Black and White

by Henry on March 1, 2005

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.[1] 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.

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{ 27 comments }

1

Anderson 03.01.05 at 5:53 pm

Wonderful item–the Sokal hoax of identity studies?–, but isn’t the on-point Borges reference “Pierre Menard,” where the same text means two different things depending on whether it’s by Cervantes or Menard?

Henry’s suggestion for a new subset of literary studies is a fine one. I suggest we call it “paraphilology.” Look for my upcoming dissertation on how to read Steppenwolf as if it had been written by Dorothy Parker.

2

Henry 03.01.05 at 6:00 pm

Yes – I had intended to reference Pierre Menard too (the bit where a passage is either banal or sublime, depending on whether Menard or Cervantes wrote it) but forgot to.

3

ben wolfson 03.01.05 at 6:17 pm

Arthur Danto proposes similar exercises for paintings in The Abuse of Beauty; among them identical exhibitions called (something like) “Beauty” and “Disgust” depending on which end of the museum you enter.

4

pierre 03.01.05 at 6:21 pm

Wonderful item—the Sokal hoax of identity studies?—, but isn’t the on-point Borges reference “Pierre Menard,” where the same text means two different things depending on whether it’s by Cervantes or Menard?

Why, yes.

5

cultrev 03.01.05 at 6:21 pm

What we’re dealing with here, in a sense, is the split in literary studies between historicist and aethetic approaches. It’s historically interesting to find a black author working at a period and in a way that one wouldn’t expect. The aesthetics, including racialized aesthetics, yes, run on their own, out of touch with the race of the author. Both white and black authors can reiterate or subvert racial/aesthetic norms…

But this overtone of “ah ha! identity studies has been Sokalled!” is dumb, doesn’t get what literary studies are all about on the historicist side. No one said that the novel was great – just that it is historically significant that it was written. OK – so this turns out to be wrong. Just a fact checking error that ramified, not some sign of the decadent absurdity or methodological handicap of the field…

Once again, I just don’t get the under the surface anger about this sort of thing. If a historian of pre-revolutionary France worked on some sort of document, anthologized it, developed an argument out of it – and it was later revealed that the document was a forgery, you wouldn’t be indicting the field of history as a whole. You’d just call the researcher sloppy… Certainly wouldn’t merit blogospheric high-fives and Sokal references…

6

Anderson 03.01.05 at 7:04 pm

No “surface anger” here, but I don’t think it’s necessarily “dumb” to be amused by the event.

N.b. that the “aesthetic” reading, whether or not the author is “reiterating or subverting racial norms,” is itself “historically” grounded on facts about the author. If we discovered that D.W. Griffin was black, we would have a different “aesthetic” take on Birth of a Nation.

My old complaint is that a “historical” reading of a text needs to happen in a department of “history,” not in a department of literature. But this complaint is premised on the idea that a unique subject of literary studies exists, whereas in fact English departments specialize in everything except their own subject matter (Paul de Man, “Return to Philology”).

(De Man may’ve been right that it’s in the nature of literature to *be* “about everything but its own subject matter”; at least, he convinced me, and here I am, out of the academy. “Would that more of his readers followed suit,” someone is thinking ….)

7

Anderson 03.01.05 at 7:10 pm

Hm … “Griffith” and “under the surface.” Man, my 5-month-old has *got* to start sleeping through the night …

8

pierre 03.01.05 at 7:32 pm

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…

Incidentally, a very similar process is responsible for how the personality of the Christian god came to be understood as it is today …

9

dsquared 03.01.05 at 7:37 pm

I’ve always thought that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a lot more entertaining and interesting when you realise that it’s a story told from the point of view of a young woman who is a serious paranoid schizophrenic, a habitual LSD user and a serial killer. It’s much darker and more psychologically complex.

