Jessie Redmon Fauset Fauset, Jessie Redmon - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Fauset, Jessie Redmon 1884?–1961

Fauset was a black American novelist, editor, critic, and poet. In the controversy between assimilation and separatism, Fauset hoped for the former and she consistently represented the aspiring black middle classes in her fiction. However, her editorial and critical work on The Crisis, an influential black literary journal, demonstrates her sympathy for the Harlem Renaissance writers who concentrated on the uniqueness of their race.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[There Is Confusion] is significant because it is the first work of fiction to come from the pen of a colored woman in these United States. It is evidence that we can with assurance look forward in the near future to having our fiction dealing with life among the Negroes written by the Negroes themselves….

Having as its motif the futility that must not arrest the conquering progress of the Negroes, Miss Fauset's There Is Confusion, however, is not really "younger generation Negro" stuff. Toomer's insouciant "Cane" in this respect is miles beyond it. Indeed, it is a sort of bridge between the old and the new Negro generations. For the literature of these strident neophytes is of a shockingly esoteric nature—full of beauty and passion and blackly steering clear of the inferiority complex. Mediocre, a work of puny, painstaking labor, There Is Confusion is not meant for people who know anything about the Negro and his problems. It is aimed with unpardonable naïvete at the very young or the pertinently old.

E.D.W., "'There Is Confusion'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1924 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 39, No. 501, July 9, 1924, p. 192.

The Saturday Review Of Literature

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

What with the twisting, decidedly miraculous course of the plot, the sentimentality, weak dialogue, a rather bromidic style, and one distressing misquotation of Mr. Browning, you pretty well lose sight of the one strong point of [Plum Bun], aside from the interest inherent in the problem itself. This is the comparison of the white and negro races, which Miss Fauset accomplishes deftly and with examples, and from which you do get a sense of [warm] vitality….

"The New Books: 'Plum Bun'," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1929 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. V, No. 37, April 6, 1929, p. 866.

B. K.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Plum Bun" is a novel of very ordinary sorts about a subject of extraordinary interest…. It tells the story of a Negro girl, Angela Murray, who "passes." Possessed of white skin and light hair, she is accepted by an artist group of white people as one of them. The analysis of Angela's character, her desire to get the good things of life which would be denied were her race known, her negative deceptions to attain her ends, her whole philosophy of carpe diem, are all admirably handled. She is a convincing, sympathetic character. Were it not for the fact, however, that Angela Murray represents a group that has seldom found its way into literature and yet, at the same time, a group that presents a very interesting problem to both white and black, "Plum Bun" would not be worth discussing. The rest of the book is inconsistent and trivial. The story is melodramatic, unreal. Not only has Miss Fauset disdained all use of dialect, but she has discarded as well the full rich idiom of the colored race. Instead of being satisfied with the presentation of one important idea, Miss Fauset has crammed into this novel all her reactions to life in general. The result not only detracts from the vividness of her main thesis but also leaves the reader gasping for breath.

B. K., "'Plum Bun'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1929 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 58, No. 749, April 10, 1929, p. 235.

Gerald Sykes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Though faulty, ["The Chinaberry Tree"] is the work of a remarkable psychologist who can be congratulated not simply because her material is interesting but because she has understood so well the human factors involved in it….

The book attempts to idealize [the] polite colored world in terms of the white standards that it has adopted. And here lies the root of Miss Fauset's artistic errors. When she parades the possessions of her upper classes and when she puts her lovers through their Fauntleroy courtesies, she is not only stressing the white standards that they have adopted; she is definitely minimizing the colored blood in them. This is a decided weakness, for it steals truth and life from the book. Is not the most precious part of a Negro work of art that which is specifically Negroid, which none but a Negro could contribute?

We need not look far for the reason for Miss Fauset's idealization. It is pride, the pride of a genuine aristocrat. And it is pride also that makes her such a remarkable psychologist. However many her artistic errors, Miss Fauset has a rare understanding of people and their motives…. Inspired by the religious motive which so many Negro writers seem to feel, she has simply been trying to justify her world to the world at large. Her mistake has consisted in trying to do this in terms of the white standard.

"To be a Negro in America posits a dramatic situation." Yes, and to be one of Miss Fauset's amber-tinted, well-to-do, refined Negroes—not having to deal much with whites, but surrounded on all sides by the white standard—posits a delicate psychological situation. It is for this reason that few white novels have anything like the shades of feeling to be found in "The Chinaberry Tree." Every moment speaks of yearning. That is why, once it is seen as a whole, even its faults are charming, for the story they tell is poignant and beautiful, too.

Gerald Sykes, "Amber-Tinted Elegance," in The Nation (copyright 1932 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 135, No. 3499, July 27, 1932, p. 88.

