Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

The Limits of Identity in Jessie Fauset's "Plum Bun."(early 20th-Century novel)(Critical Essay)

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

The Limits of Identity in Jessie Fauset's "Plum Bun."(early 20th-Century novel)(Critical Essay)

Article excerpt

Jessie Fauset, the Harlem Renaissance's most prolific woman novelist, believed that good literature conveys "the universality of experience." In a 1922 letter to then fledgling writer Jean Toomer, she encourages him to read the classics in order to find "the same reaction to beauty, to love, to freedom. It gives you a tremendous sense of ful-ness [sic], and completeness, a linking up of your life with others like yours" (Fauset to Toomer). She insists that literature crosses boundaries of space and time and creates communities of like-minded artists. But the cultural and social changes of the 1920s curtailed the possibility for the meaningful connection that Fauset advocates. Jessie Fauset wrote to Jean Toomer with optimism and conviction, believing, like her mentor W. E. B. DuBois, in art's potential for bridging political divides. Yet she encourages Jean Toomer to find community in a world that was fast becoming a place of alienation and estrangement. Fauset sent Toomer straight into the arms of that isolat ing world. "You've got personality and no prejudicing appearances," she noted. "Why not try to break into the newspaper game in one of the big cities?" As Fauset's fiction illustrates, the cutthroat competition and cynicism fostered by "the newspaper game" both caused and reflected the fragmented nature of urban communities.

Art's potential to link lives and form a common ground informs Fauset's most highly regarded novel, the 1929 bildungsroman Plum Bun. Critics have viewed the work as a novel of manners, as an investigation of racial liminality, as an analysis of gender roles that subvert or restrict female sexuality, and most often, as a pointed critique of protagonist Angela Murray's attempt to pass for white. [1] Yet many, if not all, of these analyses turn on presumptions about boundaries that the novel explicitly seeks to undermine. Of course, Plum Bun is shaped by the particularities of Angela Murray's identity and therefore grapples with the construction of race, class, and gender. But the novel also raises some of the broader philosophical questions that underlie Fauset's advice to Jean Toomer. Does absolute freedom aid or obstruct the development of meaningful identity? Do the values of a clearly defined community inform or limit individuality? The grandson of black Reconstruction politician P. B. S. Pinchback, Toomer was light enough to pass as white, and his racial complexity clearly shaped his own approach to writing. His lyrical treatment of African American culture accounts for much of the beauty of Cane, yet his steadfast rejection of racial categories was the subject of much of his autobiographical writing. [2] Acknowledging that the light-skinned Toomer had no "prejudicing appearances," Fauset knew well the conflicts he would face in finding employment and, more important, social and intellectual comradery when he relocated to New York. Can someone like Jean Toomer or Angela Murray--both of whom struggled to negotiate an organic sense of self apart from the (arbitrary) social categories assigned them--ever find a sense of "fullness" or "completeness"?

Plum Bun extends and complicates the analysis of identity, citizenship, and community life taking place in the public discourse of the 1920s and therefore represents a "linking up" of the Harlem Renaissance's concerns with those of American intellectual culture generally. Such a reading ventures to answer the challenge posed by Ann duCille, who insists, "Critics and theorists of African American literature must conceptualize race, class, culture, and experience, as well as traditions and canons, in terms far less natural, absolute, linear, and homogeneous than we have in the past" (148). To read Fauset in the context of her contemporary intellectual culture is to see that she was neither anachronistic nor marginal, as previous critics have charged. In Plum Bun, the trope of passing for white raises many of the same issues about the individual and society debated publicly by prominent intellectuals in this time period. …

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