Mark Twain and Homer Plessy

Posted in Articles, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2012-01-15 03:13Z by Steven

Mark Twain and Homer Plessy

Number 24, Special Issue: America Reconstructed, 1840-1940 (Autumn, 1988)
pages 102-128

Eric J. Sundquist, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities
Johns Hopkins University

The carnivalesque drama of doubling, twinship, and masquerade that constitutes Pudd’nhead Wilson and its freakishly extracted yet intimately conjoined story, “Those Extraordinary Twins,” is likely to remain misread and controversial in estimations of Mark Twain’s literary achievement as long as the work’s virtual mimicry of America’s late-nineteenth-century race crisis is left out of account. Readers have, of course, often found a key to the novel’s interpretation in the notorious “fiction of law and custom” that makes the “white” slave Roxy legally “black” by allowing one-sixteenth of her blood to “outvote” the rest (8-9). Like so many parodic moments in the book, however. Twain’s joke about voting speaks not simply to general anxieties about miscegenation but more particularly to the deliberate campaign to disfranchise blacks and strip them of legal protections that was underway by the early 1890s. Built of the brutal artifice of racial distinctions, both American law and American custom conspired to punish black men and women in the post-Reconstruction years, and Twain’s bitter failed fiction, verging on allegory but trapped in unfinished burlesque, has been thought to participate in the black nadir without artistically transcending it or, conversely, without reaching its broader historical implications.

As Hershel Parker and others have demonstrated in detail, Twain’s chaotic process of composition and his unconcerned interchange of various manuscript versions make it impossible to place much weight on authorial intention narrowly defined. Yet this hardly leads to the conclusion that Twain’s vision had no coherent meaning or that his own comic rationale, contained in the opening of “Those Extraordinary Twins,” reveals nothing of significance about the texts critique of contemporary race theory or Twain’s authorial involvement in that critique. Indeed, one might rather argue that the confusion and seeming flaws in the manuscript and the published text, while largely attributable to his haste to produce a book that would ameliorate his financial problems, are also a measure of the social and psychic turmoil that Twain, not least as a liberal Southerner living and working in the North, felt in the post-Reconstruction years. The key phenomena in late-nineteenth-century race relations have just as much place in determining the text’s range of implication, its meaning, as do such mechanical factors as compositional sequence and manuscript emendations. Preoccupied with relevant but improperly construed issues of aesthetic unity and verisimilitude, critics have typically missed the primary ways in which Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894) and its attached tale of the Italian Siamese twins involves itself in the…

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Who’s Your Mama? “White” Mulatta Genealogies, Early Photography, and Anti-Passing Narratives of Slavery and Freedom

Posted in Articles, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, Slavery, United States, Women on 2009-11-02 14:29Z by Steven

Who’s Your Mama? “White” Mulatta Genealogies, Early Photography, and Anti-Passing Narratives of Slavery and Freedom

American Literary History
Volume 14, Number 3 (Fall 2002)
DOI: 10.1093/alh/14.3.505
pages 505-359

P. Gabrielle Foreman, Professor of English and American Studies
Occidental College

Partus sequitur ventrem.
The child follows the condition of the mother.

US slave law and custom

If we shift from a politics of substance to a politics of optics, identity itself no longer possesses the reassuring signs of ontological distinction that we are accustomed to reading.
Amy Robinson

The right to see and be seen, in one’s own way and under one’s own terms, has been the point of contention.
Laura Wexler

1. Passing For or Passing Through?

“Passing” for white, and the representational strategies some phenotypically indeterminate African-American women used to claim privileges granted to whites, name phenomena as different as night and day. Examination of the assumptions about racial aspirations that occupy the space between the two illuminates how paradigms that trump expressed and expressive black female will and agency circulate both in the nineteenth century and in current literary criticism. Mulatto/a-ness as a representational trope often designates a discursive mobility and simultaneity that can raise questions of racial epistemology, while it also functions as a juridical term that constrains citizenship by ante- and postbellum law and force. The women I examine in this essay use their own bodies to challenge such constraints by expressing a desire, not for whiteness, but for familial and juridical relations in which partus sequitur ventrem produces freedom rather than enslavement for African Americans, light and dark.

Many contemporary scholars, however, deploy “white mulatto/a genealogies,” a term I use not to describe the lighter shades of a politically determined African-American racial classification but to highlight an overemphasis on patrilineal descent and an identification with and projection of white desire that continually revisits the paternal and the patriarchal, the phallic and juridical Law of the (white) Father. Russ Castronovo exemplifies such configurations in Fathering the Nation: American Genealogies of Slavery and Freedom (1995) when he asserts “texts by ex-slaves prohibit the restoration of any genealogical line, suggesting that only in the discontinuity and disorder of bastard histories does remembering properly construct freedom” (193); he goes on to assert that “the slave’s genealogy–both as personal history and as national critique—. . . recontextualizes freedom from plenitude and promise to a narrative of lack and deferral” (200). Others, like Lauren Berlant, offer considerations of undifferentiated “mulatta genealogies” that examine racial mixtures in unspecified and unsituated ways. Eric Sundquist’s important To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature (1993) enacts a more explicit erasure of black female agency by offering a (masculinist) nationalist paradigm that enacts and encourages readings of race in the nineteenth century as if women did not have a voice…

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