Race Passing and American Individualism

By Kathleen Pfeiffer | Go to book overview

2
Passing and the Rise of Realism

In his introduction to Paul Laurence Dunbar's Lyrics of Lowly Life, William Dean Howells argues that Dunbar's appeal resides in “reasons apart from the author's race, origin and condition” (vii). Howells explains, “I accepted [his poems] as an evidence of the essential unity of the human race, which does not think or feel black in one and white in another, but humanly in all” (viii-ix). Howells seeks not to deny the existence of racial categories but to contest their relevance. Still, he cannot elide the difficulty of sustaining this “essential unity” in a segregated culture: “Yet it appeared to me then, and it appears to me now, that there is a precious difference of temperament between the races which it would be a great pity ever to lose, and that this is best preserved and most charmingly suggested by Mr. Dunbar in those pieces of his where he studies the moods and traits of his race in its own accent of our English” (ix). The introduction to Dunbar's poetry maps out in brief the contradiction that Howells had earlier sought to resolve in detail in An Imperative Duty (1891): namely, how to reconcile the “precious difference of temperament between the races” with his simultaneous belief in “the essential unity of the human race. ” Connecting ostensibly irreconcilable tenets was not an unfamiliar project: Howells believed strongly, for instance, that his combined commitments to fiction and democracy (his progressive politics are evident in the fact that he was a founding member of the NAACP) were not only complementary but interdependent. “Realism, ” wrote Thomas Sergeant Perry in an earlier essay on Howells, “is the tool of the democratic spirit, the modern spirit by which truth is elicited” (683). Where Frances Harper easily admits weaving Iola Leroy “from threads of fact and fiction” (282), Howells finds such intermediation both politically and artistically suspect.

In An Imperative Duty, Howells attempts to render in fiction the beliefs explicated in his criticism. Howells's lifelong concern about fiction, truth, and authorship reflected more than an aesthetic interest: as Perry's comment indicates, Howells was concerned with fiction's relationship to

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Race Passing and American Individualism
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents v
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - Passing and the Sentiment Novel 18
  • 2 - Passing and the Rise of Realism 39
  • 3 - Passing and the Fictional Autobiography 58
  • 4 - Passing and the “fast Yellowing Manuscripts” 82
  • 5 - Passing and the Rise of Mass Culture 107
  • 6 - Reading Passing Through a Different Lens 128
  • Epilogue: Passing in the Present 147
  • Acknowledgments 153
  • Works Cited 155
  • Index 163
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