Transatlantic Spectacles of Race: The Tragic Mulatta and the Tragic Muse by Kimberly Snyder Manganelli (review)
Volume 38, Number 2, Spring 2015
Justin Rogers-Cooper, Associate Professor of English
LaGuardia Community College/City University of New York, Long Island City, New York
Manganellia, Kimberly S., Transatlantic Spectacles of Race: The Tragic Mulatta and the Tragic Muse (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2012)
In her accessible and original book, Kimberly Synder Manganelli examines the circulation of two key figures in nineteenth-century culture and literature, the Tragic Mulatta and the Tragic Muse, by following their evolution over the course of the nineteenth century. The book’s novelty arises from its insistence that these “two crucial literary types” should be compared across national boundaries, and should be understood as complimentary cultural archetypes (6). On both counts she succeeds, though her discussions about the life-choices possible for these figures reveal much of the text’s power. Victorianists will mark Manganelli’s transnational methodology, and literary scholars may enjoy her parallel analysis of African American and Jewish characters. Feminist and women’s studies scholars will note her attention to the sexual politics of erotic commodification linked to the commercial circulation of these genre types. The general reader will follow how “mixed-race” female protagonists won social mobility and confronted male exploitation as they maneuvered the auction block, the public stage, and the home.
Manganelli’s introduction provides a general context for her themes. She notes the transnational cult of true womanhood in the nineteenth century, and how the figures of the Tragic Muse and Tragic Mulatta intersected and diverged from it. Relying on scholars such as Shawn Michelle Smith, Manganelli asserts that these two types upset codes of ideal womanhood, an idea structured around white women, by creating a “crisis of visibility in the public sphere” (9). Many narratives revolved around the vulnerability of mixed-race women to male predation. For the enslaved Tragic Mulatta, this danger was particularly acute, and often reduced her choices to sexual submission or death. The Tragic Muse, on the other hand, functioned somewhat differently. Her artistic prowess and magnetic sexuality often allowed her other options. Transatlantic Spectacles of Race emphasizes how both types of heroines attempted “to resist the conventional narratives” (16).
In her first chapter, Manganelli looks to British, French, and American travel narratives from Jamaica and Saint-Domingue to examine how “contradictory images of white and mixed-race Creoles . . . created the Transnational Mulatta, an imperial figure who preceded the imperiled Tragic Mulatta in the eighteenth-century transatlantic imaginary” (18). The mixed-race West Indian woman inspired fears that cycled throughout the nineteenth century: she might “threaten the purity of English blood,” in this case through intermarriages by families seeking her wealth and property (26). In turn, Manganelli turns to texts such as Laurette Ravinet’s Mémoires d’une Créole du Port-au-Prince (1844) to elaborate on the ways colonial societies tried to differentiate mixed-race and white women. She argues the Transnational Mulatta morphed from mistress to heiress in novels such as the anonymously published The Woman of Color (1808) and Leonara Samsay’s Zelica, the Creole (1820), a development that would see wider reproduction decades later in novels such as Jane Eyre (1847). She argues that the Saint-Domingue Revolution altered the depiction of mixed-race West Indian women for British and American authors, from a voiceless body of anxiety and fantasy into a domestic dependent.
The second chapter extends Manganelli’s inquiry into the formation of the Tragic Mulatta by looking at the practice of plaçage in antebellum New Orleans, where free women of color could arrange financial and sexual relationships with wealthy men. Manganelli maps their transformation from “self-marketing and self-commodification to the stereotypical Tragic Mulatta, who had no sexual agency and possessed no ownership of her body” (38). As in West Indian travel narratives, some in New Orleans showed concern over segregating free women of color from white women, and therefore were upset by integrated dancehalls and by the public display of wealth by beautiful placées. In the abolitionist era, though, she tells that writers romanticized placées more frequently as “victims of interracial marriage laws” (42). Although the relative autonomy of the placées gave them “a purchase on whiteness and a certain degree of protection and economic freedom,” they remained exposed to the “racial peril” of enslavement: auctions for fair-skinned “fancy girls” brought high prices (55). Rendered both “virtuous and wanton,” the placées inspired Joseph Ingraham’s sensation novel The Quadroone, or, St. Michael’s Day…