The Black Middle Ages: Race and the Construction of the Middle Ages

Table of contents :
About the Nature and Structure of This Study
Chapter 1: Introduction: Reading Out of Time—Genealogy, African-American Literature, and the Middle Ages
Anglo-Saxon Freedoms
Owning Time
A Desire for (Medieval) Origins
A Story to Pass On: Reading Against the Discourse of Time
The (W)hole of History
Works Cited
Primary Sources
Secondary Sources
Chapter 2: Medieval Self-Fashioning: The Middle Ages in African-American Scholarship and Curricula
The Construction of a Medieval Past: Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-African
The AME Church Review: Before the Renaissance
From Vernaculus to Vernacular: The Medieval in African-­American Education
Appendix: Dante
Works Cited
Primary Sources
Secondary Sources
Chapter 3: Failed Knights and Broken Narratives: Mark Twain and Charles Chesnutt’s Black Romance
The Two Middle Ages: Reassessing Twain’s Failure
Mythopoesis and Master Narratives: Charles Chesnutt’s Deviant Romance
Works Cited
Primary Sources
Secondary Sources
Chapter 4: History, Genealogy, and Gerald of Wales: Medieval Theories of Ethnicity and Their Afterlives
Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Conquest of Descent
Gerald’s Ambivalence
Works Cited
Primary Sources
Secondary Sources
Chapter 5: Other Families: Dryden’s Theory of Congeniality in Dante, Chaucer, and Naylor
The System of Naylor’s Inferno
From Chaucer to Naylor: Finding a Voice
Works Cited
Primary Sources
Secondary Sources
Chapter 6: Coda: True and Imaginary History in Django Unchained
Works Cited
Primary Sources
Secondary Sources

Citation preview




The Black Middle Ages RACE and the CONSTRUCTION of the MIDDLE AGES Matthew X. Ver non


The New Middle Ages Series Editor Bonnie Wheeler English & Medieval Studies Southern Methodist University Dallas, TX, USA

The New Middle Ages is a series dedicated to pluridisciplinary studies of medieval cultures, with particular emphasis on recuperating women’s history and on feminist and gender analyses. This peer-reviewed series includes both scholarly monographs and essay collections. More information about this series at

Matthew X. Vernon

The Black Middle Ages Race and the Construction of the Middle Ages

Matthew X. Vernon University of California, Davis Davis, CA, USA

The New Middle Ages ISBN 978-3-319-91088-8    ISBN 978-3-319-91089-5 (eBook) Library of Congress Control Number: 2018942752 © The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2018 This work is subject to copyright. All rights are solely and exclusively licensed by the Publisher, whether the whole or part of the material is concerned, specifically the rights of translation, reprinting, reuse of illustrations, recitation, broadcasting, reproduction on microfilms or in any other physical way, and transmission or information storage and retrieval, electronic adaptation, computer software, or by similar or dissimilar methodology now known or hereafter developed. The use of general descriptive names, registered names, trademarks, service marks, etc. in this publication does not imply, even in the absence of a specific statement, that such names are exempt from the relevant protective laws and regulations and therefore free for general use. The publisher, the authors, and the editors are safe to assume that the advice and information in this book are believed to be true and accurate at the date of publication. Neither the publisher nor the authors or the editors give a warranty, express or implied, with respect to the material contained herein or for any errors or omissions that may have been made. The publisher remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations. Cover credit: Zoonar GmbH / Alamy Stock Printed on acid-free paper This Palgrave Macmillan imprint is published by the registered company Springer International Publishing AG part of Springer Nature. The registered company address is: Gewerbestrasse 11, 6330 Cham, Switzerland

To my family who lives the vernacular. And to my family who gave me a light in the dark places, when all other lights went out.


About the Nature and Structure of This Study Even at the level of lexicon there are clear difficulties with this project. This subject is literally hard to talk about. To paraphrase Twain, medieval and African-American studies can seem like two fields separated by a common language. What do we mean when we say “vernacular”? Are we discussing the vernaculars of thirteenth-century England or the multiplicity of registers in American English, including dialect and regional vocabularies? When we say “feudalism,” do we mean the baggy category meant to capture the economic and social relations of medieval peoples or is it meant as the equally fraught category for slave labor in a capitalist American context? Is “Anglo-Saxon” a cultural designation for a person who has not existed for nearly a thousand years or shorthand for a white American? Even deceptively straightforward terms like the lyric, race, and the literary tradition are revealed to be peculiar within each field and incommensurate with itself when scaffolded by a different scholarly apparatus. In constructing this book across two fields, I attempt to respect the intellectual context that allows each of these terms to be legible to scholars in their respective fields. While I do mean the unusual intersection of discourses in this book to provoke a broader conversation between the medieval and AfricanAmerican studies, the reason for this intervention is practical. Many of the people under consideration in this book were trained before these disciplinary boundaries had solidified. As will be discussed in Chap. 2, several significant African-American writers read medieval texts or Sir Walter Scott and a few studied medieval languages. When they deployed terms like vii



“feudalism” or “romance” they did so with a deep understanding of the implications for putting African-American experiences into paradigms that were constructed to describe a wholly different historical period. Writers who did not have this training found explanatory power in the space created by the distance in-between applications of these terms in different contexts. For example, Gloria Naylor invites a discussion of the relationship between Chaucer’s “greet multitude of folk” and the boisterous language of the neighborhoods she imagines. Part of this book’s project is to begin to supplement the ways in which scholars of the Middle Ages and of African-American literature permit themselves to deploy terms that are fundamental to their fields so that they can imagine different boundaries for their inquiries. To bridge these fields, I will occasionally have to tread territory that is familiar to specialists in either medieval or nineteenthcentury studies. The breakdown between fields and time periods has prompted me to construct this book in a way that is different from most of contemporary scholarship. Although a significant amount of this book examines the origins of medieval studies within African-American scholarship and literature, it also looks outside of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Chapter 5 and the Coda look at the afterlife of African-American perspectives on the Middle Ages. Although it is unusual to find work on the Middle Ages alongside that of far-flung periods, it is necessary to include it within the pages of this book. Part of the reason for this is the performative function these chapters serve. This book insists that what early African-American scholars and writers undertook when studying the Middle Ages or making use of medievalisms was not a mere curiosity to be studied at a remove. The invocation of the medieval or the desire to do philological work often had a component that transcended the object of study. As I argue throughout Chap. 2, the relevance of the Middle Ages redounded to fundamental questions about the construction of race, the production of social space within the nation, and the possibilities of a humanistic education. I hope to use the shape of the book itself to advance a different set of logics than those of periodization and specialization. The danger inherent within studying the origin of medieval studies is to reify the social distinctions that African-American scholars sought to complicate by entering into areas of study that were simultaneously socially constructed as alien to them and essential to narratives of the nation. Much of the book will examine hybridity in the sense that Homi Bhabha uses the term to discuss



race, that is, as “cultures caught in the transitional and disjunctive temporalities of modernity.”1 However, I will expand the assumed dynamics Bhabha proposes between modern and pre-modern temporalities by adding a temporal site that is negotiated by these African-American scholars as a means of claiming agency within temporal frames, rather than being “caught” within them. Davis, CA


Matthew X. Vernon

 Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 2004), 360.


First, I must thank Bonnie Wheeler, who has overseen a series rich with ambitious scholarship on medieval subjects. I am honored to have the opportunity to be included among the roster of scholars whose work has inspired me throughout my academic career. Without her, this book would surely be adrift. Over the course of constructing this book I feared sharing the fate of Nick Carraway, that is, being a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. Although I have made many missteps along the way, I have been fortunate enough to have many patient teachers who have tried to usher me ever upwards. Any mistakes in this book are my own. I have the privilege of being a member of a department that is both intellectually stimulating and generous in its support. There is no department I would rather be part of. I would like to particularly thank John Marx, Desirée Martin, Scott Simmon, and Seeta Chaganti for their critical roles in welcoming me into the department and keeping me afloat. Above all, I owe a considerable debt of gratitude to Claire Waters whose brilliance and grace suffused the million acts of kindness she showed me while I was figuring out my place in academia. To properly thank her would take longer than the whole book. It suffices to say that I wish to one day be half the superhero she is. I would like to single out Mark Jerng, Katherine Steele Brokaw, and Justin LeRoy for reading my manuscript at a critical point in its development and for encouraging me subsequently. Kristen Aldebol-Hazle and Margaret Miller were also instrumental in helping me edit my manuscript. xi



Alastair Minnis, Stephen Yale-Loehr, Susanne Wofford, Robert Stepto, and Robert Frank were pivotal in my intellectual development. They heard me out even though I had not yet figured out a vocabulary. Thank you for taking a chance on me. Tom Hill deserves special thanks. Without him, none of this would have ever gotten started. I would like to thank Grace Lo, Dan Gustafson, and Serena Klempin for reminding me where my treasure is. Thanks also to Quinn Javers, Matthew Stratton, Asa Mittman,  Ann Zatsman, Britney Dann, Sophia Ioannou,  Katie Peterson, Francis Vernon,  Laura D’Amato-Contreras, Rosslyn D’Amato-Contreras, Lucia D’Amato-Contreras, and Cristina Biasetto. The next one is on me. And also Teddy.


