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Performance and the "Strange Place" of Jessie Redmon Fauset's There is Confusion
Days before the publication of There Is Confusion, Jessie Redmon Fauset's first novel, Charles Johnson held a lavish dinner party in Fauset's honor. In attendance were the most esteemed figures of the Harlem Renaissance, including W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and James Weldon Johnson. Yet, as Cheryl Wall describes, "what started out to be an informal gathering honoring Fauset turned into a well-orchestrated 'debut of the younger school of Negro writers' [. . .]. The evening's unwritten agenda was crystal clear. So was the fact that the proceedings had little to do with Jessie Fauset" (69). This slight was not lost on Fauset herself; for though at the party she "performed as her hosts expected" (70), "years later," she still "remembered the consummate cleverness with which [Du Bois] that night as toastmaster strove to keep speech and comment away from the person for whom the occasion was meant" (qtd. in Wall 70).
When considering the scholarly reception of Fauset and her work in the years following the Harlem Renaissance, this account of Johnson's dinner party becomes much more than an historical anecdote. It can be [End Page 825] seen as a metaphor not only for her marginalized standing within the movement, but also for the ways in which critics have underestimated Fauset's own recognition that the aesthetic value of her work had become of secondary importance to her role as gracious hostess to the young literati. Much like her colleagues, who were ostensibly honoring Fauset that night, many scholars have either neglected careful examination of her work, especially her use of form, or have depended heavily on earlier criticism that is retrograde in its theoretical approach both to her oeuvre and to the Harlem Renaissance in general. 1 Moreover, like those in attendance at Johnson's party, these critics do not recognize that Fauset herself was highly aware of the volatile politics of literary reputation.
In this article, I wish to undertake a fresh study of Fauset's first novel. I argue that Fauset's aesthetic strategy in There is Confusion is intimately connected to its unique themes, themes that have not been identified or explored systematically in many critical studies of her work. Though the novel does consider the condition of women in the 1920s and the behavior of the northern black bourgeoisie--thereby developing standard themes of gender, class, and race--its overarching concern is with performance and its myriad manifestations in and as works of literature. 2 The novel's central character, Joanna Marshall, is a performer not only on the stage but also in matters of love. Further, the problematic performer/spectator binary is explored throughout the work, as is the minstrel tradition and the questions it raises about the relationships between impersonation, appropriation, and race. In exploring these themes the novel itself becomes a performance about performance, and consequently its formal technique becomes inextricably linked with its content. By examining the novel's treatment of performance it becomes clear that There is Confusion participates in its own form of self-conscious minstrelsy, using the Victorian novel with its pat marriage plot as its model. Following a long line of black female writers, Fauset "signifies" 3 on the genre, revising its conventions in order to reveal its limitations and those of any act of impersonation.
Before examining Fauset's subtle interrogation of the problems of performance, I will consider briefly the cultural significance of black performance in the Harlem Renaissance, as well as the problems inherent in representing the performer's position within a work of art. Claude [End Page 826] McKay's poem "The Harlem Dancer," written two years before the publication of There Is Confusion, offers helpful shorthand for considering this question. Though the dancer in McKay's poem is depicted as the consummate performer, with a "perfect" (2) body and a voice "like the sound of blended flutes" (3), by taking...