The New York Times Book Review

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Comedy American Style" is one of those books where the matter is superior to the manner. Miss Fauset's thesis is a provocative one, and she handles it intelligently and honestly. Her well-to-do, half-white characters are cultivated human beings, seen from within, and in no way different from white people of equivalent tastes and social class. Miss Fauset wisely stresses their humanity rather than their race, forces one to face their problems as they themselves see them. On the other hand, her style is somewhat unfortunate, frequently sentimental, frequently strained and stiff, and in her effort to prove a point she loads the dice in a way that is too reminiscent of the outright propagandist. Like "Plum Bun" and "The Chinaberry Tree," "Comedy American Style" is an interesting novel. It could, however, have been written with more subtlety and skill. (p. 22)

"The Color Line," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1933 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 19, 1933, pp. 19, 22.∗

Hugh M. Gloster

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The contribution of Jessie Fauset to American fiction can not be gainsaid. In her novels she shows that … there are respectable, middle-class colored people whose lives are twisted and distorted because of race prejudice…. Miss Fauset's description of the lives and difficulties of Philadelphia's colored elite is one of the major achievements of American Negro fiction. (pp. 138-39)

Hugh M. Gloster, "Color and Caste among the Bourgeoisie," in his Negro Voices in American Fiction (copyright, 1948, by The University of North Carolina Press; copyright renewed © by Hugh M. Gloster), The University of North Carolina Press, 1948 (and reprinted by Russell & Russell, Inc., 1965), pp. 131-45.∗

Robert Bone

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Jessie Fauset was the most prolific of the Renaissance novelists…. But in spite of an admirable persistence, her novels are uniformly sophomoric, trivial, and dull. There Is Confusion (1924) is nothing if not well titled, for it is burdened with a plethora of characters whose complex genealogy leaves the most conscientious reader exhausted. Plum Bun (1928) is a typical novel of passing, structured around [a] nursery rhyme…. The Chinaberry Tree (1931) seems to be a novel about the first colored woman in New Jersey to wear lounging pajamas. Comedy American Style (1933) is an account of a colored woman's obsessive desire to be white, not unlike the novels which condemn passing in its nationalist implications.

Undoubtedly the most important formative influence on Miss Fauset's work was her family background. An authentic old Philadelphian …, she was never able to transcend the narrow limits of this sheltered world. It accounts for her gentility, her emphasis on heredity and genealogy, and her attitude toward race. Miss Fauset's characters are bred to "rise above" racial discrimination, to regard it merely as "an extra complication of living." Yet "the artificial dilemma," as she calls it, is always present as an obstacle to gracious living, and is the real antagonist of her novels. (pp. 101-02)

Robert Bone, "Jessie Fauset," in his The Negro Novel in America (© 1965 by Yale University), revised edition, Yale University Press Inc., 1968, pp. 101-02.

James O. Young

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Jesse Fauset's] Foreword to The Chinaberry Tree announced her orientation. She first makes the statement that "to be a Negro in America posits a dramatic situation." But then she goes on to her major concern: "But of course there are breathing spells, in-between spaces where colored men and women work and love and go their ways with no thought of the 'problem.'" She has just taken the "dramatic situation" out of the formula. Indeed, the racial identity of the characters in The Chinaberry Tree is almost inconsequential. But this was precisely her point; she purposely depicted "something of the homelife of the colored American who is not being pressed too hard by the Furies of Prejudice, Ignorance, and Economic Injustice. And behold he is not so vastly different from any other American, just distinctive."

The black middle class was not an invalid subject for fiction, but Miss Fauset's idealized treatment of it had little redeeming value. The Chinaberry Tree was much like the vapid romances that glutted the pages of the Saturday Evening Post during the 1920s and 1930s. (pp. 205-06)

[Instead] of presenting a serious, realistic interpretation of middle-class black life, as she professed to do, Miss Fauset concocted a highly idealized romance. Her characters are not real human beings, they are idealizations of what the Negro middle class conceived itself to be. Ironically, this novel … is more effective for its unintended criticism, even satire, of the middle class's irrelevance than in demonstrating its potential for dramatic realization. (p. 207)

James O. Young, "Black Reality and Beyond," in his Black Writers of the Thirties (reprinted by permission of Louisiana State University Press; copyright © 1973 by Louisiana State University Press), Louisiana State University Press, 1973, pp. 203-35.∗

Joseph J. Feeney, S.J.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[There is] far more to Jessie Fauset than melodrama, romance, conventionality, and middle-class material…. A deep pain and anger affect both the form and content of her novels. They are not at all as conventional as they have appeared. Except for her rambling first novel, all her books have a double structure. On the surface they read as conventional middle-class love stories with happy endings; underneath these developing romances, though, lies a counterstructure which expresses either the souring of childhood hopes, or a near-tragedy, or sardonic comedy. Each counterstructure complicates, shadows, and darkens the love story.

In content and tone, too, a similar ambivalence prevails. On one hand...

(The entire section is 1610 words.)