1 Introduction: Reading Out of Time—Genealogy, African-­American Literature, and the Middle Ages   1 2 Medieval Self-Fashioning: The Middle Ages in African-­ American Scholarship and Curricula  45 3 Failed Knights and Broken Narratives: Mark Twain and Charles Chesnutt’s Black Romance 103 4 History, Genealogy, and Gerald of Wales: Medieval Theories of Ethnicity and Their Afterlives 159 5 Other Families: Dryden’s Theory of Congeniality in Dante, Chaucer, and Naylor 203 6 Coda: True and Imaginary History in Django Unchained 247 Index 263



Introduction: Reading Out of Time—Genealogy, African-American Literature, and the Middle Ages

Anglo-Saxon Freedoms This book, which is about narratives that have been subsumed under dominant discourses, will fittingly begin with a historical footnote. In the midst of the 2012 campaign for president of the United States, when each side was vying for the slightest advantage in the battle for headlines, the British paper, The Daily Telegraph, claimed that one of the advisors for the Republican candidate Mitt Romney made an unusual statement. He argued, according to the report, that Romney had a unique connection with the British prime minister because of the “Anglo-Saxon heritage” that the two countries shared in common, an inheritance that Obama “didn’t fully appreciate.”1 The comments occasioned a minor tempest and the Romney campaign vehemently denied them. Journalists debated just what to make of this statement. Stephen Colbert, host of the satirical television show, The Colbert Report, even suggested that Romney was evoking Germanic tribal connections and that he would soon be quoting Beowulf in his stump speeches. While this gaffe was a small wrinkle in a much larger political contest, the sentiment evoked a long tradition within American society. A year earlier, Forbes Magazine had published an article calling for the return to Anglo-Saxon principles, the ones upon which the  Jon Swain, “Mitt Romney Would Restore ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Relations between Britain and America.” The Daily Telegraph, July 24, 2012, (Accessed July 7, 2015). 1

© The Author(s) 2018 M. X. Vernon, The Black Middle Ages, The New Middle Ages,




founding fathers sought to base the laws of the country.2 A few years before that in a dissenting opinion, the Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia expressed concern that America was in danger of undoing its “Anglo-Saxon system” of separated powers.3 At the start of the twentyfirst century, the influential conservative political historian Samuel Huntington lamented the diminishing force of “Anglo-Saxonism” in American politics within a larger argument about the disintegration of a coherent American identity.4 The resurgence of these conservative ideas—in the political and ideological senses of the phrase—that tried to resist the demographic future of a diversifying country by reasserting America’s connection to the foundation of English political structures seemed to be upended by subsequent turns in American politics. Donald Trump was elected president. Political analysts began to reassess America’s historical trajectory to account for his unexpected victory. Moreover, the president himself was disinterested in history; a discussion of his connection to a pre-modern society would seem absurd.5 The terms of the debate about the future of the nation shifted away from its roots in the hoary past to the presidency’s modern antecedents. And yet, even in this campaign that seemed to defy all expectations, the dynamics that underpinned the Romney aide’s comments were replayed in one of the strangest but most telling scenes of the 2016 campaign. Trump enlisted the support of Nigel Farage, a British Member of Parliament who had championed the British exit from the European Union, to argue that America could regain its sovereignty and voters who 2  Bill Flax, “Forget Multiculturalism: Restore the Anglo-Saxon Philosophy Of Liberty.” Forbes Magazine, 9 September 2011, Online. 3  Here Scalia is ultimately borrowing from famed jurist Sir William Blackstone’s theories about the derivation of eighteenth-century British law from Anglo-Saxon law, particularly the law of King Alfred. Scalia reads Blackstone through Alexander Hamilton’s writings on the structure of American law. This is, of course, apocryphal, but is a telling misreading of history given Scalia’s position and legal expertise. See: Hamdi V. Rumsfeld (03-6696) 542 U.S. 507 (2004); Eric Gerald Stanley, Imagining the Anglo-Saxon Past (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2000). 4  Samuel Huntington, Who We Are: The Challenges to America’s National Identity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004), 55, 131. 5  James Hohmann, “Trump Doesn’t Know Much about History. It’s Making His On-TheJob Training Harder,” The Washington Post, April 14, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost. com/news/powerpost/paloma/daily-202/2017/04/14/daily-202-trump-doesn-t-knowmuch-about-history-it-s-making-his-on-the-job-training-harder/58f06ba2e9b69b3a72331 e84/?utm_term=.605c91f3b64d.



were victims of “modern global corporatism” could regain their “self-­ respect.”6 This choice of political surrogate perplexed commentators who underestimated the pull of the latent urge to roll back the years and seek solidarities that presumed the clarity of racial origins and borders; that is, to inhabit the fantasy of a pre-modern past. Although the subject of this book will be about what is marginal and easy to overlook, the issue under investigation—the desire for and use of origins that are pre-modern, specifically medieval origins—is an abiding and powerful undercurrent in American political, educational, and cultural discourses. The claims of an American “medieval heritage” have a curious genealogy. Each instance connects the United States and medieval Europe in ways that center on how American identity was conceived at the nation’s founding, particularly by Thomas Jefferson. There are many well-worn anecdotes about Jefferson’s antiquarian zeal for the Anglo-Saxon period and how he mobilized the history and language of the Anglo-Saxon period for contemporary purposes. Jefferson advocated that law students at the University of Virginia study Old English as a means to understand “our ancient common law, on which, as a stock, our whole system of law is engrafted.”7 Through this linguistic training students would have a closer understanding of the philosophy that he believed so deeply informed the framing of the nation’s laws. Jefferson was enthusiastic enough to muse about enshrining an image of Anglo-Saxons in one of the most significant American symbols; he proposed a plan for the Great Seal of the United States that would depict Hengest and Horsa, the mythical first Saxon settlers on Britain, taking their first steps ashore. Jefferson was deeply and personally invested in the Anglo-Saxon period; he describes his preoccupation as a “hobby which too often runs away with me where I meant not to give up the rein.”8 The focus on Thomas Jefferson allows scholars and public figures alike to locate the Middle Ages within a critical point of American history and suggests the continued significance of medieval texts, language, and

6  John Cassidy, “Trump Embraces Nigel Farage, His British Alter Ego” The New Yorker, August 25, 2016. 7  Thomas Jefferson, The Essential Jefferson, edited by Jean Yarbrough (Cambridge: Hackett, 2006), 72. 8  Thomas Jefferson, Letters of Thomas Jefferson Concerning Philology and the Classics, ed.Thomas Fitzhugh (Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 1919), 7.



­ hilosophy in the modern period.9 Dangers lurk in the desire for origins, p this mapping between the foundational moment of the nation and the medieval period. Implicated within Jefferson’s discussions of medieval literature is his ability to disarticulate the language of liberty he found to be so attractive within Anglo-Saxon literature from the realities of slave ownership. Jefferson looked to the Anglo-Saxon period as the historical and hereditary basis for a theory of liberty that could then be conferred upon future generations of Americans. In making an argument about the American right to rebel against the king, he refers to the allodial title of the Anglo-Saxons which was conveyed to American settlers.10 This historical argument reads America as never having been defeated by William the Conqueror, thus subject only to Anglo-Saxon law, not the king’s law. In a letter to a friend and Justice for the Virginia Supreme Court, Edmund Pendleton, Jefferson would further clarify this position: Has it not been the practice of all other nations to hold their lands as their personal estate in absolute dominion? Are we not the better for what we have hitherto abolished of the feudal system? Has not every restitution of the antient [sic] Saxon laws had happy effects? Is it not better now that we return at once into that happy system of our ancestors, the wisest & most perfect ever yet devised by the wit of man, as it stood before the 8th century.11

He concludes the letter by noting that it was “the season for driving” the Cherokee native Americans off their lands. Jefferson, of course, leaves unwritten that the laws of the nation derived from England would only convey to those “of Anglo-Saxon descent.” By locating the source of this human potential within a mythical Anglo-Saxon people who “had always been freedom-loving, and who had always exhibited an outstanding capacity for good government,” Jefferson circumscribed the space within which “the rights of man” might be understood.12 The freedoms Jefferson 9  For example, Nicholas Howe’s extraordinary study Migration and Mythmaking in AngloSaxon England uses the story about the Great Seal as an introduction to the persistence of certain migration narratives, but the text quickly moves on to lengthy considerations of medieval texts. Migration and Mythmaking in Anglo-Saxon England (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001). 10  Thomas Jefferson, A Summary View of the Rights of British America (Williamsburg: Clementina Rind, 1774), 17. 11  Thomas Jefferson, “Letter to Edmund Pendleton” Philadelphia, August 13, 1776. 12  Reginald Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial AngloSaxonism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), 14.



theorized would bear a racial charge that has not yet been fully expended. The perhaps more pernicious bequeathal of Jefferson, which becomes amplified throughout the nineteenth century and can be dimly viewed from the examples that begin this chapter, is that he evokes a Middle Ages that never existed. His strategic reading makes the past conform to the exigencies of political circumstances in his present. The Anglo-Saxons, who factor prominently in his accounting of British history, always rule in the name of “moral rights.” Of the Normans, he merely condemns them for their regime “built on conquest and physical force.”13 And about medieval moments of cultural encounter or synthesis, he is largely silent. The mythologizing of Anglo-Saxons certainly did not begin with Jefferson. The poetry, collections of folklore, and antiquarian research that kindled the fires of the Romantic movement in the eighteenth century often looked to the Anglo-Saxon period as the source of pure cultural identity, “of unmixt blood.”14 Those flames would continue to burn in nineteenth-century literature seeking to celebrate American expansionist policies by linking them to British imperialist history. Jack London, in a 1901 essay contemplating Rudyard Kipling’s legacy, imagines an Anglo-­ Saxon spirit that unifies the United States and Great Britain: What the Anglo-Saxon has done, [Kipling] has memorialized. And by Anglo-Saxon is not meant merely the people of that tight little island on the edge of the Western Ocean. Anglo-Saxon stands for the English- speaking people of all the world, who, in forms and institutions and traditions, are more peculiarly and definitely English than anything else. This people Kipling has sung. Their sweat and blood and toil have been the motives of his songs; but underlying all the motives of his songs is the motive of motives, the sum of them all and something more, which is one with what underlies all the Anglo-Saxon sweat and blood and toil; namely, the genius of the race. […] The Anglo-Saxon is a pirate, a land robber and a sea robber. Underneath his thin coating of culture, he is what he was in Morgan’s time, in Drake’s time, in William’s time, in Alfred’s time. The blood and the tradition of Hengist and Horsa are in his veins. In battle he is subject to the blood lusts of the Berserkers of old. Plunder and booty fascinate him immeasurably.15

 Thomas Jefferson “Letter to George W. Lewis,” Monticello, October 25, 1825.  Horsman, 31. 15  Jack London, Jack London on Writers and Writing, Dale L. Walker and Heanne Campbell Reesman, eds. (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1999), 68. 13 14



