Passing and the Rise of the African American Novel

Passing and the Rise of the African American Novel

by M. Giulia Fabi


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252072482
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 12/15/2005
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

M. Giulia Fabi, an associate professor of American literature at the University of Ferrara, Italy, is a contributor to The Oxford Companion to African American Literature and The Cambridge Companion to the African American Novel.

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Passing and the Rise of the African American Novel


University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 2001 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-252-02667-5

Chapter One

The Mark Without: Subversive Mulattas and Mulattos in the Fiction of William Wells Brown and Frank J. Webb

William Wells Brown

And men with a white skin, enjoying all the rights and immunities that their country can give, can scarcely find words with which to denounce this much injured man, who, in fact, had no country as far as they could deprive him of it.... He who feels like blaming the negro for calling the Americans tyrants, let him first put himself in the negro's stead. Let him ask himself what would be his own thoughts and feelings were he quitting a land that had made him a slave, before he condemns too harshly the whip-scarred fugitive. (Brown, Miralda, February 23, 1861, 1)

William Wells Brown's wife, Annie G. Brown, "so much admired the character of Clotelle as to name [their] daughter after the heroine." The author himself notes the fact in the dedication of the 1867 edition of his novel, underscoring at once the literary effectiveness, inspirational value, and personal significance of his fictional endeavors.

When the first edition of the earliest known African American novel, Clotel; or, The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, came out in London in 1853, its author, the ex-slave William Wells Brown, had already become well known both in the United States and in Europe as an antislavery orator. His successful Narrative of William Wells Brown, a Fugitive Slave had been issued in 1847 and had gone through several editions, and his travelogue Three Years in Europe; or, Places I Have Seen and People I Have Met, the first to be written by a black American, had just been published (1852) and would be well received.

Brown's pioneering status as an experienced prose writer in different genres substantiates the hypothesis that his focus on "white slaves" was a strategic literary choice, rather than solely a symptom of a "psychology of imitation and implied inferiority" (Locke 4), a clue to his "unconscious desire to be white" (Bone 4) and "unabashed allegiance to Anglo-Saxon lineage" (Campbell, Mythic 3), or an aberration in the career of an otherwise militant spokesperson for black rights (Gayle, Black Aesthetic 386). Although this premise of literary intentionality does not obviate a critical evaluation of Brown's artistic choices, it does open up new vistas on the complexity both of his fictional endeavors and of the process of interpreting them.

In the three book-form editions of Clotel (1853, 1864, 1867), Brown's attention is divided and differently partitioned between two competing plots. The first revolves around individual female slaves whose bodies are marked by whiteness. Their very existence constitutes a challenge to rigid racial definitions, and their ability to pass for white represents a genteel form of covert resistance to racial oppression. With some variations in the three editions, this plot follows the adventures of a slave mother who is separated from her daughter. Both pass for white at different times and for different purposes: The mother makes an unsuccessful attempt to rescue her child from slavery, and years later the enslaved daughter succeeds in escaping to Europe.

The second, more original plot centers instead on the slave community and incorporates a wide variety of historical information, anecdotes, folklore, newspaper accounts, and advertisements to document the multiformed life of the slaves and their many diverse, more markedly confrontational forms of communal resistance to slavery. The protagonists of this second plot are most often male and visibly black. The slave women who cannot pass are also subsumed within this community, though without adequate representation: The dichotomy between genteel and confrontational resistance leads Brown to eschew the depiction of active female trickery, a concept extraneous to dominant contemporary ideologies of "true womanhood" as well (Welter 152). The differences between the two plots are also stylistic: The story of the passers is cast within the popular and melodramatic conventions of the sentimental romance, whereas the male communal plot is characterized by "sensationalistic realism" (Andrews, "The 1850s" 47).

The respective relevance of these two narrative modes, as well as of the plots with which they are connected, changes in the various editions of Clotel, as Brown makes increasing efforts to contain within more conventional narrative bounds the thematic and formal disruptiveness of his radical interpretation of slave culture. He unifies the action of the novel and diminishes its sketchiness, focusing on his all-but-white protagonists and giving increasing centrality to his revisions of a sentimental plot with which white American audiences were both familiar and comfortable. Analogously, the significance of Clotel in the making of African American fiction changes over time: In the first version, Brown accomplishes the transition from autobiographical to fictional authorship in ways that attest to the conscious artistry that characterizes the African American novelistic tradition since its inception; by the last, Brown's novel emerges as an antecedent of the literary strategies and concerns of post-Reconstruction fiction.

