“Transforming Liberalism: African-American Fiction of the Postwar Period.”
(Third in a series of reports from the American Studies Association)
John Charles observed that for a long time, African American writers found a sticking point in such terms as The Negro Writer and Negro Literature: such terms were seen to intensify black writers’ cultural marginality and individual anxiety, and they chafed against the labels, especially after Native Son, fearing that white desire for The Negro Novel demanded reproducing tales of Negro subjection. Hurston in “What White Publishers Won’t Print” noted that the two acceptable images of The Negro were the banjo-picking darkie and the grumbling sharecropper; like Baldwin, she saw the obligation to protest as another form of imposition, leaving us “bound, first without, then within, by the nature of our categorization,” to quote his Foucauldian insight on regulatory fictions and “sympathetic discipline.” Hence black authors such as Yerby, Motley, Petry, Hurston, Wright, Baldwin, and several others produced the novel of white life as a form of resistance. Except for Giovanni’s Room, these novels have tended to be ignored by critics. Hughes dismissed them as representing an “urge to whiteness”; Asante called them “decapitated texts.”
Charles pointed out how these authors revitalize the discourse of sympathy previously denied black authors and shift readers’ gaze from black suffering to white domestic crisis. They show how the ideals that underwrite white identity are damaging without reproducing black abjection; they assert black agency over shared themes of sympathy and privacy. Petry’s Country Place depicts a white resort town turned upside-down by a hurricane and invades white private lives, a significant thing, since in The Street blacks experience publicity as a violation and in A Country Place authorial privacy is protected, and the sole black character is spared degradation. The novel shows a white son suffering the deleterious effects of Mother Domination, as his mother, a suffering sick old woman, gradually realized that others have interiority and spends her last days imagining how other people feel. Her will enacts an impulse toward social justice by leaving her estate to the servants, all POC; the son, defending the will against the aghast in-laws, becomes capable of asserting himself after his mother’s death but elects not to perpetuate the tradition of white male domination: he relinquishes the property and with it the possessive investment in whiteness.
David in Giovanni’s Room goes in the other direction, choosing social death to perpetuate a hegemonic idea of white American manhood. And Yerby’s hero in The Foxes of Harrow recants white supremacy in favor of liberal nationalism, all the while perpetuating spectacular Yerbyan misogyny. It’s an intensely ambivalent novel, depicting a longing for the comfort of white supremacy while resenting its effects. In general, the white life novels resist the discursive figurations of white liberal racial discourse by allowing black authors to become the subject, rather than the object, of sympathy.
Mollie Godfrey began with Baldwin’s critique of the protest novel’s message that “black is a terrible color in which to be born.” Irving Howe’s piece elevating Wright over Ellison and Baldwin described the controversy as a debate by and about men: it’s a debate about how to have male agency under emasculating conditions. Ann Petry found a way out in the prospect of productive gender relations, especially in The Narrows.
The critique of objectification in protest literature goes back to the Harlem Renaissance; the debate continues through Wright’s “Blueprint for Negro Writing” and through Baldwin’s and Ellison’s critiques of Wright and Myrdal, arguing that the frameworks of liberalism, of sociology, and of Marxism were inadequate to do black American life justice. Wright dismissed Harlem Renaissance artists as sissies: it’s telling that he chided himself for having written a book that bankers’ daughters — not bankers themselves — would cry over. In Wright, agency becomes masculinity. In Baldwin too, there’s a slippage in the rhetoric from discussion of humanity to discussion of manhood. Baldwin sees Wright and Stowe as unjust because they emasculate. Ellison, Baldwin, and Wright are not in a conflict over agency but one about varying attempts to express black agency, not a fight about social determinism. And Petry addressed the problem in “The Novel as Social Criticism” and in The Narrows, which addresses the political responsibilities of the artist. But Howe ignored Petry [I wonder why!].
In The Narrows the Communist photographer flattens the historical and interpersonal complexities, figuring not Baldwin’s argument that protest art dehumanizes people, exactly, but that it humanizes certain people at the expense of others. The newspaper coverage of the interracial affair in the novel is fought as a battle between racist propaganda and sexist propaganda. All of these characters are complicit in each other’s oppression, as Linc says in the novel: “Me, executioner; you, executioner . . . Executioners all, hung from the sour apple tree.” He recognizes the similarities in each execution. Everyone seeks the agency that comes from taking someone else’s agency away. But Abby’s attempt to save Camillo, having recognized their similarities, shows the possibility, even in Linc, of identifying across race and class, and by extension also across gender.
