- Ethnic Modernisms: Anzia Yezierska, Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Rhys, and the Aesthetics of Dislocation
Ethnic Modernisms advances many fields, including African-American, Jewish-American, West Indian, and ethnic American literatures, but the effects of Delia Caparoso Konzett's revisionist approach extend beyond the confines of any one subgenre to our complete understanding of American literary history. Citing the coexistence of [End Page 517] thematic and aesthetic dislocation in both "ethnic" and "mainstream" American modernist literary discourses, Konzett works to destabilize the very boundary between "ethnic" and "mainstream" and to establish the centrality of ethnicity to all of American modernism (4, 8). Influenced by post-ethnicists such as Thomas Ferraro and Werner Sollors who reject the "biological insiderism" of the earlier new ethnicists in favor of a view of ethnicity as more or less negotiable (13-14), Konzett neither dismisses the lived effects of perceived ethnic difference nor conflates them with the more deterministic exigencies of race. Indeed, her study is also informed by recent works calling for the recognition of many ethnically, racially, regionally, and culturally based American modernisms, rather than the prevailing and often misleading sense of a single, monolithic, and Eurocentric modernism. According to Konzett, Anzia Yezierska, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jean Rhys are active participants in culturally specific and fiercely modernist avant-gardes that interrogate "standardized notions of . . . nationality, race, and majority consensus" (10).
In her readings of these authors' works, Konzett often revises assumptions that, over time, have become critical dominants. Konzett argues that, in texts such as Hungry Hearts and Salome of the Tenements, Yezierska is not simply an immigrant realist passively representing urban, Jewish-American life but, rather, is an active agent in "an emerging ethnic avant-garde exploring the question of cultural identity in a new and provocative manner" (22). According to Konzett, Yezierska's language experiments in immigrant dialect place her at the cutting edge of modernism, as does her antitraditionalist sense of shared "cultural interchange" that replaces any simplistic and exclusionary narrative of ethnicity or American citizenship (30). Similarly, in Konzett's treatment, Hurston is no longer a politically suspect preserver of southern black cultural curiosities or, worse, a literary peddler of insidious stereotypes (as her earlier critics charged); rather, Hurston supplants simplistic notions of black culture with a literary "counternarrative" representative of "the diverse life experiences of African Americans" (75). Konzett's readings of various short stories, plays, nonfiction narratives, and novels demonstrate that Hurston is a generally unacknowledged antitraditionalist who "defines her cultural identity not in received modes of ancestry and history but in the performative time of the present"—a testament to her abiding modernism (81).
Hurston's deconstruction of race is a project Konzett finds to be more thoroughly developed by Jean Rhys, whose novels show whiteness to be "merely another ethnic construct, devoid of any internal legitimation" (127). A British colonial of fin de siècle Dominica, Rhys's mixed Welsh/Irish/Scottish descent, combined with her direct experience of a "decaying colonial system," contributes to an overtly [End Page 518] modernist style of characterization in which dislocation is the norm, "belonging" is meaningless, and racial identity is a fraud. Konzett argues that Rhys is unlike Hurston and Yezierska in her inability to find any kind of solace in a "collective identity" to shore against the ruins of modernity (128). Rather, as Konzett demonstrates, works such as Wide Sargasso Sea, Quartet, and Good Morning, Midnight collectively promote a "posthumanistic perspective" that jettisons the hierarchical binaries of Western humanism and questions traditional notions of race and racial paternalism (133).
Konzett concludes the study with a brief epilogue addressing the commodification of ethnicity and the consequent danger of promoting, even marketing, stereotypes. While Yezierska, Hurston, and Rhys, as ethnic avant-gardists, reject facile notions of identity, in Konzett's view, academia has yet to deal with ethnicity in such a progressive manner and often pigeonholes writers into "camps and terrains said to represent underlying ethnic identities in their best interest." According to Konzett, the "productive irony" of these three...