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Undergoing Racial "Reassignment":
The Politics of Transracial Crossing in Sinclair Lewis's Kingsblood Royal
The plot is absurd, especially in Neil Kingsblood's decision to call himself a Negro though he has very little Negro blood in him [. . .]. This is Lewis the fanatic, the crusader, the inquisitor.
—D. J. Dooley, The Art of Sinclair Lewis
There is a specificity of whiteness, even when the text itself is not trying to show it to you, doesn't even know that it is there to be shown.
—Richard Dyer, White
Narrative becomes a problem only when we wish to give to real events the form of a story.
—Hayden White, The Content of the Form
Difference produces great anxiety.
—Jane Gallop, The Daughter's Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis [End Page 1041]
In Sinclair Lewis's Kingsblood Royal (1947), Neil Kingsblood, father of the rising middle-class Kingsblood family and complicit racist, assumes a black racial identity after discovering that an ancestor, Xavier Pic, was a "full-blooded Negro" (64), that his grandmother is an octoroon, and that he himself is "1/32 Negro" (78). Neil discovers his "true" racial identity after his father, thinking that the "king" in Kingsblood must denote some ancestral aristocracy, asks him to investigate the family's genealogy. Although Neil ultimately decides to embrace his black racial identity, Lewis's novel is not a racial uplift narrative; 1 Neil's "acceptance" of his mixed race descent is not about embracing an African-American cultural heritage in order to combat racism, "negrophobic" violence (Gaines), 2 or cultural stereotypes. Rather, Neil's claim to a black identity—his very ability to decide which racial identity he wants to adopt and his capacity to shift his racial self-identification—reflects Neil's privileged position as a white subject, as well as his racially romanticized assumptions about blackness. Unlike the post-Reconstruction racial uplift narratives by Frances Harper, Louise Burgess-Ware, and Ruth Todd that preceded Kingsblood Royal, 3 then, Lewis's novel does not envision racial identity as an allegiance to a political collective identity. Rather, Kingsblood Royal reifies white racial privilege even as the novel works to complicate whiteness and reveal the horrifying depths of racism in postwar America.
After researching racial problems in the United States, which included extensive visits to various cities in the South and Midwest where Lewis visited "Negro" churches, organizations, clubs, bars, and newspapers, Lewis began his writing of Kingsblood Royal in order to document the problems of the color line in America. While Kingsblood Royal, published two years after the end of WWII, may seem a divergence from Lewis's earlier works, themes, and concerns, this novel represents a continuation of the social issues and problems surrounding identity, individualism, and American culture raised in his earlier novels of the 1920s and 30s, including Main Street (1920), Babbit (1922), Elmer Gantry (1927), and Arrowsmith (1925). Lewis's canon of works-from Babbitt to his anti-fascist It Can't Happen Here (1935)-reflects his own position as a liberal humanist through his social satires and parodies of the middle class, critiques of warfare and its impact on culture, his attacks on social and public institutions, and in particular his critiques of towns and small cities as spaces that foster and promote prejudice, rancor, brutality, and inhumanity. [End Page 1042] Babbitt, a rather scathing indictment of middle-class existence, shares common themes with Kingsblood Royal, even though the latter was published over two decades after Babbitt. Babbitt's Zenith, with its neat neighborhoods, comfortable homes, nice cars, and modern conveniences, is very similar to Kingsblood Royal's town of Grand Republic, where "you can recapture that dream" of "old-time romance and the lily-white maid beside the mirroring pool under the shadow of the castle tower flying its gallant gonfalon" (10). Sylvan Park, the neighborhood where Neil Kingsblood resides in Grand Republic, is "where gracious living, artistic landscaping, the American Way of Life, and up-to...