London nimbly skips through timeframes and across continents to advance his argument about the role of “the Anglo-Saxon” in shaping the nineteenth century. London’s reading of history is determinative of cultural products that he believed “Anglo-Saxons” created. This perspective astounds in its ability to reconcile apparent contradictions in historical fact and sentiment for the goal of constructing the past in the vision of himself. How else could “the Anglo-Saxon” both be the Viking berserker and the British king repelling those same Viking attacks; how else could he celebrate “the Anglo-Saxon” who “loves freedom, but is dictatorial to others”?16 London reveals the critical duality of Anglo-Saxon identity. It is capacious—the word he uses is “cosmic” in the sense that it endures unchanged over time—yet it is narrowly confined to “the race.” Anglo-­ Saxon identity depends on the politics of exclusion and the claim of a connection to a past unique unto itself. Tracing the thread of Anglo-Saxonism from its origins may be useful insofar as it identifies a fault within the American conception of civil liberties and rights that would persist into the twenty-first century. Arguments about Anglo-Saxon heritage allow Jefferson to neglect the voice of those outside of the historical lineage he charts. Significantly, this meant African-­ Americans. Romney’s campaign and the Forbes article react along similar lines to the presence of an African-American who successfully articulated his quintessentially American life. President Barack Obama achieved this with such felicity and at such long odds that his opponents, including his successor, tried to undermine this strength by repeatedly suggesting that the president harbored “foreign” ideas. Embedded within this strategy of alienation and the call for a return to “Anglo-Saxon” values is this old idea that has its base in Jefferson’s thinking: Americans were enacting the “adventus Saxonum” in the United States; the path of conquest and subjugation of others was justified by historical precedent.17 Not coincidentally, the purpose of Romney’s trip to England was to demonstrate his aggressive foreign policy stance in contradistinction to that of Obama. Romney used this rhetoric of “foreignness” as a means of creating a competing vision of national identity, one that would simultaneously undermine Obama’s narrative as “weak” and assert his own version of American identity.  Ibid.  María José Mora and María José Gómez-Calderón, “The Study of Old English in America (1776–1850): National Uses of the Saxon Past,” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 97.3 (July 1998), 322–336. 16 17



The quest to conserve “Anglo-Saxon” virtues on the part of political actors, from Jefferson to the Romney aide, requires a seemingly contradictory set of perspectives on how one reads the development of American history in relationship to theories about race. That politicians and writers would look backwards to the Middle Ages to frame their vision of the nation’s future seems counter-intuitive, but that distance from their contemporary context makes the Middle Ages, particularly medieval England, available for being imaginatively constructed as an era of racial purity and military subjugation of “foreign” peoples. This fantasy could then be mapped onto projects of “development”—construed as widely as the growth of factories in the northeast to westward expansion. The genealogy of medievalism runs through the Civil War, the critical point for the construction of race and, just as importantly, the genesis for the technological, economic, and cultural networks that continue to inform the shape of the nation.18 The archive under investigation radiates outwards from this point, composing one possible configuration of the long nineteenth century: a period that encompasses the critical precedents and legacies of the war. The conversation between the Middle Ages and the long nineteenth century was structured around the politics of recovery: finding in the past meaning that was prophetic for established structures of power. This strategy ignored the recent history of England, rather it shaped medieval history to the American concept of exceptionalism. While the medieval past was constructed as the source of unity and celebrated for its spirit of innovation, “blackness” of necessity was read as an impediment to that progress, or at least antithetical to the positive valence of “whiteness.” John H. Van Evrie, whose writing popularized “scientific” approaches to understanding white superiority over African-Americans, employs the curious logic this brand of medievalism followed to distinguish those with ­“Anglo-­Saxon” heritage from those with African ancestry in his 1868 study, White Supremacy and Negro Subordination. He reads the conservation of culture as a primary virtue for white Americans, and one that African-Americans lack:

18  It is important to emphasize that race and innovation—technical and economic—are not at all exclusive. Indeed, they are interdependent categories that developed in response to one another. See the discussion of slavery and capitalism in Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton (New York: Vintage, 2014), 83–136.



All the other races have a character to overcome first or to be understood and properly harmonized, but the negro is a blank, a wilderness, a barren waste, waiting for the husbandman or the Caucasian teacher to develop his real worth, and gifted with his wonderful imitative powers, he not only never resists, but reaching forth his hands for guidance and protection, at once accepts his teacher, and submits himself to his control. Of the now four millions in our midst, a considerable proportion are the children of native Africans, indeed, there are not a few natives still among us and yet everything connected with Africa—their traditions, language, religion even their names have wholly disappeared. The Normans conquered the Saxons eight centuries ago, but the Saxon names and even their language, are now as entirely Saxon as if a Norman had never landed on the shores of England.19

Van Evrie’s reasoning demonstrates the topsy-turvy reasoning that was employed to distinguish “Anglo-Saxon” heritage from that of African-­ Americans. Most notable from this extract is the way he relates heritage to landscape, that of the Africans is mutable and evanescent as opposed to that of the Anglo-Saxon, which is ever-present and indomitable. This metaphor, like Jefferson’s vision of “the march of civilization from the sea coast” to the Rocky Mountains, sees people of Anglo-Saxon heritage as shapers of the landscape, seemingly because they were able to resist geopolitical change in the eleventh century.20 Ironies and inaccuracies abound in such a reading of history, but the underlying argument must be taken seriously. Such extrapolations of the Middle Ages racialized bodies and then fixed a horizon of expectations for what a race could achieve. As elaborate fantasies of a “pure” medieval history were popularized, they served as foundational arguments about real political action. For example, Walt Whitman, whose celebrated voice sought to encompass the nation, had a vexed relationship to the altered political realities created by the Civil War.21 His understanding of the Middle Ages’ legacy was central to his critique of post-War America. The poet preferred to call the Civil War a “secessionist war,” reasoning that the real problem to be solved was not slavery, but the South’s decision to destroy the unity of the 19  John H. Van Evrie, White Supremacy and Negro Subordination, or Negroes: A Subordinate Race (New York: Van Evrie, Horton & Co., 1868), 219. 20  Thomas Jefferson, “Letter to William Ludlow” September 6, 1824 in Jefferson: Political Writings, eds. Joyce Appleby and Terrence Ball (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999), 590. 21  This argument borrows from David Blight, Race and Reconciliation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 22.



nation. In fact, he seemed to believe abolitionist projects were overzealous and could potentially unbalance the country after the war: […] the black domination, but little above the beasts—viewed as a temporary, deserv’d punishment for Southern whites’ slavery and secession sins, may perhaps be admissible; but as a permanency of course is not to be considered for a moment.22

Whitman subverts the expected formulation of “Saxon domination” with “black domination” and, in this way, he plays with the incompatibility of these ideas. Any amount of African-American enfranchisement here is read as a subversion of “Anglo-Saxon dominance” and is thus unsupportable. Frederick Douglass, writing to Robert Adams in 1888, described this “cry about negro supremacy” as “humbug,” akin to widespread fears of slave insurrections before the Civil War.23 Douglass’ dismissal of the idea, coming decades after the Civil War, both underscores the folly of “black domination” as a bogeyman and indicates how widely disseminated such fears were. Scholars interested in Whitman’s views on race often quote this passage from his wartime memoranda, but it is rarely accompanied by his further musings about the potential for some good to come out of the war’s destructiveness. To extract the quotation this way decontextualizes the meaning Whitman’s language about “domination” evoked for a nineteenth-­century reader. In the subsequent lines of his memorandum, Whitman likens the Civil War to “the conquest of England eight centuries ago, by the Franco-Normans” and he directly links the results of that political change to the creation of the United States: […] Time has proved plain enough that, bitter as they were, all these [Norman acts of war] were the most salutary series of revolutions that could possibly have happen’d. Out of them, and by them mainly, have come, out of Albic, Roman and Saxon England—and without them could not have come—not only the England of the 500 years down to the present, and of the present—but These States. Nor, except for the terrible dislocation and overturn, would these States, as they are, exist to-day.24 22  Walt Whitman, “Results South—Now And Hence” (1875) Memoranda During the War, ed. Peter Coviello (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 126. 23  Frederick Douglass to Robert Adams, December 4, 1888. (Gilder Lehrman Collection, GLC04997). 24  Ibid., 127.



The reference to the Middle Ages does more than simply create an analogy between that period and the post-Civil War era; Whitman forges an imaginative genealogy for the nation that presents the historical alliances undergirding the nation’s identity to be far deeper than the divisions exposed by the war. He imagines the Norman Conquest in a way that echoes previous arguments about the adventus Saxonum, that is, he turns to the Norman Conquest to discover a unitary, proto-national identity. Whitman’s “salutary series of revolutions” among the “Albic, Roman and Saxon England” proleptically composes an ethnic heritage of whiteness that would offer none of the challenges of race and political enfranchisement that were at the root of the Civil War. This construction of the Middle Ages allows Whitman to elide those questions and instead imagine the possibility of recapturing a pure ethnic identity. “Song of the Exposition” (1871), Whitman’s most exuberant celebration of technological progress, evokes the Middle Ages as a crucial subtext for the possibility of the nation attaining “rehabilitated prosperity” that would restore its imagined coherence.25 Here the period is used as a metonym for the ancient, what has been largely left behind, which he treats elegiacally: The Crusaders’ streams of shadowy, midnight troops, sped with the sunrise; Amadis, Tancred, utterly gone—Charlemagne, Roland, Oliver gone, Palmerin, ogre, departed—vanish’d the turrets that Usk reflected, Arthur vanish’d with all his knights—Merlin and Lancelot and Galahad—all gone— dissolv’d utterly, like an exhalation; Pass’d! pass’d! for us, for ever pass’d! that once so mighty World—now void, inanimate, phantom World!26

“Song of the Exposition” puts several timeframes in parallel: the mythical past of romance and chivalric action, the proximal history of war, and a vision of the country’s future devoid of intestine rancor. These temporal frames are overlaid and inform one another. The poem expresses the wish to move beyond the war and “in its stead speed Industry’s campaigns,” the yields of which would be marvels worthy of the great mythical  Ibid., 127.  Walt Whitman, “Song of the Exposition,” Leaves of Grass (New York: Modern Library, 1950), 160. 25 26



undertakings that have preceded them. While much of the poem’s argument about progress is forward looking, the subtext of the poem is indeed about the memory of the Civil War, of “blacken’d mutilated corpses.”27 The Middle Ages in the poem are a placeholder for a shifting idea of the past that was noble and unrecoverable. A few lines later, the poem proclaims, “Away with themes of war! Away with war itself…Away with old romance.”28 This declaration seems to sweep away both chivalric fiction and the intrusion of the subject of the Civil War in favor of Whitman’s gleaming vision of “the Union,” a nation joined in productive enterprises from California to Boston. Despite its elegiac farewell to the Middle Ages, the turn to industrial progress does not signify a complete departure from the set of quests he associates with the Middle Ages. Rather, the same spirit that animated medieval conquests and shaped the “mighty World,” Whitman suggests, energized post-war technical innovation. Whitman’s “Song of the Exposition” demonstrates a strategy of recalibrating the terms by which the Civil War and the ensuing Reconstruction might be understood. In his efforts to narrate reconciliation within the country, Whitman evades the root question of race. Herein is the clear hazard in Whitman’s approach and the problem that runs through each of the preceding examples of medievalism mobilized to argue for “Anglo-­ Saxon domination.” The medieval past creates a map for contemporary society that simply leaves the challenges of conflict or the complexity of medieval intercultural contact uncharted. Whitman’s poem disarticulates the “spirit” of divisive events, such as the Crusades, from the meaning that constitutes these events. Whitman laments the end of the crusading spirit without evoking the difficult questions about why these campaigns were prosecuted. He then proceeds to make a historical analogy to the Civil War while again avoiding any mention of what the bloodshed was meant to adjudicate. This allows the writer to silence the “embarrassments and darkness” of the war while trumpeting the steady march towards the future. This lacuna is present in a significant amount of popular nineteenth-­ century writing that discusses the Civil War in conjunction with the Middle Ages. Harvard educated professor and Civil War veteran James K. Hosmer read the future successes of the nation as not just inspired by a medieval past, but as a future foretold without the provocations of slavery:  Ibid., 163.  Ibid., 163–164.

