Copyright © 2010 CorbisOpen Letters Monthly, September 2011.

Joanna Scutts

In a poem she translated in 1922 for James Weldon Johnson’s Book of American Negro Poetry, Jessie Redmon Fauset seemed to foretell – and embrace – her posthumous obscurity: ‘I should like to sleep in some neglected spot/ Unknown to every one, by every one forgot.’ But her oblivion is undeserved. As the author of four well received novels, a frequent contributor to W.E.B. Du Bois’ magazineThe Crisis, and its literary editor during the formative years of the Harlem Renaissance, Fauset ought to occupy a far more prominent place in the history of twentieth-century American literature than she currently enjoys. Her obscurity is illustrative of the double bind of gender and race: the male writers whom she published and encouraged (Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay) became the definitive voices of a new African-American canon, and further afield than Harlem, white women poets and novelists carved a space for themselves in modernism. Yet her relative lack of renown and readership is also partly due to the kind of characters and communities she chose to represent: tight-knit, upper-middle-class Northeasterners who seemed to belong to an already fading past.

The epithet ‘the black Jane Austen’ was applied to Fauset in 1934 by William Stanley Braithwaite, writing in the less political counterpart to The CrisisOpportunity. Not exactly a compliment, the label highlighted the triviality and privilege of Fauset’s subjects at the same time as praising her talent for social comedy. Later critics were less subtle, arguing that she was a conservative whose characters pandered to white America by mimicking its elitist prejudices. Neither the praise nor the criticism is entirely fair – her ironic touch is less sure than Austen’s, yet the structural injustices of the social system she depicts are abundantly clear. As feminist scholars point out, furthermore, accusations of literary ‘triviality’ are often based on assumptions of the unimportance of women’s lives – and women’s work – per se. In 1900 a full ninety percent of employed African-American women were in domestic or personal service; if nothing else, by portraying women of color as artists and businesspeople, Fauset cracked a window of opportunity into the gloom of ‘the help.’ Yet the tension between ambition and acceptance, between ‘greatness’ and respectable ordinariness, remains palpable and unresolved throughout her novels and her life.

Fauset’s first novel, There Is Confusion, opens with a scene of the heroine, Joanna Marshall, climbing onto her father’s knee and begging for a story ‘’bout somebody great.’ Joel Marshall is the successful owner of a catering company, but this is not what ‘great’ means either to him or his young daughter – wealthy as he is, Joel’s aspirations to public greatness have been compromised and thwarted by his color. The novel goes on to follow Joanna’s own pursuit of greatness – which like her father’s is incomplete, uncertain, and ultimately abandoned – and interweaves it with the stories of two less-fortunate friends, Peter Bye and Maggie Ellersly. The characters live and try to thrive inside the choke-hold of a white world that refuses to recognize their shared humanity. With one or two minor exceptions, there are no white characters in the book, and white prejudices are communicated in a collective voice. Living in this world means being constantly visible, and constantly subject to insults couched as compliments:

Those Marshall children, you know those colored children that always dress so well and as though they had someone to take care of them. Pretty nice looking children too, if only they weren’t colored. Their father is a caterer, has that place over there on Fifty-ninth Street. Makes a lot of money for a colored man.

For all the sympathy with which Fauset establishes this world, she remains uncertain about how her characters ought to respond. Joanna, the ostensible heroine, is often unsympathetic in her assurance of her own and her family’s superiority and her high-handed treatment of those she thinks are beneath her. Unlike, say, Jane Austen’s Emma, a famously ‘unlikeable’ character who is redeemed by a painful journey to self-knowledge, Joanna’s similarly disastrous meddling in the love affairs of those around her carries almost no consequences for her.

Joanna is a talented singer and dancer, but there are no strains of jazz in this 1924 novel, nor a flash of Josephine Baker – her success is entirely in the hands of white gatekeepers, and ‘America doesn’t want to see a colored dancer in the role of apremière danseuse.’ Protected by her talent, her family, and her own single-mindedness, Joanna only belatedly realizes the insurmountable barrier of race; her refusal to believe in the power of prejudice sets her apart from her poorer friends, who have enjoyed no such illusions. She does achieve the qualified triumph of dancing the role of (masked) ‘America’ in a performance of the ‘Dance of the Nations,’ and becomes a star when she is begged by the crowd to reveal herself. Yet the narrative sadly admits that this is unusual and unique to New York – perhaps even to Greenwich Village where the dance takes place. Joanna can represent ‘America’ only for this one, brief, and exceptional moment – and it awakens her to no political action or sense of racial solidarity. Greatness remains a solitary pursuit.

