A Question of Character: Scientific Racism and the Genres of American Fiction, 1892-1912

A Question of Character: Scientific Racism and the Genres of American Fiction, 1892-1912

A Question of Character: Scientific Racism and the Genres of American Fiction, 1892-1912

A Question of Character: Scientific Racism and the Genres of American Fiction, 1892-1912

Synopsis

In A Question of Character, Cathy Boeckmann establishes a strong link between racial questions and the development of literary traditions at the end of the 19th century in America. This period saw the rise of "scientific racism", which claimed that the races were distinguished not solely by exterior appearance but also by a set of inherited character traits. As Boeckmann explains, this emphasis on character meant that race was not only a thematic concern in the literature of the period but also a generic or formal one as well.

Boeckmann explores the intersections between race and literary history by tracing the language of character through both scientific and literary writing. Nineteenth-century pseudo-sciences such as phrenology and physiognomy had a vocabulary for discussing racial character that overlapped conceptually with the conventions for portraying race in literature. Through close readings of novels by Thomas Dixon, Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, Charles Chesnutt, and James WeldonJohnson --,each of which deals with a black character "passing" as white -- Boeckmann shows how this emphasis on character relates to the shift from romantic and sentimental fiction to realism. Because each of these genres had very specific conventions regarding the representation of character, genres often dictated how races could be depicted.

Excerpt

The theme of passing--usually when a light-skinned black individual passes as white--is rapidly becoming one of the most explored in American literature. Since the proscription against the serious study of minor nineteenth-century authors has eased, many critics have turned to figures who at one point were relatively obscure but who dealt with the paradoxes and tragedies of race, especially mixed race. As of yet, much of the criticism touching upon this literature displays a similar set of interests. Most recent critical works concerned with mixed race and passing follow the links and connections between a series of conceptual or theoretical points with recognizable popular currency. Commonly, a chain of argument runs from remarks on the cultural manipulation of the supposedly natural signs of race to analysis of the overwhelmingly visual nature of popular culture.

For example, critics with an interest in identity are concerned with how the arbitrary distinction between black and white has been naturalized. This focus usually leads to a discussion of mixed race because the constructed nature of the racial binary becomes most apparent in the case of the biracial individual. Literature that explores mixed race and the troubled binary of racial classification often involves passing, so critics look at novels and narratives of passing to explore how race is a . . .

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