restricted access Black and White Women of the Old South: The Peculiar Sisterhood In American Literature, and: Black Women in the Fiction of James Baldwin, and: Prologue: The Novels of Black American Women, 1891-1965 (review)
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Reviewed by
Minrose C. Gwin. Black and White Women of the Old South: The Peculiar Sisterhood In American Literature. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1985. 238 pp. No price given.
Trudier Harris. Black Women in the Fiction of James Baldwin. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1985. 229 pp. $22.50.
Caroline McAlpine Watson. Prologue: The Novels of Black American Women, 1891-1965. Contributions to American Studies 79. Westport: Greenwood, 1985. 168 pp. $27.95.

Recent books by Gwin, Harris, and Watson continue a trend of interest in literature written by black women. Beyond this, the books make quite different contributions to the field. Gwin's book is the most forced, seeking connections where few seem appropriate. Harris' book provides a close reading of Baldwin's fictional presentation of women, but Baldwin's work is not contextualized in any way. Watson's book is the most ambitious in that she deals thematically and structurally with a broad range of black women writers, all in the context of the Afro-American struggle for self-definition.

Gwin's book intends to examine the "regional female experience as a powerful metaphor of human pain and human connections in racial encounter" between black and white women. This thesis is developed in five chapters that use fiction and autobiography as their basis of support. She uses Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and Mary H. Eastman's Aunt Phillis's Cabin—the former an abolitionist novel and the latter a proslavery novel—in order to discuss a sisterhood that "challenges the patriarchy." The challenge is a gentle enough thing: as presented in Gwin's book, it ends as a sentimental rending of garments and an increasingly articulate baying at the moon.

Gwin seems unable to decide if her book is going to be a social history, a literary history, some salvo heaved into relationships between blacks and whites, or some combination of all these things. She uses this line from Rosa Coldfield in Absalom, Absalom!—"Then she touched me, and then I did stop dead"—as an epiphany to make a point: "This is the terrifying, hopeful, hopeless, epiphanic moment . . . in which black woman confronts white, acknowledges her as womankind and humankind, and seeks mutual recognition." The static quality of the dualities posed—"hopeful, hopeless"—as well as the stasis suggested by the statement itself results from a point of view that is more concerned with putting guilt in perspective than it is with any clear connection between black and white women. The blacks in Faulkner are, after all, the healthy ones, the ones not given to equivocation.

I am not sure about which biracial experience Gwin writes. Margaret Walker's Jubilee is the only black novel discussed at any length, and it relates an experience that does not seem dependent on white women for meaning: the world in Jubilee both precedes and transcends the one projected by whites in the other novels she uses—Absalom, Absalom! and Willa Cather's Sapphira and the Slave Girl.

Harris' book is more limited and focused than is Gwin's and is thereby more [End Page 283] purposeful. The absence of contextualization, however, limits the book. Harris argues that most of the women in Baldwin are guilty of something and on that observation hinges her thesis: "This book examines the sources of their guilt, its manifestations in their daily lives, and the process of extrication through which the few women who do so manage to escape their guilt." She ends her Introduction by noting the root of the problem for women in Baldwin's fiction.

Even the freest of Baldwin's black women . . . are initially not free of conformity, and, at some level, to male definitions of them. Finally, and most important, they are not free of the creator who continues to draw in their potential for growth on the short rein of possibility.

I think she overstates the case here, particularly when she comes to her discussion of If Beale Street Could Talk. Her book is structured on the chronology of Baldwin's fiction, beginning with Go Tell It on the Mountain and ending with Just above My Head. She discusses five Baldwin novels...


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