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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.4 (2003) 856-858
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Jeanne Campbell Reesman, ed. Trickster Lives: Culture and Myth in American Fiction. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2001. xxxi + 222 pp.
This collection of twelve essays offers a wide-ranging perspective on its topic. Jeanne Campbell Reesman surveys the scholarship on the figure of the trickster, relying mostly on theorists William J. Hynes and William G. Doty, and argues for a highly inclusive definition. As the introduction states, [End Page 856]
Today trickster, that ubiquitous and contradictory figure of play that lives in virtually every culture, has come to be recognized as a key figure not only in fiction based in African American and Native American Indian traditions, but in American fiction in general. American writers have widely recognized the power that taking on some of trickster's personality can give them, and readers have become more conscious of how pervasive an influence trickster really is in American literature.
This capacious definition allows for the inclusion of essays about the trickster's appearance in all sorts of texts, from Louise Erdrich to Shelby Steele, Brer Rabbit to Jack London.
Many of the essays provide illuminating, provocative analyses. Nancy Alpert Mower's "Kamapua'a: A Hawaiian Trickster" addresses Native Hawaiian literature, an area that generally receives little attention in US literary studies. Sandra K. Baringer's well researched, cross-cultural discussion in "Brer Rabbit and His Cherokee Cousin: Moving Beyond Appropriation" presents an important argument about the interaction between African-American and Cherokee cultures. Claudia Gutwirth's "'Stop Making Sense': Trickster Variations in the Fiction of Louise Erdrich," while not new in its examination of Nanabozho narratives in Erdrich's novels, is sound and helpful. Perhaps most surprising and thought-provoking is Houston Baker's "Constitutional Allegory and Affirmative Action Babies: Stephen Carter's Talk of 'Dissent,'" which concludes the volume by linking (very loosely) tricksterism and right-wing, contemporary African-American discourse.
But if it is arguably one of the best in the volume because it challenges our notions of what does and does not constitute trickster, Baker's essay also highlights what will be a problem with this collection of essays for many people. The volume's definition of trickster is so broad and encompassing that, as the introduction states, "virtually every culture" can lay claim to it and therefore all US literature can exhibit it. Prometheus, Raven, Huck Finn, Nanabozho, Lilith—all qualify. Louise Erdrich, Jack London, Toni Morrison, Mark Twain—no differences exist. The danger here is that the concept and reality of trickster get evacuated of meaning in such a huge, universalized approach. In effect, any deceiver, surpriser, identity-changer becomes a trickster. A second, equally serious problem that this loose, all-inclusive definition of trickster raises is one of cultural appropriation. Trickster refers to specific, living cultural realities in indigenous and some African-American contexts. Given that fact, what does it mean to bandy the term around about Huck Finn, for example? How does such a move reproduce and enact in literary critical practice a type of [End Page 857] colonialism that a volume including essays about Erdrich, Morrison, Cherokee narratives, and Native Hawaiian texts should eschew?
While the breadth of Trickster Lives will be a strength for some and a weakness for others, the quality and utility of many of the essays are high. For analysis and argument about trickster in Native Hawaiian texts, Brer Rabbit tales, Cherokee narratives, Erdrich novels, and selected Latino texts—and for challenging us to think about what is and is not appropriately called trickster—the volume is quite valuable.