Producing American Races: Henry James, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison

Producing American Races: Henry James, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison

by Patricia McKee

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In Producing American Races Patricia McKee examines three authors who have powerfully influenced the formation of racial identities in the United States: Henry James, William Faulkner, and Toni Morrison. Using their work to argue that race becomes visible only through image production and exchange, McKee illuminates the significance that representational practice has had in the process of racial construction.
McKee provides close readings of six novels—James’s The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Light in August, and Morrison’s Sula and Jazz—interspersed with excursions into Lacanian and Freudian theory, critical race theory, epistemology, and theories of visuality. In James and Faulkner, she finds, race is represented visually through media that highlight ways of seeing and being seen. Written in the early twentieth century, the novels of James and Faulkner reveal how whiteness depended on visual culture even before film and television became its predominant media. In Morrison, the culture is aural and oral—and often about the absence of the visual. Because Morrison’s African American communities produce identity in nonvisual, even anti-visual terms, McKee argues, they refute not just white representations of black persons as objects but also visual orders of representation that have constructed whites as subjects and blacks as objects.
With a theoretical approach that both complements and transcends current scholarship about race—and especially whiteness—Producing American Races will engage scholars in American literature, critical race theory, African American studies, and cultural studies. It will also be of value to those interested in the novel as a political and aesthetic form.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822397663
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 07/19/1999
Series: New Americanists
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
Lexile: 1350L (what's this?)
File size: 361 KB

About the Author

Patricia McKee, Professor of English at Dartmouth College, is the author of Public and Private: Gender, Class, and the British Novel, 1764–1878 and Heroic Commitment in Richardson, Eliot, and James.

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Producing American Races

Henry James, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison

By Patricia McKee

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9766-3


Reproducing Whiteness The Wings of the Dove

In The Wings of the Dove (1902), Milly Theale, a young, rich, white American woman visiting Europe, becomes ill and dies. This character, James says in his preface (1909) to the novel, was of a sort that had long interested him.

I had from far back mentally projected a certain sort of young American as more the "heir of all the ages" than any other young person whatever ...; so that here was a chance to confer on some such figure a supremely touching value. To be the heir of all the ages only to know yourself, as that consciousness deepened, balked of your inheritance, would be to play the part, it struck me, or at least to arrive at the type, in the light on the whole the most becoming.

The role James chooses for his "most becoming" American is one with "touching value." The pathos of the part depends on the American being both "the heir of all the ages" and "balked of your inheritance."

This particular conflation of power and powerlessness is one that I want to identify as a representation of racial whiteness. If "to be everything and nothing" characterizes whiteness, to have everything and nothing is the condition of James's heroine in The Wings of the Dove. Milly Theale learns to represent her condition, moreover, in the comprehensive yet blank terms that define European and American whiteness in the novel.

It is in an iconic register that racial identity in this novel achieves both a completeness of significance and a void of particularity. The images adopted by characters may be identified with the visualization of individual identity that Habermas suggests became a primary means of political representation in twentieth-century democracies. What Robyn Wiegman calls "the ascendancy of technological corporealities" in this century means that "iconicity instead of corporeal abstraction" functions as the medium of public relations and that "commodified identities" become "the primary signifying form of the public sphere."

Milly Theale becomes an icon in The Wings of the Dove, and she is something of a public figure. Yet even among iconic identities, as Wiegman emphasizes, racial difference has entailed distinctions between surfaces and depths of meaning.

"Blackness" in particular becomes ... not only more than skin deep, but epistemically linked to the articulation of other differences, most prominently gender. In this process, the possibilities of a kind of interior psychic complexity is overwritten by the determinations of the body's corporeal scripting, and the African (=American) is consigned to a psychological as well as a physical negativity of "being." At the same time, whiteness achieves its priority as a visible absence, signifying a dis-corporated, universal, and psychically complicated humanity.

