Fauset, Jessie 1882–1961
Jessie Fauset 1882–1961
Writer, editor, educator
Jessie Fauset, author of four novels, was a pivotal figure in the literary and cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance in New York City during the 1920s. As early as 1912 she began contributing poems and short stories to The Crisis magazine, a publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) cofounded by W. E. B. Du Bois in 1910. In 1919 she became the literary editor of The Crisis, a position she held until 1926.
During her tenure as editor, Fauset encouraged the literary careers of such major Harlem Renaissance writers as Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, and Countee Cullen. Her influence and inspiration were so profound that Hughes, in his autobiography The Big Sea, credited her, along with Charles S. Johnson (director of the National Urban League and editor of Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life) and Alain Locke (professor of philosophy at Howard University and editor of The New Negro), as one of the “three people who midwifed the so-called New Negro literature into being.” In her book Jessie Redmon Fauset, Black American Writer, Carolyn Wed-in Sylvander goes so far as to say that “Jessie Fauset’s early involvement with the… NAACP [and] The Crisis put her in a leadership position in the first wide-reaching black-white radical attempt to influence post Civil War United States policies and practices in regard to blacks.”
Jessie Redmon Fauset was born April 27, 1882, in Camden County, Snow Hill Center Township, New Jersey, the seventh child of Redmon and Annie Seamon Fauset. Although the historical record has often disagreed about Fauset’s year of birth—with some sources citing 1884, 1885, 1886, and 1888—Sylvander has verified the 1882 date.
Fauset’s mother, Annie Seamon Fauset, died soon after Fauset’s birth. Redmon Fauset, an impoverished African Methodist Episcopal minister, then moved to Philadelphia and married Bella Huff, a widow with three children. They had three more children, including the noted educator and folklorist Arthur Huff Fauset, author of the classical work American Negro Folk Lore. Encouraged by her father to become a teacher, Fauset excelled at the Philadelphia High School for Girls, where she is reputed to have been the only black student in her class. Despite her outstanding
At a Glance…
Born Jessie Redmona fauset (later known as Jessie Redmon Fauset), April 27, 1882, in Camden County, Snow Hill Center Township, NJ; died April 30, 1961, in Philadelphia, PA; daughter of Redmon (a minister) and Annie (Seamon) Fauset; married Herbert Harris (an insurance broker), 1929. Education: Cornell University, B.A. (Phi Beta Kappa), 1905; University of Pennsylvania, M.A., 1919; attended the Sorbonne and the Alliance Francaise, Paris, 1924.
Fisk University, teacher, summer 1904; Douglas High School, Baltimore, MO, teacher, 1905-06; Dunbar High School, Washington, DC, teacher, 1906-1919; The Crisis magazine, New York City, writer and columnist, 1912-27, literary editor, 1919-26; DeWitt Clinton High School, New York City, teacher, 1927-44; Hampton Institute. VA, teather, 1949. Attended the Second Pan-African Congress, Paris, 1921.
Member: Phi Beta Kappa; Delta Sigma Theta.
academic record, Fauset was denied admission to Bryn Mawr College, presumably because of its racist admissions policies, although the college was subsequently responsible for her receiving a scholarship to Cornell University. There, Fauset, one of the first black woman students, majored in classical languages and became the first black woman admitted to Phi Beta Kappa. She graduated in 1905.
Fauset’s second encounter with racism occurred when the city of Philadelphia refused to hire her to teach in the public school system; so Fauset accepted a one-year position at Douglas High School in Baltimore, Maryland, during the 1905-06 school year. She moved to Washington, D.C., in 1906, where she taught French and Latin at the M Street High School (renamed the Dunbar School) for the next fourteen years. During the 1918–19 school year, Fauset took a leave of absence to complete an M.A. degree at the University of Pennsylvania. She was also at this time writing the “Looking Glass” column for The Crisis magazine.