27 28



As Sir Francis Palgrave says: ‘The new building has been raised upon the old groundwork; the institutions of one age have always been modeled and formed from those of the preceding and the lineal descent has never been interrupted or disturbed.’ Anglo-Saxon freedom is most simply and comprehensively stated in the phrase of Abraham Lincoln, ‘government of the people by the people and for the people.’ In its long history there have been periods of temporary submergence, adaptation to the needs of ever vaster multitudes and higher civilizations, manifold development and elaboration: one spirit however has survived through all apparent in the deliberations of a modern Congress or Parliament as also it was apparent in the ancient folk moots where the free ceorls chose their army leaders and regulated the life in their marks.29

His willingness to read the structures of the United States government and even the political argumentation of Abraham Lincoln as incrustations of Anglo-Saxon practices demonstrates a desire to excise the Civil War as a meaningful moment of political change. For Hosmer, slavery was an echo of feudal serfdom and its abolition subsumed under the eventual progress of “Anglo-Saxon freedom.”30 The irony of referring to emancipation with a phrase that so clearly evokes Thomas Jefferson’s own reasons for maintaining his hold on slaves reveals the flaws inherent in reading history under the cloak of desire for medieval origins. The New York Times enthusiastically praised Hosmer’s work and reiterated the writer’s basic thesis about the resilience of Anglo-Saxon works and traditions to change.31 More careful scholars than Hosmer conceded that while this historical framework was wholly erroneous, it possessed allure for a wide audience desirous of a coherent theory of nation: This book sets forth in somewhat pretentious form a theory of English and American history now very much in vogue. The theory is popular because it is democratic, not necessarily because it is based on facts. It gratifies the pride of the masses to be told that the current dogmas about popular sovereignty are primordial truths, to which we have returned after a deflection of the path of history from its natural course. This may be called the democratic

29  James K. Hosmer, A Short History of Anglo-Saxon Freedom: The Polity Of The EnglishSpeaking Race Outlined In Its Inception, Development, Diffusion, And Present Condition (New-York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1890), v. 30  Hosmer, 123; 296. 31  [Review] The New York Times (New York, NY) 22 February 1891: 19.



philosophy of history. Among English writers it may be traced at least as far back as the seventeenth century.32

H.L. Osgood, an American historian and contemporary of Hosmer, makes this withering critique of the notion that the war could be read as simply a digression from a narrative of progress. His reference to “popular sovereignty” cuts straight to arguments about rights for African-Americans decided by states, and the sense that to enfranchise African-Americans would mean a further deflection from the “natural course” of history. Moreover, Osgood’s reading exposes the intersection between history and fiction that is evident in Whitman’s references to King Arthur, but is cloaked under the guise of factual inquiry in Hosmer’s research. The imbrication of these separate historical frames and evidentiary modes—the mythical golden age of “Anglo-Saxon freedom” and a future of ever-­ advancing American progress, filtered through the language of desire— creates narratives premised on the possibility of returning to a state of ideological and cultural purity: before the sin of slave-holding. The fantasy of a reunion with the past that might disarticulate the histories of white Americans from those of African-Americans puts into contest some of the fundamental principles of the nation, which continue to be adjudicated. Historian Greg Grandin argues in his 2014 study of Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno, that the nineteenth century provided contradictory but mutually constitutive philosophical frameworks for understanding the nation’s development after the revolution: the “Age of Liberty” and the “Age of Slavery.”33 The novella, as Grandin presents it, is a reading of those seemingly opposing significations of the era; it depicts Benito Cereno, a weakened Spanish captain of a slave ship, who seems entirely dependent upon one of the slaves, Babo, to assist him with every task. An American sea captain, Delano, boards the ship and spends a day observing this. He naively believes that what is apparent is actually what is occurring, only to be horrified upon discovering that the whole scenario was a ruse concocted by the slaves to fool him. In fact, there had been a mutiny onboard the ship before he arrived and the subservience of the former slaves was an act to conceal their liberation. He realizes that what he had read as the “natural” black subservience to whites was, in fact, a 32  H.L. Osgood “Review: A Short History of Anglo-Saxon Freedom, by James K. Hosmer” Political Science Quarterly, 6.1 (March 1891), 162–164. 33  Greg Grandin, The Empire of Necessity (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014), 8.



sophisticated interrelation of black and white characters that confuses the master-servant relationship, showing each of those positions to be dependent upon and distorted by the other. Cereno is undone as much by the mutiny as by how slavery economically and morally compromises him. Grandin chose Benito Cereno in part because the reciprocal relationship between Babo and Cereno so well demonstrates the evident problem with thinking in terms of racial purity or liberty as separate from the institution of slavery: to do so misses the deep interconnections between races and the interpenetration of depictions of whiteness and blackness in American literature. Grandin argues that the present world remains deeply informed by the conflicts initiated by the slave trade and incompletely resolved by the Civil War. In response to Grandin’s argument, Toni Morrison goes further in judging the reach of “The Age of Liberty” and its dependence on a construction of African-Americans as outside of time: From illogical claims that the Negro is both a “natural valet” and an untamed animal, the language of denial has now moved to the assumption of endemic unworthiness of the poor (generally assumed to be black in spite of census data saying otherwise), the always and already criminalized who receive food stamps, unemployment checks, Medicaid, etc., and who seem outrageously and fraudulently eager to vote. [Grandin makes] this clear in The Empire of Necessity, exposing the self-satisfaction, the willed deception in the construction of racism to sustain slavery in a nation committed to the freedom of its people.34

Morrison, a writer deeply invested in critiquing literary origins, is acutely aware that it is dangerous to think that the divisions caused by the Civil War and the underlying arguments about slavery have been erased. To do so ignores the heritage of slavery: how the “peculiar institution” has informed and shaped other types of institutions and, more importantly, ways of making meaning within the nation. The underlying concerns about race have only intensified since Jefferson’s reflections on Anglo-­ Saxon law, Melville’s writing about a slave revolt, and even since the indiscreet comments by the Romney aide. Articles proliferate about “The End of White America,” articulating fears surrounding demographic change and expected shifts in power structures that have made writers revisit questions of origins and whether or not a majority-minority future means a  Toni Morrison, “Melville and the Language of Denial” The Nation, January 27, 2014.




diminution of white liberty.35 In the late years of Barack Obama’s presidency the nation’s political system was stalled by a political party that sought a return to original principles, to “take the country back,” a phrase that haunts in its desire to see progress as moving backwards in time. This era of American history is troubled by the same shadows Benito Cereno feels haunting him by the end of Melville’s novella: a fear of impending change, a fear of a movement beyond the “clarity” of the past, a fear of blackness.

Owning Time Could he have meant—hell, he must have meant the principle, that we were to affirm, the principle on which the country was built and not the men, or at least not the men who did the violence. Did he mean to say “yes” because he knew that the principle was greater than the men, greater than the numbers and the vicious power and all the methods used to corrupt its name? Did he mean to affirm the principle, which they themselves had dreamed into being out of the chaos and darkness of the feudal past, and which they had violated and compromised to the point of absurdity even in their own corrupt minds?36

The eponymous character of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) muses about the meaning of his grandfather’s dying words. The grandfather, a freed slave, charges the Invisible Man to “keep up the good fight” and “overcome ’em with yeses”—cryptic advice that the narrator puzzles over throughout the text. These words only begin to gain definition in the novel’s epilogue wherein the narrator traces out possible lines of meaning. To do so, he makes a complex argument about the nature of history and the place of the American project within it. His reference to principles “dreamed into being out of the chaos and darkness of the feudal past” in part evokes the historical teleology of Marx, its charting of progress from feudal economic relationships to modern capitalist ones. Simultaneously, the narrator engages in the conversation begun by Jefferson suggested by 35  For example, Hua Hsu, “The End of White America?,” The Atlantic, January 1, 2009; Carol Morello and Ted Mellnik, “Census: Minority Babies Now Majority in the United States,” The Washington Post, May 16, 2012; John Blake, “Are Whites Racially Oppressed,” CNN March 4, 2011; Jill Lepore, The Whites of Their Eyes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 8. 36  Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man, 574.



his reference to “the principle…dreamed into being out of the chaos and darkness”—about the break from the feudal power structure that ordered English society into the eighteenth century. American liberty, both Jefferson and Ellison argue, would instead be constituted by the promise that individual potential would translate into social advancement, a step into the future. The relationship between Jefferson and Ellison’s theories of America’s relationship to a feudal past is instructive for detailing competing notions of subjugation and liberty as co-extant with the construction of racial myth. Reading Jefferson’s theories about the Middle Ages’ significance alongside those of Ellison brings into focus a larger project that “maneuvered ancient English history so as to produce a discursive crisis within contemporaneous U.S. discourses of racial stature and purity.”37 Jefferson likened a westward journey across the United States to “the progress of man” towards technological and cultural advancement. Consequently, he read the push of American force across the country as a means of moving the nation through stages of development: And where this progress will stop no one can say. Barbarism has, in the meantime been receding before the steady step of amelioration, and will in time, I trust disappear from the earth.38

