Chapter 9: The
Chapter 9: The
Jessie Redmon Fauset
Jessie Redmon Fauset
| A Brief Biography |
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Source: The African American Encyclopedia (listed below)
There is Confusion, 1924; Plum Bun, 1928; The Chinaberry Tree; 1931; Comedy, American Style, 1933.
Selected Bibliography 1980-Present
Allen, Carol. Black Women Intellectuals: Strategies of Nation, Family, and Neighborhood in the Works of Pauline Hopkins, Jessie Fauset, and Marita Bonner. NY: Garland, 1998.
Austin, Rhonda. "Jessie Redmon Fauset (1882-1961)." in Champion, Laurie. ed American Women Writers, 1900-1945: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000.
Calloway, Licia M. Black Family (Dys)Function in Novels by Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen & Fannie Hurst. NY: Peter Lang, 2003.
Harker, Jaime. America the Middlebrow: Women's Novels, Progressivism, and Middlebrow Authorship between the Wars. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2007.
Keyser, Catherine. Playing Smart: New York Women Writers and Modern Magazine Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2010.
Olwell, Victoria. The Genius of Democracy: Fictions of Gender and Citizenship in the United States, 1860-1945. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2011.
Tarver, Australia. "'My House and a Glimpse of My Life Therein': Migrating Lives in the Short Fiction of Jessie Fauset." in Tarver, Australia and Barnes, Paula C. eds. New Voices on the Harlem Renaissance: Essays on Race, Gender, and Literary Discourse. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2005.
Tomlinson, Susan. "'An Unwonted Coquetry': The Commercial Seductions of Jessie Fauset's The Chinaberry Tree." in Botshon, Lisa and Goldsmith, Meredith. eds. Middlebrow Moderns: Popular American Women Writers of the 1920s. Boston: Northeastern UP, 2003.
- - -. "Teaching Jessie Fauset's Plum Bun." in Soto, Michael. ed. Teaching the Harlem Renaissance: Course Design and Classroom Strategies. NY: Peter Lang, 2008.
Wall, Cheryl A., Sandra M. Gilbert, and Susan Gubar. eds. Women of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995.
West, Elizabeth J. African Spirituality in Black Women's Fiction: Threaded Visions of Memory, Community, Nature, and Being. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2011.
Williams, Michael. The African American Encyclopedia. NY: Marshall Cavendish, 1993.
Witalec, Janet, and Trudier Harris-Lopez. eds. Harlem Renaissance: A Gale Critical Companion. Detroit: Gale, 2002.
| Top |Jessie Redmon Fauset (1884-1961): A Brief Biography
Coined as one of the “midwives” of the Harlem Renaissance by poet Langston Hughes, Jessie Fauset began her life outside of Harlem in small, suburban middle-class community near New Jersey. Born into a rather large family of six—sternly headed by a African Methodist Episcopal Minister—which continued to grow after the death of Fauset's mother Annie Seamon Fauset when her father married a widow with three children and later fathered three more, Fauset thrived intellectually and culturally despite the crowded, humble middle-class upbringing.
Receiving a somewhat privileged education compared to other black Americans during the days of Jim Crow, Fauset shined academically graduating with honors from the then all-white Philadelphia School for Girls in 1900. After high school, she pursued admission to Bryn Mawr College, but denial seemed inevitable not because she did not meet their academic standards, but because she was black. Instead to avoid controversy, Fauset was admitted to Cornell University on scholarship with the eager assistance of Bryn Mawr officials. Graduating from Cornell in 1905 with a degree in classical languages including French and German, Fauset was the first black woman to earn a Phi Beta Kappa key. Later, after a fourteen-year tenure, which began in 1906, at Dunbar High School in Washington D.C. teaching French, Fauset completed her education with a Master's Degree in French from University of Pennsylvania in 1919. Initially after college, Fauset sought a teaching position in Philadelphia but was refused due to segregation and instead taught for one year in Baltimore before her position in D.C. While teaching French at Dunbar and prior to the completion of her Master's degree at UOP, Fauset apparently kept busy during her summers studying at Sorbonne in Paris and received the opportunity—arranged by her future mentor and boss W. E. B. Du Bois—to teach summer school at Fisk University.