10

Jeremiah J. 03.01.05 at 7:39 pm

I don’t think that we should be embarassed by the bare fact that a writer becomes less interesting when we revise our understanding of her historical and cultural context. It’s not as if great or important literature deservesits status only because of the isolated, performance of the author, whatever that means (as if we were talking about high jumpers). It really matters if you discover that mathematical writings which were thought to have been the product of a 4th century Greek mind turn out to be the calculus homework of a 21st century high school student.

11

dsquared 03.01.05 at 8:24 pm

Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” has also become significantly less danceable pop music of late. Admittedly, this is only partly because we’ve discovered he’s not black, but there you go.

12

Hogan 03.01.05 at 8:49 pm

I’ve always thought that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a lot more entertaining and interesting when you realise that it’s a story told from the point of view of a young woman who is a serious paranoid schizophrenic, a habitual LSD user and a serial killer.

Spoken like someone who never saw the Normal Again episode.

13

Anderson 03.01.05 at 8:54 pm

Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” has also become significantly less danceable pop music of late. Admittedly, this is only partly because we’ve discovered he’s not black, but there you go.

LOL, dsquared!

14

John Isbell 03.01.05 at 9:05 pm

“It really matters if you discover that mathematical writings which were thought to have been the product of a 4th century Greek mind turn out to be the calculus homework of a 21st century high school student.”
Now that would be interesting. Much feminist Romanticism work, which I know a bit, seems rather condescending to me in the crap that is treated seriously. By all means let excellence be celebrated instead, in literature programs. Austen for instance is for the ages, as is Mary Shelley.

15

Timothy Burke 03.01.05 at 9:21 pm

I agree that this highlights the character of historicist literary criticism, but I also don’t think it does so in a way that is necessarily about the shortcomings of that mode of criticism.

The point about historicist criticism is really that it takes literary works largely as a form of documentary evidence about the past. It’s distinguished from history proper in several subtle ways: historicist criticism is generally more interested in the aesthetic qualities of the “document” and the abiding historical interest on the table tends to be past identities, consciousness, subjectivity.

So yes, who someone was tends to make a historicist read their work differently. This is a bit true for anyone who isn’t intensely hostile to the intentional fallacy. The common or public understanding of literary criticism certainly takes an avid interest in the character and biography of authors. Wouldn’t it change anyone’s understanding of Jonathan Swift if you found out that he was actually an English-speaking Chinese diplomat living secretly in London?

I think you can suggest that this reveals some shortcomings to historicism, that it has a kind of threadbare functionalism in the way it reads and looks for texts, but this isn’t a “Sokal moment”.

16

Anderson 03.01.05 at 9:25 pm

I wish someone would give me an example of historicist criticism that focuses on the “aesthetic qualities” of the text, because I am not sure we are using the A-word to mean the same thing.

17

dsquared 03.01.05 at 9:27 pm

I also have a theory that “Ally McBeal” is about an alcoholic. It would explain a lot:

1. Always bumping into people
2. Hallucinates
3. Keeps having disastrous sexual flings and regretting them
4. Constantly late for important work meetings
5. Goes to same bar every single evening and performs embarrassing song & dance routines there.

18

cultrev 03.01.05 at 10:07 pm

Frederic Jameson, The Political Unconscious (I’m thinking in particular of the chapter on Conrad…)

Well, and most everything else that Jameson’s done in the line of lit crit.

Let’s just start there. I’d love to send you back to the roots – toward Walter Benjamin, the Frankfurters in general… But you want currentish work…

(And by the way: there’s lots and lots of historicist stuff that’s not all that aesthetically minded. Would never disagree with that… Some of it’s helpful, a lot of it I think is less than interesting. But to each his own. My own work runs right along the faultline between the aesthetic and the historical… Looks at the way aesthetic forms mirror wider culture and, just as importantly, the way that culture itself takes on aesthetic forms…)

19

Scott McLemee 03.01.05 at 11:20 pm

There were a couple of (intersecting) lines of thought that didn’t get into the column. I’ll throw them out here, while also expressing thanks to Henry Farrell for the notice.

