Over at Inside Higher Ed, Scott McLemee has some interesting reflections on Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins, a late nineteenth century writer who got a lot of attention from literary scholars, including Henry Louis Gates, because she was identified as African-American, but now turns out to have been white. While there are some academic politics here that are worth exploring, Scott focuses on the more interesting aesthetic question: how it is that an author of very considerable mediocrity may become interesting because of her racial background. When Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins was black, the relentless whiteness of her fictional characters was significant and important, but when she became white again, it turns out to be hundrum and uninformative, a rather banal product of the racial prejudices of its time. Scott has some fun with the earnest efforts of literary theorists to read racial complexities into a text which simply doesn’t support them, contrasting Kelley-Hawkins with another, far more interesting-sounding African-American writer from the same period who does actually engage with the ironies and paradoxes of fluid racial identity. But even though the alchemy of race may not be able to produce gold from dross, the body of Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins scholarship may still have some worth. We can consider it as an imaginative exercise, along the lines of the literary critics of Borges’ Tlön, who
often invent authors: they select two dissimilar works – the Tao Te Ching and the 1001 Nights, say – attribute them to the same writer and then determine most scrupulously the psychology of this interesting homme de lettres…
Re-imagining a dull white religious novelist of the late nineteenth century as a conflicted black woman is less ambitious, certainly, but still not entirely without merit.
fn1. Which, as Scott points out in his conclusion, are themselves worth studying, but surely not the same thing.