Dancing on the Color Line: African American Tricksters in Nineteenth-Century American Literature

By Richardson, Todd | Western Folklore, Spring 2017 | Go to article overview

Dancing on the Color Line: African American Tricksters in Nineteenth-Century American Literature


Richardson, Todd, Western Folklore


Dancing on the Color Line: African American Tricksters in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. By Gretchen Martin. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2015. Pp. 197, acknowledgements, introduction, notes, bibliography, index. $65.00 hardbound.)

Dancing on the Color Line reconsiders the representation of African American characters and culture in 19th-century American literature written by white authors. Gretchen Martin analyzes a broad sample of texts, ranging from an antebellum plantation romance by John Pendleton Kennedy to Mark Twain's late-19thcentury novel Pudd'nhead Wilson. Specifically, Martin argues that each of the authors under consideration employs African American aesthetic techniques by presenting a variety of black characters as tricksters. For example, while the character of Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is often received as a negative, even minstrelesque stereotype, Martin suggests that closer reading reveals a cunning figure, one who skillfully manipulates situations to his benefit throughout the novel. In short, Jim signifies, an expressive strategy based on misdirection and masking that was first identified by Henry Louis Gates and upon which Martin bases much of her argument.

Each of the book's five chapters considers the work of a different 19th-century author. The chapter on Herman Melville, which looks at Benito Cereno specifically, is both innovative and persuasive as the parallel Martin draws between the book's three central characters (Babo, Cereno, and Delano) and the monkey, lion, and elephant of Signifying Monkey fame provides a compelling approach to the story. As well, her chapter on Joel Chandler Harris identifi es sophisticated aesthetic strategies at work in Harris's non-Remus stories, shining welcome light on the understudied work of one of the most complicated fi gures in 19thcentury American Literature. …

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