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Why Is Melancha Black? Gertrude Stein, Physiognomy, and the Jewish Question
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Why Is Melancha Black? Gertrude Stein, Physiognomy, and the Jewish Question Yeonsik Jung Abstract: This article reads Gertrude Stein’s ‘‘Melanctha’’ as a racial, if not racist, text—a text not solely about blacks but also about Jews in the sense that black characters work as a mask for the author’s concern about her own Jewishness. Nineteenth-century pseudoscientific medical discourses link blackness, Jewishness, and homosexuality—the trinity of ‘‘difference’’—based on their biological connectedness and similarities. Examining the racism and misogyny particularly inherent in the theories of physiognomy, this article will demonstrate the ways in which Stein employs and manipulates representative prejudices of her time in the portrayal of female characters in Q.E.D., as well as the black Melanctha, through which she reveals and conceals her own racial and sexual identity as a Jewish-American lesbian woman. Arguing that the aesthetic experimentation of ‘‘Melanctha’’ grows out of the author’s concerns about her racial and sexual marginality, this article further offers a context in which the black Melanctha may be read as a character Stein created to treat her racial self-hatred, a problematic phenomenon exhibiting the productive power of fear. Keywords: Gertrude Stein, ‘‘Melanctha,’’ Q.E.D., anti-Semitism, physiognomy Résumé : Cet article donne une lecture raciale, voire raciste, de la nouvelle« Mélanctha » de Gertrude Stein. Il s’agit d’un texte qui ne traite pas seulement des Noirs, mais aussi des Juifs, dans la mesure où les personnages noirs se comprennent comme un masque pour les préoccupations de l’auteure concernant sa propre judéité. Le discours médical pseudoscientifique du 19e siècle liait la négritude, la judéité et l’homosexualité (les trois modes de la « différence ») en se fondant sur leurs rapports biologiques et leurs ressemblances. En se référant au racisme et à la misogynie inhérents aux théories physiognomoniques, cet article s’intéresse aux moyens employés par Gertrude Stein pour manipuler les préjugés caractéristiques de son 6 Canadian Review of American Studies/Revue canadienne d’études américaines ahead of print article doi: 10.3138/cras.2017.022 This ahead of print version may differ slightly from the final published version. époque. Décrivant les personnages féminins de Q.E.D. et la Noire Mélanctha, elle trace des portraits qui révèlent et cachent à la fois sa propre identité raciale et sexuelle de Juive-Américaine lesbienne. Défendant l’idée que l’expérience esthétique de « Mélanctha » est née de la préoccupation de l’auteure concernant sa propre marginalité raciale et sexuelle, l’article propose également de voir en Mélanctha un personnage créé afin de traiter la haine que l’auteure éprouvait envers son identité juive—un phénomène problématique qui met au jour la puissance productive de la peur. Mots clés : Gertrude Stein, « Mélanctha », Q.E.D., antisémitisme, physiognomonie The eponymous heroine of Gertrude Stein’s ‘‘Melanctha,’’ the second story of Three Lives (1909), is a young mulatto woman, the daughter of a black father and a mixed-race mother. White American writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century rarely chose a black person as a major character of their novels, except for propaganda purposes—both abolitionist and pro-slavery, as the rivalry continued into the postbellum years. Often, in these cases, a superficial, stereotypical picture of black people is provided, as shown in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and Thomas Dixon, Jr.’s ‘‘Trilogy of Reconstruction’’ (1902, 1905, 1907) about the Ku Klux Klan. Stein’s unlikely creation of Melanctha, the intriguing and complicated black protagonist of her first published story, has therefore provided a controversial topic for critics. Contemporary black writers acclaimed ‘‘Melanctha’’ as ‘‘the first long serious literary treatment of Negro life in the United States’’ (Richard Wright qtd. in Brinnin 121); Nella Larsen stated that it had ‘‘accurately . . . caught the spirit of this race of mine’’ (qtd. in Stein, Selected 338). Nevertheless, Stein...