The poorer characters, who see obstacles of class and race more clearly, are no more successful in overcoming them. Impoverished Maggie Ellersley knows exactly what the Marshalls can do for her and sets her sights on allying herself as closely as possible with the family. Some of the most vivid moments in the novel are seen through Maggie’s eyes, as the poor girl is exposed to pleasure and luxury beyond what she’s ever known: ‘Nightly hair-brushings and the discovery that of course each one had her own brush and comb! Frequent washings of both, talcum powders!’ Described as looking ‘like a yellow calla lily in the deep cream of her skin’ with ‘gray eyes’ and ‘unbelievably red’ lips, Maggie is a latter-day incarnation of a delicate Dickensian heroine whose strength belies her physique: ‘Something within her frail bosom pulsed in a constant revolt against the spirit of things that kept her in these conditions.’ As a teenager Maggie concocts a successful scheme to move herself and her mother out of ‘the tenement in Thirty-fifth Street’ to a respectable address twenty blocks north, yet her business acumen and drive are not celebrated by the narrator, nor respected by Joanna, who considers that she lacks ‘ambition.’ In order that ‘she shan’t spoil my brother’s chances,’ Joanna writes a fateful letter warning Maggie off her planned marriage into the family, and in desperate revolt Maggie elopes with a gambler.

Unlike the determined Maggie, Joanna’s lover Peter Bye needs her to push him forward to greatness and out of his bitterness against white people and his hereditary ‘shiftlessness.’ As an explanation of Peter’s attitude to white people – ‘he did not believe that any of them were kind or just or even human’ – we are given the lengthy history of the tortuously entwined black and white Bye families, slaves and slave-owners in Philadelphia. Despite the very real racism he encounters as a medical student and a soldier during World War One, Peter’s bitterness against the white world is presented as a flaw to be overcome. Yet at the same time, Peter is often a necessary voice of reason, pointing out a structural racism that’s so deeply ingrained that even other black characters overlook it. While working as a musician to put himself through medical school (and after a white woman asks him and his band to play concealed behind a floral display), Peter confronts his partner about his desire to leave for South America, where black people are ‘treated better.’

‘What business has any one ‘treating’ us, anyway? The world’s ours as much as it is theirs. And I don’t want to leave America. It’s mine, my people helped make it. These very orchards we’re passing now used to be the famous Bye orchards. My grandfather and great-grandfather helped to cultivate them.”

“Is that so? Honest?” Tom showed a sudden respectful interest. “How’d they come to lose them?”

“Lose them? They never owned them. The black Byes were slaves of the white Byes.”

Peter’s military service is an opportunity for Fauset to represent the often violent clashes between segregated American regiments thrown together in the war zone. Waiting in Brest, he reflects that: ‘The thing from which France was to be defended could hardly be worse than this welter of human misunderstanding, the clashing of unknown tongues, the cynical investigations of the government, the immanence of war and the awful, persistent wretchedness of the weather.’ Yet the documentarian in Fauset is no match for the overwrought dramatist, and the war becomes the stage for a meeting between Peter and the scion of the white Byes, who is killed under fire and dies in Peter’s arms. The physical resemblance between the two is uncanny, such that their blood relationship is obvious to the reader long before the truth is admitted by the last surviving member of the white Byes. Peter and Joanna, finally married, reject this old man’s offer of reconciliation and an inheritance for their son, made at the very end of the novel. ‘They come too late,’ says Peter, although he says it ‘gently.’ Joanna’s ambition has given way to Peter’s, and ‘a shameless apostate,’ she renounces her creed of ‘greatness’ for ‘happiness.’ This belated switch – in the very last line – suggests that Fauset could never quite imagine a combination of public fame and private joy for her female protagonists. The couple’s absorption into the Marshall home – a fortress of family and material comfort – is both a metaphorical and literal retreat for Joanna.