The press in The Narrows reinforces stereotypes in the manner Baldwin decried protest art for doing, but the novel shows that racial and gender stereotypes are placeholders, not reflecting reality and not capable of containing people. The novel is not just about contrasts but about connections. Linc, whose position as a covert writer says something about the novel’s message concerning artists, remarks “When all candles be out, all cats be gray.” The Narrows is capable of advocating agency without advocating the dehumanization of others.
Adam Jernigan remarked that scholars who identify with the sensibilities of Baldwin’s essays frequently distance themselves from his fiction. Gates accuses Baldwin’s fiction of the “Manichean simplicity” that Baldwin found in Stowe and avers that Baldwin was himself afraid that his own criticisms applied to him. Howe offered a similar critique in “Black Boys and Native Sons” and accused Baldwin of promoting Cold War Liberal values. On the right, Albert Murray and others, contrarily, accept Baldwin’s take on the Protest Novel but accuse his fiction of shrillness, while, back on the left, Morris Dickstein and his ilk call Baldwin’s fiction to soft, wishful, and accommodating. Jernigan is not going to defend Baldwin but to discuss how both camps make a sacrificial object of Baldwin’s fiction in the face of Baldwin’s own fidelity to fiction and belief that fiction was what had the capacity to improve race relations.
Isn’t there, Jernigan asks, a certain countersentimentalism to be found in Baldwin, of the sort that Gates denied was there? Baldwin’s aesthetic is, after all, informed by his critique of liberalism, of tolerance, of white liberal views of the black liberatory-integrationist impulse, on the grounds that the liberal view didn’t recognize a) How much whites would have to change and b) How much black life was and had always been central to American society. Baldwin saw how the sanctity of self and home had been expanded in the sentimental novel’s pity and compassion for vulnerable others. He does not post an autonomous or liberal subject; he argued that our own liberation came through, not love, but through the eternal heterogeneity of the self.
In Another Country, the nonsanctity of the self would be taken as the default condition of the human subject. In enacting the risks that go with making oneself available to another, the novel goes directly from the inconclusive scene in which Rufus accuses Leona of adultery to a scene with a very different tenor, moving from the metapragmatic frames of performative force of Rufus and Leona’s interactions to the restrained and focused account of Rufus and Vivaldo’s encounter. In contrast with the earlier confrontation, Baldwin frames the men’s dialogue with speech verbs that have minimum pragmatic value and keeps the account of physical movement small and terse, denying us the cues that tell us what they’re up to and leaving a lot of work to the reader. This scene, then, refutes Gates’s claim that Baldwin always tells and doesn’t show; in fact, Baldwin is able to reopen the question of how characters might feel in the present. These features are what underlay Podhoretz’s defense of the novel and its “banality,” or its “moral” neutrality and manifest Baldwin’s attempt at an aesthetic that could move us beyond the sentimental/moral culture. He is aware that the moral heat Americans bring to such issues is deleterious and hopes he could help to usher in another country, one less preoccupied with guilt and sin.
Tom Perrin, who is currently working on a project about the middlebrow in Hemingway, Eliot, and Highsmith, asks whether the end of The Street is a cry of despair or a call to action. The 1940s was the era of the Social Problem Novel, a novel trying to do progressive politics and wondering under what conditions such a politics might be possible. The middlebrow social novel was criticized from the left and the right: books such as Strange Fruit, Gentlemen’s Agreement, The Harder They Fall, and, later, To Kill a Mockingbird were, to use Sedgwick’s formulation, kinda subversive, kinda hegemonic. Sianne Ngai has written of the novel’s preoccupation with its powerlessness and its consequent ability to theorize powerlessness. To the authors of the “problem novel,” the central problem was not material inequality but prejudice: hence, while the right complains of such a book that it is “a sermon, not a story,” the left complains of its liberalism.