In 1919 Fauset moved to New York to assume the position of literary editor of The Crisis, a position she held until 1926. Ann Allen Shockley related in Afro-American Women Writers, 174&1933 that under Fauset’s editorship, “the publication outsold [its rival] Charles S. Johnson’s Opportunity with a monthly circulation of sixty thousand.” Sylvander added in Jessie Redmon Fauset that “the credit for the magazine’s important role in black American literature must go primarily to Jessie Fauset…. It was Jessie Redmon Fauset who for ten years discovered, nurtured, encouraged, and published the writers who gave new birth to black American literature.”
In addition to her editorial responsibilities and her commitment to encourage and publish the writings of the young “New Negro” writers—particularly women writers—she continued to contribute numerous short stories, essays, poetry, reviews, critiques, and translations to The Crisis. Her essay “The Gift of Laughter,” which appeared in Alain Locke’s 1925 book The New Negro, is considered a classical work on the history of black actors, their consignment to limited roles as comedians because of society’s persistent racial stereotyping, and their not-as-yet fully tapped potential as serious dramatic actors.
In addition, from 1920–21, Fauset and Augustus Granville Dill carried out W. E. B. Du Bois’s plan for a periodical for children ages six to 16, The Brownies’ Book: A Monthly Magazine for the Children of the Sun. The magazine contained stories, biographies, songs, pictures, and games, and its stated purpose was to “teach Universal Love and Brotherhood for all little folks—black and brown and yellow and white.” Sylvander wrote that “in the twenty-four issues of this remarkable publication, Fauset wrote hundreds of signed and unsigned stories, poems, dialogues, biographies, articles, and did the editing of manuscripts and correspondence with contributors as well.” In 1965 Elinor Sinnette explained, in an article for Freedom-ways, that “as a teacher… [Fauset] saw daily the need for children and young people to have insight into their past and hope and pride in their future.” Sylvander called the periodical a “delightful publication; it expands one’s impression from The Crisis materials that Jessie Fauset was an efficient editor, a friend to young writers, a creative and interesting person and writer.”
During these seven years from 1919 to 1926, Fauset was presented with a number of opportunities to travel and lecture. The sponsorship of her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, enabled Fauset to attend the Second Pan-African Congress in Paris in 1921. While in Europe, she also lectured in London on the role of black women in the United States. Fauset returned to Paris in 1924 to study for a year at the Sorbonne and the Alliance Française, where she had first been a student during the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Also in 1924 she made her first trip to Africa. Fauset would return overseas in 1934 to visit Paris, Gibraltar, Naples, Rome, Seville, and Morocco. She recorded all of these experiences in essays for The Crisis. In her biography of Fauset, Sylvander commented on the author’s “skill with the travel essay,” explaining that through her writing in that genre “Fauset shows the awareness of others’ differing experiences, the deep interest in various classes and types of peoples, and the ability to make relevant universal significance out of personal observations.” These “incisive” travel essays, Sylvander noted, further “reveal a sensitivity to the lives of the poor and of women, and a curiosity about ways of life other than her own.” By 1924 Fauset had also published her first novel, There Is Confusion. She later spoke of these years in Countee Cullen’s 1927 anthology of black poets, Caroling Dusk, as “Wonderful days those!”
Fauset’s 1924 work There Is Confusion was motivated in part by her reading of the novel Birthright by white novelist T. S. Stribling, which she considered an unrealistic portrayal of the actual, authentic lives of black people. Fauset’s response to Stribling was to interweave the lives of her two women protagonists: Joanna Marshall, an aspiring actress, and Maggie Ellersley, who, although she loves Joanna’s brother Phillip, tragically marries instead an older man for financial security. The novel is structured through a series of “confusing” romance plots and subplots involving lovers’ separations and reunions, including Joanna and Maggie’s love for the same man, Peter Bye. Underlying the narrative surface, according to Shock-ley, is Fauset’s more important intent for her use of the word “confusion” in the title: “the’ confusion’… of racism affecting blacks in a white society.”
