“Resisting Naturalism: Purpose and Literary Value in the Reception of Frank Norris’s The Octopus.” Book History 18 (2015): 197-234.
The reception of Frank Norris’s The Octopus demonstrates that American literary naturalism played a relatively minor role in the book’s reception. Instead, the reviews were generally split between magazine reviewers who emphasized a proto-modernist aesthetic that prefigured twentieth century academic readings of the novel, and newspaper reviewers who saw the book as a purpose novel, a nineteenth century genre that attempted to use the form of the novel to provoke social change. The divide between these two reading formations, as well as the fact that a shift in generic perspective produces such a drastically different reading of a text as canonically naturalist as The Octopus, indicates the ways an overemphasis on naturalism as a critical lens can distort our understanding of the turn-of-the-century literary landscape.
“Beyond ‘Bitter’: Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition.” American Literary Realism 46, no. 3 (Spring 2014): 230-250.
“Beyond ‘Bitter’: Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition” challenges the popular critical narrative about Marrow’s reception, which claims the book was uniformly poorly-received. Instead, I show that not only does the reception of the novel breaks down along sectional lines, but also that reviewers were engaging with the novel’s readers in much more complex ways than critics currently recognize. The reviews show that, more than responding to the readings The Marrow of Tradition implies or prompts, reviewers were themselves imagining publics for the novel, as well as predicting ways those publics might respond to the book. In doing so, reviewers displaced the novel’s criticism and persuasive work onto those geographically or ideologically removed imagined publics, and away from themselves and their readers. Mapping the process by which reviewers engaged with and displaced The Marrow of Tradition’s racial critique highlights the complicated sectional politics of both the novel and its reception, and emphasizes the need for scholars to consider the ways public discussion of The Marrow of Tradition shaped and limited the available contexts for understanding the novel at the turn of the century.
“Contending Forces‘ Intellectual History: Emerson, Du Bois, and Washington at the Turn of the Century.” Arizona Quarterly 69, no. 3 (Autumn 2013): 77-98.
The degree to which Ralph Waldo Emerson’s presence is woven into Pauline Hopkins’s 1900 novel Contending Forces is something critics have not previously acknowledged, and it demands that we reconsider Emerson’s role in the novel and, more fundamentally, the very work the novel performs. Mapping out the traces of Emerson in the novel’s speeches, conversations, quotations, and epigraphs calls attention to the ways Contending Forces is highlighting, consolidating, and ultimately revising a comprehensive intellectual tradition that, in the world of the novel, stretches from New England’s patriots and founding fathers to Boston’s abolitionist community, embraces Emerson and the broader intellectual circle he heads up, and then culminates with the leading African American voices of the day—W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. Emerson’s presence serves as a linchpin of sorts in this act of synthesis and mediation; it brings together the broader (white) New England intellectual tradition and the voice of Du Bois. But in addition to locating Du Bois at the endpoint of a unified intellectual tradition, the novel, and Emerson’s phantom presence, also consolidate that endpoint, and therefore the future of the African American intellectual tradition, by bringing together Washington and Du Bois. This essay examines the connections between Emerson and Du Bois and Washington, as well as their fictional stand-ins in the novel, arguing that a closer reading of those connections shows that Contending Forces constructs an alternate, unified intellectual tradition that not only invokes Emerson and other New England intellectuals, but also imagines a potentially united and amicable future for Du Bois and Washington as race leaders.
“‘The true and stirring stuff of which Romance is born’: Dark Princess and the revolutionary potential of literary form.” Journal of Modern Literature 36, no. 4 (Summer 2013): 62-76.
Rather than functioning as propaganda or pastiche, W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1928 novel Dark Princess actively engages with issues of form and literary tradition in order to question the relationship between fictional modes and social and racial progress. In this novel, Du Bois uses the different literary modes available at the time—most particularly social realism, modernism, and romance. In particular, Dark Princess’s engagement with the romantic tradition indicates a deliberate and sustained effort to theorize romance as integral to the novel’s utopian future and to enact that theory through the novel’s formal structures.