Writing the Subject: Bildung and the African American Text

By Gunilla Theander Kester | Go to book overview
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A Double Heritage: Invisible Man, Wilhelm Meister and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

"How could this body have been produced by parents, when by its very nature it is such eloquent witness of its own self- production, of its own engendering of itself.?"

( Anti-Oedipus, 15)

Every new artwork creates its own precursor.

( Jorge Luis Borges)

"Anyone who analyzes black literature must do so as a comparatist, by definition, because our canonical texts have complex double formal antecedents, the Western and the black," Henry Louis Gates, argues in The Signifying Monkey (xxiv). In that scholarly study he also doubles his earlier definition of "signifying" to describe both the intertextual dialogue--or troping as he prefers to call it--within the African American literary tradition and the relationship of repetition and reversal between black literary texts and antecedent white Western texts. Making use of both these definitions of signifying, I hope to illustrate the complex relationship Invisible Man has to two of its literary antecedents, the slave narrative and the classical Bildungsroman. The slave narrative, exemplified here by Frederick Douglass' Narrative of the Life is a kind of African American narrative of Bildung focusing on, in the words of Douglass, "how a man was made a slave [and] how a slave was made a man" (68). 1 James Olney describes Narrative of the Life as "the greatest of the slave narratives and the most completely representative, embodying virtually every convention by which we can define and recognize the slave narrative" (3); therefore, I will use it here to exemplify the whole genre.

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