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Calls and Responses

The American Novel of Slavery since Gone with the Wind

Tim A. Ryan

Publication Year: 2008

In this comprehensive, groundbreaking study, Tim A. Ryan explores how American novelists since World War I have imagined the institution of slavery and the experience of those involved in it. Complicating the common assumption that authentic black-authored fiction about slavery is starkly opposed to the traditional, racist fiction (and history) created by whites, Ryan suggests that discourses about American slavery are—and have always been—defined by connections rather than disjunctions. Ryan contends that African American writers didn't merely reject and move beyond traditional portrayals of the black past but rather actively engaged in a dynamic dialogue with white-authored versions of slavery and existing historiographical debates. The result is an ongoing cultural conversation that transcends both racial and disciplinary boundaries and is akin to the call-and-response style of African American gospel music. Ryan addresses in detail more than a dozen major American novels of slavery, from the first significant modern fiction about the institution—Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind and Arna Bontemps's Black Thunder (both published in 1936)—to recent noteworthy novels on the topic—Edward P. Jones's The Known World and Valerie Martin's Property (both published in 2003). His insistence upon the necessity of interpreting novels about the past directly in relation to specific historical scholarship makes Calls and Responses especially compelling. He reads Toni Morrison's Beloved not in opposition to a monolithic orthodoxy about slavery but in relation to specific arguments of controversial historian Stanley Elkins. Similarly, he analyzes William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner in terms of its rhetorical echoes of Frederick Douglass's famous autobiographical narrative. Ryan shows throughout Calls and Responses how a variety of novelists—including Alex Haley, Octavia Butler, Ishmael Reed, Margaret Walker, and Frances Gaither—engage in a dynamic debate with each other and with such historians as Herbert Aptheker, Charles Joyner, Eugene and Elizabeth Genovese, and many others. A substantially new account of the development of American slavery fiction in the last century, Calls and Responses goes beyond merely exalting the expression of black voices and experiences and actually reconfigures the existing view of the American novel of slavery.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press

Series: Southern Literary Studies

Cover, Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-ix

The central argument of this study of American slavery in fiction and history of the last century is that a truly scholarly approach to the subject should seek to transcend basic binary oppositions and divisive barriers, whether these are between...

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Introduction: Calls and Responses

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pp. 1-19

When Toni Morrison published what would become her most renowned novel, she was worried that Beloved’s depiction of slavery might make it “the least read of all the books I’d written because it is about something that the characters don’t want to remember,...

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1. Designs against Tara: Representing Slavery in American Culture, 1936–1944

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pp. 20-62

In 2001, Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone—a parodic rejoinder to Margaret Mitchell’s perennially popular 1936 melodrama, Gone with the Wind—reignited cultural debates about representations of race and slavery in American fiction, as well as legal controversies...

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2. From Tara to Turner: Slavery and Slave Psychologies in American Fiction and History, 1945–1968

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pp. 63-113

In 1968—a full thirty-two years after its first appearance—Beacon Press republished Black Thunder. Arna Bontemps begins his introduction to this new edition of the novel with the words, “Time is not a river. Time is a pendulum.” History, Bontemps suggests, is not linear...

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3. You Shall See How a Slave Was Made a Woman: The Development of the Contemporary Novel of Slavery, 1976–1987

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pp. 114-148

Within a decade of the appearance of The Confessions of Nat Turner, Styron’s representation of slavery had been thoroughly eclipsed in the popular mind by the massive cultural phenomenon of Alex Haley’s Roots—both as a Pulitzer Prize–winning...

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4. Scarlett and Mammy Done Gone: Complications of the Contemporary Novel of Slavery, 1986–2003

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pp. 149-184

Kindred's innovative strategies for representing American slavery in fiction swiftly became predominant. Virtually all novels concerned with the peculiar institution published since the 1970s combine conventional realism with postmodernist intertextuality, and thus engage...

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5. Mapping the Unrepresentable: Slavery Fiction in the New Millennium

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pp. 185-208

In his famously dismissive comments about the historical novel, Henry James observed that the genre is “condemned . . . to a fatal cheapness for the simple reason that the difficulty of the job is inordinate” (quoted in Horne 360). James’s own experience with the genre...

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Conclusion: Beyond Black and White

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pp. 209-213

This study demonstrates that the contemporary novel of slavery has not torn down a monolithic version of history that ruled unchallenged for two centuries or more. Nonetheless, novels about slavery continue to perform valuable cultural work, as they always have...

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Appendix: Major Historical Studies, Fiction, Drama, Films, and TV Presentations since 1918 concerning Slavery in the United States

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pp. 215-226

The following is not intended to be an exhaustively comprehensive survey. So many works have addressed American slavery in one form or another that to catalog them all is neither feasible nor desirable. The purpose of this appendix is to give the reader a clear timeline of the general...


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pp. 227-236

Works Cited

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pp. 237-247


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pp. 249-260

E-ISBN-13: 9780807134306
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807133224

Page Count: 272
Publication Year: 2008

Series Title: Southern Literary Studies