Though her connection with Du Bois began much earlier during her senior year at Cornell and were later joined by her contributions to his magazine in 1912, Fauset's pivotal career as “midwife” of the Harlem Renaissance commenced shortly after graduation from UOP in 1919 when she joined Du Bois in Harlem, as the literary editor of the The Crisis—magazine of the NAACP. Through her position as literary editor and the assumed position as Du Bois' personal secretary during her seven year career at the magazine, between 1919-1926, Fauset's influence on the Harlem Renaissance reaches far beyond mere vocational description. Through her work as literary editor she nurtured the careers of some of the Harlem Renaissance's great talents, such as Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, George Schuyler and others. In her position she had great control over what much of the the NAACP's prominent magazine readership read. Often it is through Fauset's “reviews, editorial critiques, and her choices of poetry, fiction and essays for the magazine”that “introduced” and “guided” the writings of these prominent black writers (Gale, 363). She recognized the talent of Toomer and Hughes “before anyone else.” (Lewis, 122) Also, her duties under Du Bois lingered closer to personal assistant rather than secretary. Aside from being “constantly at his side,” Fauset “made travel arrangements, did research, edited speeches, and in the editor's absence ran The Crisis.” (Lewis, 122) Finally, in addition to Fauset's personal work for Du Bois and editorial work on his magazine, she was able to reach some of Harlem's youngest minds with her editorship of Brownie's Book, a children's publication for a mentor project headed by her boss. Because her work was generally under the dominating and influential shadow of the Du Bois, Fauset may very well be one of the greatest and unsung players that nourished the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance.
Fauset was still employed by Du Bois when she published her first novel, There is Confusion, in 1924, which sparked her brief but relatively successful publishing career—culminating with three more novels. It is for this work, the novels, that she is best remembered by critics and scholars. Some themes include the strained and limited position of ambitious black women, challenging convention and its effects, mixed race heritage, the negative effects of passing, and racial discrimination. Also, the novels illustrate the lifestyle and attitude of an educated, cultured, African-American that is familiar—perhaps even all too familiar—to Fauset. And later critics will argue whether if Fauset's work reveals an authentic black experience or if the subjects and lifestyles in her work strove to emphasize the similarities between middle-class white and black culture (Gale 365). The middle-class ideals apparent in Fauset's novels become a subject of much debate in critical evaluation in her work after the end of the Harlem Renaissance.
Two prevailing and often contrasting themes of the Harlem Renaissance question the style and purpose of literature. Should the artist use literature to educate and advance the condition of the under-educated black masses or should it reflect a truer reality—good and bad or “ugly and beautiful” as Hughes suggests—of what it means to be black? Whether Fauset's perspective on literature reflects the didactic, propagandist purpose pursued by some Harlem Renaissance's elites of her ilk, namely Du Bois, becomes an interesting question when considering the elite middle-class subject of her novels. Even her own words on the purpose of her literature seem to reflect these contrasting ideals. Before she begins her own career as a novelist, Fauset's reaction to the novel Birthright—written by a white T. S. Stribling about race—seems to suggest that black authors should write about their authentic experiences: “Here is an audience waiting to hear the truth about us. Let us who are better qualified to present that truth than any white writer, try to do so.” (Lewis, 123) Yet words from her second novel Plum Bun, published in 1928, the main character, Angela Murray, speaks for and to an elite black-middle class with a social obligation: “Our case is unique [ . . . .] Those of us who have forged forward, who have gained the front ranks in money and training, will not, are not able as yet to go our separate ways apart from the unwashed, untutored herd. We must still look back and render service to our less fortunate, weaker brethren.” (Lewis 235) When looking at the subject of her novels it seems Fauset could never look outside her elitist position to flourish creatively and “emotionally, nevertheless, she recoiled violently from anything out of keeping with her prim upbringing and racial sensitivities.” (Lewis 123)
Regardless of her literary purpose and the romanticized middle-class values of her work, Fauset did have an audience—at least during Harlem Renaissance's prime when the public had an insatiable ache for any and all kinds of black art. Though reviews were critical of her idealized subjects and somewhat rudimentary style, reviews of Fauset's first two books were generally positive. At the publication of her first book Stanley Braithwraite referred to Fauset as “the potential Jane Austen of Negro Literature.” (Gale 364) Yet just as the creative energy of Harlem Renaissance began to fizzle, the publication of her last two novels, The Chinaberry Tree in 1931 and Comedy, American Style in 1933, reveal flaws in her form and a controversy in subject that became increasingly emphasized by critics as the novels “are in many ways a weakening and scattering of the formal strengths of Plum Bun and a return to some of the stylistic flaws of There is Confusion.” (DLB 81).
