Criticism and the Color Line: Desegregating American Literary Studies

By Henry B. Wonham | Go to book overview

but in terms of but two words, yes and no, but it signifies a whole heap more." Ellison's use of the chain link invokes "The Heroic Slave," if only because it recalls Madison Washington's escape from the slave coffle. And though Brother Tarp's chain link is similar to the one the hero remembers on Dr. Bledsoe's desk at the college, the difference between the two is that Bledsoe's link is "smooth," while the other bears the "mark of haste and violence." The former speaks to the power of illusion, the latter to the kind of commitment required to break out of bondage.

My point here is not only that Ellison's novel results from the use of Melville and Douglass as literary resources, both of whom anticipate Ellison's claim that America is only "a partially achieved nation." But also that both writers believed that an American democracy unwilling to institute radical acts of interpretation and revision was doomed to fail. Their literary kinship is manifest in their respective subversions of the racial gaze, which denote the inadequacy of anti- slavery rhetoric: so dependent on the visual sphere, so unwilling to redress voicelessness or acts of erasure. Each insists, in ways Ellison takes seriously, that democracy was and is a protean enterprise, in which the greatest challenge is to ascertain more than what the eye can see.


Notes

I wish to thank Henry Wonham, Carolyn Karcher, and Dana Nelson for their useful comments on an earlier draft of this essay. I would also like to thank my colleague Nancy Bentley for her suggestions.

1.
My definition of the "racial gaze" owes its origins to Norman Bryson and his assertion that, "Western painting is predicated on the disavowal of the deictic reference, on the disappearance of the body as the site of the image; and this twice over, for the painter, and the viewing subject." Bryson's assertion can be contrasted to the aeoristic, where [visual representation] "decribes [an] action without involvement or engagement on the part of the [subject responsible for representing] the action." See Bryson, Vision and Painting: The Logic of the Gaze, esp. Chap. 5, "The Gaze and the Glance," ( New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983) 88. However, the definition also proceeds from Paul Virilio's contention in Chapter 3 of The Vision Machine ( Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 33-34, that the public gaze originates after the French Revolution when the idea of "illumination" takes on meaning beyond the mere shedding of light onto objects and becomes the connotation for an all-encompassing public discourse.
2.
Peter Brooks, Body Work: Objects of Desire in Modern Narrative ( Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), 88.
3.
Elizabeth Johns, American Genre Painting: The Politics of Everyday Life ( New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), 102.
4.
Ibid., 131.
5.
Ibid.
6.
Herman Melville, "Benito Cereno," in The Heath Anthology of American Literature ( Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath and Company, 1990), 2254. All further reference to the story are from this edition.
7.
Ibid.

-226-

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