Hearts of Darkness: White Women Write Race

Hearts of Darkness: White Women Write Race

Hearts of Darkness: White Women Write Race

Hearts of Darkness: White Women Write Race


In this book, one of modernism's most insightful critics, Jane Marcus, examines the writings of novelists such as Virginia Woolf, Nancy Cunard, Mulk Raj Anand, and Djuna Barnes-artists whose work coincided with the end of empire and the rise of fascism before the Second World War. All these writers delved into the "dark hearts" of imperialism and totalitarianism, thus tackling some of the most complex cultural issues of the day. Marcus investigates previously unrecognized ways in which social and political tensions are embodied by their works.

The centerpiece of the book is Marcus's dialogue with one of her best-known essays, "Britannia Rules The Waves." In that piece, she argues that The Waves makes a strong anti-imperialist statement. Although many already support that argument, she now goes further in order to question the moral value of such a buried critique on Woolf's part. In "A Very Fine Negress" she analyzes the painful subject of Virginia Woolf's racism in A Room of One's Own. Other chapters traverse the connected issues of modernism, race, and imperialism. In two of them, we follow Nancy Cunard through the making of the Negro anthology and her appearance in a popular novel of the freewheeling Jazz Age. Elsewhere, Marcus delivers a complex analysis of A Passage to India, in a reading that interrogates E. M. Forster's displacement of his fear of white Englishwomen struggling for the vote.

Marcus, as always, brings considerable gifts as both researcher and writer to this collection of new and reprinted essays, a combination resulting in a powerful interpretation of many of modernism's most cherished figures.


Like it or not, the fall of empire and the rise of fascism are written into modernism. Treated separately by historians and literary critics, empire and fascism deserve to be looked at not only in terms of each other, as they doubtless were experienced, but also in terms of race and gender. Hearts of Darkness: White Women Write Race is a book about race, gender, and reading at a moment in which the end of empire and the rise of fascism coincided in Europe's twenties and thirties—a moment that led to the long “night wood” of Nazism. What Djuna Barnes's novel Nightwood (1936) has come to stand for is a proleptic vision of Hitler's concentration camps in a text that is a “waste land” for the thirties. The writing of the racial “weakness” of Felix, the “non-Jewish Jew,” and his child with an indifferent Aryan lesbian reads now as a prediction of how, as Hannah Arendt argues in The Origins of Totalitarianism, the racial fascism generated by a lost German empire and the rise of the third Reich as an empire turned into mass extermination of the Other.


In the terms of this book we are going to imagine that, on or about April 1934, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf's remark in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” (1924) about the Post-Impressionist Exhibition in London in December 1910, “human character changed.” I relocate that moment of great upheaval to 1934. It was in that year that Nancy Cunard's monumental Anthology Negro was published. It was printed by Wishart, the Left publisher in London, but paid for by damages from racial slurs against the author in the press. (Wishart was also the publisher of Mulk Raj Anand's Untouchable after it had been turned down by nineteen other publishers in four years.) Negro, as a collective documentary about African cultures on the continent and in the diaspora, was both the agent and evidence of that change. Not only did human character change, as Woolf argued the case for 1910, but, more importantly, the Enlightenment concept of what it was to . . .

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