- Dancing on the Color Line: African American Tricksters in Nineteenth-Century American Literature by Gretchen Martin
In Dancing on the Color Line, Gretchen Martin takes the narrowly focused subject of nineteenth-century African American tricksters and creates a surprisingly nuanced study that is immediately applicable in a broad range of American literary contexts. An important distinction in Martin's work that differentiates it from other examinations of tricksters and African American folklore is her emphasis on white-authored texts that exhibit Black oral culture as a clear influence. More than merely underscoring the presence of the associated tropes, however, Martin contends that her five exemplary authors use "African American aesthetic techniques to create character portraits that covertly function to demythologize racial definitions" and to "reflect ideological shifts regarding racial categories" (p. 7). She supports these points by beginning with a detailed introduction in which she traces the trickster figure's roots through the American past and present, relying heavily on the related concepts of signifying, double voice, masking, double-consciousness, and the veil. In this way, Martin strives to accomplish more than her book's subtitle can convey, as her extrapolations and observations of the selected texts by nineteenth-century white authors offer new insights into well-known and obscure writings alike and at times advocate for critical reevaluation.
In the first chapter, Martin presents John Pendleton Kennedy's Swallow Barn; or, A Sojourn in the Old Dominion (1832)—a novel frequently read as "one of the earliest and most well-known representatives of the proslavery plantation tradition" (p. 21)—in terms of its complicated depiction of slavery and the antebellum Black community. This dichotomy between pro-slavery novel and subversive antislavery novel creates an interesting explication of the novel's key characters, both Black and white. Martin specifically foregrounds two chapters that form "a much more complex critique of . . . the Southern power structure" (p. 31) than the rest of the novel's relatively forgettable chapters. For Martin, the significance lies in white characters' narration of Black characters' trickster-like behaviors. In retelling the stories, the plantation owner and his visitor fail to comprehend fully the linguistic multivalence of Black vernacular. Rereading the novel through this lens allows Martin to make a viable case for a reconsideration of Kennedy's contributions to the abolitionist cause.
Martin's second chapter moves from the relative obscurity of John Pendleton Kennedy to the undeniable renown of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Martin begins by outlining the change in critical reception of Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) over the many years since its initial serial publication. While the novel has figured prominently in critiques of Stowe's depictions of Black characters, Martin contends that, much like Kennedy in Swallow Barn, "Stowe demonstrates unique insight into the cultural mores and social values of the slave community, . . . which is often depicted subversively pitted against the master class" (p. 49), accentuating several key trickster characteristics, according to Martin. She also dedicates a good portion of the chapter to a discussion of Stowe's prominent portrayal of female and biracial characters. Martin ultimately concludes her chapter by discrediting the possibility of a racist Stowe, instead claiming that "the novel not only opposes slavery but also supports equal rights" (p. 78).
The third chapter unpacks Herman Melville's use of various Black folk traditions in Benito Cereno (1855). The shortest of her chapters, [End Page 345] and arguably the weakest, it nonetheless manages to offer a new perspective to the study of Melville. The true value of the chapter lies in the way Martin unmasks Melville's use of Black oral traditions and trickster sequences as blueprints for characters and relationships within the novella. Throughout the chapter, Martin explores three evident influences: the flying African cycle, slave narratives, and the Signifying Monkey poems. As she works through a detailed analysis that sheds light on the many parallels between Melville's text and his influences, Martin posits that "African American folktales were a rich resource...