Pizer’s Companion, Part 2

March 3, 2007 at 8:11 am 2 comments

Uneven. That’s the word on the Companion. In many ways a useful introduction to many of the texts and issues of American literary naturalism, nevertheless, its case studies leave one asking the larger synthetic question, “how do these texts cohere as a field?” Pizer leaves synthetic guessing to the reader.

Kenneth W. Warren’s essay “Troubled Black Humanity in The Souls of Black Folk and The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” is quite helpful with regard to the dissertation I’d like to be writing. I learned that James Weldon Johnson’s narrator asks the reader “Have you ever witnessed the transformation of human beings into savage beasts? Nothing can be more terrible” (186, 273). A perfect epigraph for my diss. It’s asked in the context of the narrator “compelled,” according to Warren, “by curiosity and fear to witness the scene of Southern mob violence” (273).

Here’s Warren on Johnson and Du Bois: “The diminished stature of the white man who could have been black stands as a testament to Johnson’s facility with narrative plot, but also to the marvelous transformation in thinking about race that Du Bois’s work made possible. The grandeur of black achievement constitutes the afterthought of the ex-colored man’s economic achievement, an apparent reversal of Du Bois’s rhetorical strategy, but only apparent in that it nonetheless remains true to the spirit of The Souls of Black Folk and its preference for the humane over the merely economic” (276). I wonder, what becomes of the preference for the humane over the economic in Faulkner? Obviously “the humane” is an unstable category, economic and historical to its core.

Warren concludes with the suggestion that the “harsh critique of [Booker T.] Washington in Du Bois’s work is muted in Johnson’s novel in favor of a romanticization of black enterprise as a whole. The narrator’s failed matriculation at Atlanta Univeristy looms large, here. He is, though white, a race man without any intraracial allegiance. He can endorse the black race disinterestedly and from a distance sufficient enough to romanticize the racial mission as a whole. The result of this romanticization, though Johnson did not intend it as such, constitutes perhaps the ex-colored man’s worst crime. For by enabling a reading of Washington and Du Bois that would highlight their points of agreement rather than disagreement, a man without color paradoxically used color to mask the historical conflicts that had made his marvelous narrative possible” (276-7).

I find this reading quite interesting. I need to spend some serious time with both Johnson and Du Bois. I’m tired, which always makes me a little nostalgic. Sharon Holland, a former professor at UIC, told me once to take Du Bois seriously. She meant don’t be fashionable with a line about the color line, but really work with Du Bois. I hope I can figure out a way to do so.

For now, I need to go to bed. I’ll have more on Pizer first thing tomorrow. There’s a remarkable mis-reading of Upton Sinclaire’s The Jungle that I’ll need to see straight to type.


Entry filed under: American Literary Naturalism, Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, James Weldon Johnson, Literary Criticism, Pizer, realism, Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois.

Coming Attractions Pizer’s Companion, Part 3

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. cerebraljetsam  |  March 3, 2007 at 6:17 pm

    See, that is precisely the thing that pissed us all off so much. Ken Warren has really good things to say, but in the co-taught class with WBM he never actually got to saying any of this. I do have his book _So Black and So Blue_, which might be of interest to you. You are welcome to borrow it once you’re back.
    Just saw Warren last week and talked to him for a few minutes–strange coincidence. He was at UIC as part of an external review committee for our department. Apparently, he is quite close with Madhu.
    As far as DuBois is concerned, the third of the job talks by potential candidates to fill Sharon’s position here was a guy from Cornell who talked about the various stages of DuBois that are out there and how they interrelate, contradict as well as fit into a coherent (or not so much coherent) political argument. Wow, he got clobbered. People tried to stay nice, but he was a little too cocky and so even Nick had to cut him down a notch, or two. So: DuBois can end up being a rather emotional subject that may come back and bite people right on the ass.

  • 2. skunkcabbage  |  March 3, 2007 at 6:26 pm

    Thanks, I might take you up on borrowing the Warren book. Sometimes I’m sorry I missed the 30s class with WBM, other times, not so much.

    Speaking of Madhu, someday I should read her book, too. Oops I think I said I wasn’t going to say that anymore.

    I miss department ass biting. Would have liked to have heard how people are using Du Bois, even if in problematic ways.


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