In Jessie Redmon Fauset, Sylvander cited reviews that indicate this novel was, for the most part, well received in 1924. More recently it has been criticized by scholars like Deborah E. McDowell for its “under-developed characters,” excessive sentimentality of dialogue and image,” and “three slenderly-related plot lines.” However, McDowell, writing in Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition, joined other readers in recognizing the novel’s strength in its “continued exploration of the circumscribing effects of sexism on women.” Sylvander added in her biography: “In quiet, subtle ways, [Fauset] tiptoes across’acceptable’topics and conclusion [sic] to explore alternatives to her society’s sometimes limiting norms…. The entire book explores the limited alternatives available to women, especially black women, and also shows women breaking out of these limits without being excessively punished.” In addition to sexism, There Is Confusion establishes some of the major themes that characterize Fauset’s future fiction: the lives, values, and concerns of black middle-class families, as well as broader issues of class, color, and people of color “passing” for white.
The publishing history of There Is Confusion has been widely reported. The first publisher to whom Fauset submitted her novel rejected it because “white readers just don’t expect Negroes to be like this,” but Boni and Liveright’s book jacket took a different and more positive stance in proclaiming the novel a portrayal of “the new society that is growing up among the Northern Negroes.
After making her final break with The Crisis in 1927, Jessie Fauset sought other employment in the publishing world, but Shockley revealed that “prejudices existed in the publishing houses then more than ever, and she was forced to return to teaching.” Fauset taught French at DeWitt Clinton High School in New York from 1927 to 1944. It was during this time that she firmly established her reputation as a novelist. She reportedly wrote in the afternoons and during summer vacations, telling Marion Starkey ina 1932 interview for Southern Workman that she was “doing a little every day rather than waiting for the correct mood, or for uninterrupted leisure.” In 1929, at the age of 47, she married Herbert Harris, a war veteran and insurance broker with Victory Life Insurance Company in New York.
Fauset’s second novel, Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral (1929), is considered by some scholars to be her finest work of fiction. Drawing on the familiar nursery rhyme “To Market, To Market” to structure the five sections of the novel, Fauset explores the theme of “passing” while dramatizing one of the major debates of the Harlem Renaissance, the roles and responsibilities of the black American artist. After her parents die, light-skinned Angela Murray leaves her sister, Virginia, in Philadelphia and goes to New York to study art. In order to take advantage of opportunities in the art world, Angela passes for white, living in Greenwich Village and changing her name to Angele Mory. In contrast, when Virginia eventually moves to New York, she chooses to live in Harlem and become involved in racial protest activities.
Fauset uses the choices of the two sisters to represent antithetical poles in the Harlem Renaissance discourse on the subject of artists’responsibility to the black community. In a dramatic, climatic scene, Angela reconsiders her need to “pass” and comes to realize that her achievements will always feel shallow and false to her as long as they continue to be gained by a denial of her racial heritage and culture. Despite the subtitle of the novel, Fauset’s moral, which echoes that of many artists of the 1920s, is made blatantly clear: the black artist has responsibilities first and foremost to her race.
The structure of Fauset’s last two novels, The Chinaberry Tree (1931) and Comedy, American Style (1933), is best understood in light of Fauset’s love of theater and dramatic forms, even though she herself refused to attempt to write plays. In The Chinaberry Tree, Fauset uses devices from Greek tragedy to parallel her narrative setting in an all-black New Jersey community called Red Brook. Sylvander noted that this concentration on life within a black community caused Mary White Ovington, a white liberal writer and co-founder of the NAACP, to inquire in her “Book Chat” column, “Is this colored world that Miss Fauset draws quite true?” Sylvander went on to say that “when colored readers responded … yes,” Ovington rephrased her question in a later column: “Is there sufficient local color to make the story of the Negro interesting without much reference to his relation to the white race?” Ovington’s dissatisfaction with the novel reveals the difficulty that black writers faced during the 1920s in their endeavors to introduce the reading public to black themes, characters, and concerns.
The Chinaberry Tree traces the lives of two women who were born illegitimately. Because of Red Brook’s outspoken criticism and ostracism, Laurentine Strange grows up being constantly reminded that her mother, Aunt Sal, was the lover of the now-deceased Colonel Halloway, the son of the white family for whom Aunt Sal worked. Lauren-tine’s story, however, is complicated when her cousin, Melissa Paul, returns to Red Brook. Unlike Laurentine, Melissa is not aware that she, too, is the product of an illicit affair.