Though scholarship of her work tends to focus on the influence of Fauset's elite, middle-class African-American lifestyle and its rigid moral earnestness on her writing, the conventionality of her work has sparked some interesting critical evaluation. For example, Abby Arthur Johnson suggests, in her essay “Literary Midwife,” that previous criticism of Fauset's work focuses too much on the romanticized subjects of her novels failing to take into account her complex attitudes shown in her non-fiction essays and editorials (Gale 367). This would reveal a richer influence of Fauset on the Harlem Renaissance. Johnson even suggests that some of these other radical works reveal a nationalist perspective (Gale 367). Another essay by Vashti Crutcher Lewis, entitled “Mulatto Hegemony in the Novels of Jessie Redmon Fauset,” suggests that Fauset's novels illustrate the evidence of a color hierarchy with lighter-skinned blacks enjoying more privilege (Gale 376). This argument proves more provocative when comparing the light-skinned Fauset and consider her somewhat privileged position as one of the Harlem Renaisance's elite "talented tenth". Granted Fauset was probably unintentional in her portrayal of light-skinned heroines and Olivia Carey the protagonist in Comedy, American Style suffers a harsh fate as a result of her unfaltering love of white skin. Perhaps as Lewis suggests, Fauset simply wrote about what she knew.
After leaving The Crisis in 1926, Fauset was unable to procure another position in the literary world. Faced with limited opportunity because of her race, Fauset returned to teaching at DeWitt Clinton High School until 1944. At the age of 47, she marred Herbert Harris, an insurance broker, in 1929. With her husband she lived in domestic, if obscure, happiness until her husband's death in 1958. Fauset's artistic ambition dwindled with her diligent homemaking and by the time of his death, she had already stopped writing. Fauset lived out the rest of her life in Philadelphia with her stepbrother, until she died from a heart attack in 1961.
"Jessie Redmon Fauset." The Harlem Renaissance: A Gale Critical Companion, v2. Detroit: Gale, 2003. 363-393.
Johnson, Abby A. "Literary Midwife: Jessie Fauset and the Harlem Renaissance." The Harlem Renaissance: A Gale Critical Companion, v2. Detroit: Gale, 2003. 363-393.
Lewis, David L. When Harlem was in Vogue. New York: Oxford, 1982.
Lewis, Vashti Crutcher. "Mulatto Hegemony in the Novels of Jessie Redmon Fauset." The Harlem Renaissance: A Gale Critical Companion, v2. Detroit: Gale, 2003. 363-393.
Marks, Carole and Diana Edkins. "Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen." The Power of Pride: Style Makers and Rule Breakers of the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Crown, 1999.
Sato, Hiroko. "A Study of Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen." The Harlem Renaissance Remembered. Ed. Arna Wendell Bontemps. New York: Dodd & Mead, 1972. 63-82.
Sylvander, Caroly Wedin. "Jessie Redmon Fauset." Dictionary of Literary Biography: Afro-American Writers from the Harlem Renaissance to 1940, v51. Detroit: Gale, 1987. 76-86.
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