Petry called The Street a problem novel. It’s unapologetically aimed at mainstream readers, it has a swift-moving plot with an emphasis on realism, and, like other middlebrow literature, it is very self-conscious about language and storytelling. Lutie has not been an aspiring writer, so her question at the end, “What possible good has it done to teach people like me to write?” is Petry’s own: presumably, the novel itself is her answer. For decades, The Street has been seen as a naturalistic and futilitarian story; its fans have praised it as an Aristotelian tragedy, a genre which purges spectators of disquiet rather than moving them to action. But more recent critics see in it a critique of determinism. Petry had political aspirations for the novel, believing that all good art is propaganda. Nonetheless, The Street contains a lot about the powerlessness of books and a general tendency toward pessimism about change and agency. Petry’s relationship with the socialist press and the left in general was ambivalent: perhaps the fatalism is part of the novel’s point. But Macklin saw The Street as a Gothic novel calling for government intervention against real urban horrors. Petry’s use of violence, most intensely in Lutie’s vision of all her enemies, individual and institutional, as she commits the murder, juxtaposes the emotional power of the scene over and over with Petry’s theory of society: fiction gives such theories emotional force as it responds to the world with propaganda.
Lawrence Jackson gave a sixteen-minute response/series of questions to the panelists, in the middle of which I had to step out and hit the Men’s Room. When I left, he was saying that The Street was the most heavily didactic of the 1940s protest novels; when I returned, he was saying “Just like Franzen, Chester Himes, Milton Klonsky, and the rest of them.”
John Charles replied to whatever Jackson had said in my absence, that the white life novels help us appreciate how keenly aware black writers were of the racial structure of the liberal public sphere. White writers were unaware of how their whiteness was structuring their access to the debate. The idea of black domestic pathology was used to dismiss black authors as voices that could speak of something other than their own abjection: hence black authors showed they could say other things to and about whites than “stop hurting me.” Yerby was assigned the greatest amount of indexical significance, and held up as proof of the progress of The Race, because he could talk about the Old South just like white folks.
Godfrey has been struggling with how to address the ways in which Baldwin’s fiction is more complicated on gender than Ellison’s. Baldwin’s essays seem to be more masculinist than Go Tell It on the Mountain. Another Country, which came out simultaneously with the Howe/Ellison debate, is all about the process of identification, and there’s more skepticism than in The Narrows about interracial identification. Lawrence Jackson sees Vivaldo as having failed Rufus. Ida demands that Rufus take on some of the consequences of history.
Adam Jernigan: “I agree with everything that’s been said.” Vivaldo fails Rufus, Baldwin presents Vivaldo’s relationship with Ida as contradictory. Another Country is very interested in critiquing white liberalism: Vivaldo is great at projecting the troublesome aspects of himself onto black life; ultimately it’s from blues singers that he learns acceptance of the body. It’s unclear whether Ida opens herself to Vivaldo, as she remains completely opaque to readers.
Petry is also ambivalent about domesticity: in her author bio for Tituba of Salem Village, she wrote, “Ann Petry lives in a little white house with a little white picket fence in Old Saybrook, Connecticut.” Perrin sees middlebrow fiction constructing itself at midcentury via an anxiety of influence vis-à-vis Modernism: it disavows Modernism while itself writing self-consciously about language and metadiscourse. Petry’s relationship with the American Negro Theatre involved something like the middlebrowing of Brecht, importing Leftist ideas about shock without going full Verfremdungs.
Eric Sundquist has analyzed how antiracist novels crossed over into the mainstream, through commentators talking about antiracism and anti-Semitism in the same breath, as in Diana Trilling’s review of Strange Fruit for The Nation, which invoked Laura Z. Hobson, or the myth that Du Bois had reviewed Petry. A question from the audience about the paperback revolution cited Dwight MacDonald’s anxieties over the loss of distinction and remarked that what you lose in cultural capital, while what you gain is a disruption of hierarchy. Baldwin’s anxiety about Another Country’s being published by a paperback book company is well-documented. Perrin pointed out that you couldn’t order specific mass market paperbacks: you called Bantam and ordered in bulk, and you put whatever they sent you on your racks. The history of protest fiction, he noted, is very much the history of the middlebrow.