Stanley Fish’s notion of interpretive community realy applies here. That is, what counts as evidence is just as much a function of the rules of an community as interpretation itself. At a certain point, people started filling in various imaginary projections of her biography, based on the fiction (which of course they read on the basis of an assumption about her biography, etc.) A couple of people wrote that you could tell she was black by looking at the photo. Which I am afraid is just not the case. They also assume that the fact that she never published after 1898 was a matter of the worsening racial climate, while it seems far more likely that she had exhausted the little stock of imagination she had.

The interpretive community itself undergoes a huge structural change in the 1980s. Most of the critical discourse is pointing at the novels but also at its own conditions of production and circulation. In other words, it is a metacommentary on the professionalization of Af-Am litcrit. There is this strange way in which Gates, Inc. (not just the man but his academic empire) “branded” these texts, and the interpretations that followed had much more to do with professional status-claims than with the texts themselves.

The folks who wrote about EDKH before the Oxford editions appeared were able to be frank about the quality of the work and the whiteness of the fiction’s world. The scholarship appearing after 1988 bent itself out of shape to make the work sound better and more complex than it was.

Now, it’s not like anything in either the fiction or the presumed racial identity of the author changed along the way. Each group saw EDKH as a black writer. But after Gates “discovered” the second novel — if he did — people writing in his wake had the urgent will-to-power of the academic system behind them to justify ignoring anything inconvenient to the hunt for nuance.

Final thought: Doing the reading for this piece was instructive in another regard, since it required going over several decades’ worth of the early reference works for African-American literature and history. Going through the phonebook-sized *Bibliography of the Negro in Africa and America* from 1928, put together by Monroe K. Work at the Tuskegee Institute is a humbling experience.

20

cac 03.02.05 at 1:10 am

I’m surprised that one of CT’s antipodean readers hasn’t raised the Helen Darville/Demidenko case. This was a young woman of entirely English background as far as I know who couldn’t get her work accepted. She then adopted a fictitious Ukrainian persona and exactly the same book was snapped up to the extent of winning (a then) prestigious literary prize. The truth emerged and the prize was then stripped. What no one has ever explained then or since is how a presumed difference in her ethnic background changed mediocre work (which it clearly was) to prize winning stuff and back again effortlessly.

21

Nabakov 03.02.05 at 2:17 am

“Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first woman she meets, then teams up with three complete strangers to kill again.”

– TV listing for “The Wizard of Oz” in the Marin Independent-Journal.

22

floopmeister 03.02.05 at 2:55 am

cac – beat me to it…

23

Bill Gardner 03.02.05 at 4:19 am

“Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first woman she meets, then teams up with three complete strangers to kill again.”

Those screaming monkeys!!!!!

24

Doug 03.02.05 at 9:06 am

Don’t know anything about Helen Darville/Demidenko, but the history of Asa Carter and The Education of Little Tree brings up this issue as well. Jerzy Kosinski and The Painted Bird. The list of works whose value changes as one thing or another is believed about their authors is probably quite long…

25

ajay 03.02.05 at 11:20 am

Did anyone here find that their opinion of “The Three Musketeers” changed when they found that the author was black(1)? I don’t think mine did, but it’s difficult to tell.

Lucky it isn’t generally known – all the public libraries would rapidly move it from ‘Classics’ to ‘Black Writing’.

(1) Well, mixed race. But if Halle Berry counts as black so does Alexandre Dumas.

26

Nabakov 03.02.05 at 3:24 pm

This issue also casts a whole new light on Pushkin’s “Queen of Spades” as well.

27

McGruff 03.02.05 at 5:39 pm

The more important point–Charles Chesnutt (the other, “far more interesting-sounding African-American writer” of the period) is excellent and always getting lost. Alas, even in this discussion. The point being that the problem with historicist critics isn’t that they’re historically minded, but that they’re not historical enough. Chesnutt gets forgotten because he’s a good novelist and profoudndly of his time. EDKH worked because she could be plugged into the navel gazing of the moment.

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