- Black Frankenstein: The Making of an American Metaphor
In the summer of 1816, when a young Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin joined Percy Shelley at Lord Byron's villa in Switzerland and participated in a short story writing contest, she could not have known the impact her creation would have in the United States in the present. As Elizabeth Young points out in her introduction to Black Frankenstein: The Making of an American Metaphor, Mary Shelley's creations (both the unnamed monster and Victor Frankenstein) have been used to describe everything from Chicken McNuggets to former Vice President Dick Cheney (1-3). Considering that both Victor Frankenstein and his monster have been so widely used as metaphors, readers may be surprised at Young's claim that although "Frankenstein and its legacy have been the subject of substantial amounts of scholarly and popular writing . . . little serious attention has been paid to the historical specificities of its place in American culture, and virtually none to its racial resonances in the United States" (4-5). Young has three goals in her Promethean effort to create the groundwork to combat this dearth of critical attention, and she addresses these at the beginning of the book. [End Page 765]
Her first goal "is to show how the black Frankenstein metaphor affirms, and at the same time challenges, structures of race and masculinity in U.S. culture" (10). To do this, Young examines prose works by many American authors (Baldwin, Cleaver, Crane, Dunbar, Douglass, and others), films that deal with the metaphor (James Whale's Frankenstein films and Griffith's Birth of a Nation are well analyzed in the book), and other media, including the comic performances of Dick Gregory.
Young's second goal is to "offer a study in form" and "explore the formal elements . . . of metaphor-making at several levels" (10). While she acknowledges that some of the versions of Frankenstein she chooses to discuss may be considered "lowbrow works about a low-browed monster," she makes it clear that the less-strict attention to purely canonical works is mediated by her standards for what can be used as an example of the Frankenstein metaphor (14). For a work to be discussed it needs to include three things: "amalgamation, re-animation, and revolt against a creator" (14). In her second and third chapters, Young examines these criteria and the way they work within the metaphor, and she then goes into depth analyzing Stephen Crane's The Monster (1898) and Paul Laurence Dunbar's The Sport of the Gods (1902). With Crane's work, Young identifies "an intrinsic connection between the fictional figure of the Frankenstein monster and the literary figure of the dead metaphor, outlining this connection generally and then in historical relation to late-nineteenth-century American accounts of metaphor" (68-69). She argues that Crane's work adapts Shelley's original story by "developing both its implicit racial politics of monstrosity and its aesthetic equation between monsters and metaphors" (107). She analyzes Dunbar's novel with the same goals, but points out that "paradoxically" with Dunbar, "a more clearly antiracist writer constructs a more truly monstrous black monster" (108).
In addition to the first two goals, Young also looks at the political side of the Frankenstein metaphor. As she claims in the introduction, "The black Frankenstein monster is a key figure in the history of monsters as politically charged forms, as well as in the history of monstrosity as a constitutive feature of the language of politics" (13). She addresses this goal in all of the chapters of the book, but gives special attention to the political metaphor in the works of Frederick Douglass, the performances of Dick Gregory, and the films that she analyzes. Throughout the book, however, she draws special attention to the ways in which the metaphor has been used politically to demonize slaves and other African Americans, challenge existing hierarchies of race and gender, and influence cultural change in the United States.
As Young points out in her afterword, "In a world...