Gregory S. Jay, White Writers, Race Matters: Fictions of Racial Liberalism from Stowe to Stockett (New York: Oxford UP, 2018), 370 pp. Oxford Studies in American Literary History.
In White Writers, Race Matters, Gregory S. Jay systematically approaches a broad range of commercially successful and culturally influential literary texts on race and racism by White authors from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) to Kathryn Stockett’s The Help (2009). He offers a convincing account of “the genre of liberal race fiction” (5) with an eye to its ambivalent affective politics and with an attuned sense of its cultural work across time. White Writers, Race Matters is an illuminating read for scholars in American literature who are interested in the racial politics of (sentimental) fiction and provides a useful source for teaching any of the individual texts singled out for in-depth analysis. The project of re-evaluating affectively powerful and popular literature on race which is often neglected in Literary Studies provides a much-welcomed intervention. It can be situated within a broader “turn to affect” in the humanities and social sciences as well as within a renewed interest in Literary Studies in aesthetics and a methodological move beyond a “hermeneutics of suspicion” (see, for instance, Rita Felski’s reflections on the “limits of critique”). It also recuperates White-authored texts that, despite their presumably good intentions, often promote racist thinking, embrace White privilege, or at the very least ensure White discursive authority on matters of race. For the most part, Jay manages to navigate the ideologically difficult terrain of his texts through rigorous contextualization, critical self-reflection, and an awareness of the processes of racialization in American culture. Yet, he cannot completely avoid perpetuating some of the racial (and gendered) politics of his case studies as he assesses the extent of their “antiracist power” (9) and places them at the center of scholarly attention. In his defense, Jay addresses this difficult dynamic at the core of his book head-on in his introduction and assumes the dangers inherent in his approach willingly and open-eyed. He delineates the fundamental contradictions of “racial liberalism” and its history and, for the purpose of the study, defines “literary racial liberalism […] by its reliance on plots of sympathy and empathy, and by corresponding designs on the reader’s sentiments and political actions” (13).
In a first chapter, Jay traces the tradition of liberal race fiction back to two seminal nineteenth-century works: Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1884). The latter constitutes the only text by a male author to be discussed in detail. Jay evocatively contrasts the reception histories of both texts: Stowe’s status as bestselling author to her work loosing traction over time and finally being reappraised by feminist critics in the late twentieth century and what Jonathan Arac has termed Mark Twain’s “hypercanonization” and elevation of Huckleberry Finn from children’s literature to an American classic including the controversies surrounding its racial politics (qtd. in Jay 76). The chapter offers a springboard for the following analyses: It situates both texts within their context of production, sketches their lasting relevance in U.S. culture and society, and theoretically frames their use of sympathy and empathy. It also connects matters of race with the gendered logics of liberal race fiction, and it already indicates “the difficult balance between changing the system and changing the heart that has been the primary tension in the history of race fiction” (41). While Jay is undoubtably right that liberal race fiction is more complex than is often acknowledged and that simply dismissing these popular texts does not adequately address their ambivalent effects, his recuperative gesture sometimes goes a bit too far; for instance, when he takes issue with the labelling of Stowe’s novel as a racist text, points out her “virtuous intentions” (58), and regards it as “at best misleading” (70) to ask how to deal with Stowe’s racism. In my opinion, this provokes questions concerning the racial (and gendered) politics of Jay’s study that unnecessarily distract from its merits—which would not have been the least diminished by, e. g., fully acknowledging the racism at the center of this “sentimental urtext” (Pelletier 89) instead of calling its “use of racializing stereotypes” a “major negative characteristic” that “[u]nfortunately” came to shape liberal race fiction (Jay 60).