The daughter of a minister, Fauset was born in New Jersey in 1882 and raised in Philadelphia, in a highly class-conscious world similar to the one she evokes in her novels, in which quiet Sunday afternoons and family Bibles are the structuring staples of a life lived with head down and chin up. Backsliders and ne’er-do-wells threaten the edifice of respectability that the ‘old’ community has built on a base of grudging white acceptance. Luckier and safer than their Southern brothers and sisters, the members of this community nevertheless have to submit to daily indignities and slights, which Fauset charts in her essays as well as her novels. Violence and lynchings are a distant threat, but the daily effort to bear frustration and prejudice grinds down even the most successful. Fauset’s own life reflects the compromised nature of success for an intelligent black girl like Joanna Marshall at the turn of the last century. She was the first female African-American student to graduate from Cornell University, and possibly the first Phi Beta Kappa. Yet she ended up at Cornell because Bryn Mawr arranged financial aid for her to study there, to avoid having to accept or reject her themselves. She obtained a Master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and studied at the Sorbonne, but she was forced to move from Philadelphia to Baltimore to find a high school that would hire her to teach.

In 1910, W.E.B. Du Bois established The Crisis as the voice of the NAACP, declaring a fourfold mission of news reporting, reviewing, publishing new literature and providing commentary on ‘the race problem.’ From 1912 Jessie Fauset published poems and short stories in the magazine – often early versions of the characters and plots of her novels – and in 1919 Du Bois invited her to New York to work as the magazine’s literary editor, a position she held until 1926. In these years the ‘New Negro Movement’ that became known as the Harlem Renaissance flowered under the auspices of editors like Fauset, who acted as mentor to a stream of new writers. Her reviews tended to praise writing that was not overtly propagandistic, and to express a somewhat idealistic belief in the barrier-crossing power of literature and the existence of objective standards of literary art. At the same time, however, she passionately championed and promoted work that was more politically and artistically radical than her own. The apartment she shared with her sister Helen Lanning on West 142nd Street became a meeting place for artists, writers and Harlem intellectuals, who remembered her as an old-fashioned, elegant presence, albeit more approachable and encouraging than the aloof Du Bois. ‘All the radicals liked her,’ recalled Claude McKay in his autobiography, ‘although in her social viewpoint she was away over on the other side of the fence.’

A minor character in There is Confusion provides a template for the protagonist of Fauset’s second, and more critically acclaimed novel Plum Bun: A Novel without a Moral (1928). Vera Manning, an acquaintance of Joanna’s, decides to pass for white to advance her career in an advertising agency, and is barred by her family from marrying the darker-skinned man she loves. Introduced as shallow and cynical, she later reappears having been radicalized by reports of postwar lynchings: ‘You remember they mobbed some colored soldiers in Arkansas because they’d worn their uniforms in the street?’ Light enough to work undercover, she goes to the South to gather evidence from the mobs themselves, and embraces her true identity: ‘Oh Joanna, I’m glad I’m colored – there’s something terrible, terrible about white people.”

In Plum Bun Angela Murray is neither a career girl nor an activist, but an artist – a painter who chooses to pass at the cost of renouncing her darker sister and the larger black community. Her sister embraces that community, with its belief in tradition, domesticity, and religion, while the radically individualistic Angela transforms herself into ‘Angèle Mory’ and tries, like Jay Gatsby, to transcend her heritage through the power of artistic reinvention. Fauset’s subsequent novels – The Chinaberry Tree (1931) and Comedy, American Style (1933) – continued to focus on what one reviewer called ‘amber-tinted, well-to-do, refined Negroes’: a minority within a minority, obsessed equally with lightness and class. Her contemporaries Jean Toomer and Nella Larsen are better known for both writing about and personally embodying a movement between (and in Toomer’s case, a rejection of) racializing categories and boundaries – Larsen’s novelsQuicksand (1928) and Passing (1929) owe a thematic debt to Fauset but are much more widely read and studied. One possible reason is that Fauset’s version of the ‘tragic mulatto’ theme common in early African-American literature is in fact resistant to tragedy – her novels end with abrupt romantic fulfilment, rather than sudden death. Because at the last minute they declare a private solution to the public ‘race problem’ so patiently elucidated beforehand, these happy endings can feel forced. Yet it would be a mistake to let a final retreat overshadow the wealth of detail and texture contained in the novels – or to assume, even unconsciously, that a tragic twist is inherently more ‘authentic’ than a happy one.

