race and Time does much to open interdisciplinary discussion of unfamiliar works.
A Methodological Introduction
Why read poems by nineteenth-century American women through the constructs "race" and "time"? I saw race and time at work on each other in a group of poems I chose for She Wields a Pen (1997), one of several collections through which feminist scholars made freshly available the works of long-forgotten women poets as the turn of the twenty-first century approached. In the earliest of the poems in my anthology that touch on race, a child interrogates a naturally mummified corpse that the American Antiquarian Society put on display in Massachusetts early in the nineteenth century.
The Child's Address to the Kentucky Mummy
And now, Mistress Mummy, since thus you've been found By the world, that has long done without you, In your snug little hiding-place far under ground- Be pleased to speak out, as we gather around, And let us hear something about you!
By the style of your dress you are not Madam Eve- You of course had a father and mother; No more of your line have we power to conceive, As you furnish us nothing by which to believe You had husband, child, sister, or brother.
We know you have lived, though we cannot tell when, And that too by eating and drinking, To judge by your teeth, and the lips you had then; And we see you are one of the children of men, Though long from their looks you've been shrinking.
Who was it that made you a cavern so deep, Refused your poor head a last pillow, And bade you sit still when you'd sunken to sleep, And they'd bound you and muffled you up in a heap Of clothes made of hempen and willow?
Say, whose was the ear that could hear with delight The musical trinket found nigh you? And who had the eye that was pleased with the sight Of this form (whose queer face might be brown, red, or white,) Trick'd out in the jewels kept by you? -Hannah Flagg Gould (1836)
"The Child's Address to the Kentucky Mummy" met several of the criteria that guided my effort to create an anthology that would stretch the boundaries of how we understand "women," "poetry," and "American." It represents an oddly distorted female figure, anticipates the nineteenth-century blossoming of nonsense verse, and tackles a feature of people's relationship to the landscape that poetry in English had not confronted before its migration to North America. The poem's silliness delighted me, especially since I found it amid page after page of serious little poems that fit more neatly into past and recent efforts to define a tradition of nineteenth-century American women's poetry. And I saw myself in it; I saw a likeness between the child's interrogation of the mummy and the musty adventure in recuperative scholarship that led me to the poem.
But the parenthetical reference to race bothered me. Gould published antislavery poetry, but the child's uncertainty about the mummy's color seemed to mark the limits of Gould's critical understanding of race. In a tricked-out, "brown, red, or white" female figure, I saw the makings of the racially ambiguous and sexually aggressive Jezebel stereotype, a social myth rooted in the justification of slavery that still undergirds discriminatory public policy. And what of the maternal meaning of "mummy"-was Gould's child an ironically shriveled and inaccessible version of a Kentucky mammy? Nervousness about race together with gender seemed almost to be the poem's destination, the repressed worry it had to get out, the puzzle toward which its poetics drove it. Why? And why invest that anxiety in a mummy, a body whose living took place in an indistinct past? Further, what if we understand the Kentucky mummy not as a marginal quirk but as somehow central to the experience of being an American woman writing poetry-or rather a white woman writing poetry in nineteenth-century New England, a condition often treated as "the tradition" in recuperative scholarship on American women's poetry?
Gould's poem pointed me toward a thesis for this book and a methodological framework for the questions I needed to ask. I offer a full reading of the Kentucky mummy in chapter 4; in this introductory chapter, I explore the framework for my methods, engaging in theoretical debates and drawing on theoretical resources I would not have reached for at the beginning of my work on this project. My guiding thesis was that the dynamics of racial identity infused American women's poetry; more specifically and more ambitiously, that the changing constructions of whiteness and blackness across the temporal divide of slavery's end should help account for the formation of the poetics of modernity. Exploring this thesis meant not taking for granted that poetry is a field with its own internal rules and values, even that the forces of modernity would make poetry such a field. It meant instead demonstrating how poetry's relative engagement with or disengagement from the wider world is an artifact of many interacting circumstances, particularly those surrounding the structuring of raced identities along an axis of time.
These circumstances and how poems show them to us are what subsequent chapters explore. I call my methodology a poetics of race and time. It calls attention to the investment of the lyric impulse in objects such as Gould's mummy. Lyric poetry, as Sharon Cameron puts it, captures the poet's effort to stop time and examine a frozen moment. The lyric may be resisting death, as Gould's young speaker does in pressing a corpse for answers; but death is generously available as a figure for events in the social world that we do not have "the power to conceive"-for the losses and possibilities that emerge from actual or envisioned historical change. The shock of becoming aware of difference, in other words, may come masked as death. The defining condition of historical modernity is a widespread awareness that the present is unstable, that we are moving into a future that differs from the past. Cultural tropes that represent a struggle against mortality may also represent a struggle against disruptions that the movement of time brings. But poetry cannot evade time; it must use temporal resources to articulate its resistance. The objects it produces in its efforts to freeze time show traces of the world it resists; they take form in the boundary between non-time and time. Read critically, then, a figure like Gould's stiffened stereotype-in-the-making works as a courier between the making of poetry and the making of the historical category of race.
