Fauset, Jessie Redmon
Born April 27, 1882
Camden County, New Jersey
Died April 30, 1961
American editor and novelist
Jessie Redmon Fauset felt strongly that black writers were best qualified to describe the African American experience, and she set out to prove this herself.
Fauset played an important role in the Harlem Renaissance not only through her own writing (including four novels, short stories, poems, essays, and articles) but through her efforts to support the work of other black writers. As literary editor of Crisis—a magazine sponsored by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)—she recognized and promoted the talent of such Harlem Renaissance stars as Langston Hughes (1902–1967), Claude McKay (1890–1948), Countee Cullen (1903–1946), and Jean Toomer (1894–1967; see biographical entries on these authors). Fauset's own novels have been criticized as too narrowly focused on the prim, proper world of the black middle class—the environment in which Fauset had been raised. But critics have praised her for confronting such issues as "passing" (light-skinned blacks posing as whites), for exploring the intense color consciousness—and color prejudice—that exists within African American society, and for exposing the trials of women who try to break out of the limited roles assigned to them.
A member of the black middle class
Born in Camden Country, New Jersey (located just outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), Fauset was the seventh child born to Redmon Fauset, an outspoken minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Annie Seamon Fauset. After her mother's death, Fauset's father married a widow with three children, and the couple went on to have three more children together.
Fauset would later be described as an "O.P."—a member of one of the families that made up the upper-crust, black "Old Philadelphia" community—but this was only partly true. Her family was old, with proof that its ancestors were in the United States as early as the 1700s. They were well respected and cultured, but they were certainly not wealthy. Fauset still faced racial prejudice when she attended Philadelphia's public schools. She graduated with honors from the city's elite High School for Girls (where she was probably the only black student) in 1900.
Fauset hoped to enroll at the exclusive Bryn Mawr College, but rather than admit a black student, the college arranged for her to receive a scholarship to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. There she excelled, studying classical languages (Latin and Greek) as well as French and German and receiving the coveted honor of election to Phi Beta Kappa (an organization that recognizes high academic achievement).
Teaching high school French
Extremely intelligent and efficient and keenly interested in literature, Fauset wanted to pursue a career in publishing, but in the early part of the twentieth century such positions were not open to black women. She returned to Philadelphia to look for a teaching job, but her race prevented her from teaching in the city's public schools. Instead, Fauset taught in a Baltimore junior high for one year, then became a French teacher at Washington, D.C.'s prestigious M Street High School (its name was later changed to Paul Dunbar High School), where that city's thriving African American community sent its best students.
Fauset would spend the next fourteen years in this position, while traveling to Europe every summer and working on an advanced degree in Latin and French. She received her master's degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1919 and that same year accepted an invitation from W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963; see biographical entry) to become an editor at the Crisis magazine in New York. Fauset's relationship with Du Bois dated back to 1903, when, soon after her father's death, she had written the famous black leader a letter. The two had continued to correspond, and Fauset had developed a deep and reverent admiration for Du Bois.
An influential literary editor
Fauset was initially assigned to edit the Brownies' Book, a magazine designed to encouraged black children to take pride in their heritage. She wrote the short poem that appeared in the magazine every month and that declared its intent: "To children, who with eager look / Scanned vainly the library shelf, and nook, / For History or Song or Story / That told of Colored People's glory,—/ We dedicate the Brownies' Book." During the course of this magazine's somewhat short life—it was published from January 1920 to December 1921—Fauset not only edited contributors' work but wrote countless signed and unsigned poems, stories, and articles.
With the demise of the Brownies' Book, Fauset became literary editor at Crisis, making what may have been her greatest contribution to the Harlem Renaissance. Responsible for choosing the poetry and fiction that would appear in Crisis, Fauset soon showed that she had a keen eye for talent. She was among the first editors to spotlight the work of the up-and-coming generation of black writers, thus bringing their work to the attention not only of the magazine's readers but of publishers on the lookout for promising literary talent.
As early as 1921, Fauset recognized the talent of Langston Hughes, publishing his early, great poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." She also nurtured the careers of poets Claude McKay and Countee Cullen and novelist Jean Toomer, offering good advice along the way on how best to polish their writing. At the same time, Fauset was busy with her duties as Du Bois's trusted assistant: she made his travel arrangements, edited his speeches, ran Crisis when he was traveling, and defended him to those put off by his remote air and gruffness. In addition, Fauset's home became a place of shelter and literary exchange for Harlem Renaissance writers and other artists, whose boldness and daring must sometimes have contrasted with her own impeccable manners and properness.
A well-received first novel
Fauset was moved to begin writing fiction after reading Birthright (1922), a novel about black characters and issues by T.S. Stribling (1881–1965), a white author. Fauset felt strongly that black writers were best qualified to describe the African American experience, and she set out to prove this herself. Her first novel, There Is Confusion, was published in 1924 by Boni & Liveright (the company that had also just published Jean Toomer's important novel Cane). This landmark event—the almost-unheard-of publication of a black woman novelist's work by a major white publishing company—was to be marked by a dinner in Fauset's honor at the Civic Club. As discussed in Chapter 2, the dinner turned out to have a much broader purpose and effect.
In There Is Confusion, Fauset carefully recreates the gracious but often pretentious milieu of the black middle class, a world in which she had lived all her life. The novel's central character is Joanna Marshall, the daughter of a successful black businessman who longs to "amount to something." Joanna's ambition and class consciousness alienate her from her boyfriend, medical student Peter Bye, who is also bitter about the fact that the wealthy white branch of his family has cut all ties with his own racially mixed branch.