While the plot is characterized by Fauset’s usual twists and turns, Jessie Redmon Fauset author Sylvander agreed with Nation writer Gerald Sykes in believing the strength of the novel lies in “Fauset’s understanding of the need and desire of an illegitimate child” to gain respectability. Sylvander concluded that “in The Chinaberry Tree, Fauset sympathetically explores this urge toward normality, ’and’decency, ’and’respectability.’” Because of its underlying theme of miscegenation and interracial love, however, and because the novel focuses almost exclusively on a black community, Fauset had trouble persuading her publisher, the Frederick A. Stokes Company, to publish it until white writer and playwright Zona Gale agreed to write an introduction.
For her last novel, Comedy, American Style, published when she was 51, Fauset focuses on interracial colorism (or color mania). In this novel, Fauset shows the tragic and destructive effects on the children of Olivia Blanchard Cary because of her obsessive desire to be white. She again draws on dramatic structures to subtitle the six major sections: “The Plot,” The Characters,” Teresa’s Act, “Oliver’s Act,” “Phebe’s Act,” and “Curtain.” Sylvander concluded that “more so than in her previous three novels, Fauset… presents positive aspects of black culture that further suggest alternatives to white imitation or assimilation.”
Sylvander suggested that by ending the novel with her protagonist alone in Paris, Fauset adds another dimension to her recurring themes of passing: “By making Olivia white and unfree in Paris, Fauset has reinforced her dominant theme, evident in all four of her novels. Racial barriers abound, and sexual barriers abound, but beyond all that what really counts for happiness and for fulfillment are human relationships.” In short, Paris cannot fulfill the “expatriate’s dream of the discrimination free society” nor can “being white” be seen as a “cure-all for the problems of the American black.”
In 1927 Jessie Fauset wrote in Countee Cullen’s Caroling Dusk: “All my life I have wanted to write novels and have had one published. But usually, in spite of myself, I have scribbled poetry.” Yet Fauset’s poetry has suffered the fate of many of the women writers of the Harlem Renaissance. In the poetry anthology Shadowed Dreams, Maureen Honey traces the literary history of black women poets of the 1920s, including Fauset. In short, black women poets were more often than not admired and lauded by their male contemporaries, yet they have been ignored or trivialized as “conventional and sentimental” and lacking in race consciousness by scholars of subsequent generations. Only in the last decade have studies been devoted exclusively a thorough analysis of poetic themes and stylistic forms of black women poets of the Harlem Renaissance.
As literary editor of The Crisis, Jessie Fauset was instrumental in encouraging and publishing the poems and other literature of women writers; yet studies of her own poetry usually have been subordinated to studies of her fiction. Several critics contend, however, that Fauset’s poetry provides further insight into her own aesthetic concerns and deserves a place of recognition in her literary corpus. The seven poems included in Cullen’s Caroling Dusk, for example, reinforce one of the major themes of her fiction: the tragic effects of conventionalized notions of romantic love on women. A line from “Noblesse Oblige” captures a central concern of Fauset’s poetry and fiction—a message, as Maureen Honey phrased it, of “the heartbreak over unrequited love” and the “claiming of a despondent self”: “May you never know, Mam’selle, /Love’s harsh cruelty.” The same sentiment is echoed in “Words! Words!,” in which Fauset writes, “And love lay between us, bleeding and dead! / Dead! When we’d loved each other so!”
Despite this romantically tragic dimension of many of Fauset’s poems, Maureen Honey suggested that instead of dismissing them as sentimental and trivial, we reevaluate them in light of their historical context: mainly that “a fundamental tenet of white supremacy was that Afro-Americans were not capable of fine, romantic feelings.” She joined critic Lindsay Patterson in believing that “affirming,” and “making visible” black American love poetry is “a form of resistance” to stereotypical views of people of color held by white society—an endeavor that was one of the stated intents of the Renaissance writers in general, and Jessie Fauset in particular.
