MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.2 (2001) 477-479
[Access article in PDF]
Producing American Races: Henry James, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison
Patricia McKee. Producing American Races: Henry James, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison. Durham: Duke UP, 1999. 240 pp.
Following in the tradition of discussions of "whiteness" and American literature, McKee's opening chapter treads upon familiar territory. In the wake of Robyn Wiegman's impressive study of "whiteness" and visual culture in American Anatomies (1995), McKee works somewhat convincingly to bring these theories to bear upon three "greats" (James, Faulkner, and Morrison). Although she begins with the premise that whiteness is evident and therefore more dependant upon the visual than blackness (or difference altogether), it is not clear in the text whether she believes in or is able to support such a claim. For McKee the same structures that produce whiteness also produce twentieth-century visual culture; because such systems are interdependent, it is difficult to extricate whiteness [End Page 477] from its reliance upon "visual culture." She attempts to break new ground in both James and Faulkner studies by observing structures of whiteness that predate the dominance of "being seen"; here whiteness is reproduced via the collective exchange of views and images. This depiction of the struggle for the visual in American culture and its mirror of an emerging photographic culture--a reliance upon the negative to reproduce the "real"--is most evident in McKee's reading of Joe Christmas's classic encounter with blackness as he walks through Jefferson one evening. She concludes:
when he [Christmas] emerges from the fluid black neighborhood into the distinct forms of the white neighborhood, Joe himself becomes a figure, and a man, subject to representation by media. In these images of emergence, the white shape enters representation only in contrast to the black, shapeless mass. If this mass is the fluid needed to develop photographic negatives into positive prints or if it is, in the terms of the later passage, the fluid of the female body needed for the development of a human fetus, it is a means of development, a medium, necessary before entry into media of representation.
McKee takes issue with Eric Sundquist, who in The House Divided (1983) describes Joe Christmas as a figure, rather than as a man, but this disagreement is only registered in the footnotes of the text and the reader is left to imagine how Christmas arrives at the category "man."
One of McKee's strengths as a critic is her ability to talk about a text, to take familiar scenes and explicate them with a fresh eye. In this respect, her readings of James's The Golden Bowl are particularly cogent. What is missing is a more thorough examination of how gendered bodies are made to comply with registers of difference both American and European. Some attention to this aspect of the argument in McKee's discussion of James's work would have given more depth to the reader's grasp of the visual's predominance. This is not so say, however, that McKee's insights here are superfluous. Her return to James's near obsession with the light/dark dichotomy only serves to emphasize observations she makes concerning Faulkner's work.
In her reading of Faulkner's Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury, McKee sees Dilsey's blackness as easily incorporated precisely because she does [End Page 478] not speak in the same manner as those around her. Here, the aural/oral completely gives way to a scopic economy that we are led to believe at the book's beginning is entirely unavailable to blackness or its characterization. Nevertheless, Faulkner scholars will be intrigued by McKee's pairing of Habermas's dynamic public sphere with Faulkner's static "public figures" who articulate positions on local events rather than interpret them. What becomes "political" in Light in August is not the discussion of varying viewpoints, but rather the variation of media and images available to the white men who constitute a collective by virtue of their presence in a group--on a...