Here Wiegman discriminates between the bodily determination of black persons, as well as, to some extent, white women, and the symbolic indeterminacy of white male identity.

James also employs an economy of race, gender, surfaces, and depths of identity to produce differences between white Europeans and white Americans. According to this economy, only white male Americans distinguish themselves in terms of psychic complexity. White Europeans remain codified, identifying themselves in exchangeable and surface terms; these characters claim their own similarity, whereas white male Americans claim individual difference. In The Wings of the Dove, characters who participate in the public sphere of upper-middle-class social life in London are marked by a blankness. European codes of whiteness bring complexity to the surface of social exchange and blank out both "interior psychic complexity" and any bodily determination of identity. Milly Theale assumes iconic identity within this social sphere, James suggests, to avoid any moral responsibility for or bodily determination of her identity.

Both Milly's psychic complexity and her body are blanked out by representations that discount any particular or determinate identity. The iconicity of whiteness in the novel, practiced primarily by female characters, depends on covering or screening identity so that neither particular material nor particular psychic qualities can be recognized as determinant. Milly's body is rendered indeterminate, as a body that may or may not be dying. Her material identity, once represented in these terms, has the effect of obscuring material determination. Milly's psyche is also obscured by representations, such as the dove, copied from a repertoire of likenesses available to multiple persons.

The American heiress in this novel thereby balks herself of her inheritance, James suggests, because she uses for herself the voided social code of Europeans. The white American male, whom James discusses in other words as well as in his preface to The Wings of the Dove, is to be identified by no void. He can be distinguished from Europeans, who cede responsibility for their identity to cultural codes, by his assumption of individual moral responsibility. His inner sense of responsibility, moreover, means that the white male American produces his meaning, whereas Europeans merely occupy established positions within their cultural codes of meaning. This distinction between productive Americans and merely reproductive Europeans becomes the most important mark of James's American whiteness.

Covers of Whiteness

The covers produced for Milly's individual identity do not hide it but reproduce it in comprehensive terms that allow for no hidden meaning. Thus the status of her body is suspended between the possibilities of life and death, which cover everything in the sense that their total opposition represents a complete range of possibilities; yet they determine nothing. Milly's inner character is similarly voided of the capacity to choose life or death when it is represented by an image of the Holy Spirit. Once Milly adopts the icon of the dove, her body as well as her character are discounted. As an iconic identity, the dove-like woman is nonparticular because many people could play the part. But the image also empties Milly of particularity because the Holy Spirit transcends both body and individual psyche. An icon of transcendence, the dove is a cover of unlimited meaning that signifies no person in particular.

Milly Theale learns to assume the power of whiteness from English characters in the novel, whose icons she reproduces. In the role of the mere "American girl," Milly is able to provide a cover for her behavior. But in this role, her behavior is completely discounted; it is produced as marginal behavior for the sake of discountability. This occurs, for example, when Milly plays the part for Kate Croy and Merton Densher after unexpectedly meeting them at the National Gallery.

Whatever the facts, their perfect manners, all round, saw them through. The finest part of Milly's own inspiration, it may further be mentioned, was the quick perception that what would be of most service was, so to speak, her own native wood-note. She had long been conscious with shame for her thin blood, or at least for her poor economy, of her unused margin as an American girl—closely indeed as in English air the text might appear to cover the page. She still had reserves of spontaneity, if not of comicality; so that all this cash in hand could now find employment. She became as spontaneous as possible and as American as it might conveniently appeal to Mr. Densher, after his travels, to find her. She said things in the air, and yet flattered herself that she struck him as saying them not in the tone of agitation but in the tone of New York. In the tone of New York agitation was beautifully discounted, and she had now a sufficient view of how much it might accordingly help her. (178-79)

Here Milly's agitation can be written off under cover of her marginality. The role of "the American girl" as margin depends on being abroad, and in Europe Milly is repeatedly able to empty situations of meaning because of her marginal status as an American. In Venice she will make use of "the national character that, in a woman still so young, made of the air breathed a virtual non-conductor" (323), precluding the development of meaning by emptying a situation of any manner of significance.