Jefferson used temporality to distinguish the American project as a revolutionary one in the sense that American independence constituted an abrupt shift in temporal progress, something that would not have been possible under a “feudal” British regime. Instead, by linking progress in time with progress over land, Jefferson recalls his arguments about Anglo-­ Saxon freedom as premised upon what he believed to be the “allodial” Anglo-Saxon system of law discussed above, one that emphasized an individual’s ownership over the land and his or her potential to improve it. To conceive time in this way is to have a unique sense of ownership over it. The rupture the revolution constitutes is not simply a break with the past, but an opportunity to excise part of history, that is, the revolution and its 37  Christopher Hanlon, America’s England: Antebellum Literature and Atlantic Sectionalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 45. 38  Thomas Jefferson to William Ludlow, September 6, 1824, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Albert Ellery Bergh and Robert Holland Johnson eds. (Washington, DC: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, 1904) 74–75. See the discussion of this passage in Horsman, 84.



subsequent legal reforms would not just allow for freedom in space but freedom in time. Jefferson simply rejects a portion of British history, feudalism, as unsuitable to his conception of the nation. While Jefferson ostensibly sought to free himself from “feudalism” as represented by English power, he defended slavery and fashioned himself in the image of a feudal lord—a man with absolute and arbitrary authority over those on his land. The great rupture in world history that the American Revolution represented would be darkly echoed by the great historical rupture of American slavery, which cast African-Americans as alien and without a past.39 For Jefferson, the liberties of the nation were predicated upon the primacy of Anglo-Saxon heritage. This reasoning precluded the participation of African-Americans, as they were outside of the genealogy he proposed. Ellison, on the other hand, places a unique burden upon African-Americans; slavery and the subsequent programs of racial discrimination functioned to keep African-Americans outside of the narrative of historical progress: Historically, American Negroes are caught in a vast process of change that has swept them from slavery to the condition of industrial man in a space of time so telescoped (a bare eighty-five years) that it is possible literally for them to step from feudalism into the vortex of industrialism simply by moving across the Mason-Dixon line.40

Slavery and southern discrimination as read by Ellison reconstitutes feudalism, or to use Jefferson’s words “an engine of immense oppression.”41 In this way, African-Americans were uniquely positioned to understand and critique the idea of moving towards modernity from feudalism, as they were acutely subject to the harsh transition between the two. While Jefferson and Ellison create arguments reminiscent of one another’s in terms of how they read the feudal past to understand the nation within a longer historical trajectory, they crucially disagree on the question of where one locates the moments of historical progress and who the participants in that development were. This friction between these two ways of reading American history, particularly the discrepancy between interpretations of when the United States departs from a medieval point of 39  Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), 38. 40  Ralph Ellison, “Harlem is Nowhere,” Harper’s Magazine (August 1964), 53. 41  Thomas Jefferson, “Letter to Edmund Pendleton,” Philadelphia, August 13, 1776.



origin, reveals the potency of the Middle Ages as a metaphor used to understand American mythologies of race and competing visions of social progress. Frederick Douglass anticipates the disjunction Ellison identifies between past and present, plantation and free, in his My Bondage and My Freedom (1855): In its isolation, seclusion, and self-reliant independence, Col. Lloyd’s plantation resembles what the baronial domains were during the middle ages [sic] in Europe. Grim, cold, and unapproachable by all genial influences from communities without, there it stands; full three hundred years behind the age, in all that relates to humanity and morals.42

To be implicated within the system of slavery and the subsequent patterns of racial oppression is to be denied control over the promises of forward momentum in time; “the order of civilization is reversed.”43 Instead, one is subject to what should be an archaic and foreign political system, and yet is outrageous in its vitality and its dictates on human life. The previous section of this introduction demonstrates that the Middle Ages offered an important conceptual framework for white writers and politicians to articulate the shape of the nation while simultaneously silencing those parts of the American population and history that threatened the logic of programs which consolidated white power and racial identity. While this is a powerful conduit for the mobilization of the Middle Ages, it is by no means the sole one. African-Americans throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries have utilized the critical matrix of meaning bound up within the Middle Ages—its association with individual nobility, the cultural reconciliation and hybridization implied by the Anglo-Norman period, theories of feudal land attachments, the sociolinguistic implications of speaking and writing in English, even the notion of Anglo-Saxon slavery—to expose the fantasy that underpinned discourses of citizenship and to suggest alternative terms of belonging within the nation. This too is a project of recovery, one that runs counter to the mythologization of whiteness, but it has largely been forgotten beneath arguments that are premised on the consolidation of racial identity in the nineteenth century. The friction between the legal promise of full enfran Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (New York: Penguin Books, 2003),


50.  Ibid., 41.




chisement and the subjective experience of being marginalized by the nation’s narratives revealed lines of contestation that African-American writers and intellectuals sought to challenge through critical re-examinations of those defining myths. This strategy of reappropriation’s contours may be traced in the writing of W.E.B. Du Bois. He first encountered serious discussions of the Middle Ages in a Harvard course taught by William James.44 Du Bois took this course in 1888 and wrote his final paper on the major shift in the relationship between faith and philosophy after the decline of medieval scholasticism. Not only would his search for a “Christian pragmatism” inform much of his writing, he would continue to meditate on the meaning of the changes between the Middle Ages and the early modern period throughout his career. Decades after the class, Du Bois took a tour of cities in the Midwest to find out the condition of “the race problems.”45 He, like Ellison, read his progress across the nation and the patchwork of laws and unofficial rules regulating the lives of African-Americans as akin to a jarring transition between archaic and modern structures of existence; that is, he likened the trip to traveling back and forth through time. He associates Toledo with antiquated segregation and Cleveland with “the present,” the result of years of hard-won rights. In between these two he identifies Oberlin, Ohio as “the mystic city of the future,” on the basis of its thriving community of color and Oberlin College’s stance on integration. As the conflation of space and time suggests, the temporal meaning he assigns to each place is unstable. Du Bois ends his meditation on his Midwest tour with a concern that those promising African-American students and residents in Oberlin were worked to keep at bay “the bonds of medievalism.”46 The “past” was not simply something one could move beyond, but a continual threat to the modern rights assured to citizens. Nearly a decade after writing this, Du Bois noted that over ten percent of African-Americans still lived with “the hateful badge of slavery and medievalism” because they were reduced to the “anachronism” of menial labor no one else would deign to do.47 44  DuBois said of James: “[He] guided me out of the sterilities of scholastic philosophy to realist pragmatism.” Quoted in: Robert Richardson William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism (New York: Mariner Books, 2007), 316. 45  W.E.B. Du Bois, “A Winter Pilgrimage,” The Crisis Magazine 1.3 (1911), 15. 46  Ibid. 47  W.E.B. DuBois, Darkwater in The Oxford DuBois Reader, ed. Eric J. Sundquist (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 540–541.



The potential scope of Du Bois’s mode of reading is astonishing. In his wide-ranging, multi-genre work, Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil, published in 1920, Dubois uses the Middle Ages not just to analyse the problems of racism in the United States but to unify the diverse sorts of oppression visited upon people of color across the globe. Writing in the shadow of WWI (World War I), Du Bois reads global warfare as “the jealous and avaricious struggle for the largest share in exploiting darker races.”48 Du Bois engages the mythology that the West had constructed around its own past and breaks apart assumptions that received the aura of truth conferred by their supposed antiquity. In their engagement with pre-­ colonized countries, European powers strayed far from “rules of fairness— equal armament, equal notice, equal conditions” established in the Middle Ages.49 He singles out Belgium’s ruthless rule over Congo as a particularly egregious example of how the West had betrayed the ancestral values it claims to hold dear: Down the dark forest of inmost Africa sailed this modern Sir Galahad, in the name of “the noble-minded men of several nations,” to introduce commerce and civilization. What came of it? ‘Rubber and murder, slavery in its worst form,’ wrote Glave in 1895.50

This is a particularly sharp critique, as Du Bois chooses the questing knight who achieves the Holy Grail to heighten the sense of a European fall from grace in the desire to exploit rather than ennoble. Du Bois directly responds to the arguments outlined in the first section of this introduction that sought to unify disparate countries that embarked upon campaigns of conquest and colonization through appeals to the Middle Ages. Du Bois’ observations fittingly come in an essay entitled “The Souls of White Folk,” as he reveals “whiteness” to be a fiction separate and apart from medieval source material. DuBois argues that medieval foundational fictions helped create the imagined community of whiteness out of separate European and North American states. The reference to Galahad ironizes nostalgia for a chivalric past that implied the inherent virtue of those who con48  W.E.B. DuBois “The Souls of White Folk,” in Darkwater in The Oxford W.E.B. DuBois Reader (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 507. 49  Ibid., 501. 50  Ibid., 502. Here Dubois refers to Edward J. Glave, the writer of In Savage Africa: or Six Years of Adventure in Congo-Land, which recounts Belgian cruelty in the Congo published in 1892.



ducted campaigns of conquest. As has been argued elsewhere, these mythologies were profoundly misused as they justified atrocities in the name of nobility and self-sacrifice.51 From the perspective of Du Bois, the war did not as much expose the fractures between European nations as it reified the fraudulent claims of control over “darker races.” The problems of racial identity as presented in “The Souls of White Folk” work along both the axes of history and mythology. Du Bois looks for the historical roots of racism and finds them to be quite shallow: The discovery of personal whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing,—a nineteenth and twentieth century matter, indeed. The ancient world would have laughed at such a distinction. The Middle Age regarded skin color with mild curiosity; and even up into the eighteenth century we were hammering our national manikins into one, great, Universal Man, with fine frenzy which ignored color and race even more than birth. Today we have changed all that, and the world in a sudden, emotional conversion has discovered that it is white and by that token, wonderful!52

For Du Bois, whiteness itself had become its own mythology that then was joined with other cultural products to cloak it in the mantle of virtue. This investigation into the interrelationship of history and mythology allows Du Bois to intervene into the question of temporal situatedness raised by Jefferson and then advanced by subsequent writers who used the language of the Middle Ages to construct a narrative of progress for the United States. Jefferson used temporality to both distinguish the American project and to lend venerability to it through a connection to the Anglo-Saxon period. This impressive reach backwards in time contrasts with the “compression” in time that Du Bois and Ellison argue inflects African-American participation in the nation. The “Anglo-Saxon” system of Jefferson depended upon the “feudal” one to which Du Bois and Ellison objected. While one symbolized freedom within time, the other meant becoming not just subject to feudalism but having to continually evade its shadow as late as the mid-twentieth century. The critiques of Du Bois and Ellison presciently diagnose a problem of lingering “pre-modern” sentiments that much later historians of global politics and revolutions, such as Arno Mayer 51  See Allen J. Frantzen’s excellent study on the place of chivalric imagery and the idea of Christian self-sacrifice in the propaganda of WWI: Bloody Good: Chivalry, Sacrifice and the Great War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003). 52  Darkwater, 497–498.



