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American Literature 75.4 (2003) 890-892
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From folklore to myth making, Jonathan Brennan and Karen Beardslee take a step back to consider the historical role of literary traditions in nineteenth- and twentieth-century writing. While Brennan's collection of essays outlines the crucial literary histories of mixed-race people, Beardslee focuses on the impact of folklore traditions on a character's journey to center the self. Brennan's compilation cogently argues for the establishment of a mixed-race literary tradition, while Beardslee attempts to conjoin already established folklore tradition with historical and literary progress. Though stylistically and pedagogically divergent, both authors challenge contemporary boundaries ascribed to discussions of race, gender, and ethnicity, insisting that they are incomplete at best, essentialist at worst.
In a probing historical and analytical collection of essays, Brennan offers a fresh approach to burgeoning dialogue on multiracial literature in the United States. His collection is a timely response to the already prolific critical work on African-European, African American, and Chicano-Latino literature. By focusing on mixed-race writing that has largely escaped historical and literary purviews, Brennan pauses to reenvision the ways racial identity is imagined and articulated through literature. From diverse approaches and disciplines, each contributing essay makes a compelling argument on the possibility and limitations of mixed-race writing.
In the collection's second essay, "Was Roxy Black?", Werner Sollors presents a fascinating study of the relationship between image and text in visual illustrations of mixed-race characters, asking: "How can an authorized illustrator [End Page 890] represent a character who appears to have been imagined in order to subvert racial thinking?" (72). To begin, Sollors complicates this inquiry by citing the impossibility of shading in a Web-based depiction of Roxy, Twain's mixed-race character in Puddn'head Wilson. Sollors moves steadily through various illustrations published along with their original texts to suggest the implicit racial stereotyping surrounding Twain's confounding character. Although Twain's novel itself is racially ambiguous, Sollors tracks several published renditions of Roxy that imagine her to be either white or black. In "Smuggling across the Borders of Race, Gender, and Sexuality," Martha Cutter investigates the coded naming practices in Mrs. Spring Fragrance by the Eurasian writer Sui Sin Far. Although far-reaching at times, Cutter's close reading of this particularly slippery trickster is a thoughtful example of the boundless synapses in mixed-race literature that deserve further analysis. The final essay by Alice TePunga Somerville is a fitting conclusion to Brennan's nontraditional collection. Using the Maori metaphor marae (a symbolic space in front of a meetinghouse), TePunga Somerville attempts to frame Maori-Pakeha writing within a balanced literary framework that refuses to privilege either racial tradition. Somerville's international essay provocatively argues that the wahora (gateway) for entry into mixed-race literature requires sturdy grounding in both traditions.
Brennan's transnational collection is an unflinching contribution that urges scholarship to break from neatly demarcated binaries and either-or approaches to multiracial literature. In his thorough introduction, Brennan attests to the importance of recognizing the histories of mixed-race people as unique and independent of either racial tradition they share. Brennan argues that by ignoring their own unique literary tradition, mixed-race writers have been forced into "an arena of misunderstanding, fenced in a half-breed corral awaiting the literary fate of the much maligned tragic mulatto, the treacherous half-breed, or the conflicted Eurasian. . ." (5). He concludes with a thoughtful discussion of mixed-race trickster characters as cultural translators who can "teach us how to walk in both worlds" (42).
Similarly preoccupied with tradition, Karen Beardslee investigates the place of folklore tradition in nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature. Arguing that folklore traditions are the...