Wednesday, August 12, 2009

More on Jessie Fauset

If Jessie Redmon Fauset is remembered at all, it is as the author of Plum Bun, which, I suspect, many know vaguely as that other novel about passing that is not Nella Larsen’s Passing. But Fauset (1882-1961) wrote several novels and served as the literary editor of Crisis magazine from 1919 to 1926: the heart of the Harlem Renaissance. Alain Locke may have edited The New Negro (1925), but Fauset must have played a huge role in publishing and promoting the talent of all those writers we know from that anthology.

Though you may not have noticed it, I did: I was unfair to Fauset last week by leading with my criticism of her energetic and ambitious first novel.

Actually, and in spite of its many flaws, I was very moved by the book and I think it’s an amazing novel to revive during the age of Obama.

The plot is unwieldy but full of wonderfully cinematic scenes. If you are a screenwriter in search of material, I recommend mining There is Confusion.

The Marshall family, the four children of Joel Marshall, are the book’s heart. Joel Marshall is a very successful caterer, a self-made man, living in a large prosperous house in Manhattan—at first, in the 50s and, later, in Harlem. Rich as he is, he regrets that his success came in mere catering and hopes for more—for greatness, for ambition, for real intellectual and political achievement, for his children.

Of his four children, only Joanna shares those ambitions and both she and her father are somewhat surprised to find that her talent lies in singing and dancing: once again, the family’s dreams of a new Frederick Douglass or Sojourner Truth are checked by both their talents and the lack of opportunity.

Joanna is one of three young people whose maturation the book details. Her story contrasts with those of Maggie Ellersley, the daughter of a laundress who hopes that marriage to a rich man will raise her from poverty and Peter Bye, the scion of freedmen from Philadelphia, who must overcome his father’s anger and laziness to become the man—and the physician--Joanna deserves to marry.

Part of the book’s failure is also what makes it so continually interesting: Fauset spends a lot of time explaining her world. She has her earnest young people engage in long, DuBois-ian conversations about talent and how best to spend it. They walk the streets of New York, experiencing both freedom and discrimination. Fauset explains the differences between the social mobility of New York—both within the black community and in a tentatively integrating bohemia—and the intense social hierarchies of elite black Philadelphia, where the daughters of freedmen work hard not to aim too high, but simply to remain eligible brides for the appropriate sons.

I had hoped to find a new novel of the Harlem Renaissance to teach this fall, tiring as I have of Larsen. I am really excited about this one, about which I cannot stop thinking


Professor Ethelene Whitmire said...

Check out another Fauset book, Comedy: American Style by Jessie Redmon Fauset, Cherene Sherrard-Johnson (Editor)coming out this fall by Rutgers University Press

Unknown said...

This is SUCH exciting news!!!

I really do think Fauset deserves a revival & will do my best to keep cheerleading for her! Thanks!