Critical judgments from the 1930s on tended to assert that Fauset’s parlors were little more than literary attempts at passing, and to argue that a genuine ‘Negro literature’ should speak to the uniqueness of black experience in America. Her upper-middle-class fictional worlds and the kind of racism she depicted – subtle and debilitating, rather than overt and devastating – were outpaced by a growing political urgency spurred by the Depression. Yet her journalism complicates the picture of her as a conservative, and suggests that her truest talent lay in non-fiction documentary. In her 1922 article ‘Some Notes on Color’ for The World Tomorrow, her descriptions of everyday racism are vivid and blunt, and in some cases find their way into her first novel as part of the backdrop to the characters’ struggles. The essay is framed as a response to ‘a distinguished novelist’ who asserts that ‘the race problem’ is antithetical to ‘art.’ Her response is politely incredulous. ‘It’s life, it’s colored life. Being colored is being a problem.’

Her essay is measured and modulated; but at times the sentences run on in frustration: ‘Either we are inartistic or we are picturesque and always the inference is implied that we live objectively with one eye on the attitude of the white world as though it were the audience and we the players whose hope and design is to please.’ Her novels are full of performers and performances, but the larger performance is always this unasked-for role of representing the group to white eyes. Fauset recounts the ‘inhibition of natural liberties’ that this sense of surveillance engenders; on the crowded subway a seat becomes vacant and a man looks around for a woman to offer it to. ‘I am the nearest one, “But oh,” says his glance, “you’re colored. I’m not expected to give it to you.” And down he plumps.’ It is up to Fauset to make sure that the ‘unpleasantness’ doesn’t ruin her day. A slow waitress at a diner might be a sign of the establishment’s deliberate racism, or simply an inattentive server, and there’s no way to find out. ‘The uncertainty beclouds my afternoon.’ Well aware that these slights and doubts are small on a day-to-day basis, Fauset argues that they are nevertheless part of a larger abdication by white America of its purported values of liberty and democracy: “I do not have to fear lynching, or burning, or dispossession. No, only the reflex of those things.”

Fauset herself was not apolitical – she had attended the second Pan-African Congress on behalf of the NAACP in 1921, and returned inspired by a vision of the international racial unity. Yet her ideas for improving the lot of her race were pragmatic rather than revolutionary – she saw hope in education and in giving the next generation the role models Joanna Marshall lacked. To that end she and Du Bois collaborated on The Brownie’s Book, a short-lived magazine for black children, and she contributed biographies of black political and cultural figures to The Crisis, considering it of urgent importance that black children “be able to read of the achievements of their race.” She aimed to produce a compilation of her biographical writings, but the work was never finished. After her tenure at The Crisis ended, she tried to find work in white publishing houses, offering to work from home if her color should be a problem. However, following the publication of Comedy: American Style, she retired from literary life. She had married an insurance broker, Herbert Harris, in 1929, at the age of 47, and seems to have renounced her own literary ambitions for domestic life. The couple lived in New Jersey until her husband’s death, when Fauset moved back to her family home in Philadelphia. She died there in 1961.

Obscurity and oblivion may also be, in some distant way, ‘reflexes’ of violence and dispossession. Happily Fauset is poised for some redress – the Library of America is including Plum Bun in its new boxed set of Harlem Renaissance novels, out this month. The Northeastern Library of Black Literature edition of The Chinaberry Tree contains a selection of Faucet’s nonfiction writings, and Comedy: American Style is also available, from Rutgers University Press . The out-of-print There is Confusion is easy to find in used editions. For an atmospheric, sometimes jarring, flawed and spirited portrait of a vanished era in American history, Fauset is worth hunting down – not because she’s the black anybody else, but because she’s not quite like anybody else.

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