and Greg Grandin, similarly identify.53 Those scholars alternately use and question the language of Marx and capital to calibrate how they analyse the “persistence of the old order” and indeed, Du Bois and Ellison construct readings inflected by Marx.54 But the language of feudal order and “medievalism” carries a different valence within African-American discourse as it must be read within the longer tradition of Anglo-Saxonism, the revival of chivalric literature during the Civil War, and the adoption of medieval tropes to understand American social and technological progress. The Middle Ages, understood through myth, history, and metaphor, demonstrate a range of ways that “the medieval” could be reinterpreted by African-American writers and intellectuals to conceive of alternative possibilities for how the society around themselves might be constructed. Du Bois would even darkly propose as a direct response to the “progress” that WWI represented the “impossible dream” in which nations might be comprised entirely of “serfs.”55 Du Bois and Ellison question the bases of foundational fictions and read African-Americans as uniquely positioned to take ownership over those narratives because of their peculiar situation without the prevailing timeframes that define the national project. More simply, one could put it in the way Ellison’s Invisible Man ultimately puzzles out the charge incumbent upon himself and other African-Americans conferred by founders who never imagined his being: “to affirm the principle, which they themselves had dreamed into being out of the chaos and darkness of the feudal past.”56

A Desire for (Medieval) Origins Despite the clear political and cultural importance of medievalism in American history, the task of considering the significance of medievalisms has largely been read as an academic luxury at best or at worst the catalyst for policing of racial lines. One need only consider the Ku Klux Klan’s 53  See Greg Grandin, “Living in Revolutionary time: Coming to Terms with Violence of Latin America’s Long Cold War,” in A Century of Revolution: Insurgent and Counterinsurgent Violence During Latin America’s Long Cold War Greg Grandin and Gilbert M. Joseph, eds. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 12–14. 54  Arno Mayer, The Persistence of the Old Regime: Europe and the Great War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1981), 5. 55  W.E.B. DuBois “The Hands of Ethiopia,” in The Oxford W.E.B. DuBois Reader (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 517. 56  Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 574.



language of knighthood or Thomas Dixon’s language of crusades to see the latter point.57 To put it bluntly, the questions of medievalism and the Middle Ages have been read as the province of whiteness, only dealing with race and African-American identity as subjects external to or defined against the products and interpretation of the Middle Ages. However, to conduct research without considering this critical racial history risks replicating the implicit assumptions and blindness found in the nineteenth-­century texts discussed in previous sections. The deployment of medievalisms in the nineteenth and early twentieth century should be read within the context of the work done to cultivate racial identity as tied to a set of political and technological narratives. More importantly, African-­ American literature and political writing should be read as a source for medievalisms that can be read against the narratives advanced by white authors. Concurrent to discussions by writers like Whitman about their literary and genealogical inheritance (framed within their mythologization of the past), African-American intellectuals engaged in conversations about origins and intellectual identity. Several of these lines of inquiry have been traced in recent academic studies. One prominent vein has run through the discipline of classics. Scholars in that field have uncovered the problems that colonial education’s reliance on training in the classics posed for American and Caribbean authors in the nineteenth century.58 This type of learning created bitterly ironic scenes of racial injustice as well as a standard discourse for responding to such affronts. George Washington had a slave named Hercules; Southern Senator John C. Calhoun defied anyone to find a slave that could conjugate a Greek verb, a sarcastic taunt to allege 57  In fact, Thomas Dixon called his work a “historical romance,” which underscores the blurring of lines between fact and fiction discussed throughout this introduction. Dixon heavily interlards the language of chivalry and knighthood into his book, most notably in his description of the clansmen riding on horseback:

At the signal of a whistle, the men and horses arrayed in white and scarlet swung into double-file cavalry formation and stood awaiting orders. The moon was now shining brightly, and its light shimmering on the silent horses and men with their tall spiked caps made a picture such as the world had not seen since the Knights of the Middle Ages rode on their Holy Crusades. Thomas Dixon, The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1905), 316. 58  Emily Greenwood, Afro-Greeks: Dialogues Between Anglophone Caribbean Literature and Classics in the Twentieth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).



the superiority of the white mind.59 The mother of African-American letters, Phyllis Wheatley, a slave, learned both Greek and Latin. Moreover, some of the most important figures in nineteenth-century African-­ American political and intellectual life were deeply informed by the classics. William Sanders Scarborough was both a classical scholar and the president of Wilberforce University in Ohio. Charles Chesnutt used Ovidian tropes to inform the writing of his popular collection of short stories, The Conjure Woman.60 The power of the classical education continues to resound in the work of the Nobel Prize winning poet, Derek Walcott, who adapted the Odyssey in his Omeros. The interaction between African-Americans and classical education has been discussed in studies such as Emily Greenwood’s Afro-Greeks as well as William Cook and James Tatum’s African American Writers and the Classical Tradition.61 Scholars have similarly turned to the early modern period as a point of origin for understanding African-American literature. The writings of Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, Shakespeare, and Spenser provide the language of encounter that would be so important for theorizing race in ways that would continue to inform the subject of race through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. More importantly, this period fuses the language of difference with that of economic conquest, a conjunction that would have obvious and long-lasting implications for the way that colonists read the New World. The human body obtains its valence as a commodity on a large scale with the economic and technological changes that signal the end of the medieval period. These avenues of inquiry have led critics to trace out the vocabulary and imaginative channels used throughout the period to define what makes a human. There has been rich research done by scholars including Ania Loomba, Jonathan Burton, and Stephen Greenblatt about race in the early modern period.62 This work 59  The New Negro: Readings on Race, Representation, and African American Culture, 1892–1938. Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Gene Andrew Jarrett (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 240. 60  Karen Magee Myers, “Mythic Patterns in Charles Waddell Chesnutt’s the Conjure Woman and Ovid’s Metamorphoses,” Black American Literature Forum 13.1 (Spring 1979), 13–17. 61  William Cook and James Tatum, African American Writers and the Classical Tradition (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2010). 62  Ania Loomba, Shakespeare, Race, and Colonialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); Jonathan Burton and Aina Loomba, eds. Race in Early Modern England: A Documentary Companion (New York: Palgrave, 2007); Stephen Greenblatt, Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).



has been productive not just for understanding the evolving meanings of race across the period, but also for setting the groundwork for reading later responses of African-Americans to early modern texts, such as the all-­ black cast of Orson Welles’s Macbeth, or retellings of Caliban’s story, like Aimé Césaire’s A Tempest. Little attention, however, has been spared for reading how the legacy of medieval literature and the study of the Middle Ages—from the tools of philology honed by medieval studies, the historical analogy of racial integration suggested by Anglo-Norman history, the construction of heroism and virtue as filtered through readings of chivalry—have inflected the development of African-American identity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This silence is striking given the crucial point of origin the Middle Ages represents for American identity notable through the explosion of interest in the Middle Ages during the nineteenth century, sparked by the pre-Raphaelite movement and sustained by broad educational shifts from classical to English literature by the turn of the twentieth century as well as the common allegorization of the defeated South as the subjugated Anglo-Saxons.63 This is not an insubstantial realm of inquiry, although the importance of the Middle Ages to American identity has perhaps been too narrowly construed; whiteness is too often the assumed context that informs medievalism. Comprehensive studies of medieval themes in American literature and political life are rare. The first major literary study undertaken on this subject was Allen J. Frantzen’s Desire for Origins: New Language, Old English, and Teaching the Tradition which laid much of the groundwork for subsequent studies of medievalism and its legacy.64 Franzten contrasts the Jeffersonian history of Anglo-Saxon studies, one that had major political gravity, with the current, disinterested style of research conducted by Anglo-Saxonists to demonstrate the problematic position Old English occupies within the academy. In terms of historical analysis, Frantzen was preceded by Reginald Horsman’s study: Race and Manifest Destiny: The 63  See the discussion of Old and Middle English’s significant role in early philology in: Andrew Elfenbein, Romanticism and the Rise of English (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 1–4; See also: Ritchie Devon Watson Jr’s study of how southerners mobilized medieval history to glorify the Civil War defeat in: Normans and Saxons: Southern Race Mythology and the Intellectual History of the American Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008). 64  Allen J.  Frantzen, Desire for Origins: New Language, Old English, and Teaching the Tradition (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990).



Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism, which delves deeply into the European sources for American Anglo-Saxonism as well as the body of “scientific” research that supported popular mythologies of white racial supremacy. Several literary studies have built upon the initial research of Frantzen and Horsman, notably: Anglo-Saxonism and the Construction of Social Identity and The Medievalist Impulse in American Literature: Twain, Adams, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway.65 The former is an edited volume that addresses both how cultural identity was generated within the Anglo-­ Saxon period and modern reassessments of the mobilization of Anglo-­ Saxon texts. The latter studies the entrenchment of medieval themes in the work of prominent American authors to demonstrate how available and intelligible medieval material was for writers and their audiences through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. None of these works address the role the Middle Ages and medieval themes played in the lives of African-American authors. My work will explore the critical connections between the fields of medieval studies, medievalism, and African-American studies. Although these fields have long engaged similar questions and have influenced each other, little comprehensive work has been done to put them in conversation. Only two books address the subject of African-Americans and medievalism: Christopher Hanlon’s America’s England: Antebellum ­ Literature and Atlantic Sectionalism and Dennis Looney’s Freedom Readers.66 Hanlon traces the ways in which American identity was informed by narratives borrowed from British history, such as how the conflict between Saxons and Normans was mapped onto the American Civil War. While the subject of analysis is pertinent for understanding AfricanAmerican history, it largely deals with the issue obliquely. Perhaps the closest study in terms of scope and archive to The Black Middle Ages is Dennis Looney’s Freedom Readers, which engages the use of Dante in AfricanAmerican literature, film, and music from the early nineteenth to the early twentieth century. There is a loud silence on the part of nineteenth and

