March 1, 2005


Scott McLemee writes about the recent revelation that Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins, thought for a while to be a 19th Century African-American author, turns out to have been white. Over at Crooked Timber, the discussion has been about what this says about historicist literary criticism, that a mediocre author is interesting when she’s black and boring when she’s white. I don’t think it reveals anything especially horrible about historicism except for perhaps that it tends to have a bit of a threadbare functionalism in the way it reads and understands culture, that it reduces literature to the status of document. (Isn’t that what the discipline of history is for?) It’s also a bit frustrating that some historicism amounts to little more than a multicultural salvage project, to get “one more” person of a particular identity onto the list of “author”. This seems to me to just miss the more interesting problem of the historically changing nature of authorship and culture to a quest for “more voices”, as if we have to correct past injustices and silences by reading the cultural order of our own day into the past.

McLemee has some more interesting insights in his piece. For one, how much scholarship rests on the transmission of facts which, when you trace them back, tend to decompose into mere hints, suggestions or dubious interpretations at their point of origin. When I taught a class on a single primary text a few years back, some of the students were a bit unnerved at how weak some of the received wisdom or conventional scholarly understanding of the text actually seemed when we got into the specific close reading of it. This is one reason why academics make a big deal out of questions of precision and craftwork, because a tremendous amount of knowledge production actually relies on trust.

I think there’s another issue floating around in here that strikes me as important, if somewhat tangential. Some observers ask cynically how it is possible to read a novel in a new way simply because you think its author is black, to find nuance that you then say is not there once you’re back to thinking the author is white again. I think that says something very interesting not about the gullibility of literary critics but about how easy it is for many of us to convincingly simulate or represent the voices of other identities.

Periodically there have been enormous controversies over works commonly taken to be authored by people of color that turn out probably to have been written by whites. The Education of Little Tree is one of the best known examples, but there are many others. In fact, the entire modern global history of “identity” is absolutely loaded with people who capably perform or simulate an identity other than their "natural" one for their entire lives. Impersonation is as basic a fact of ethnic, racial, gender, religious and other identities as is “authenticity”.

I think there are a lot of things you can take away from this fact. One of them is that anyone who tries to enforce and regulate claims of authenticity in the domain of culture and representation ought to be regarded with suspicion. That’s the obvious lesson. The more subtle one might be that it is far more possible for people to empathetically and intellectually understand the experiences of others than our received wisdom about race, gender and other identities assumes, that a white American through intellect, will and emotional insight can credibly imagine what it is like to be a black American, that a woman can credibly imagine what it is like to be male, and so on. The govering metaphor I like to apply to this capacity is one of translation: that we can translate the experiences of others, sometimes through impersonation, sometimes just through intellectual inquiry.

Accepting—even embracing—impersonation as a possibility would be unsettling to the kind of historicist literary criticism that looks to textual content for final or fixed clues about the social identity of an author, that assumes a white man couldn’t convincingly act the part of a Native American or that Shakespeare couldn’t sound highly educated if he weren’t himself so. There’s a pretty good argument to be made that the central adaptive purpose of human intelligence in the course of its early evolution was the ability to imagine what’s going on inside the consciousness of another human or animal: we shouldn’t be surprised when we find black authors who sound white or white authors able to simulate blackness. It’s an ability that we prize in authors and artists some of the time: I suppose I think we should prize it all the time.

Perhaps that’s the problem with historicist literary criticism: by borrowing the often dour obsession of historians with the factual reliability of the archive, some historicist critics miss the point that their central job is to understand fiction. And even here, the insight you can take away from those fictions, from the capacity to make persuasive fictions about the inner voices who are not ourselves, is potentially a powerful historical insight, a fact about identity in the past. It's a bit of a cliche to stress the instability and mutability of identity, but far less so to grant the possibility that people often really, truly, deeply understand the inner terrain of other people's consciousness across race, class and gender lines.