Jessie Fauset and her husband, Herbert Harris, left New York in the early 1940s for Montclair, New Jersey, where they lived until Harris’s death in 1958. Fauset then returned to Philadelphia, the city which she had hailed in Cullen’s Caroling Dusk as “the dear delight of my life.” She spent her remaining three years in the home of her stepbrother, Earl Huff, already suffering from arteriosclerosis; she died of hypertensive heart disease in 1961.
Jessie Fauset’s literary reputation has traveled a long distance over the last 50 years. In 1940 Langston Hughes regarded her as a “mid-wife,” responsible for launching the careers of famous male writers; in 1958 Robert Bone relegated her to the ranks of the “Rear Guard,” those writers who “continued to write as if the Victorian world were still intact”; and in 1985 Deborah E. McDowell hailed her as a “black woman [who dared] to write—even timidly so—about women taking charge of their own lives and declaring themselves independent of social conventions.”
Shockley suggested that “her novels have been accorded more respect in recent years as a result of the new awareness of the problems she wrote about” and further noted, “By choosing unpopular topics for her fiction [and poetry], Fauset challenged the preconceptions of the publishing industry and opened the way for literature which would appear in succeeding decades.”
There Is Confusion, Boni and Liveright, 1924.
Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral, Frederick A.
Stokes, 1929. The Chinaberry Tree: A Novel of American Life, Frederick A. Stokes, 1931.
Comedy, American Style, Frederick A. Stokes, 1933.
“The Gift of Laughter,” in The New Negro, edited by Alain Locke, Albert & Charles Boni, 1925, with a new preface by Robert Hayden, Atheneum, 1969.
(Contributor) Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Black Poets of the Twenties, edited by Countee Cullen, Harper & Brothers, 1927, First Carol Publishing Group Edition, 1993.
(Contributor) Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, edited by Maureen Honey, Rutgers University Press, 1989.
Author of short stories, essays, reviews, translations, and poetry, most of which appeared in The Crisis from 1912-27; contributing writer and co-editor (with Augustus Granville Dill) of The Brownies’Book: A Monthly Magazine for the Children of the Sun, 1920-21.
Black Literature Criticism, Gale, 1992.
Black Writers, Gale, 1989.
Bone, Robert A., The Negro Novel in America, revised edition, Yale University Press, 1965.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 51: African-American Writers from the Harlem Renaissance to 1940, Gale, 1987, pp. 76-85.
Pryse, Marjorie, and Hortense J. Spillers, editors, Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition, Indiana University Press, 1985, pp. 86-104.
Shockley, Ann Allen, Afro-American Women Writers, 174&1933: An Anthology and Critical Guide, New American Library, 1988.
Sylvander, Carolyn Wedin, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Black American Writer, The Whitson Publishing Company, 1981.
Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women, winter 1991, p. 54.
Black American Literary Forum, winter 1980, pp. 147-52.
Freedomways, winter 1965, pp. 133-42.
Phylon, June 1978, pp. 143-53.
Southern Workman, May 1932, pp. 217-20.
—Mary Katherine Wainwright
Jessie Redmon Fauset
Jessie Redmon Fauset
Jessie Redmon Fauset (1882-1961) had a career as a teacher, but she is best known for her writing and her contribution to the Harlem Renaissance as literary editor of the Crisis.
Fauset was born on April 27, 1882, in Camden, New Jersey. She was the seventh child born to Redmon Fauset, an African Methodist Episcopal minister, and Annie Seamon Fauset. After the death of Annie Fauset, Redmon Fauset married Bella Huff, a widow with three children. To this union three children were born, including writer Arthur Huff Fauset. Jessie Fauset grew up in cultured but economically poor circumstances in Philadelphia, graduating with honors from the High School for Girls in 1900 as the only black student. Officials at Bryn Mawr College, which Fauset sought to enter, obtained aid for her to go instead to Cornell University, from which she graduated in 1905 after a demanding course of study emphasizing languages (Latin, Greek, French, German, and English). She was the first black woman in the country elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and the only black graduate elected to that honor fraternity at Cornell before 1921.