65  Kim Moreland, The Medievalist Impulse in American Literature: Twain, Adams, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway (Charlottesville: The University of Virginia Press, 1996); Allen J. Frantzen and John D. Niles, eds., Anglo-Saxonism and the Construction of Social Identity (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1997). 66  Christopher Hanlon, America’s England: Antebellum Literature and Atlantic Sectionalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Dennis Looney Freedom Readers (South Bend: Notre Dame University Press, 2011).



early twentieth-­century scholars about this subject and medievalists have done little to break it.67 Medievalists do many things well, but we have been similarly complicit in constructing a Middle Ages that presages later nationalist narratives. This is in no small part because of the field’s origins within the nineteenth century, which organized the fundamental modes and avenues of research around a critical posture that belies the ideological implications of our studies.68 It is not at all unusual to begin a medieval studies argument with a discussion of Thomas Jefferson, as this book does, but a turn to Frederick Douglass would seem foreign to medieval inquiries. The tenor of medieval studies is slowly changing with magisterial and polemical work like Suzanne Conklin Akbari’s Idols in the East, and Geraldine Heng’s Empire of Magic and The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages.69 What is significant about these works is that they so well delineate the challenge of reading from east to west that undergirds the language and imaginary used to understand difference. To motivate their studies, Akbari and Heng in Empire  reach for the tragedy of 9/11, which gave new urgency for medievalists to reckon with “medieval encounters of Christianity, Islam and Judaism in the crucible of violent historical transformation.”70 This is vital work, but not the sole touchstone for thinking about the intervention that medieval studies might make in profiling the deep context for political struggles. At the time of the writing of this book, the nation is in the midst of sesquicentennial remembrances of the Civil War, through films, newspaper articles, popular texts, and scholarly books. Simultaneously, as noted above, the United States is experiencing spasms of political stagnation and violent acts by individual actors as well as political parties that seek a return to the “original values” of the country. The tactics of politically extreme organizations—such as the Tea Party, which insists on the sovereignty of states—differ wildly from those of radical individuals, who call for armed 67  There is a rich vein of criticism that is interested in transnational blackness from The Black Atlantic to Black Cosmopolitanism. However, it is important to underscore that this is not an international project. This book is interested in how what should be the base of European identity morphs into the language that informs national citizenship. 68  This is the primary contention of Desire for Origins. 69  Suzanne Conklin Akbari, Idols in the East: European Representations of Islam and the Orient, 1100–1450 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009); Geraldine Heng, Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003); The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018). Because of their pulblication dates, this book is not able to fully engage with the arguments of Heng’s latest study. 70  Heng, 13.



rebellion or who use racially divisive language to incite violence. Nonetheless, both recall the language mobilized before the Civil War and through the Reconstruction period that imagined a world before the meeting of races. Those questions of sovereignty and the fantasy of pure blood derive from a romance with the Middle Ages, a desire for origins. Given the medieval period’s justly earned reputation for its curiosity about the human form and the relationship between the external and the internal, the reluctance on the part of medievalists to approach the questions raised by race and ethnicity in channels that scholars of the classical and early modern periods have so comfortably occupied is curious. Medieval studies is the ideal venue for directly undoing some of the distortions visited upon medieval texts by later hands. At the very least, it might be an opportunity to question why medieval material has been so given to certain types of misinterpretation. There are a multitude of sites in which medievalists can intervene that constructively resonate with ongoing research in African-American studies: Ethiopia as a metaphor for a source of human knowledge and as the site of incredible blackness; the mixture of cultural identity and the plasticity of skin tone (such that a Saracen woman who converts can change from dark to light); the theorization of the vernacular; the language of migration and persistence of diasporic ­mythology; the questions about the form of humans and the interrogation of faith in the face of a catastrophic loss of life.71

A Story to Pass On: Reading Against the Discourse of Time As this book will argue, the earliest African-American scholars also read the texts of the Middle Ages but they approached the study of the Middle Ages as a strange sort of inheritance, one in which they could dimly see the outlines of their own struggles and envision alternative means of reading their existence within the United States. The study of the Middle Ages became a surrogate tie to a deeper past. But the surrogacy reveals an absence, a convex image of the void, the “bloodstained gate” at the center 71  See, for example: Jacqueline de Weever, Sheba’s Daughters: Whitening and Demonizing the Saracen Woman in the Medieval French Epic (New York: Routledge, 1998); Nicholas Howe, Migration and Mythmaking in Anglo-Saxon England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989); Christopher Cannon, The Grounds of English Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).



of African-American history.72 The present study seeks to create a genealogy of sorts, or perhaps better stated, it is an anti-genealogy; one that charts how the Middle Ages were used among African-American writers in conversation with white writers. In doing so, I seek to undermine the unstated primacy of blood within research on medievalism that tacitly reaffirms problematic significations of the Middle Ages. My work depends on the theories of “surrogated kinship” in opposition to the seemingly literal kinship that undergirds many discussions of the Middle Ages and whiteness. In doing so, this study nuances literary theory that reads surrogacy as a way of recreating and reproducing culture.73 African-American scholars and writers who examine the Middle Ages as a point of origin or a creative point of departure resist the language that would write them out of history. Rather than adopting medieval tropes as a way of reiterating the notions of power and conquest that are latent within how the Middle Ages have often been mobilized, these African-Americans intervened within the language surrounding the Middle Ages to articulate their own visions for participation within the nation. One might consider this to be an anti-genealogy in part because it resists thinking in terms of purity that so often traps scholars thinking about medievalism. This research reads against the grain of the predominant narrative of medievalism—as a uniform and clearly-defined means of consolidating white identity—to find ways to see the desire for origins broadly. The Black Middle Ages argues that the question of what constitutes the Middle Ages is asked and reassumed across generations of writers with no direct racial claims to the period. In the hands of African-American writers, the adoption of medieval texts can be read as an example of surrogated kinship: the convergence point where metaphorical relationships subsume literal ones. Surrogated kinship allows these writers and intellectuals to forge links of identity that would not be possible under the demands of documentary knowledge. Jamaica Kincaid, through a series of essays about gardening, offers a reading of the stakes and necessity of enacting literary surrogacy within African-American/Afro-Caribbean letters that is illuminating about this 72  This is Frederick Douglass’s term, remobilized to think about the broad problems of contending with the silences of the African-American historical archive in: Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 20. 73  See Joseph Roach’s Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 2.



subject. She meditates on literal and metaphorical planting and transplanting to discuss her relationship with Wordsworth. At the center of this are her reflections on being a young girl and having to memorize Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” The strangeness of daffodils, to a little girl raised in the Caribbean, awoke within her a sense of displacement from the literature she was forced to learn: Let me show you a picture of the little black-skinned girl, with hair strands curlier than wool, an imagination too vivid for the world into which I was born, my mind (whatever that meant or means) shining new and good, certainly good enough to know that there were things it was not allowed to know. The daffodil, for one: What was a daffodil, I wanted to know, since such a thing did not grow in the tropics.74

Kincaid recounts how she filled her garden with those flowers, as though to pluck the lofty vision of daffodils and plant them into the earth: five thousand of them to Wordsworth’s ten thousand. Kincaid frames the planting, not as a competition between herself and Wordsworth to match one another, daffodil for daffodil, but as a way to detach the poem from the context it once held for her as an inscrutable, but oppressive artifact from a colonial education. The memory of the poem and the significance of the daffodil linger for Kincaid.75 They grew in the soil of her young mind and came to signify “literature’s political role in the work of empire.”76 Wordsworth wakens within Kincaid the strangeness of the colonized subject in the Caribbean: the unspoken narrative of the slave trade, the evidence of forced diaspora made evident by the transplanting of Wordsworth into the tropics. Kincaid’s reflections on education chart a complex matrix of significations behind what it means to learn within a tradition that deeply informs one’s life, but at the same time is foreign to one’s lived experiences. For the writer, the dawning knowledge of a genealogical break finds its complement in the surrogation of learning; that is, she seeks out a heritage in the written word and maps what she finds there onto her own experience. The revelations of Wordsworth’s poem and the act of memorizing it open her mind to questions of origin and historical trauma she would continue  Jamaica Kincaid, “Dances with Daffodils,” Architectural Digest 64.4 (2007), 78–82.  Jamaica Kincaid, “Alien Soil,” The New Yorker, June 21, 1993, 47. 76   Ian Smith, “Misusing Canonical Intertexts: Jamaica Kincaid, Wordsworth and Colonialism’s ‘Absent Things,’” Callaloo, 25.3 (Summer 2002), 801–820. 74 75



to work through for decades within her writing. Digging here is the work of literary excavation; she finds unsuspected materials within a substrate that would seem foreign to it. Wordsworth’s daffodils sprout in Kincaid’s imagination. His words, subjected to Kincaid’s interpretation, reveal unlikely connections and points of contact that reward the attempt. The young Kincaid sees herself as estranged from the poetry of Wordsworth but also aware of her body as a “little black-skinned girl” for whom this poetry was not meant: Somewhere I read that Wordsworth worried about misreadings of his poem. It can’t be that he worried about the uses to which his countrymen would employ the product of his genius (they were busy trading slaves, not educating them). I believe it possible, though, that with his sensibility, so finely tuned to the unknown in the human realm, so finely tuned to our universal confusions and misunderstandings, he was, when worrying about misreadings, thinking of someone like me.77

Perhaps what is most striking about this passage is the closeness Kincaid assumes to Wordsworth, to the point that she imputes a generosity of soul that could imagine the writer herself. At its root, the subject of this book is the power of misreading, of the sort which Edward Said argues “plays havoc with the stability of texts and authors, indeed with the whole order of culture. The past becomes an active intervention in the present; the future is preposterously made just a figure of the past in the present.”78 These sorts of strategic misreadings, as we see with Kincaid, function as a way to forge kinship across the boundaries of time and the constructions of race. While contemplating the English literary tradition forces African-American writers to confront a history of excluded voices, misreading—how Kincaid assumes Wordsworth’s thoughts to reread “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”— creates nodes of connection and spaces to reform meaning through unexpected conjunctions. This is the working of both allegory and kinship. Unlike Gordon Teskey’s theories that relate allegory to violence, here the connections are vital for remediating the psychic trauma of being on alien soil.79 This work of reading against chronology or, etymologically  “Dances with Daffodils,” 82.  Edward Said, “The Poet as Oedipus,” The New York Times Book Review, 13 April 1975,

