“Black Matters”: Race and Literary History in Mat Johnson’s Pym

“Black Matters”: Race and Literary History in Mat Johnson’s Pym

European Journal of American Studies
11-1 | 2016 : Special Issue: Intimate Frictions: History and Literature in the United States from the 19th to the 21st Century

Jennifer M. Wilks, Associate Professor of English
University of Texas, Austin

After being denied tenure for expanding his teaching of race and literary history beyond exclusively African American texts, Chris Jaynes, the protagonist of Mat Johnson’s novel Pym (2011), sets out to retrace the voyage from Edgar Allan Poe’s 1838 novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. This essay examines how Johnson uses Jaynes’ own shipwreck—he and his crew are stranded in Antarctica—to posit the history of race in the United States as a national disaster that overdetermines contemporary social dynamics. Using intertextuality and satire, Johnson follows Toni Morrison’s precedent in depicting blackness and whiteness as constructs that are inextricably bound and that cannot be understood one without the other. Central to this claim are Johnson’s mirroring of the progressive, 21st-century African American Jaynes with his narrative foil: the pickled, ancient Anglo American Arthur Gordon Pym. I contend that Johnson not only revisits Morrison’s argument but also expands upon it; for, as Jaynes and his fellow characters confront the thorny legacy of race and racism in the United States, they must also face a future in which the country’s changing demographics will render questions of identity more, rather than less, complicated.

Read the entire article here.

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