restricted access Blood Talk: American Race Melodrama and the Culture of the Occult (review)
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Reviewed by
Susan Gillman. Blood Talk: American Race Melodrama and the Culture of the Occult. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2003. xi + 245 pp.

Susan Gillman's Blood Talk: American Race Melodrama and the Culture of the Occult is a highly original study of race history and race consciousness in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American literature. The book focuses on a wide range of texts published in the years after Reconstruction and before World War I, and discusses authors seldom grouped together, including Mark Twain, W. E. B. Du Bois, Pauline Hopkins, Sutton Griggs, and Thomas Dixon. Gillman's discussion of the best known among these authors is also unusual, as she focuses on understudied works, such as Twain's dream tales and travel narratives and Du Bois's pageants. While many of the texts she examines have remained largely understudied by literary scholars due, in part, to what have been deemed their formal failings, Gillman argues that the theatrical, repetitive, often overwrought and simply messy formal qualities of these texts can be attributed to their adherence to the narrative structures of the race melodrama. [End Page 207]

In its focus on the race melodrama, Gillman's book accords with other recent studies of literature and film that have sought to articulate the racial outlines of the melodrama, a narrative genre previous scholars have understood mostly in terms of gender. Gillman contributes a number of unique insights to this conversation: First, she argues that the race melodrama provides a way of telling a race history that is itself fragmented, repressed, repetitive, overwrought, and without clear narrative direction for the future. Second, she argues that understandings of race history and race consciousness at the turn of the century are powerfully informed by a culture of the occult. In short, Gillman argues that the race melodrama enables an articulation of occult history.

Gillman's argument is a complicated one, and each of the chapters, focused on the work of an author or pair of authors, adds new terms and valences to the overarching discussion. The multiplicity of discourses serves to underscore the complexity of this period and demonstrates how varied articulations of race history were at the turn of the century. While Gillman provides a wealth of information in her analysis of specific texts, her most powerful contribution is her central argument, which proposes that the race melodrama is a form of occult historiography. This insight redirects an intellectual conversation that has been dominated by scientific and legal discourses and provides scholars with a striking new way of thinking about race at the turn of the century.

Gillman begins on ground that will be familiar to scholars of the maternal race melodrama. In chapter 2, "Pauline Hopkins and Blood Talk," she suggests that "blood" is the term that conjoins Hopkins's race melodrama most forcefully to the occult. In Hopkins's Of One Blood (1902–03), for example, blood links a laborious family history of miscegenation and incest in the US to a more elusive history of ancient ancestral inheritance originating in Africa. Blood also sutures scientific and spiritual discourses in the novel, as biological inheritance merges with a kind of spiritual inheritance, marked by the related characters' ability to see a maternal ghost.

Turning to what she deems the "paternal race melodrama" in chapter 3 (112), Gillman considers black nationalist Sutton Griggs in relation to white supremacist Thomas Dixon. In "Procrustean Bedfellows," Gillman shows how both authors employ the melodrama as "a historiographic mode that reframes U.S. history in racial terms." She argues that these paternal race melodramas are invested with the occult through their explicit and implicit references to "invisible empires" and their saturation with what she calls an "American conspiratorial imagination" (75). In contrast to the maternal melodramas dominated by antimiscegenation narratives and "hidden blood" [End Page 208] plots, in these paternal melodramas "the specter of an invisible empire has supplanted that of invisible blood" (110).

Gillman is best known as a Twain scholar, and in chapter 4, "Mark Twain and Fellow Occult Travelers," she returns to her own familiar territory with a new perspective. While a portion of this chapter addresses three...