Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"White-Life" Literature Reconsidered

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"White-Life" Literature Reconsidered

Article excerpt

Abandoning the Black Hero: Sympathy and Privacy in the Postwar African American White-Life Novel

by John Charles

Rutgers University Press, 2012. 280 pages

Whatever one thinks about the provocative thesis of Kenneth Warren's What Was African American Literature?--that African American literature came into being and came to an end concurrently with the rise and fall of Jim Crow--Warren's book has functioned as a call for scholars to articulate what, for them, the term "African American literature" defines, who defines it, why we feel that definition is important, and what might be the consequences of our definition. Of course, writers and editors have been addressing such questions ever since they began anthologizing African American literature, a phenomenon Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has tracked all the way back to 1849 (32). But scholars are increasingly bringing such questions to bear on their analyses of the literature itself, as evidenced by a plethora of recent work by Ivy Wilson, George Hutchinson, John Young, Gene Jarrett, and James Smethurst, among others. (1)

It is precisely such questions that motivate John Charles's recent book Abandoning the Black Hero: Sympathy and Privacy in the Postwar African American White-Life Novel. Charles's fascinating book reexamines the limits and repercussions of contemporary definitions of the field by focusing on a body of texts that don't comfortably meet our expectations of the African American canon. These are texts that fall both within and without common-sense definitions of African American literature: what Charles calls the "white-life" novels of the 1940s and 1950s, novels that were written by African Americans and yet are not about African American protagonists. These novels include Frank Yerby's The Foxes of Harrow (1946), Ann Petry's Country Place (1947), Zora Neale Hurston's Seraph on the Suwanee (1947), Willard Motley's Knock on Any Door (1947), Chester Himes's Cast the First Stone (1953), Richard Wright's Savage Holiday (1954), and James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room (1956). Many of them are now out of print, and with the exception of Baldwin's book comparatively few scholarly articles have been written about them. They are often conveniently excluded from overviews of their authors' publications, and when they are mentioned, it is usually in an apologetic tone. And yet, as Charles notes, the very ubiquity of these novels in the late 1940s and early 1950s belies our sense of them as anomalous. Indeed, as Charles shows, writers of the period saw these novels as constituting an important new trend in African American writing, the stakes of which are lost so long as the novels themselves remain invisible.

According to Charles, white-life novels are typically excluded from the canon for two reasons. First, as Jarrett claimed in his important precursor to Charles's work, Deans and Truants: Race and Realism in African American Literature, white-life novels do not fit our expectation of what Jarrett calls "racial realism"--the idea that "black literature must bear a realist, or mimetic, relation to blackness" (qtd. in Charles 215). Second, according to Charles, these novels do not accord with our expectation that when African American authors do write about whiteness, "their central concern is to attack white supremacy" (15). In other words, white-life novels have been marginalized because they do not appear to be about either black life or anti-black racism, and if they are about race insofar as they are about whiteness, they are not sufficiently critical of that whiteness to count as "black." But Charles, as he argues in his conclusion, rehabilitates these texts at least in part by showing them to conform to our primary desire that "black" texts be about race, as well as our secondary desire that they do progressive race work. They simply don't do those things in the ways that we expect.

Prior to Charles's work, if critics discussed white-life novels at all, it was typically to dismiss them as symptoms of black conformity with white liberalism, or as a move away from an earlier, more radical protest tradition. …

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