After being denied a teaching job in Philadelphia because of her race, Fauset taught one year at the Douglass High School in Baltimore before moving to Washington, D.C., where she successfully taught French at the M Street High School (after 1916 called the Dunbar High School) for fourteen years. Highly intelligent, highly educated, and well-read, yet exceedingly modest and even shy in social circumstances, Fauset was an impressive and effective teacher, according to her students. One of them recalled 60 years later that she was the first person he heard use the word "ubiquitous" in ordinary conversation, and it sent him scurrying to the dictionary.
Fauset completed two graduate degrees, a master of arts in French at the University of Pennsylvania in 1929, after summer courses in 1901 and 1912 and a year's work in 1918-19; and a certificate at the Sorbonne, Paris, France, after six months of study there in 1925-26. She returned to teaching French at DeWitt Clinton High School in New York City after her tenure as literary editor of the NAACP's publication, the Crisis, from 1919 to 1926.
Became Influential Literary Editor
Fauset's amiability, intelligence, education, and interactive teaching skills made her an exceptional and highly influential literary editor during the height of the Harlem Renaissance period. Poet Langston Hughes called Fauset one of the three "mid-wives" who guided the artistic development into life.
In 1919 Fauset was brought from Washington, D.C., to New York City and the offices of the NAACP and the Crisis by W. E. B. Du Bois, editor of the magazine from its inception in 1911. By that time, Fauset had published numerous short stories, poems, articles, and book reviews in the journal and had been fleetingly involved with various NAACP legal cases. She had also been an admirer of Du Bois, fourteen years her senior, from her college days at Cornell, beginning a correspondence with him just when her own father died and obtaining Du Bois's aid in locating summer teaching jobs as a college student.
From 1919 to 1926 Fauset took over much of Du Bois's work connected with the Crisis and with his international Pan-African Movement meetings (her facility in French in fact made her indispensable to some of this activity). She did much work for which Du Bois has been given credit by himself and others, including the short-lived but delightful children's publication The Brownies' Book (1920-21). For the twenty-four issues of this publication, Fauset wrote hundreds of signed and unsigned stories, poems, dialogues, biographies, and articles, as well as handling all of the correspondence with contributors and all of the editing.
As literary editor of the Crisis, Fauset discovered or published very early in their careers Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, and Countee Cullen, as well as many lesser-known women writers with views ranging from radical to conservative on racial and sexual issues, and with widely-differing writing styles.
Fauset included in the magazine many articles dealing with literary movements of the day, putting the Crisis at the center of the 1920s debates on how "the Negro" should be portrayed in art. Explanatory articles on the nature and structure of short stories and plays were designed for the wide audience reached by the Crisis and were successful in encouraging new writers to enter competitions sponsored by the NAACP, such as the Amy Spingarn awards for black writers of poetry, drama, essays, and short stories.
Fauset's own writing for the Crisis before and during her tenure as literary editor includes a large number of poems and stories, one rather lengthy novelette, translations from French and West Indian and African writers, many essays, book reviews, and articles on topics ranging from Egyptian nationalism and Brazilian emancipation to reports on the Second Pan-African Congress in Europe in 1921, which she attended as a delegate of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, of which she was a member.
This range of writing reveals a woman thoroughly aware of the American social and literary scene, as well as of the relationships of American life to what was being lived and written in other countries. Her reviews cover a wide range of material appearing in periodicals as well as books, and include evaluations of English and French works of fiction, drama, poetry, folklore, journalism, biography, criticism, and literary history, many of them dealing with Africa and African literature. Fauset's standards of form are invariably high even when she is strongly moved by content. Her negative criticism is kind and polite while nevertheless clearly stated. She attempts to find something to praise even when the sum of a review is negative. Her assessments of works that have since become well-known do not differ significantly from those of subsequent critics, as, for example, in her praising James Weldon Johnson's anonymously-published The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man in 1912.