The relationship between autobiographical and fictional authorship that William Andrews discusses with regard to the "novelization" (To Tell 272) of slave narratives can also be investigated from the vantage point of Brown's text. The three book-form editions of Clotel reveal not only Brown's unfolding assessment of the changes in the condition of African Americans during the momentous decades of the 1850s and 1860s but also the author's attempt to tame the novel's proliferation of characters and events and to accommodate the open-ended real-life "melodrama endemic to American racism" (B. Jackson 337) within the generic boundaries of the sentimental romance.

Despite the higher visibility of the passing plot, the author's most radical and most substantial denunciation of slavery rests on the accretion of mostly male folk characters and stories over which he initially does not impose any fictional order or sense of progression. Brown obliges the reader to experience the incoherence and displacement that he sees as central to slave life. Though never completely edited out of his extensive revisions of the novel, this narrative strategy, which has gained Clotel a reputation for "fragmentation" (Heermance 177) and "sketchiness" (Farrison 230), is increasingly tamed and subordinated to the more straightforward movement of the sentimental plot. In the second and third editions, the stronger emphasis on the adventures of the title heroine increases the visibility of the theme of passing. This fact has often been interpreted as a symptom of Brown's greater familiarity with the art of fiction, but it could also be reread as a result of Brown's familiarity with the prejudices of his white American audiences, a familiarity that leads him to deflect attention away from his innovative and frankly oppositional representation of the wealth of communal facts of slave life included in the British edition.

The tensions between the two plots, between melodrama as a theme and as a narrative mode, between the author's desire to portray the life of the slave community and the need to structure the fictional text around the evolution of an individual fate, explain the uneven tone of the novel, which wavers between realism and romance, between a detailed portrayal of slave life and the contrived reunions of long-lost lovers and relatives. These tensions also explain the almost exclusive choice of women as passers. In Clotel, Brown presents passing as a genteel, albeit unheroic form of covert resistance that enables female protagonists whose bodies are marked by whiteness to remain traditionally "fragile and well-bred" (Christian, Black Women 22). Passing also gives them a strategy to assert their identity in ways that, to paraphrase critic Eva Saks (68), are discontinuous with their status as property: The enslaved mulatta title heroine, among others, resorts to (temporary) passing in the attempt to secure her "rights" to her progeny, freedom, and mobility. Although the figure of the exceptional, often isolated female passer enables Brown to problematize the racial and cultural rationale for slavery by undermining supposedly biological notions of race and appropriating Western notions of beauty and chastity for some of his enslaved characters, passing remains only one (emblematic, more than representative) form of slave trickery and defiance. The slave community (overwhelmingly connoted as masculine) engages in more heroic, because more confrontational, acts of resistance to enslavement: cunning escapes, songs of rebellion, theft, and revolts.

Examining Brown's representation of resistance as gendered makes it possible to reconcile his use of the octoroon as a "narrative device of mediation" (Carby, Reconstructing 89) with the often underestimated militancy of his novel. Brown's recipe for manly resistance is grounded in and masked by the portrayal of passing as an unheroic, mostly feminine way to escape, rather than to defy openly, the brutality of slave life. In its first version, the sentimental female plot of Clotel is as deceiving as the fabulistic frame of African American folk animal stories. On one hand, the mulatta qualities as a device of mediation both for her mixed genealogy and her gender: As a "white Negro," she appropriates the qualities of ideal white womanhood and complements them with loyalty, understanding, and support for individual black men. On the other, his male heroes loom in the background as powerful, cunning, and potentially violent freedom fighters: Nat Turner is openly praised in the novel, and other male characters share in varying degrees his manly anger at injustice and his power of defiance.

