Degree Name

PHD, Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type

Dissertation - Open Access

Department

Department of Finance

Advisor

Committee Chair - John Fenstermaker

Outside Committee Member - Maxine D. Jones

Committee Member - Darryl Dickson-Carr

Committee Member - Barry Faulk

Committee Member - William T. Lhamon

Date

Summer 6-4-2009

Abstract

As scholars have conceptualized American Literature, three prominent literary movements or groups of writers were active in the 1920s and 1930s: the Harlem or Black Renaissance; the Lost Generation or Expatriates; the Southern Renaissance. From each group came a writer whose words forever altered the language and construction of American Literature--Jean Toomer, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner, respectively. Concurrently, in the 1920s and 1930s America experienced significant racial turmoil. African American soldiers returning from World War I demanded equal rights with white soldiers; economic hardship exacerbated racism in the workplace; the South and border states firmly established Jim Crow laws. Bloodshed in race riots in twenty-six cities caused the summer of 1919 to be known as the “Red Summer.” In 1922, the House of Representatives passed the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill. Though the Bill failed in the Senate, lynching became a point of public concern in the 1920s, and its frequency diminished. World War I, which challenged national and personal identities, produced a peace treaty that increased hostile feelings between nations. Both World War I and the subsequent peace challenged white Americans’ understanding of the solidarity of race, the relationship between ethnic groups, and the international effectiveness of racial privilege. Toomer, Hemingway, and Faulkner, then, came of age in a consciously racist America and though their individual experiences with race and racism varied greatly, their writings all demonstrate a heightened awareness of blackness, whiteness, and white privilege. Examining their early work together, we see developing a challenge to whiteness and white privilege in America. This early work establishes social construction of race as one of the institutions challenged by American Modernism.

This study focuses on Toomer’s Cane (1923), Hemingway’s In Our Time (1925), and Faulkner’s These 13 (1931). Each is a short-story cycle and involves a dynamism not developed in short-story collections; each shows new choices with language and construction, indicating its seminal role in American Modernism; each includes stories addressing the place of whiteness in social construction. Each writer challenges the accepted understanding of whiteness as well as its role in society. Cane demonstrates the negative effects of whiteness and white privilege on both African Americans and European Americans. In Our Time shows whiteness falling short when challenged by Native Americans, African Americans, and women. These 13 suggests whiteness and white privilege have corrupted the very foundation of democracy and capitalism in the United States.

Reading these texts with attention to the social constructions of race and privilege resituates broadly ideas such as Hemingway’s Code. Asserting that courage and honor reside completely in an individual’s choice of value and personal behavior, Hemingway’s Code removes the need for society to define blackness and whiteness against each other, eliminating privilege. One cannot claim from these texts that America embraced Hemingway’s Code or that a nation can survive such individualism, but the potential for social reconstruction is there. Conversely, Faulkner shows the individual subsumed by cultural controls in the South, making identification with race and region more important than the crafting of an independent self. Contradicting the American value of independence, Faulkner’s portrayal of race also argues for its diminishment. Faulkner’s sense that time is not linear - that the past, present, and future interact and can ultimately be expressed in one sentence - makes each construction of blackness and whiteness relevant. Toomer’s belief that America must move away from race as a construct and embrace one hybrid “American Race” likewise eliminates the need for racial construction, comparison, and privilege. Though none of these writers has historically been considered a political activist, the words of these early compositions suggest a citizen’s interest in improving the nation. Race, and its pursuant definitions of blackness, whiteness, and privilege, becomes central, then, to both American Modernism and American Democracy.

Availability

Open Access

Comments

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