MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.4 (2003) 853-854
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Jonathan Brennan, ed. Mixed Race Literature. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2002. xiii + 234 pp.
Jonathan Brennan's volume, Mixed Race Literature, is for the most part an incisive collection that attempts to trace the figure of the mixed race character in literature. Brennan aptly marks the distinction between his volume and previous work by highlighting that this collection seeks not to make statements about actual people of mixed race heritage, but rather to trace the development and trope of the mixed race figure in literature. Because of this important distinction, this collection of essays succeeds where other such works have failed; by grounding the questions that attend mixed race identity in the context of literature, the essays included avoid essentializing mixed race identity into the trope of the tragic mulatto.
The introduction, by Brennan, is a formidable and exhaustive attempt to deconstruct the figure of the mixed race character in literature as well as mixed race authors themselves. In fact, Brennan's survey of the literature, the scholarship, and the history of mixed race subjects and characters are indispensable for readers new to mixed race scholarship. Beginning with a discussion of Jean Toomer's own insistence on a multiracial identity, Brennan argues against Henry Louis Gates's claim that Toomer's refusal to claim a solely African-American identity constituted "a [kind of] racial abandonment." Brennan argues instead that Toomer represents a desirable model of "conscious mixed race writing." This treatment of both author and [End Page 853] text, however, obfuscates Brennan's initial goal of focusing "on theorizing mixed race literatures and not on theories of race nor theories of mixed race," leading to extended discussions not about mixed race characters or literature but about mixed race subjectivity.
Nevertheless, the volume contains works that are both insightful and interesting. Werner Sollors's examination of the Edward Windsor Kemble drawings of Mark Twain's Roxy for Pudd'nhead Wilson is easily the most absorbing and discerning essay in the volume. Not only does Sollors interrogate the range of issues around the question of race and artistic representations of it, but he clears up a long-held misunderstanding about a famous Kemble drawing in which Roxy, a mixed race and white-skinned character, is thought to have been portrayed in the style of Kemble's typical "mammy" figure. Sollors manages to revise this incorrect reading of the Kemble drawing while discussing the representation of mixed race subjects in valuable ways.
Martha J. Cutter's essay, "Smuggling Across the Borders of Race, Gender and Sexuality: Sui Sin Far's Mrs. Spring Fragrance," is equally indispensable for its interrogation of language (specifically the practice of naming) as constitutive of multiple markers of identity and its demonstration of the subversive nature of Mrs. Springtime Fragrance in its ability to destabilize these markers. This essay is of particular importance as it analyzes not only race and gender in relation to mixed race characterization, but also takes up the central and inevitable question of sexuality. Hertha D. Sweet Wong's essay, "Taking Place: African-Native American Subjectivity in A Yellow Raft in Blue Water," is especially timely in its reading of African-Native American subjectivity through spatial metaphors as a way of understanding the problem of place and the representation of borders, frontiers and contact zones in both African and Native American literature.
As is evident from the essays discussed above, this collection includes a diverse range of scholarship that broadens questions of mixed race in significant ways. Mixed Race Literature sets the stage for further scholarly work on the representation of the mixed race figure in literature. It represents an important contribution to critical race theory as it seeks to shift the terms—"from the literal to the literary"—that have traditionally been used to discuss the representation of mixed race identity.
Miami University of Ohio