Evidently conscious that his choice of all-but-white protagonists might (as it did) lead to misinterpretation, Brown makes clear in the novel that his narrative choices do not stem from and are not intended to endorse intraracial color prejudice. He explicitly and repeatedly thematizes the issue of prejudice within the black community, presenting it as a sign of ignorance or a desire for social advancement but ultimately as "the result of the prejudice that exists on the part of the whites towards both mulattoes and blacks" (Clotel 130). Through the opposition of whites to both mulattos and blacks, Brown reunites the community on a fictional level and transforms intraracial color prejudice from a divisive issue into a critique of white values. It is significant that Brown, probably unwilling to reduce race to a state of mind, does not erase all somatic markers of blackness from the bodies of his female passers. In Mary's case, for instance, the "iris of her large dark eye had the melting mezzotinto, which remains the last vestige of African ancestry" (84), a description used in many other African American novels before the Harlem Renaissance as a way to reconnect the passers with the visibly black community whose boundaries they skirt and delimit. However, these racial signifiers remain so ambiguous that they do not undermine Brown's representation of race as a sociocultural construct. Rather, in Clotel the somatic indecipherability of the "white Negro's" blackness is on a continuum with the initially indecipherable ethnicity of the German woman who was kidnapped into slavery (145-48) or the whiteness of congressperson Thomas Corwin, "one of the blackest white men in the United States" (178), who happens to be mistaken for black.

The first edition of Clotel; or, The President's Daughter was published in 1853 in England, where the author was spending a forced exile caused by the Fugitive Slave Law (1850) that threatened to send him back to slavery should he return to the United States. Catering very outspokenly to the "British Christians" (Clotel 245) whose abolitionist sympathies he hoped would be "publicly manifested" through recommended boycotts of American slaveholders (Clotel 246), Brown articulated a scathingly sarcastic, comprehensive critique of slavery in the American South, race prejudice in the American North, and religious hypocrisy in the American nation as a whole.

Structurally, the volume that contains Clotel frames it as an obvious transition from autobiography to fiction. The novel itself is preceded by a shorter, revised version of the author's Narrative of William Wells Brown, a Fugitive Slave (1847), retitled Narrative of the Life and Escape of William Wells Brown (1853). Critic Robert Stepto's discussion of this procedure as "a successful rhetorical device authenticating his [Brown's] access to the incidents, characters, scenes, and tales which collectively make up Clotel" (From Behind the Veil 30) effectively argues Brown's distrust of his audience and consciousness of his pioneering role as the first African American author to move openly into the realm of prose fiction. To assert his right of access to fictional authorship, in the 1853 Narrative Brown chooses to function as "the editor of his resume" (Stepto, From Behind the Veil 29) by quoting from his own travelogue, abolitionist speeches, and previous Narrative. With this decision, however, Brown does not leave his text "bereft of authorship," as Stepto supposes (28). On the contrary, he affirms his own accomplishments as a writer. He treats his own previously published works as primary sources, signaled on a formal level by his shifts from a third-person authorial voice to the first person of the passages he quotes. In the process, he authenticates his ability to elaborate on his personal experiences (instead of simply recounting them) and seizes the authority to make use of an extravagant variety of nonliterary sources to create a "story" (Brown, Clotel 245).

In the 1853 edition, this studied debut into fictional authorship does not completely eliminate a "lingering preoccupation with documenting the facts" (Andrews, "The 1850s" 43) that is more pronounced and qualitatively different from conventional nineteenth-century declarations that novels were true to life. In Clotel, Brown emerges as both editor and creator of fiction. He selects and compiles stories of American slavery that in keeping with his fictional rather than autobiographical intent he declares to have derived not only from his own experiences but also from such secondary sources as American abolitionist journals, tales from "the lips" of runaways, and other authors' fictional texts (245).


Excerpted from Passing and the Rise of the African American Novel by M. GIULIA FABI Copyright © 2001 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

1.The Mark Without: Subversive Mulattas and Mulattos in the Fiction of William Wells Brown and Frank J. Webb7
2.Race Travel in Turn-of-the-Century African American Utopian Fiction44
3."New People" and Invisible Men in Charles W. Chesnutt's The House Behind the Cedars72
4.The Mark Within: Parody in James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man90
5.Tres-passing in African American Literary Criticism106
Selected Bibliography165

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