As is often true with impassioned immersions, late in the writing of this book I discovered more of what it is about. I saw stereotypes of black women-Jezebel, Sapphire, and especially Mammy, the oldest of these images-forming and reforming everywhere in the text, as if to remind me there was knowledge waiting to be recognized beyond the limits of my present critical understanding. Writing the last pages, I found myself considering Carrie Mae Weems's charge, speaking of her series of photographs that capture myths about black women, "We must learn to love our stereotypes." How would I, a white woman, honor that charge? To "love" the stereotype I saw in Gould's mummy (Gould's stereotype? mine?) meant for me to stay with the unknowing and, beyond that, the uneasiness about race that is built into "being white." This book, then-although I did not know it until late in the search-is about my finding a place from which to speak about race. Mammy's emergence from my text reminded me of what cannot be erased. The chapters offer supports for my thesis, but the most sweeping argument for the critical importance of race in understanding the cultural work of nineteenth-century American women's poetics comes from studies of the African diaspora. Race matters in American women's poetry because slavery underlies the production of every field of human activity that characterizes Euro-American modernity. Frozen into sexual roles that justify the use of black female bodies to reproduce racial oppression through time, Jezebel, Sapphire, and Mammy linger as reminders that the actuality of the historical processes of race cannot be abolished.
This book then is also about critical practice, its powers and its limits. For all we might do to deconstruct race, to expose its lack of essence, the historical experience of race does not go away-not from the past, not from the present. Critical methods can expose how race gets made in its historic forms, but only as a kind of formalist fantasy does that exposure reduce race to an idea that has no use. The object of critical inquiry into race, as Himani Bannerji points out, is not to render it invisible but to produce knowledge that is usable in the transformation of oppressive systems-which brings me to a new way of valuing Gould's investing her mummy with nervousness. Her child speaker has an inkling that the mummy had a race and, perhaps, that her race mattered not only to her lived experience but to the child's own. Rather than dismiss race, critical methodology must help us stay with the discomfort of confronting it while we unwrap its stories.
In addition to Gould's mummy poem, for this book I chose to look closely at three postbellum poems that I selected for She Wields a Pen, all of which cross backward over the temporal divide of emancipation to explore the raced and gendered construction of subjectivity. Sarah Piatt's "A Child's Party (in Kentucky, 185)" suited the anthology's aims because it exhibits an awareness of whiteness as a constructed racial identity that I saw nowhere else in the sources I reviewed. Among the many poems by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper that met my criteria, I chose "Deliverance," the longest poem from the cycle "Aunt Chloe," because it links the antebellum and postbellum periods in a continuous narrative-as nothing else I selected does-through the first-person narrator's testimony about the emergence of individual and communal black identities from slavery to emancipation to reconstruction. I selected excerpts from Mary Eliza Tucker Lambert's book-length Loew's Bridge, a Broadway Idyl (1867) for the interest of its form, a pastiche of satire and sentimental lyric, and because it offers a view of urban modernity. Lambert approaches race evasively: she pictures herself only once, in the antebellum South rather than the postbellum North, and (although Loew's Bridge was reprinted in Collected Black Women's Poetry) surrounds her self-representation in the language of whiteness.
I came to see these three poems as representing three different ways that women poets negotiated racial modernity. James Brewer Stewart defines racial modernity as a "reflexive disposition" on the part of the preponderance of whites "to regard superior and inferior races as uniform, biologically determined, self-evident, naturalized, immutable 'truths'-and, the development of integrated trans-regional systems of intellectual endeavor, popular culture, politics and state power that enforced uniform white supremacist norms as 'self-evident' social 'facts.'" A broader view of racial modernity would include the strategies that people of color as well as white people undertook-the articulation of ideas, the making of culture, the building of institutions-to resist white dominance or to make space for vitality despite its constraints. Harper's minimizing emancipation in the temporal arrangement of her poem called my attention to the fictiveness of treating emancipation as a radical historical divide. As the set of material historical processes that separated the justification of racial inequality from the official structure of slavery, beginning well before emancipation and arguably continuing today in postmodern forms, racial modernity constitutes the social dynamics around which nineteenth-century American women shaped poetry's relationship to the wider world. In other words, to embellish my original thesis, the interacting material circumstances that a nineteenth-century poet faced in shaping her degree of engagement with or disengagement from the wider world were those circumstances that characterize racial modernity.