From the English, however, Milly learns to produce an effect of discountability that is covered by the text. This effect is available in iconic representations that both void persons of individual character and yet provide individuals with power. From the beginning of the novel, James's English characters identify themselves in roles of disinterestedness that, like the dove Milly will play, obscure qualities of individual character. But these characters acquire visibility and power in roles of self-denial because these roles are reproduced as parts of the construction of symbolic meaning.

The visibility and visuality of these representations is not only, or even always, a matter of their imagery. The public sphere of whiteness in The Wings of the Dove is a symbolic field that is theoretically inclusive and theoretically visualized as a complete range of points of view. The self-representations most powerful among the English characters are identifiable as views or aspects of a person: visual dimensions of identity that are each clearly only one of many. As a single view, any such representation is always inconclusive, and it is always, morever, a matter of position. As a political identity, a view, unlike the political opinions of Habermas's eighteenth-century democrats, is not produced by reason or any other internal element of an individual but by position, which accounts for the variety of views.

With subject and object identifiable by positions, they can be understood in absolutely impersonal terms, abstracted from particular individuals into a structure of relations that produces views. Among the English, then, is available an additional capacity to produce whiteness as "everything and nothing." With the identity of an individual viewed as and from a social position, a comprehensive range of identities is opened up, as all the various views that might be taken. Anyone can take any view, and anyone can be viewed from any angle, so that the same equivalence of persons is produced that allows multiple persons to play various parts from a repertoire of conventional roles. The likeness of individuals identified as views consists of the void of inner character and the full range of external views available. Thus no particular internal or external element of identity can be seen as being necessary to the individual's identity.

English Productions of Whiteness

The comprehensive blankness with which English characters in the novel represent themselves is evident in the opening scene, when Kate Croy pays a visit to her father, Lionel Croy, at his London rooming house. Since the death of her mother, Kate has been living with Maud Lowder, her rich aunt. But now she "'wished to escape Aunt Maud'" (59). She offers to give up Maud's patronage and come live with her father, who has little money and who, owing to some never-specified scandal in the past, is socially "impossible" (56). Yet Kate's offer poses a dilemma for her father, who not only does not want his daughter with him but wants to have the credit for giving her up.

Thus it is that Mr. Croy, who has always "had indescribable arts, that quite turned the tables" (24), finds the tables turned on him.

He wished her not to come to him, still less to settle with him, and had sent for her to give her up with some style and state; a part of the beauty of which, however, was to have been his sacrifice to her own detachment. There was no style, no state, unless she wished to forsake him. His idea had accordingly been to surrender her to her wish with all nobleness; it had by no means been to have positively to keep her off. (25)

Having counted on appearing to sacrifice his attachment to Kate's selfish detachment, for the sake of style and state, Croy finds himself put into the position he had planned to put Kate.

So begins the novel's consideration of sacrifice or "giving up," as characters compete to appear selfless. That such an appearance is a social position rather than an inner quality is indicated by the maneuvers that produce it. The representation of selflessness depends on the display of no internal characteristics but on jockeying for the position of self-sacrifice. These characters compete to assume a position of self-denial, moreover, through maneuvers that maintain identity as a non-particular, exchangeable attribute. Both self-denial and self-interest are produced as turns of the tables.

Croy manages to turn the tables on Kate when he points out that her appearance of sacrifice for his sake is a mere cover, since there is no gain for him: "'You can describe yourself—to yourself—as, in a fine flight, giving up your aunt for me; but what good, I should like to know, would your fine flight do me?'" (28). In fact, he is correct: Kate has constructed a cover, with her "fine flight" of sacrifice for his sake that is also a flight of escape from Maud, for Kate's own sake. And it is this kind of cover that these characters are expert at reproducing. They cover themselves not by concealing their motives and interests but by constructing representations that, allowing for various views, cover everything.