Essays Less Recognized Than Fiction
Fauset is a very good—and heretofore unrecognized— essayist, with her intelligence, precise language skill, wide-ranging interests, and sensitivity suited more to this form than to that for which she is usually recognized, her fiction. Five travel essays from France and Algeria in 1925-26, published in the Crisis demonstrate her skill. Fauset reveals deep interest in the lives and strengths of the poor in "Yarrow Revisited," contrasting the Paris she knew as a student in 1913 and the Paris of the Second Pan-African Congress in 1922 with the "workaday season" she knows in a cheap pension in 1925. "This Way to The Flea Market" describes in detail the lives of the extreme poor of all nationalities clinging to the fringes of the fortifications of Paris. Here and in "Dark Algiers and White" she concentrates on the women, looking beneath the "voluminous garments" of the Arabians, for example, to see "the misshapen bodies, broken and distorted by neglect, abuse and much beating of children."
Fauset's essays reveal a strong and gentle woman with happy childhood memories, an intense intellectual life, and wide social contacts as well as a deep awareness of the lives of the poor and of women. Her imagery and figurative language is suitably sparse and effective; she makes her points subtly and entertainingly. The personal essay form was particularly suited to her thought and writing skills. Fauset explores opinions and experiences in her essays that are invariably ignored when her fiction is cursorily examined.
Fauset's poems, neither simplistic nor innovative, reveal personal delights and pains behind her more public concerns, many seeking consolation in nature after love is gone. Most frequently anthologized is a lighthearted exploration of love and pain and irony called "La Vie C'est La Vie," first published in the Crisis in July 1922 (124). The poem's narrator sits "quiescent" in the park beside a man who loves her, idly watching the squirrels while his voice breaks "with love and pain."
Also anthologized, for example, in the Langston Hughes and Area Bontemps anthology, The Poetry of the Negro: 1746-1949 (1949) and in James Weldon Johnson's The Book of American Negro Poetry (1931), are Fauset's very good translations of French West Indian poets. She was aware, writing about translating Haitian writers in 1920, that "French poetry does not lend itself easily to our harsher, less flexible mould," making it difficult to convey the "charm" of the original, charm which nevertheless ranked, in her estimation, with the "charm of the poetry of France" (Sylvander, 129).
Most-Published Novelist of Harlem Renaissance
Fauset's short stories published in the Crisis lend some insight into themes of the fiction for which she is best known-she is, in fact, with her four novels, the most published novelist of the Harlem Renaissance period. "Emmy" shows her interest in the ironies of American discrimination based not only on skin color but on invisible "Black blood," and her more extensive concern with what characters do within the constraints of their heritage. "The Sleeper Wakes" presents some of the race and sex issues later developed in her novel Plum Bun in 1929. "Double Trouble" is an early version of the barely-avoided incest of her novel The Chinaberry Tree of 1931. In each case, the movement from the shorter to the longer exploitations of the themes shows conscious artistic development in Fauset's fiction.
In the early 1920s, Fauset was inspired to write her first novel by what she thought to be inaccurate or incomplete depictions of black life in fiction. There Is Confusion was published in 1924 by New York publishers Boni and Liveright (who also published Jean Toomer's Cane and Eric Walrond's Tropic Death, as well as white writers Theodore Dreiser, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Hilda Doolittle, H. L. Mencken, William Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson, and Hart Crane). Fauset's novel was well reviewed and sold well, even being issued in a second edition in 1928.
There is Confusion presents the story of two families through the marriage of Joanna Marshall from one family and Peter Bye from the other. Fauset traces the lives of the main characters from childhood and provides extensive information about their ancestry, leading to a plethora of characters, descriptions, and leaps in time that are often confusing. For its themes, however, the novel is a worthwhile read, depicting the kinds of racial discrimination faced by northern, urban blacks, and the kinds of responsive actions possible given American slave history, racially-mixed heritage, and various environments.
Many formal improvements by the time Fauset published her second novel, Plum Bun, in 1929, make it in many ways her best work. Time transitions are shorter and smoother than in her first novel, and the limitation of the point of view to one character, Angela Murray, gives the reader depth without confusion. The plot is structured by the nursery rhyme, "To Market, to Market, to buy a Plum Bun. Home again, Home again, Market is done." Angela is a young woman from a strong Philadelphia family of modest means. She and her mother can pass for white, her sister and her father cannot. In New York City as a struggling painter, Angela makes the choice to pass, becoming involved also with a rich white playboy (the "Plum Bun" section). "Home Again," the longest section of the novel, explores Angela's attempts to establish meaningful relationships with men and women she carefully evaluates. In the final "Market is Done" section, Angela sacrifices an award of a trip to France by revealing her racial identity in response to reporters' badgering of a black woman. In fitting nursery rhyme fashion, Angela is then rewarded not only by getting to France anyway but by a Paris reunion with her true love, Anthony Cross, who has lingered in the background throughout the novel in triple disguise—poor, black, looking white.
