Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Word in Black and White

Title: The Word in Black and White: Reading "Race" in American Literature 1638-1867 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992)

Author: Dana D. Nelson, professor of English at Vanderbilt. Her other book is National Manhood: Capitalist Citizenship and the Imagined Fraternity of White Men (Duke University Press, 1998). Looks like she's working on a project about the history of alternative ideas of democracy.

My review: I'm going to have to get over my distaste for the use of quotation marks around words like "race" or "black" or "white", and the capitalization of the word "Other", and a host of other early-90s-race-lit-crit things which just distract and annoy me. This book is about the "ingraining" of categories of race through literature, in the pre-Civil War US. Basic philosophy: "to write is to know is to dominate" (see Lepore). The authors discussed include Edgar Allen Poe (for the awesome Arthur Gordon Pym book), Cotton Mather, Fenimore Cooper, Sedgwick, and Lydia Maria Child, the last being the only author Nelson describes as fulfilling the ultimate liberal white authorial mission of both disdaining racism and proposing alternative modes of racial interaction. Other authors, including Melville, whose "Benito Cereno" comes under Nelson's scrutiny, manage to criticize white slave-owning but don't move beyond into prescriptiveness.

Nelson borrows ideas from Richard Slotkin, Annette Kolodny, Richard Drinnon, Mary Louise Pratt, Karen Halttunen, and Abdul JanMohammed.

Books: Secondary: Nancy Stepan, Idea of Race in Science: Great Britain, 1800-1960 (1982)

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