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Reviewed by:
  • Jonquil Bailey
Shawn Salvant. Blood Work: Imagining Race in American Literature, 1890–1940. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2015. 229 pp.

Blood Work is an incisive interdisciplinary study of the role of blood, as both image and concept, in the development of American racialist thought. Building on postmodern criticism, which has redefined race as "a discursive rather than a biological concept," Shawn Salvant treats race as a socially constructed system of metaphors that American racial rhetoric has associatively paired with blood (2). Salvant's analysis of racial blood rhetoric extends far beyond blood's suggestions of biological essentialism to shed light on the "connotative and nonbiological meanings of blood" (28). These meanings, Salvant reminds his readers, are not stable: lacking a denotative referent, the meaning of race—and, in turn, blood—is always dependent on the sociohistorical moment in which the term is used. To discern the many and sometimes contradictory connotations of racial blood, Blood Work turns to late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American literature: novels written during a period defined by increased racial violence, race law's renewed interest in racial blood ideologies, and the spread of scientific racialism. By applying metaphor theory and critical race theory to his readings of Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson, Frances Harper's Iola Leroy, Pauline Hopkins's Of One Blood, and William Faulkner's Light in August, Salvant reveals the "cultural, legal, rhetorical, and literary constructions of the relationships between race, identity, and society" as captured by blood metaphors (5).

Blood Work begins with a discerning chapter on the difference between the role of blood in nineteenth-century American racial science and its role in American race law. Whereas racial science held that miscegenation produced degenerative and psychologically unstable subjects because of the inability of black and white blood to mix, legal racial rhetoric applied what Salvant calls an "unnatural logic" (40) of unmixable blood that entirely "negat[ed] the determinative power of the white portion of blood," turning any amount of black blood into a stigmatizing mark (48). "Mark Twain and the Essence of Ink" exposes the tension between these characterological and legal ideologies of racial blood—ideologies of mixing and marking—through an analysis of Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson, a novel that conflates the two racial blood discourses and dramatizes the implications of racial blood's dualism for American race law. Salvant's literary analysis pivots on Twain's familiarity with Francis Galton's study of fingerprint science, which Galton hoped would make race "legible" (67). Twain, Salvant argues, uses the image of a bloody fingerprint—composed of one drop of Judge Driscoll's "white" blood (an ironic twist on the [End Page 572] one-drop rule) and the fingerprint of Judge Driscoll's murderer, "the visibly white but legally black Tom Driscoll" (33)—to settle the contention between characterological and legal blood discourses, "allowing blood to act as both the proportional carrier of character and the binary indicator of racial identity" (72). Although Salvant's astute analysis of Pudd'nhead Wilson does not begin until roughly halfway through the chapter, the in-depth historical and theoretical framing of his literary critique helps to stage his arguments in the succeeding chapters.

Blood Work's second chapter, "Frances Harper and the Blood of Sacrifice," shifts focus away from legal discourses of racial blood to consider "how the discourse of Christian symbolism works in tandem with a discourse of scientific racialism in the rhetoric of racial blood" (34–35). Through a reading of Harper's post-Reconstruction race melodrama Iola Leroy, Salvant demonstrates how Harper reconceives the blood of scientific racialism, which carries with it notions of racial essentialism and determinism, as blood that confers racial identity through self-sacrificial choice. Salvant contextualizes his argument by tracing the roots of Harper's endorsement of self-sacrifice to African American Christian theology—which had to negotiate between the salvific blood of Christian doctrine and the damning, deterministic blood of racial science—and to her personal encounter with John Brown, who relinquished the legal and social privileges of whiteness on behalf of black slaves when he was executed for his raid on Harper's Ferry. The interracial dimension...


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pp. 572-574
Launched on MUSE
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