Fauset uses the plot freedom of the American romance while satirizing traditional romantic assumptions in Plum Bun. Black blood is customarily a "bar sinister" in American romance. Angela sees it just that way at the beginning of the book; her romantic ideal of adventure and love points directly toward being white and marrying white as well as rich. But it is only after Angela sees skin color, money, and marriage in a transformed light that Roger, the rich playboy, arrives at her door with a marriage proposal.
Stylistic Elements of Earlier Novels Return
Unfortunately Fauset's final two novels, The Chinaberry Tree, 1931, and Comedy: American Style,1933, return to some of the stylistic defects of her first. The Frederick A. Stokes Company, which had published Plum Bun, balked a bit at her third, deciding to do it only after writer Zona Gale agreed with Fauset to write an introduction. The readers at Stokes, Fauset said, "declare plainly that there ain't no such colored people as these, who speak decent English, are self-supporting and have a few ideals" (Jessie Fauset to Zona Gale, 20 October 1931). The Stokes Company went on to publish Fauset's fourth novel as well as her third.
Despite weaknesses in form, the two novels are nevertheless worth reading for their thematic relevance. In her foreword to the 1931 book, Fauset said she wanted to explore "the homelife of the colored American who is not being pressed too hard by the Furies of Prejudice, Ignorance, and Economic Injustice." This she does through a story set in a small New Jersey community named Red Brook, in which white townspeople appear only once, as onlookers to a skating party.
Both The Chinaberry Tree and Comedy: American Style use formal structures from analogues to drama, implicit in the former with its suggestions of classical Greek tragedy and Shakespearean festive comedy, explicit in the latter with its formal divisions using dramatic terms. Fauset had been extremely involved with drama in her New York City social life throughout the 1920s, naming theater-going as her favorite recreation. Her fourth and final published novel, in 1933, is divided into elements of a play: "the Plot," "The Characters," "Teresa's Act," "Oliver's Act," "Phebe's Act," and "Curtain," with each of the theatrical terms acting as double entendre.
At the age of forty-seven, in 1929, Fauset married Herbert Harris, an insurance broker somewhat incapacitated by World War I injuries, and they made their home with Fauset's sister Helen Lanning, an elementary school teacher, in a cooperative apartment on Seventh Avenue in Harlem until Lanning's death in 1936. Fauset and Harris were separated for a time in 1931 and 1932, during which time Herbert Harris was named corespondent in the divorce suit of Harold McDonald. In the early 1940s the Harrises moved to 247 Orange Road in Montclair, New Jersey, where they lived until Herbert Harris's death in 1958. Following his death, Fauset returned to Philadelphia, where she lived with her half-brother, Earl Huff, until her death on April 30, 1961.
Fauset's achievements in American literary history are significant and are particularly noteworthy when one recognizes the many ways in which she was a courageous and successful pioneer in education, in employment, in editing, in translating, and in writing. Her last two novels were published when the Harlem Renaissance she had helped spur was over, and the Great Depression was on. She attempted to write and publish more after her retirement from her second career in teaching in the 1930s, but by then it was too late. It often seems that great artists are less than admirable people. Jessie Fauset is an example of an extremely admirable person who made the most of her opportunities but whose modesty and selflessness prevented her from becoming a major American literary figure.
The Poetry of the Negro: 1746-1949. Edited by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps, Doubleday, 1970.
Sylvander, Carolyn Wedin. Jessie Redmon Fauset: Black American Writer. Whitson, 1981.
Baltimore Afro-American, December 17, 1932.
Southern Workman, May 1932, pp. 217-20. □