Joanna's friend Maggie Ellersley is in love with Joanna's brother Philip but runs away to marry an older man (who turns out to be a gambler) after Joanna makes it clear that she considers working-class Maggie socially inferior to the Marshall family. Meanwhile, Peter goes off to Europe to fight in World War I and forms a friendship with his white cousin, whom he has met by chance and who is later killed in battle. Maggie and Philip are also reunited in Europe, and when Peter returns to the United States, he and Joanna are married. Joanna gives birth to a son, and Peter refuses an offer by the white Byes—who have been left without a male heir—to raise the boy as their own.
There Is Confusion earned good reviews in the white press, and black critics were even more enthusiastic—especially those who agreed with Du Bois that African American authors should portray blacks as morally upright and honorable. In the decades since its publication, the novel has been faulted for its confusing structure (featuring two separate plot-lines and shifts in time) and weak characters. Nevertheless, There Is Confusion does provide interesting perspectives on the limited options available to women in the 1920s, the discrimination faced by urban blacks in the North, and the complications caused by a racially mixed heritage.
Plum Bun praised as her finest work
Soon after the publication of There Is Confusion, Fauset spent several months traveling in Europe and North Africa, visiting Italy, France, Austria, and Morocco. She continued to work at Crisis until 1926, and the next year—despite her wish to find a job in publishing—she became a French teacher at DeWitt Clinton High School in New York City, a position she would hold for the next seventeen years. In 1928 Fauset married Herbert Harris.
The novel considered Fauset's finest work, Plum Bun, appeared in 1929. The title comes from the traditional nursery rhyme "To market, to market / To buy a plum bun, / Home again, home again, / Market is done"; Fauset also structured the novel around the rhyme. The first section, "Home," takes place in Philadelphia and introduces Angela Murray, a young, light-skinned black woman who fears her race will prevent her from attaining the love and success she desires. Angela's dark-skinned sister, Virginia, on the other hand, is secure in her identity as an African American. In "To Market," Angela moves to New York after the deaths of her parents. She studies painting, passing as white and making a number of friends, including Anthony Cross, who is also hiding his true racial identity (which is biracial) and Rachel Powell, a confident young black woman. "Plum Bun" details Angela's affair with a wealthy white student, Roger Fielding, whose feelings for Angela turn out to be shallow.
In "Home Again," Angela is beginning to lose her romantic illusions and has learned more about herself and the need for honesty in her relationships. Plum Bun's conclusion,
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"Market Is Done," concerns Angela's anger when her friend Rachel is passed over for a scholarship because she is black and Angela's decision to publicly reveal the truth about her own racial identity. Anthony also chooses to embrace his black identity, and he and Angela marry.
Very positive reviews of Plum Bun appeared in the leading publications including the New Republic and the New YorkTimes. The novel was proclaimed superior to Fauset's first novel in successfully illuminating such themes as the necessity of accepting one's true identity, the importance of family and roots, and the limits of gender roles. Yet critics have continued to point out the narrowness of Fauset's vision and the class consciousness her characters reveal: all of the whites in the novel are mean and violent, the lower-class blacks are aimless and in need of direction, and the middle- and upper-class blacks are attractive, dignified, and morally superior.
Last two novels not as successful
Fauset's last two novels did not receive as much critical acclaim as her first two, perhaps because her wish to support herself as a novelist had led her to write what she thought would appeal to a majority of readers. Despite its flaws, The Chinaberry Tree (1931) has value as a detailed document of black middle-class life. In an introduction to the novel, the well-known white author Zona Gale (1874–1938) wrote that the book would introduce Americans to "a great group of Negroes of education and substance who are living lives of quiet interests and pursuits." Set in the small New Jersey town of Red Brook (and containing almost no white characters), The Chinaberry Tree centers on Laurentine Strange, the daughter of a wealthy white man and his black former servant. The novel follows Laurentine's efforts to achieve acceptance (for she has long been ostracized by her community) and respectability.
In her last novel, Comedy: American Style (1933), Fauset again focuses on the damaging effects of color consciousness and passing. The central character is Olivia Cary, a light-skinned African American who desperately wishes to be white and whose family suffers for her obsession. She has three children: two—Christopher and Teresa—who are light-skinned like herself, and one—Oliver—who is darker like his father. Olivia's rejection of Oliver leads to his suicide, while Teresa's decision to pass as white leaves her emotionally dead. Only Christopher embraces his black identity, while Olivia is finally completely isolated as she lives apart from her family in a fantasy world. Through the character of Phebe Grant, a black woman with strong self-esteem who marries Christopher, Fauset suggests that the values of acceptance, hard work, honesty, and loyalty will lead to happiness.
In the remaining decades of her life, Fauset published no more fiction, despite rumors that she was working on a fifth novel. She and her husband lived with Fauset's sister in Harlem from the time of their marriage until the sister's death in the early 1940s. They moved to Montclair, New Jersey, and lived quietly until Harris's death in 1958, after which Fauset went to Philadelphia to live with her stepbrother. She died of heart disease in 1961.
For More Information
Christian, Barbara. Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition,1892–1976. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980.
Huggins, Nathan Irvin. Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Knopf, 1981.
McLendon, Jacquelyn Y. The Politics of Color in the Fiction of Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.
Sylvander, Carolyn Wedin. Jessie Redmon Fauset: Black American Writer. Troy, NY: Whitston, 1981.
Watson, Steven. The Harlem Renaissance: Hub of African-American Culture,1920–1930. New York: Pantheon Books, 1995.
Johnson, Abby Arthur. "Literary Midwife: Jessie Redmon Fauset and the Harlem Renaissance." Phylon (June 1978): 143–53.