Consideration of the fictiveness of a singular divide between "present" and "past" led me to see how a poetics of race and time, particularly applied to women's poetry, also concerns the historical construction of childhood and the coinciding development of nonsense as a mode of juvenile literature. Gould seems to forecast this convergence of categories in her mummy poem, speaking in the voice of a child about an unburied other from the past, while Piatt and Lambert both engage in a temporal gesture that flourished in postbellum plantation literature: crossing backward, from adulthood to childhood and from a world without slavery to one with slavery, to recover the stuff of childhood. Disengaged from the richness of their histories, the stuff of plantation life becomes stereotypes. But it is also nonsense, full of information about the instability of social categories and the possibilities for their disruption, or the prospects of their adaptation to the changing forms of social inequality. The linkages among the construction of childhood, race, and poetry make stereotypes children's play.
Lyric Time, Raced Time, and the Poetics of Everything People Do
My method builds on a double definition of poetics: poetics is the theory of literary making, most narrowly the terms for defining and ranking kinds of poetry, and, most broadly, the theory of how textual discourses are constructed. I situate poems amid historical and cultural contingencies, looking for interactions between the strict and general senses of poetics, for relationships between the making of poetry and the discursive formation of social categories. My method is deconstructive, in the sense in which Himani Bannerji summarizes deconstructive method. She urges critics to show, through the interplay between subjective experience and external reality, "how the social and the historical always exist as and in 'concrete' forms of social being and knowing," the making of a poem being an instance of what she is describing. "Everything that is local, immediate and concrete," she continues, "reveals both its uniqueness and its species nature, that is, its homology with, or typification of, the general." Her methodology corresponds with Bourdieu's description of how people reproduce unequal social structures: by transferring among disparate institutions and fields of practice, from the marketplace to poetry, for example, by reproducing in their practical strategies the homological tissues of deep social myths, such as the myths that sustain racial modernity. It is these processes that criticism is to expose.
T. V. F. Brogan objects to the broader usage of poetics, noting that, in recent decades, the term "poetics" has been "applied to almost every human activity, so that often it seems to mean little more than 'theory.'" But "poetics" has gone wayward during precisely the period when recuperative scholarship on women's and minority literatures has helped to unsettle the theory of poetry. The formalism that dominated Western critical practice for much of the twentieth century resisted placing poetry amid "almost every human activity." Questions about form and, underlying them, about ethos, the poet's presence as a forming mind, dominated discussions of poetic value. The poetics through which poetry gained canonical status by the mid-twentieth century emphasized universality-transcendence of historical particulars. Scholars of women's and minority literatures have found that this poetics is not universal at all, in that it masks a bias toward those with the greatest access to education and the leisure to write-toward the dominant race, gender, and class. Working beyond the limits of established canons to recover knowledge excluded from a false universalism impels a focus on situatedness: a poet's search for a place from which to speak, whether central or marginal, elevated or immersed, takes place in relation to impinging social forces.
Excerpted from RACE AND TIME by Janet Gray Copyright © 2004 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
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1. Wrappings, A Methodological Introduction
2. Contesting the Pearl, Whiteness, Blackness, and the Possession of American Poetry
3. “Skins May Differ,” Women’s Republicanism and the Poetics of Abolitionism
4. The Mummy Returns, Humor, Kinship, and the Bindings of Print
5. Looking in the Glass, Sarah Piatt’s Poetics of Play and Loss
6. We Women Radicals, Frances Harper’s Poetics of Radical Formation
7. What One Is Not Was, Mary Eliza Tucker Lambert’s Poetics of Self-Reconstruction
8. Critical Positions in Racial Modernity, An Approach to Teaching
IV. Other Times: Childhood and Nonsense
9. The Containment of Childhood, Reproducing Consumption in American Children’s Verse
Appendix: Poems Cited
Elizabeth Margaret Chandler, The Kneeling Slave
Sarah Louise Forten, An Appeal to Women
Frances E.W. Harper, The Slave Mother
Hannah Flagg Gould, The Slave Mother’s Prayer
Hannah Flagg Gould, The Child’s Address to the Kentucky Mummy
Sarah Piatt, A Child’s Party (in Kentucky, A.D. 185_)
Frances Harper, Aunt Chloe
Mary Eliza Perine Tucker Lambert, Loew’s Bridge, a Broadway Idyl
Anonymous, The Three Little Kittens
Sarah Josepha Hale, Mary’s Lamb
Mary Mapes Dodge, Shephard John
Mary Mapes Dodge, The Way to Do It
Hannah Flagg Gould, Apprehension
Mary Mapes Dodge, The Wooden Horse
Hannah Flagg Gould, The Butterfly’s Dream
Mary Mapes Dodge, The Mayor of Scuttleton
Lizzie W. Champney, How Persimmons Took Cah ob der Baby