Authors: Jessie Redmon Fauset

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist and journalist

Identity: African American

Author Works

Long Fiction:

There Is Confusion, 1924

Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral, 1928

The Chinaberry Tree: A Novel of American Life, 1931

Comedy, American Style, 1933

Biography

Jessie Redmon Fauset played a significant role in the artistic ferment of the 1920’s called the Harlem Renaissance, not only as a novelist and journalist but also as the literary editor of The Crisis, the journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), in which capacity she encouraged many talented young black authors of the period.{$I[AN]9810001313}{$I[A]Fauset, Jessie Redmon}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Fauset, Jessie Redmon}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Fauset, Jessie Redmon}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Fauset, Jessie Redmon}{$I[tim]1882;Fauset, Jessie Redmon}

Jessie Redmon Fauset.

(Courtesy, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University)

Fauset was the seventh child of Redmon and Annie Fauset. Her father served as a pastor in the prestigious African Methodist Episcopal Church, and his moral convictions, particularly those involving race and education, strongly shaped the worldview adopted by his daughter. The Fausets also boasted a genteel lineage from among the oldest black families in Philadelphia and consciously pursued a middle-class ethic of respectability and cultural sophistication that was hampered by the economics of Redmon’s ministerial career.

Jessie’s intellectual ambitions began early as a result of these various influences. She became one of a handful of black students to attend the Philadelphia High School for Girls, and, upon finishing with honors, entered Cornell University in 1901. Fauset left Cornell in 1905, a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a degree in languages and plans to become a teacher. Despite racial barriers, she became a high school French and Latin instructor in Washington, D.C. In 1919 she left this position to complete an M.A. in French at the University of Pennsylvania and to join the editorial staff of The Crisis.

Fauset’s important relationship with black scholar and political leader W. E. B. Du Bois began as early as 1903, when she was still an undergraduate. She later became involved in the work of the NAACP, which Du Bois helped to establish in 1910, and contributed regularly to The Crisis, publishing fiction, poetry, literary reviews, and journalism that expressed her pride in the richness of black culture and celebrated the international achievements of black people. When Du Bois offered her the literary editorship of the magazine, he brought her into the center of the Harlem Renaissance.

In her supervisory role on The Crisis from 1919 to 1926, Fauset was instrumental in the evolution of what was called “the New Negro Literature.” She fostered the careers of the newcomers Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Countée Cullen, and Claude McKay by publishing their work and including them in her literary social circle. Fauset praised these writers for evoking the authentic flavor of black culture through an artistry that transcended propaganda. She championed black scholarship and encouraged academic interest in Africa as a crucial basis for black American self-awareness. In 1920 she joined the editorial staff of Du Bois’s magazine for children, The Brownie’s Book, as another means of stimulating racial pride among black youth.

Fauset’s departure from The Crisis in 1926 coincided with her most concentrated efforts as a fiction writer, her four novels appearing within a nine-year span from 1924 to 1933. During this time she also earned an advanced language certificate from the Sorbonne (1925) and resumed her teaching career in the New York City school system, where she remained from 1927 to 1944. In 1929, she married insurance broker Herbert Harris, with whom she lived happily until his death in 1958; her own death from heart disease followed three years later.

Critical assessment of Fauset’s writing is mixed, in great part because of her technical limitations as a novelist. Plotting in her four books is stilted and melodramatic, cast in an enervatingly genteel prose style. Yet it is as much for her class sensibility as for her technique that Fauset has been relegated to “rear guard” status among the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. As examples of what is called the middle-class novel, her works were respected for expanding public awareness of black cultural life beyond the stereotypes of the black underclass. At the same time, however, they were castigated for espousing a conservative bourgeois ethic implying racial ambivalence and a yearning for white approbation. Written out of the experience that was most familiar to her–that of the educated and ambitious “talented tenth”–Fauset’s superficially romantic style grew increasingly out of step with the harsher naturalistic edge that characterized black writing during the late Harlem Renaissance. Nevertheless, black reviewers initially welcomed Fauset’s depiction of an upwardly striving black middle class and her efforts to both expose racial inequity and encourage racial pride.

Fauset’s characters are gifted professionals and artists determined to succeed despite the pervasive obstacle of racism. They also illustrate the special challenge faced by women who sought mobility within the established hierarchies of American society. In Plum Bun, considered her most accomplished novel, Fauset provides a complex study of the phenomenon of a black character’s “passing” for white. Her young heroine is so eager to escape the constraints of race that she moves from the insularity of Philadelphia to the bohemian liberality of New York, but in “passing” gives herself over to foolish, insensitive, and self-negating behavior whose pathology she finally realizes. Her behavior earns for her the twin rewards of a satisfying artistic career and a devoted lover. The motif of “passing” thus enabled Fauset to illustrate the arbitrariness and irrationality of racist categorizations which made inauthentic pretenses a seductive alternative to exclusion from opportunity for talented blacks.

In Fauset’s last two novels, she explores the darker implications not only of a racially polarized society but also of the bourgeois ethos itself. The Chinaberry Tree focuses almost exclusively on a black middle-class community plagued by snobbery, conventionality, and moral blindness, which threaten to undermine the aspirations and happiness of its members in potentially tragic fashion. Comedy, American Style examines the troubling interplay of American class consciousness and psychological victimization that can cripple even those who would seem by virtue of their middle-class advantages to have transcended the obstacle of racism. Here the happy endings so often criticized as mechanical and sentimental in Fauset’s other novels are powerfully challenged by the tragic suicide of a hopeless black teenager and the deluded social hypocrisy and isolation of his fair-skinned mother.

In the 1970’s, scholars began to reexamine Fauset’s career, arguing for a more balanced acknowledgment of her contributions to the emergence of black literature in the twentieth century. Feminist critics cite her perceptive depiction of the links between racism and sexism in American life. Her dissection of bourgeois complacency and her subtle debunking of ideals such as romantic love have been applauded. Finally, her multifaceted career has been recognized as documenting her faith in the moral, imaginative, and intellectual integrity of the black American.

BibliographyFeeney, Joseph J. “A Sardonic, Unconventional Jessie Fauset: The Double Structure and Double Vision of Her Novels.” CLA Journal 22 (1979). Offers an evaluation of Fauset’s career.Johnson, Abby Arthur. “Literary Midwife: Jessie Redmon Fauset and the Harlem Renaissance.” Phylon 39 (1978). A critical study.McDowell, Deborah. “Jessie Fauset.” In Modern American Women Writers, edited by Lea Baechler and A. Walton Litz. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1991. A general discussion of Fauset’s role in the Harlem Renaissance as editor and writer, the chapter provides an analysis of Fauset’s four novels to illustrate their “thematic and ironic complexity.”McLendon, Jacquelyn Y. The Politics of Color in the Fiction of Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1995. A study of the theme of the “tragic mulatto” in the novels of these two writers.Sato, Hiroko. “Under the Harlem Shadow: A Study of Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen.” In The Harlem Renaissance Remembered, edited by Arna Bontemps. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1972. While asserting that Fauset “is not a first rate writer,” Sato argues that race is the central concern of the novels’ middle-class characters.Sylvander, Carolyn. Jessie Redmon Fauset: Black American Writer. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1981. In this definitive critical biography on Fauset, Sylvander argues that reading Fauset’s novels as compared to her life is too simplistic.Wall, Cheryl. Women of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995. Wall provides an excellent discussion of all of Fauset’s works yet believes Fauset achieved distinction as a journalist and essayist.
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