Growing Up Ethnic: Nationalism and the Bildungsroman in African American and Jewish American Fiction

Growing Up Ethnic: Nationalism and the Bildungsroman in African American and Jewish American Fiction

by Martin Japtok


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Growing Up Ethnic examines the presence of literary similarities between African American and Jewish American coming-of-age stories in the first half of the twentieth century; often these similarities exceed what could be explained by sociohistorical correspondences alone. Martin Japtok argues that these similarities result from the way both African American and Jewish American authors have conceptualized their "ethnic situation." The issue of "race" and its social repercussions certainly defy any easy comparisons. However, the fact that the ethnic situations are far from identical in the case of these two groups only highlights the striking thematic correspondences in how a number of African American and Jewish American coming-of-age stories construct ethnicity. Japtok studies three pairs of novels—James Weldon Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man and Samuel Ornitz's Haunch, Paunch and Jowl, Jessie Fauset's Plum Bun and Edna Ferber's Fanny Herself, and Paule Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstones and Anzia Yezierska's Bread Giver—and argues that the similarities can be explained with reference to mainly two factors, ultimately intertwined: cultural nationalism and the Bildungsroman genre. Growing Up Ethnic shows that the parallel configurations in the novels, which often see ethnicity in terms of spirituality, as inherent artistic ability, and as communal responsibility, are rooted in nationalist ideology. However, due to the authors' generic choice—the Bildungsroman—the tendency to view ethnicity through the rhetorical lens of communalism and spiritual essence runs head-on into the individualist assumptions of the protagonist-centered Bildungsroman. The negotiations between these ideological counterpoints characterize the novels and reflect and refract the intellectual ferment of their time. This fresh look at ethnic American literatures in the context of cultural nationalism and the Bildungsroman will be of great interest to students and scholars of literary and race studies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780877459231
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
Publication date: 04/01/2005
Pages: 218
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.50(h) x 2.50(d)

About the Author

Martin Japtok is an associate professor of English at Palomar College. He is the editor of Postcolonial Perspectives on Women Writers from Africa, the Caribbean, and the U.S.

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GROWING UP ETHNIC Nationalism and the Bildungsroman in African American and Jewish American Fiction
By Martin Japtok
UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS Copyright © 2005 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87745-923-1

Chapter One The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man and Haunch, Paunch and Jowl: Two Versions of Passing

The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man and Haunch, Paunch and Jowl serve here as the first two examples of ethnic literary revisions of the Bildungsroman. Both are also parodies of the autobiographical genre, particularly the autobiographical success story, a genre known in the U.S. since Benjamin Franklin. They adopt the individualist focus of the traditional Bildungsroman and autobiography only to make their protagonists failures because of their exaggerated individualism. Thus, both novels argue that, for their ethnic protagonists, a more (ethnic) communalist orientation would have led to a more fulfilling and, as the plots strongly imply, more ethical life. In effect, the genre revisions performed by the two works are the result of their preoccupation with ethnic identity and of the influence ethnic nationalism exerts on them, and it is this preoccupation and its similar manifestations in both novels which this chapter will explore.

James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man was published anonymously in 1912, purporting to withhold its author's name so as to avoid compromising him. In this way, the protagonist is able to reveal "the great secret of [his] life" (3) without having to give up his cover-he is passing. In fact, the anonymity was also a sales trick as "Johnson ... felt that curiosity about the author" (Levy 126) would increase public interest. In addition, few African American novels had been published, while African American autobiography was a well-established genre, reaching from Frederick Douglass to Booker T. Washington (Goellnicht 18). However, the trick did not work: the novel initially received little attention. The novel's publishing company, Sherman, French & Co., closed its doors soon after publication, and even the black press offered few, though positive, comments (Levy 127, Collier "Endless Journey" 365). The book was republished in 1927 and has not been forgotten since.

The history of Samuel Ornitz's Haunch, Paunch and Jowl reverses that of the Autobiography. Though, at the time of its publication, it seemed to have touched a nerve and was a "commercial success, selling in excess of one hundred thousand copies" (Miller "Samuel Ornitz" 210), the book has now been virtually relegated to the dusty back shelves of literary history and little has been published on it. Pocket Books published a paperback edition in 1968, and the book is currently in print again, after Markus Wiener Publishers brought it back on the market in 1985. Like the Autobiography, Haunch, Paunch and Jowl appeared anonymously in hopes that "the book would sell better if the public thought it the actual memoir of a judge who had died five years earlier" (Miller "Samuel Ornitz" 209). Similar to Johnson, Ornitz had few predecessors when it came to Jewish American novelists. According to Gabriel Miller, "There was then no 'American Jewish novel' as it has come to be known, no sense of tradition.... Only a few American Jewish novels had appeared" ("Introduction" xi). The novel's reception in the Jewish community was mixed: "The book attracted much attention. Contemporary newspaper accounts chronicle sermons by rabbis who damned it as 'lecherous and degrading.' ... On the other hand, many Jews and Jewish organizations praised the novel. It was serialized in two working class papers, the Morning Freiheit in America and, years later, in the Rote Fahne in Germany" (Miller "Samuel Ornitz" 210). Given the plot of the novel, the responses were predictable: Ornitz (as a narrative presence) does not openly reject Judaism-though the protagonist does-but the novel seems to suggest that socialism of a kind ought to be the new Jewish (and American) religion.

Like Johnson's novel, it is about a kind of passing: the protagonist lives in a Jewish American community, poses (or passes) as a dedicated Jew, but suppresses all emotional ties to his community, rising to success on the backs of his fellow Lower East Siders. While there are differences in the kinds of passing that the protagonists enact, both novels imply, through the careers of their main characters, that the success they gain comes at a high price: their ethnic heritage. This heritage appears as intrinsically connected to everything that may serve as the opposite of materialism, be it idealism, spirituality, or artistic ability. It is this conceptualization of ethnicity that reveals both novels' debt to ethnic nationalism. Accordingly, both the Autobiography and Haunch show that following the path of materialism is not only a betrayal of the "ethnic nation" but also of traits the novels construct as inherently ethnic. The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man is the coming-of-age story of a light-skinned African American who is raised by his black mother and meets his white father on only a few occasions in his early childhood. Nonetheless, he grows up believing he is "white," learns in school that he is "coloured," and repeatedly switches from "white" to "black" identity in the years to follow, retaining throughout a heightened awareness of his "colour." After traveling and experiencing, or rather observing, various facets of African American life in the U.S. and of European American life both in the U.S. and in Europe, the Ex-Coloured Man decides ultimately to pass for white, being jolted into that decision by witnessing a lynching. He becomes a businessman, marries, has children, but then looks back at his life with feelings of regret.

Even this brief plot summary makes clear that one of the central problems of the novel is the question of identity. Indeed, Henry Louis Gates Jr. sees the Ex-Coloured Man as an incarnation of Du Boisian double-consciousness ("Introduction" xvii)-aptly so, as the protagonist himself refers admiringly to The Souls of Black Folk (169). Once he knows he is coloured, according to U.S. racial logic, he cannot be white again the same way, regardless of the fact that he is both white and black. In other words, he accepts that logic, internalizes it, and acquires double-consciousness; he cannot simply be but is always conscious of being, seeing himself, through a Du Boisian "veil," as whites might see him. To quote from the Autobiography: "He [the African American] is forced to take his outlook on all things ... from the point of view of a coloured man" (21). What does that mean, though? Does Johnson imply that societal forces alone constrain the Ex-Coloured Man to be a coloured man or does the novel imply that there is such a thing as a coloured point of view regardless of social constraints? Does the Autobiography posit race as something socially constructed or as something natural?

Answers to these questions have ranged over the entire spectrum of ethnic critical theory from essentialism (race as natural fact) to constructionism ("the position that differences are constructed, not innate" [Fuss xii]). Eugenia Collier sees the Ex-Coloured Man "on the verge of surrendering the part of him which is white and letting the black self emerge victorious"; the black self fails to win, however, so that the protagonist ends up being "white on the outside as well as on the inside" ("Endless Journey" 371). Collier thus emphasizes essential blackness and whiteness, in both psychological and physical terms. Houston Baker Jr. describes the protagonist as unquestionably black: "the narrator ... is a black man of culture recording the situations and attitudes that have succeeded in driving him underground" (Singers 22 [emphasis mine]). Baker thus accepts as fact what I claim the Autobiography is calling into question. Henry Louis Gates Jr., however, has no doubt that Johnson critiques essential racial identity: "Johnson's decision to chart his mulatto pilgrim's progress back and forth, ... between black and white racial identities, is intended to establish the fact that such identities are entirely socially constructed" ("Introduction" xvi).

According to Eric J. Sundquist's The Hammers of Creation, it is the hybrid forms of blackness and whiteness, especially the musical ones, that the Autobiography delineates. However, while the Ex-Coloured Man may have "chosen an art [ragtime] emblematic of his racial hybridity" his lack of cultural connectedness does not allow his hybridity to "[produce] fruitful symbiosis" (16). Instead, the protagonist chooses "literal marriage and physiological incorporation into white culture" (22), a step that "enacts both the physical and semiotic destruction of a world in which color and language bear the meaning of ancestry" (39 [emphasis mine]). While Sundquist sees the possibility of cultural amalgamation, hinted at and symbolized through biological hybridity, he describes how, instead, the Autobiography illustrates the obliteration of black culture through cultural and biological assimilation, as Johnson might have feared it. Sundquist's analysis thus shows the Autobiography to adopt a position between essentialism and constructionism, linking culture to color; what is more, it shows the significance of "race" while also subscribing to constructionism. John Sheehy, in turn, argues that the passing trope intends to show the impossibility of establishing stable categories: "Since both categories [black and white] are to a certain extent imposed from the outside and to a certain extent constructed from the inside, the dividing line between the imposition and the construction ... is difficult to fix" (405). But this very difficulty may provide an opening, as passing signifies "the possibility of a discourse of racial identity which moves beyond the terms of both our racial antipathies and our racial sympathies" (414). Samira Kawash, however, argues that "the narrative ... works against the simple black-passing-for-white logic of passing and its attendant model of race as the expression of a prior, proper identity" (146). If there is no such thing as "race," then there can be no such thing as "passing."

While a variety of rhetorical positions on ethnicity in the novel have been convincingly explored, the duality in Johnson's approach to the question of identity bears further emphasis. I believe that rather than adopting one specific position on race, the Autobiography goes both further and not as far as that: while Johnson shows racial identity as socially constructed, he also insists that certain traits are inherent to whiteness or blackness, thus employing seemingly incompatible strategies. While the novel destabilized race, it also uses rhetoric steeped in essentialism as well as constructionism. The novel improves upon the intent of much of the "passing" literature preceding it to point out the absurdity of the color scheme through enacting a kind of reverse passing in that its protagonist pretends to be black more than he pretends to be white. This strategy doubles complications by depicting not merely a character who, knowing he is black, attempts to pass for white, but a character who thinks he is white, learns he is seen as black by whites, attempts to be black, does not succeed, decides to be white and now thinks of himself as somebody black passing for white.

However, while highlighting the social construction of race, the protagonist's life also serves as an indictment of the value system of the novel's European American middle class through relying on the notion of inherent "racial" traits. In other words, the protagonist's ethnicity is outlined both as something "made up" and arbitrary and as something "real." The Autobiography thus partakes in a rhetoric of constructionism and in a rhetoric of essentialism. While the novel embraces some aspects of white society and critiques others of its black counterpart, the deployment of this double rhetoric serves to establish as the overall tenor of the book a double critique of white middle-class society while at the same time allowing Johnson to show African America's moral (and artistic) superiority. Johnson himself tells us that he set out to do nothing less than that. He records, in his autobiography Along This Way, a conversation he had with H. L. Mencken on "Negro literature" and "Negro writers":

"What they should do," he said, "is to single out the strong points of the race and emphasize them over and over and over; asserting, at least on these points, that they are better than anybody else." I called to his attention that I had attempted something of that sort in The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. (305)

Thus, to rephrase Diana Fuss's assessment of a conscious use of essentialism, essentialism and constructionism used side by side also prove to have "strategic or interventionary value" (20).

To understand how this happens, it is necessary to show how the novel delineates whiteness and blackness, how each of these comes to be seen as characterized by distinct qualities through the life-path the protagonist takes, and how, as a result, the Ex-Coloured Man is indeed passing for black more than he is passing for white in the terms of the novel. How, then, does the Ex-Coloured Man acquire his whiteness and his middle-class values? Usually, the blame has been put on his father, who is aptly remembered by the narrator by "the material objects associated with him" (Fleming JWJ 31), such as a gold chain and a gold watch. His mother has been accused of being "an adorer of white values" (Kinnamon 173) and has generally received little sympathy from critics. However, she is not only complicit in teaching her son materialism but is herself a victim of double-consciousness and is instrumental in bequeathing it to her son. She spanks him memorably for uprooting glass bottles stuck in the ground, which marks a violation of African (American) cultural customs and as Robert Stepto has explained makes her a "custodian of those aspects of black culture" (101). Yet she also-in the very same paragraph-scrubs the narrator "until [his] skin ached" (4) in an apparent (symbolic) attempt to make him more white (Fleming "Irony" 86).

It is his father who gives the narrator coins, but it is his mother who teaches him "to promptly drop [them] in a little tin bank" (5), showing him the value of deferred gratification which will come in handy in his investment schemes. While she is more comfortable-"freer" (8)-when playing "old Southern songs" (5), she is not assertive about her ethnicity when directly confronted by her son: "No, I am not white, but you-your father is one of the greatest men in the country" (18). Eugenia Collier has noted that she denies "his [and thus her] blackness but not his whiteness" by only commenting on her "lack" of whiteness while emphasizing her son's white descent ("Endless Journey" 367). Through her contradictory behavior, which foreshadows the narrator's own ambiguity, the narrator's mother reveals her own unresolved psychological tensions, her ambiguous acceptance and simultaneous rejection of her own ethnicity.

The way she initially rears the narrator seems to be geared towards avoiding the development of double-consciousness in him-at the expense of his African American cultural heritage. As the narrator says, "She was careful about my associates" (7), and one can assume that they are white: his mother surrounds herself exclusively with white women and the narrator, throughout the novel, "gives no racial designation to white characters but labels instead the black ones" (Collier "Endless Journey" 366). She sews for "a great many ladies" (7) and, in a punning transposition of color from the givers of money to the object given, makes a "fair income from her work" (7).


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Table of Contents

Contents Acknowledgments....................ix
Chapter 1 The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man and Haunch, Paunch and Jowl: Two Versions of Passing....................29
Chapter 2 Fanny Herself and Plum Bun: Art and Ethnic Solidarity....................71
Chapter 3 Brown Girl, Brownstones and Bread Givers: Reconciling Ethnicity and Individualism....................103
Chapter 4 Ethnic Nationalism and Ethnic Literary Responses....................134
Works Cited....................183

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