Plum Bun Essay - Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

Jessie Redmon Fauset

Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

Plum Bun received mostly favorable reviews when it first appeared in 1928, although many of the reviews by white critics tended to be somewhat patronizing. Fauset’s novels enjoyed modest success both in America and in Great Britain, but she was nearly forgotten after the publication of her last novel, Comedy, American Style, in 1933. The Great Depression of the 1930’s largely eclipsed the interest in African American writers begun with the Harlem Renaissance.

The 1950’s saw an entirely different attitude toward African Americans and toward race relations in general. In The Negro Novel in America (1958), Robert Bone labeled Fauset an old-fashioned, “Victorian” writer. In 1962, the militant playwright and activist LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) dismissed middle-class African American writers such as Fauset in his essay “The Myth of a ’Negro Literature.’” Baraka argued that most such writers had attempted “to prove to America, and recently to the world at large, that they were not really who they were, i.e., Negroes.”

Later criticism has tended to take a more generous view of Fauset’s work. Plum Bun is regarded as Fauset’s best novel; its strengths are seen as the author’s characterization of the protagonist and her shrewd observations of white middle-class life. Its weaknesses are viewed as its old-fashioned sentimentality and its portrayal of African Americans as essentially no different from whites in any important respect. The unrealistic dialogue, too, is often pointed to as a glaring defect; there is no slang, no dialect, and the characters often sound impossibly intellectual or idealistic. Moreover, Fauset seems reluctant to express strong feelings about injustices suffered by African Americans; in Plum Bun, she frequently refers to outrageously discriminatory practices as merely “silly.” However, with the rise of feminist criticism, Fauset’s achievements as a novelist grappling with both racism and sexism have come to seem increasingly impressive.