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  • Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in U.S. Drama and Fiction by Diana Rebekkah Paulin
  • Katharine Nicholson Ings
Diana Rebekkah Paulin. Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in U.S. Drama and Fiction. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2012. 315 pp. $75.00 cloth/ $25.00 paper.

In Diana Rebekkah Paulin’s Imperfect Unions: Staging Miscegenation in U.S. Drama and Fiction, the author explores how the theatrical and literary production of miscegenation from the mid-nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries both dismantled and reinforced the black-white binary that bolstered individual and national identity during Reconstruction and the subsequent period of nation-building. Paulin analyzes race from a performative perspective—an approach she establishes as unfamiliar to a nineteenth-century American—and so she mines her texts for the complex and what she calls the “often unseen processes” (xii) by which interracial relationships become spectacular, or staged. But she also frames her topic of interracial unions as a methodology of its own: if her sources’ processes are “unseen,” Paulin consciously employs “miscegenated reading practices” (xii) by engaging with diverse fields of study, including American studies and transhemispheric studies alongside theatre and performance studies, comparative race and ethnic literary studies, and literary history.

Part of this book’s appeal comes from how Paulin herself stages the narratives within. Selecting an eclectic variety of texts, Paulin organizes her chapters by pairing and comparing; she often juxtaposes a playwright with a novelist or short-story writer—Dion Boucicault with Louisa May Alcott, Bartley Campbell with William Dean Howells, Thomas Dixon with Charles Chesnutt, Pauline Hopkins with the trio Bob Cole, J. Rosamond Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson—to emphasize the intersecting performative aspects of their works. She introduces each chapter by situating the authors and texts within their respective biographical and cultural contexts, paying particular attention to the performance history and reception of each play. This strategy is particularly successful for chapter one, “Under the Covers of Forbidden Desire,” Paulin’s treatments of Dion Boucicault’s play The Octoroon (1859) and Louisa May Alcott’s stories “M. L.” and “My Contraband” (both 1863). She develops her analysis beyond a familiar argument of how black blood in each work functions as either a catalyst for “chaos” (14) or exotic “art” (36) to a consideration of same-sex miscegenation (including audience reception). In Boucicault, for instance, a quadroon slave and an Indian have a friendship that Paulin locates “somewhere on the spectrum between the homosocial and the homoerotic” (20); in Alcott, white women in an authoritative, read “masculine” role express their same-sex desire for former slaves via the men’s “feminized characterizations” (41).

Chapter two, “Clear Definitions for an Anxious World: Late Nineteenth-Century Surrogacy,” begins with a discussion of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, which included a “White City” of anthropological displays from a variety of so-called “primitive” cultures, although representations of American slavery were excluded and the Native American genocide was overlooked. (A one-time “Colored People’s Day” was instituted, ostensibly in response to protests but also to sell more tickets.) In this context, the term “fair,” then, also seems to mean “stripped of pigment,” and indeed Paulin argues that the World’s Fair was a vehicle for the United States to write its own myth of “white supremacy and U.S. empire” (55). Such a national spectacle of whiteness as crucial to empire-building is reproduced on a more intimate scale in the works Paulin examines in this chapter—Bartley Campbell’s play The White Slave (1882) and William Dean Howells’s novel An Imperative Duty (1892). She demonstrates how, through the figures of two racially ambiguous women, one who is white by birth [End Page 222] but socially received as black, the other an “octoroon” woman perceived as white, Campbell and Howells “reemphasize Anglicized whiteness as a central component of U.S. identity and, by extension, world civilization” (67). The authors reveal each woman’s appeal to be her underlying “white” qualities, which in turn enables each heroine to marry a white husband, thus sidestepping the miscegenation taboo. But Paulin notes that Howells’s tragic mulatta “never feels at ease” (95) with her white identity; indeed...


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