Fast-forwarding in time and turning to Fannie Hurst’s melodramatic Imitation of Life (1933) in chapter two, Jay contextualizes the author’s take on race historically, ideologically, and biographically and situates the novel at the threshold of postbellum racial logics and discourses of modernity. The analysis, overall, strikes a more balanced chord in its assessment of the novel’s critique of and complicity with “the emergent systems of consumer and industrial racial capitalism of the twentieth century” (93) and of its use of stereotypes as “an awkward attempt at addressing racial injustice, sexual politics, and the gendered structure of labor” (98). Jay does not simply dismiss charges of racism and stereotyping, but rather productively focuses on the (potential) origins, ambivalent uses, and ramifications of the racial politics of Imitation of Life and its construction of Whiteness. He traces Hurst’s “liberal views on race and gender oppression” back to her “understanding of antisemitism” (105), sketches the contexts of her novel’s contested reception, situates it within her oeuvre at large, and addresses the debates surrounding its 1934 film version. Like Imitation of Life, Laura Z. Hobson’s Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), the subject of chapter three, may be best remembered for its eponymous Hollywood version. And, like Imitation, it centers on a narrative of passing and negotiates assimilation and Whiteness albeit with a focus on Jewish identity and antisemitism. Jay outlines how “[t]he ambivalence of the assimilationist project haunts the novel, as it does the life of Laura Zametkin Hobson” (147) and features a writer, who has indeed not received sufficient scholarly attention (yet). He situates Gentleman’s Agreement, a text that straddles the individual and structural dimensions of antisemitism (and racism), in the cultural climate of its time when “racial liberalism couched its critique of racism and antisemitism firmly within a pro-American rhetoric that emphasized the values of tolerance, freedom, liberty, equality, and democracy” (157). The analysis is attuned to the intersectional logics of the novel’s “themes of assimilation, cultural identity, and class struggle” (172) and Jay insightfully examines its “writing,” in a double meaning of production process and literary style, as well as its filmic adaptation. Combining close readings of the novels that tease out their ambivalent politics with an account of their respective contexts of production and (controversial) reception showcases the strengths of White Writers, Race Matters.
In the following three chapters, Jay traces the tradition of liberal race fiction further from Lillian Smith’s works to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), and, finally, Stockett’s The Help (2009). Smith emerges as “Lee’s distinguished foremother among (female) popular writers of Southern racial reform” (185). Her novel Strange Fruit (1944) focuses on interracial love and stretches liberal race fiction’s characteristic feature of the entwined moral education of protagonist and reader; while Killers of a Dream (1949) relies on an autobiographical mode to voice social criticism. Focusing on her books and activism at large before turning to Lee’s classic novel based on a more “orthodox racial liberalism” (193), Jay explores the “queering of racial liberalism” and draws attention to their “counternormative” stance towards categories of difference (190). Without losing sight of the limits of her criticism, Jay’s analysis reveals how Smith not only critiques White supremacy and articulates America’s race problem as a “white problem” (203), but also, for instance, challenges heteropatriarchy. The following reading of To Kill a Mockingbird accounts for the novel’s dynamics of empathy, its problematic racial politics, and its seeming investment in patriarchal leadership in connection with its “counternormative voicing of sex / gender identity” (239). It accredits the novel’s lasting success with readers to its “pedagogical narrative form” (241), and the analysis, again, superbly combines a detailed examination of the literary text’s form and content with its historical context and cultural afterlife. In chapter six, Jay addresses his latest installment of liberal race fiction, The Help. He engages with its broad popularity that defied the trenchant criticism heaped onto Stockett’s novel by commentators and critics with its sentimental plot of (individual) progress (however small and limited). Jay excavates its “story of protest against the abjection of blackness” (305-06) vis-à-vis the many problematic aspects of the novel and thus adds an important perspective to the discussion of this controversial text. A brief afterword turns to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2015 nonfiction book Between the World and Me and comes full circle by connecting it to James Baldwin’s critique of protest writing featured in the introduction.
Overall, Jay’s study offers an informed and rich literary history of White liberal race fiction from the nineteenth century until today that is highly evocative, and sometimes even provocative, in its partially recuperative stance towards the genre. Yet, its argument for a more serious discussion of liberal race fiction’s cultural work, its ambivalent impact, and its inherent complexity is very convincing and presents a valuable contribution to Literary Studies. White Writers, Race Matters will most certainly leave readers with a more differentiated understanding of “racial liberalism exist[ing] along a spectrum from a narrow focus on sentiment, personal change, and human rights to a radical structural critique of institutional systems of oppression, such as racial capitalism” (154) and with a nuanced perspective on White liberal race fiction’s significance for American literature and culture.
Katharina Gerund (FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg)