- Dancing on the Color Line: African American Tricksters in Nineteenth-Century American Literature by Gretchen Martin
This well-written, academic account of the presence of tricksters in nineteenth-century literature delivers a straightforward argument regarding the influence of African American [End Page 124] artistic practices on the "white canon," particularly the white Southern canon. The central premise of the book is that well-known texts, including Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, among others, were influenced by the "black aesthetic technique" of the trickster figure and its formal characteristics. The effort suggests that these well-known white authors observed and then implemented black storytelling techniques in ways that are first identified here. According to the author, "the impact of black folklore in the white literary imagination of the nineteenth century [is] an area of inquiry that remains on the critical margins" (6). While too much stress is placed on this supposed marginality, the book makes a real contribution to our reckoning of the source of formal techniques that are characteristic of some of the most widely read nineteenth-century literary texts.
The book traces the influence of black folklore on very well-known texts written by white authors. The point, however, is not to suggest that the trickster figure is the only instance of such influence, or that canonical texts are somehow unique works of genius. Rather, the point is one of methodological efficiency: by tracking the significant influence of the most recognizable figure of black folklore in the most recognized white literary texts, we can proceed confidently on the understanding that the influence of black storytelling forms on white literature must run even deeper, even more profoundly. So, by guiding us through Kennedy's Swallow Barn, Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, Melville's Benito Cereno, Harris's folk tales, and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and Pudd'nhead Wilson, and pointing to instances of the more easily identifiable forms of such influence, we are inexorably drawn into agreeing that the "techniques" of black folklore are significant (and to some extent still undiscovered) sources for literary storytelling in the nineteenth century.
There is a second motivation for the book. Each chapter (and sometimes each paragraph) is structured not only to track, through close reading, the influence of black folklore but also to rescue the authors from accusations of recirculating, either through ignorance or maliciousness, blackface minstrel stereotypes. Again and again, well-known critiques of certain passages are presented, only to be followed by a "however" in the middle of the paragraph that leads to a demonstration of a trickster figure's practice of hidden resistance to white supremacy. To me, the gesture is unnecessary; there is very little to be gained from defending the honor of long-dead authors. Moreover, the practice tends to be a distraction [End Page 125] from the main argument and relies on unnecessary oversimplifications. For instance, if the purpose is to argue for the influence of a black aesthetic tradition on white literature, this influence could be traced even in moments when the tradition has been turned against its inventors, or simply stolen. In fact, this possibility is explored at length in Eric Lott's famous Love and Theft and other books on minstrelsy, like W. T. Lhamon's Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop. Instead, the influence of black folklore always proceeds in a progressive manner so that even outrageous racist stereotypes turn out to be coded forms of resistance deployed to achieve a kind of deceitful trickery that is humanizing and emancipating. In many cases, the re-readings are persuasive, but the theoretical and political position that informs them seems to me too one-dimensional.
This kind of problem, however, is a familiar one for humor scholars trying to work with that most uncooperative of literary forms, the stereotype, and no one has yet managed to make it sit still for its portrait. By virtue of taking on the trickster figure—a classic type—and...