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  • History Repeating Itself:Passing, Pudd'nhead Wilson, and The President's Daughter
  • Sinéad Moynihan (bio)

The nineteenth-century fascination with mixture corresponded with racial segregation, "sciences" of purity, and white supremacy; how do you know that history is not just repeating itself?

—Suzanne Bost

This article analyzes Barbara Chase-Riboud's rarely-examined The President's Daughter (1994) in the context of the resurfacing of passing narratives in the contemporary moment, emphasising the indebtedness of such narratives to Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894). The story of the mixed-race daughter of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, Chase-Riboud's novel is not the first African American-authored text to engage this subject, an honor belonging to William Wells Brown in his novel Clotel; or, the President's Daughter (1853). Although Chase-Riboud acknowledges Brown's Clotel in Sally Hemings (1979) and in the title to and pages of its sequel, her 1994 novel in fact owes more to Twain's novella than it does to either its mother-text or to Brown's novel. When, in the 1860s, an abolitionist friend presents Harriet Hemings with Brown's novel, Harriet undergoes the uncanny experience of reading her own "biography," which is fiction (The President's Daughter 327). She subsequently remarks that "If I was fiction," then "this country was fiction. Was I plausible? You tell me" (446). If her encounter with Brown's novel forces her to consider the point at which the distinction between biography and fiction collapses, her self-conception as "fiction" evokes more readily Twain's configuration of race as "a fiction of law and custom" and Roxy's "fiction created by herself" in Pudd'nhead Wilson (7).

What is at stake with these borrowings from and revisions to Twain's fin-de-siècle ur-text in The President's Daughter, and, indeed, in the reappearance of the trope of racial passing in contemporary culture more generally, is a sense that, at the end of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, there has been a resurgence of the fascination with mixed race figures—traditionally the focus of racial passing stories—that characterized the 1890s. Coded as disquiet in the late-nineteenth century and celebration in the late twentieth, Suzanne Bost argues that in both periods, "fear and celebration work in tandem: the fascination with mixture corresponds to (and potentially masks) racist efforts to contain fluidity and to reinstitute categories" (185). Chase-Riboud's references to Twain's novel are effective because revisiting a narrative of passing in another narrative of passing one hundred years later reinforces at a formal level the key question posed by Bost, in Chase-Riboud's novel thematically, and in this article: is (literary) history repeating itself? This discussion sets The President's Daughter alongside Twain's novella, arguing that, after announcing such [End Page 809] concerns epigraphically, Chase-Riboud revisits central motifs from and themes of Pudd'nhead Wilson—twinning, the nature/nurture debate and fingerprints—throughout the novel. Her engagement with Twain's novella reflects an ongoing investment in issues of mixed-race identity and passing that belies the supposed datedness of such concerns.

"Passing" Into the Present

Although the term passing is increasingly used to denote a wide range of performative practices, from its origins it referred most commonly to "passing as white." A prevalent trope in white- and later black-authored fiction of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, passing, according to Juda Bennett, no longer seems to engage contemporary novelists: "The long list of authors from the first half of the twentieth century . . . is hardly balanced by the short list of contemporary writers who have addressed this figure of racial ambiguity" (205). The "short list" which Bennett provides consists of Charles Johnson's Oxherding Tale (1982), Danzy Senna's Caucasia (1998), Ralph Ellison's Juneteenth (1999) and Philip Roth's The Human Stain (2000) (214). Although Bennett argues that Toni Morrison evokes the passing myth "without actually representing the phenomenon of passing, and in this way Morrison decenters and deforms the passing figure" (205), he fails to take account of other African American authors who are engaged in similar projects, particularly Paul Beatty...