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MATTHEW SALYER University of Connecticut “We’re Just What We Are, Little Manty”: Racial Passing in Robert Penn Warren’s Band of Angels “OH,WHO AM I?”ASKS AMANTHA STARR,THE MULATTO HEROINE OF ROBERT Penn Warren’s Band of Angels (3). Her opening monologue prepares readers for a serious psychological novel but her memory unfolds this questionthroughamelodramaticromanceplot,repletewithsexualperil, narrow escapes, sudden reversals of fortune, and domestic reconciliations. The novel’s “central problem,” James H. Justus remarks, is “narrational, which is to say rhetorical.” (237). Warren seems to use his narrator to explore the “maturer and freer forces in his [own] consciousness,” but he does so across “a series of mildly exotic, sensationalsideshows”wherehisexistentialtheme “shineslikearealstar over a landscape in an animated cartoon” (Kelvin 363). Amantha herself is largely the cause of this “narrational” problem. Her voice dominates Band.’s descriptive texture, but in the end she is little more than a “tiresome character whose frail sense of discrimination puts the trivial and the momentous on a single egocentric plane and whose rhetoric sometimes reflects her shallow personality and sometimes egregiously speaks for her homiletic creator” (Justus 257). Because Band is Warren’s first novel to directly address issues of race, Amantha’s “narrational” problem seems to provide a “good index” for her creator’s “general treatment of these issues” (Robinson 527). Yet if her personal “explorations of self-knowledge and identity” correspond to Warren’s authorial ones (Robinson 527), the essential disjunction between Band.’s rhetoric and plot is a troubling reflection of Warren’s own failure to actually confront his chosen theme. Thus Richard King criticizes Warren’s “moralizing” as “a cover for something else, a fundamental fear of appearing moral or committed to a cause . . . beyond the individual” (286), and Forrest G. Robinson senses an “inclination to have it both ways with the racial issue” in a “narrative that is throughout defensive on the score of race-slavery” (527). Ultimately, Warren seems to abandon the problem of race altogether in favor of other formulae for Amantha’s emergent self-consciousness: an “individual, subjective 80 Matthew Salyer woman’s voice” (Ferriss 128), an Oedipal sense of inherited curses and “parental inscription” (Runyon 138), or a decidedly modern authorial commitment to an anguished philosophical “Existentialism” (Sullivan 110). For Warren, however, race is “a total symbolism for every kind of issue” (Talking 46). Critics who see Band as a failure rightly point to Amantha’s inability to reconcile the“total symbolism” of Warren’s racial poetics to her own limited self-awareness. They fail to differentiate, though, between Amantha’s “egocentric” failure as a character and Warren’s deeper purpose in structuring her failure as a part of the novel’s rhetoric of race. Specifically, Amantha’s distance from the rest of the novel’s world makes the basic point that speakers cannot begin to talk about the past without first acknowledging their own complicity in its many problems and incongruities. As Warren remarks, Band of Angels is ultimately a story about “false name[s] and false identit[ies]” in flux (Talking 44). His narrator is not exempt. Her “single egocentric plane” is simply one of many “cartoon” landscapes in Band where characters experience the burden of history as a “sensational sideshow” and remain shallowly unaltered by its violence. In Amantha’s case, she has simply been able to make her own “lie come true, but true in some shocking” way (Talking 44). At the beginning of her story, she is the privileged daughter of a plantation owner, Aaron Starr, and one of his slaves. The multiracial community of her father’s plantation, Starrwood, shields her from an awareness of her own blackness. After her father’s death, Aaron Starr’s creditors sell her to satisfy estate debts, and Amantha finds herself luridly displayed on an auction block, “rescued” by her new owner, Hamish Bond, taken to bed, freed, and finally married to a handsome young Northerner. The “narrational” logic of the story is little more than the move from one fiction of white domesticity to another through a series of obvious psychosexual crises and melodramatic scenarios. Given this, Warren’s formal achievement in Band derives from the way that he...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2689-517X
Print ISSN
0026-637X
Pages
pp. 79-94
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-27
Open Access
No
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