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  • Feeling Cosmopolitan:Strategic Empathy in Charles W. Chesnutt’s Paul Marchand, F.M.C.
  • Alexa Weik von Mossner (bio)

“By modern research the unity of the human race has been proved,” asserts Charles W. Chesnutt in “The Future American” (122). As a black American who was light-skinned enough to pass for white, Chesnutt deeply believed in monogenesis and in the universality of the human experience.1 It is therefore unsurprising that the racial identities of his fictional characters are often fluid and that many of them display a distinctly cosmopolitan attitude, affirming a common and equal humanity.2 Matthew Wilson reminds us that while Chesnutt chose to live as an African American in a society that forced its members into clear-cut racial groups, in his writing he “strove for a universal subject position that he perceived as outside of race” (Whiteness xvii). A typical example is Paul Marchand, F.M.C. (1998),3 one of Chesnutt’s late and long unpublished novels, in which a fair-skinned black man learns that he is biologically white and finds himself faced with the question of whether he should embrace a white identity and abandon his mixed-race wife and children. It has been argued, for example by William Ramsey, that the political efficacy of the novel suffers precisely from Chesnutt’s universalist desire to “exalt humanity above race” (Chesnutt, “Race Problem” 199) because such desire “can restrict the constructive, necessary black social agency that Chesnutt himself agitated for” (Ramsey 39). Even more detrimental in the eyes of many critics is the utter lack of realism in Chesnutt’s celebration of a universal humanism that leads his idealized protagonist to forsake his newly acquired privileges in favor of his mixed-race family and a more authentic and honest life abroad.

However, Chesnutt’s reliance on romantic idealization and other sentimental narrative strategies is in fact crucial for the political charge of his novel, which he conceived in the early 1920s. As Ryan Simmons argues, Chesnutt’s “occasional departures from probable, known realities cannot simply be dismissed as a lack of realism; the absurd racial landscape with which he struggled often required, in response, a warping of the probabilities of time and space to instill in readers a sense of what he recognized to be true” (134). Chesnutt’s stated conviction that [End Page 76] even “the most diverse races resemble in more things than they differ” and that “[r]espect for human life and human rights is the end and aim of civilization” (“Race Problem” 200) points to a transcendence of race thinking that resonates with concepts of transracial cosmopolitanism and planetary humanism as they have been advocated by Paul Gilroy.4 In Postcolonial Melancholia (2005), Gilroy explains that such concepts account for the complexity of multicultural relations and are nevertheless “capable of comprehending the universality of our elemental vulnerability to the wrongs we visit upon each other” (4). Moreover, they retain the “capacity to imagine [the] unmaking” of racial difference, “its deconstruction, its transcendence, or even the possibility of its eventual descent into irrelevance” (54). Chesnutt, writing one hundred years earlier, embraced a similar ethics and gave expression to it in his cosmopolitan novels and the way he attempted to guide his readers’ empathy.5

Paul Marchand, F.M.C.—or free man of color—is set in the New Orleans of the 1820s, and, at first sight, as Dean McWilliams notes, “Chesnutt seems to [present] a local-color romance, a literary form more than twenty years out of fashion” at the time (183).6 Wilson has speculated that it was the novel’s dated form that led two publishers to reject it (Whiteness 184), but Susan Prothro Wright might be closer to the truth when she argues that the rejections were likely due to “the political climate of the . . . post-World War I United States, which was conducive to reinforcing stereotypes of non- and unassimilated whites” (68-69). Chesnutt’s novel challenges such stereotypes through its racially ambiguous protagonist and its suggestion that experience rather than blood determines character and worldview. As McWilliams makes clear, in terms of content the novel is a “strikingly modern, even postmodern, meditation . . . on...


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pp. 76-95
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