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Reviewed by:
  • Transformable Race: Surprising Metamorphoses in the Literature of Early America by Katy L. Chiles
  • Monique Allewaert (bio)
Transformable Race: Surprising Metamorphoses in the Literature of Early America Katy L. Chiles New York: Oxford University Press, 2014 315 pp.

The use of the word race to indicate biological difference didn’t exist in the eighteenth century, when elite, middling, and subaltern classes all spoke of human difference instead of race and when the term could denote a claim about kinship on anything from a species to a political level. The fact that race signified so differently in the eighteenth century than it did later (including now) has led a number of scholars, including Roxann Wheeler (The Complexion of Race) and Ezra Tawil (The Making of Racial Sentiment), to avoid using the term in analyses of the eighteenth century. Katy L. Chiles’s learned study argues for the importance of reclaiming race for eighteenth-century studies. She shows that writers as different as Phillis Wheatley, Samuel Stanhope Smith, and Timothy Dwight sometimes did use the term to designate human difference, making clear that in the eighteenth-century moment when the modern biopolitical account of race was emerging, it was sometimes being used in a roughly modern way. In reclaiming a concept that hovers between the anachronistic and the apposite, Chiles aims to defamiliarize the way we think and talk about race. She asks that scholars keep firmly in mind an eighteenth-century sense of human difference that emphasized the ways that environment and custom inflected epidermal and internal states. At the same time, she also asks that we consider how what is essentially a theory of racial construction (albeit one in which nature or place was a dominant actor) nonetheless led to exclusionary racial practices and the late eighteenth-century development of an American national identity that depended on natural historical [End Page 591] and novelistic accounts of an increasingly interiorized and biologized racial whiteness.

Holding together pre- and postbiopolitical understandings of race is necessary to any discussion of passing and transformation that can supplement critical race studies’ current understanding of these phenomena. Critical race studies’ more familiar understanding of passing develops from a tension between the account of race as a biological or genetic truth located inside the body and an optical truth located on its outside. The movement between these two reveals both to be performed. By this familiar account, the passing narrative catalyzes the transformation of characters and critics who recognize that race is a counterfeit and not a fact, yet who also realize that this counterfeit rather often passes as the real thing. Chiles points out that in the eighteenth century, passing also meant a body’s passage from one state into another, in the sense that her title and subtitle mark as “transformable” or as “metamorphoses.” Instead of prioritizing counterfeits and fictions and their paradoxical circulation as facts, this account of passing gives priority to the empirical and thus to the climactic, atmospheric, and cultural processes through which bodies come to vary from themselves. At its most ambitious, Transformable Race points the way forward for a mode of literary analysis that brings together the insights of science studies, critical race theory, and deconstruction to give early American scholars better accounts of the ways that fact and counter-fact together shape bodies, history, and cultural production, with particular attention to American racism.

The introduction and first three chapters of Transformable Race all foreground an eighteenth-century understanding of race as external, on the surface of the body, emerging in time and (most especially) in relation to place: across these chapters she emphasizes that race is subject to change (1). The introduction offers an overview of diverse eighteenth-century understandings of race, including those that developed from monogenetic and polygenetic accounts of creation, those that developed from then dominant (if quite various) environmental theories for explaining the diversity of human forms and sociopolitical practices, and those that developed from primarily cultural accounts of human difference. These understandings of race were put to a range of uses, some of which might strike us now as progressive and some deeply not. Moreover, these accounts of race index different temporal...