Race Passing and American Individualism

By Kathleen Pfeiffer | Go to book overview

5
Passing and the Rise of Mass Culture

Jessie Fauset, the most prolific woman novelist of the Harlem Renaissance, believed that good literature contains and 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. ” But the cultural and social changes of the 1920s curtailed the possibility of precisely the sort of meaningful connection that Fauset advocates. Jessie Fauset wrote to Jean Toomer with optimism and conviction, believing—as did her mentor W. E. B. Du Bois—in the potential of beautiful art to bridge political divides; yet she encouraged Toomer to find community in a world that was fast becoming a place of alienation and estrangement, and she sent Toomer straight into the arms of that 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 own fiction makes clear, the “newspaper game” both caused and reflected the fragmented nature of urban communities.

The potential of art to link lives and form a common ground informs Jessie Fauset's most highly regarded novel, the 1928 bildungsroman Plum Bun. Critics have viewed the work as a novel of manners, an investigation of racial liminality, 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 seeks explicitly to undermine. Plum Bun is, of course, shaped by the

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1
See, for instance, Elizabeth Ammons, “New Literary History: Edith Wharton and Jessie Redmon Fauset, ” College Literature 14 (1987): 207–18; Cheryl Wall, Women of the Harlem Renaissance (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995) 73–79; Deborah McDowell, “The Neglected Dimensions of Jessie Redmon Fauset, ” Afro-Americans in New York Life and History 5 (1981), 33–49; and Ann duCille, The Coupling Convention (New York: Oxford UP, 1993).

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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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