June 9, 1994
Vol. 13, No. 20

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    Investigating issues of race in 19th-century literature

    Literary critics often focus on how American realist writers at the turn of the century broke with prevailing 19th-century literary trends by emphasizing social and psychological issues in their fiction. But issues of race are rarely mentioned in debates over Henry James' style and William Dean Howells' social descriptions -- a perplexing omission, given that the 1880s were a crucial decade in post-Reconstruction politics.

    In his recent book, "Black & White Strangers: Race and American Literary Realism," Kenneth Warren, Associate Professor in English Language & Literature, argues that matters of race are essential for truly understanding the importance -- and the problematic aspects -- of American literary realism.

    Warren developed the idea for the book during graduate studies at Stanford, where he received his Ph.D. in 1988.

    "When I was in graduate school, there were a lot of studies about the inherently conservative quality of the realist narrative because of its investment in the psychological coherence of characters and other aspects of the realist aesthetic," he said. "While this seems true, it doesn't take into account that realism created a real social controversy at the time -- people felt threatened by realistic novels and fiction."

    Warren found that realist writers often had ambivalent feelings about racial politics. Focusing on a variety of novelists from the period, most prominently James and Howells, Warren shows that even works not directly concerned with race were instrumental in forging what he calls "a Jim Crow nation."

    "Henry James' 'The American Scene' is a good example," he said. "It reflects and refines James' aesthetic and social concerns. Written after 20 years away from America, 'The American Scene' stressed the significance of larger social issues. James sees that the novel requires a healthy society. And in his observations, he is struck by racial and class differences. But ultimately he retreats from what he sees -- and I think this is emblematic of how realist novelists play into racial problems."

    Warren also found that realist writers often had a more cynical view of the impact that individuals could have upon social issues, as opposed to the more optimistic views held by their African-American contemporaries, such as W.E.B. Du Bois.

    "In their search for realism, Northern writers, for example, often mocked the figure of the New England female reformer, while Du Bois called them 'the finest thing in American history.' My point is to show how current conceptions of realism can be influenced if writers are put into a full historical context, one that includes the African-American perspective."

    Ultimately, according to Warren, the rise of literary realism was shaped by, and in turn helped to shape, the politics of racial difference following Reconstruction.

    "What fascinated me about the 1880s, what was most radical about the realist aesthetic, was the willingness to see political and social effects as deeply intertwined," he said. "This was a radical gesture by realist writers. It suggested that if you're going to restructure a society democratically, you can't separate the political from the social."

    Ironically, what was most radical about realism as an aesthetic gave strength to conservative arguments that society couldn't give ground at this historical point "because any change would end up giving away the whole thing," Warren said.

    Beyond its re-examination of 19th-century issues, the book also is an attempt to combine Warren's interests in the fields of African-American studies and American literature.

    "My goal is to investigate why authors are asking the same questions or looking at the same set of issues -- such as the relation of novels to culture and politics, or the desire to create a culture that values fiction. It is only possible to see the relevance of this question by looking across racial lines."

    Warren's next planned project, on the African-American diaspora, will extend his interests in literature and politics. This work is inspired by Langston Hughes' autobiographical "The Big Sea," in which the author describes his first trip to Africa.

    "Hughes' visit doesn't measure up to his expectations -- he's not recognized as being black, but instead is seen as an outsider by Africans, who call him 'white,' '' Warren said. "This seems to me to be emblematic of the relationship that black writers in the New World have with Africa. I want to look at how writers change -- or fail to change -- their ideas about Africa in response to the experience of actually being on the African continent. It's going to be a fairly large project, but in some ways the issues are related to 'Black & White Strangers' -- it will be a look at how the process of imagining can be a response to the political and social issues of the day."

    -- Jeff Makos