Academic journal article African American Review

Racial Hysteria: Female Pathology and Race Politics in France Harper's 'Iola Leroy' and W.D. Howells's 'An Imperative Duty.'

Academic journal article African American Review

Racial Hysteria: Female Pathology and Race Politics in France Harper's 'Iola Leroy' and W.D. Howells's 'An Imperative Duty.'

Article excerpt

Race as Illness

"To be ill is a feminine verb," quipped Dr. S. Weir Mitchell in 1881, lightly putting his quite serious judgment that womanhood itself is a pathological condition (Diseases 3).(1) Indeed, according to both popular and scientific assessment in fin-de-siecle America, the hysteric typified modern womanhood; she was, as Carroll Smith-Rosenberg points out, "characteristically female . . . the embodiment of a perverse or hyper-femininity" (198).(2) Although hysteria has been the subject of much feminist interrogation, it is a defining model of womanhood whose racial politics have yet to be explored. If, as Hazel Carby argues, race and gender collaborate in antebellum definitions of womanhood - specifically in the "cult of true womanhood"(3) - how must they in the era of Jim Crow? How do turn-of-the-century scientific and literary narratives newly contour racial as well as feminine norms? In short, with what effect does the rhetoric of female pathology converge with that of race politics in the 1890s? This essay explores the consanguinity of the "Race Problem" and the "Woman Question" in the "mixed blood" hysteric, represented in both Frances E. W. Harper's Iola Leroy and William Dean Howells's An Imperative Duty.

Contemporary critics have only in passing paired Howells, editor and "father" of American realism, and Harper, author, activist, and founding member of the National Association of Colored Women. The only recognized points in common between their two "race" novels have been their shared date of publication (1892), and the general critical consensus that both are highly compromised works in terms of historical accuracy and/or political efficacy.(4)

Such terms privilege a traditional realist aesthetic invested in mimesis, but as Amy Kaplan observes, literary realism is not about transparent representation - it is about the management of often competing representations, each claiming transparency. Rather than assess the novels as examples of failed realism, therefore, we need to consider the palimpsest of scientific and sentimental discourses in Iola Leroy and An Imperative Duty, wherein "transparent" narratives of race and gender are in fact writ over and against each other.(5) Hysteria, a word borrowing from both discourses, becomes a key regulatory term in managing - indeed, merging - what might otherwise be realist languages in conflict. The realist coup of Harper and Howells, I argue, derives not from the faithful reflection of Jim Crow in the 1890s; it derives from the ingenious manipulation of the dominant languages of realism to create what Kaplan calls an "alternative reality" to Jim Crow. Both Howells and Harper explore the sexual politics of race through the "tragic mulatta," but unlike mid-nineteenth-century sentimental narratives, An Imperative Duty and Iola Leroy narrate the young woman's racial coming of age as a medical condition. Both the novels' mulattas are attended by physicians who locate the etiology of neurasthenia in miscegenation, moving the mulatta from genre type to case study, from "tragic to "hysterical" figure.(6)

Because diagnoses of hysteria represented, in part, a professional articulation of womanhood, it was a gendered - and gendering - discourse. Medical studies by Mitchell and George M. Beard suggested, further, that nervous diseases (on the continuum from dyspepsia to insanity) were also race- and class-specific: Women of color, they concluded, lacked the extreme feminine sensibility and degree of cultural refinement marking the developed neurasthenic.(7) The racial coding of hysteria (and related disturbances of the nerves) as a middle-class white woman's disease meant that it was not simply a condition of "modern" women, but also functioned as a condition for womanhood and modernity in Victorian America. Although Mitchell and Beard trafficked in similar racialist assumptions, their arguments are particularly significant in their modification of earlier equations between white women and blacks based on putative similarities in brain size and intellectual capacity, which suggested that women's "psychological and anthropological peculiarities . …

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