By the end of the scene, neither character can hold on to the position of self-sacrifice, which has been exposed as self-interest. Each character is exposed from and by the other's perspective, which not only alters her and his apparent motives but identifies those motives as aspects of a situation. Thus there is little sense of exposing a hidden truth; what matters is on the surface. Characters are emptied of inner particularity insofar as their moral qualities become aspects and positions. Because each assumes the contrasting qualities of interest and disinterestedness with turns of the tables, neither position is experienced as a moral quality.

Signs of self-sacrifice and self-interest, if seen as opposite ends of a moral spectrum, might make possible a wide range of moral distinctions about a character. But these characters move suddenly from appearing as one to appearing as the other and seem concerned to use these characteristics as positions of power, which empties out the significance of self-sacrifice and self-interest as it rules out any subtle discriminations of character. With both characters occupying similar positions, they appear more alike than different. Little can be learned about Kate or Lionel Croy as individuals, except perhaps that each is less concerned with character than with position. Their "inner" lives are oriented outward, and they represent themselves in equivalent terms.

These exchanges reinforce the completeness of coverage that surfaces provide in the English social scene. The opening scene of the novel does not present depths of English character but a situation into which people fit. Nothing appears hidden—nothing is under the table—because the exposure of the attitude of sacrifice as a false position does not uncover any underlying reality. Neither her father's nor Kate's intended sacrifice is exposed as a cover for self-interest. Rather, sacrifice and self-interest are both exposed as two reversible aspects of a person, depending on which way she is turned. When turned one way, she looks good; from another aspect, she looks bad.

This is to effect a second kind of abstraction, not only of moral qualities from inner character but also of interest and desire from objects. Self-interest is no more aimed at an object than is self-sacrifice; both seek to get rid of objects. What might be seen as the hidden motive "beneath" the appearance of sacrifice is, in Kate's case, getting away from Maud and, in her father's case, getting away from Kate. Sacrifice becomes a false position, insofar as it is self-serving and others serve as pretexts for it. But it is not exactly a false appearance, because "giving up" is a real desire on both Kate's and her father's parts. Sacrifice is instead amere appearance, a wholly nonreferential attitude, abstracted from subjects and objects alike, that is only surface, with both act and "underlying" motive aimed at getting rid of or turning away from things. If self-sacrifice does not work as a cover for self-interest in the opening scene, turning the tables does work as a cover, and it covers everything.

An American Race

The equivalence of characters who identify themselves in terms of such a cover poses difficulties for distinguishing white Americans from white Europeans. In The Wings of the Dove, however, Milly Theale prefers not to distinguish herself. She does so, in a sense, only when her American qualities discount her personal qualities. Increasingly, Milly models herself on what she sees and imagines in Kate Croy as she represents herself in and by reproductions of images and views. The appeal of pictures to Milly as means of self-representation lies in their surfaces, which limit meaning to visible dimensions and allow for ease of reproduction. When she visits the National Gallery, Milly recognizes that "she should have been a lady-copyist—it met so the case. The case was the case of escape, of living under water, of being at once impersonal and firm" (174). Nothing of the lady copyist is evident in the images she produces, and it is in this apparent vacuum of self that Milly finds "refuge" (174). She will go on to identify herself as a copy of Kate and find refuge in the apparent lack of self with which she will mimic Kate's capacity to cover herself.


Excerpted from Producing American Races by Patricia McKee. Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Contents Acknowledgments Introduction. Race and Media Chapter 1. Reproducing Whiteness: The Wings of the Dove Chapter 2. Collective Whiteness in The Golden Bowl Chapter 3. Self-Division as Racial Divide: The Sound and the Fury Chapter 4. Playing White Men in Light in August Chapter 5. Black Spaces in Sula Chapter 6. Off the Record: Jazz and the Prodction of Black Culture Afterword Notes Index

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