77 78

24.  Gordon Teskey, Allegory and Violence (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), 5–6.




speaking, the “discourse of time” is at the heart of The Black Middle Ages. It identifies a counter-narrative that African-American authors have offered as a response to dominant narratives of history’s progress and the implied roster of its participants. Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks describes her writing as an “incubator for the creation of historical events—and, as in the case of artificial insemination, the baby is no less human.”80 This philosophy encapsulates the possibilities of productive misreading, what a writer must do in the absence of documentation, or worse, the willful silencing of the past. For example, Morrison ends her novel Beloved with the paradoxical injunction: “This is not a story to pass on.” The sentence demands that the reader take two competing stances on the preceding work, both that the novel and the underlying historical circumstances should be left behind, and that this story cannot be circumvented.81 Saidiya Hartman amplifies this ­ambivalence in her personal and scholarly study, Lose Your Mother. She explores the frustrating gaps in both historical and familial records of a slave past. In her search to learn about the history of slavery in her family’s past, she would continually come up against both an unwillingness to speak on the part of her family and lacunae in the records of southern slavery. These absences in records were set against her own desire to know and to uncover: Would I never know? Were gaps and silences and empty rooms the substance of history? If ruin was my sole inheritance and the only certainty the impossibility of recovering the stories of the enslaved, did this make my history tantamount to mourning? Or worse, was it a melancholia I would never be able to overcome? […] Alongside the terrible things one had survived was also the shame of having survived it. Remembering warred with the will to forget.82

80  Suzan-Lori Parks, “Possession,” The America Play and Other Works (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1997), 4. 81  The story the novel recounts is based on scraps of information, what little is known about the life of the escaped slave Margaret Garner, who murdered her children rather than have them become enslaved. The story is horrific and as such, the novel argues, it is something to be remembered and to be left behind. 82  Saidiya Hartman Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), 16.



Her work necessarily had to create a novel form of analysis that located origins where it could, to merge fictive and speculative connections with what the historical record supplied. The line between the historical and the fictional, the biological and the literary, in the case of African-American literature and literary studies is not at all clear. The Black Middle Ages is structured in a way that breaks from more traditional readings of the subject that linger on one period or one set of texts so that it can track connections as they come: historical or elective, linear or elusive. I begin with two readings of late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century uses of the Middle Ages. In Chap. 2, I follow how the political purchase of the Middle Ages could be marshaled to renegotiate the terms of belonging in the nation in ways that planted intercultural contact and fusion within the core of American identity. While white Americans often read the Anglo-Saxon period as an era of purity interrupted by the Norman invasion, these African-American scholars read the hyphen; they focused on the Middle Ages as a period of racial mixing and political possibility between Angles, Saxons, and Normans. The chapter then offers a historical reading of archival materials charting the earliest writing about and teaching of the Middle Ages among African-American intellectuals. This work reveals how the philological approach that was important to early medieval research could be wielded to the political ends of African-American education, in particular as a set of tools for understanding African-American history through linguistic study. Chapter 3 resumes the set of questions provoked in Chap. 2 about using the past as a political tool to intervene into the construction of race and ethnicity. The chapter expands the study’s inquiry to look at the place of the novel within the depiction of the Middle Ages, particularly the ways in which it disrupts the tropes of romance. I put into conversation Mark Twain and Charles Chesnutt, who use the novels A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and The House Behind the Cedars to escape and critique the authorial shadow of Walter Scott. Ostensibly, both novels parody the work of Scott, particularly Ivanhoe, for its “sham grandeurs, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society.”83 Chesnutt and Twain take pains to show how flimsy the mythology underpinning Scott’s work is. (They do this quite literally at points; Chesnutt, for example, dresses up his “knights” in cardboard and gilt paper.) But, as this chapter argues, both authors recognize the power of Scott’s myth-making  Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1904), 347.




to penetrate the sphere of social reality by offering an attractive mythical history consonant with the desires of some Americans for a pure lineage. This interpretation of Scott’s legacy recalls the author’s own estimation of a novel’s potency and its close relationship to romance—forms that he hybridized in Ivanhoe. Chesnutt and Twain critically engage and supersede Scott’s legacy by addressing the fundamental appeal of his work, that is, its claims to provide a fictional heritage for its readers. Both writers unstitch romance as inherited from Scott by staging disruptions within the expected temporal and genealogical progression of their narratives. In particular, they ask whether African-Americans can be incorporated within the myth-making of romance. This work builds on the second chapter’s assertions about the plasticity of medieval romance within the lives of those who read it. Chapter 4 proceeds with a consideration of a set of medieval texts that raise questions about how the Middle Ages were being constructed and mythologized within the period itself. This chapter provides a vital counterpart to the argument constructed over Chaps. 2 and 3, that are premised upon finding latent ambiguities and ambivalences within medieval narratives. In particular, in this chapter I discuss the ways in which post-­ ­ colonial readings can critically intervene into interpretations of Gerald of Wales’ The History and Topography of Ireland and The Conquest of Ireland. Gerald’s “historical” work on Ireland is vexed by his vitriol against the inhabitants of Ireland, which has led this work to be largely neglected or read as a curiosity. However, The Conquest of Ireland is a revealing site for the complex network of physical and literary genealogies that inform Gerald’s writing. Gerald interlards his “historical” account of the conquest of Ireland with quotations from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain, the early twelfth century pseudo-historical account of British rule up to the ultimate Anglo-Saxon conquest and exile of the Britons to Wales. This mobilization of Geoffrey allows Gerald to perform what he imagines to be Welsh identity: Gerald’s belief in the Welsh right to rule, set against his acute awareness of his disenfranchisement from power within England because of his Welsh descent. Read from this perspective, Gerald is a test case in understanding the intersection between fiction, ethnicity, and political power. The “historical” prism Geoffrey constructs frames Gerald’s social mobility and the way he reads his own life. More importantly, for the purposes of this book, this reading foregrounds the flexibility inherent within Geoffrey’s text. The History of the Kings of Britain was not just popular in its own time, the descriptions of



Arthur and his linkage between the progress of history and genealogy would form the basis of many later iterations of the Arthurian legend. The most significant of these would be those produced by Sir Walter Scott, who was a vital conduit for American medievalisms throughout the nineteenth century. Chapter 5 moves to consider more abstract questions of inheritance by examining how an African-American writer can position her own work in relationship to a larger literary tradition, derived from the Middle Ages. It focuses on Gloria Naylor’s use of Dante Alighieri and Geoffrey Chaucer in her sequential novels Linden Hills and Bailey’s Café. Naylor encountered both of these authors in a college “Great Literature” course and struggled with treating them as her literary antecedents.84 Their position within the literary canon and the lineage of texts that followed them seemed to chart a trajectory that would not incorporate her authorial voice.85 The rewriting of these texts, the chapter argues, is Naylor’s way of reading them not as “classics” to which she is beholden and which would prescribe the sorts of engagement she could have with them. Rather, she places Dante and Chaucer within the context of a living discussion of vernacular literature, a conversation in which she is only the latest participant. The idea of the “vernacular” allows Naylor to propose a literary mode that connects her to foundational medieval texts. It would include a host of voices that have their own individuality and melody but have been denied the status of “literary” because they were too “vulgar” in the Dantean sense of the word. This analysis is germane to the larger themes of literary surrogacy this study advances. However, Naylor’s novels attempt to upend the idea of literary history as a paternal search for origins and instead work to reclaim kindred voices across time. The book ends with a study of Quentin Tarantino’s film Django Unchained. This final chapter (Chap. 6) acts in part as a response to Carolyn Dinshaw’s groundbreaking study, Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. Her provocation to think about what it means to “get medieval”—borrowing the line from Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction—ends with a return to the film itself. Dinshaw found the film to be lacking in terms of how it deals with sexuality, particularly homosexual relationships. Despite the riotous acclaim the film received for its willingness 84  Gloria Naylor, Conversations with Gloria Naylor, ed. Maxine Lavon Montgomery (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2004), 56. 85  Ibid.



to deal with edgy material, Dinshaw argued that the film is far less radical in how it engaged these issues than actual medieval texts could be. Django offers the ideal impetus to revisit the project of reading “the medieval’s” relationship to radical readings of contemporary issues through the film’s reassessments of race relations and the Siegfried myth. While Dinshaw looked at a popular appropriation of the Middle Ages and found it lacking, I argue that Django adroitly utilizes the flexibility of medieval mythology to question the presentation of African-Americans within the founding narratives of the nation. Not only does this line of questioning address the history of the Western and the Hollywood epic, but undergirding these questions are concerns about how to challenge authoritative versions of history and overcome silences within narratives that focus on major political actors. This final chapter demonstrates the longevity of the questions at stake through the entirety of The Black Middle Ages.

The (W)hole of History But like the crutchmarks of the cripple by the Beautiful Gate, this blurred record is now out of print. From a tattered copy, rescued by the merest chance from the rag-pickers, the present account has been drawn, which, with the exception of some expansions, and additions of historic and personal details, and one or two shiftings of scene, may perhaps be not unfitly regarded as something in the light of a dilapidated old tombstone retouched.86

In perhaps the least read and most anomalous of Herman Melville’s novels, Israel Potter (1855), Melville provides a curious meditation on grand narratives of history and their relationship to personal accounts. Melville bases his work on an autobiographical account by Potter, who sought to publish it to secure a pension when he could not otherwise prove that he fought in the Revolutionary War. In the hands of Melville, this attempt to be remembered through one’s own account casts Potter in a pathetic light; his book becomes a meager memento of his life. The author at one point in the novel places the eponymous character, who was an American spy, in a hidden room of an old English country home during the Revolutionary War. Before the exit is sealed, Potter’s benefactor, Squire 86  Herman Melville, Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile (New York: Penguin Books, 2008), 1.



Woodcock, enjoins him not to speak, at the risk of revealing himself and jeopardizing the mission. Potter is left to simply stare at the walls, which themselves have an elaborate history: It seemed that this part of this old house, or rather this wall of it, was extremely ancient, dating far beyond the era of Elizabeth, having once formed portion of a religious retreat belonging to the Templars. This domestic discipline of this order was rigid and merciless in the extreme. In a side wall of their second story chapel, horizontal and on a level with the floor, they had an internal vacancy left, exactly of the shape and average size of a coffin. In this place, from time to time, inmates convicted of contumacy were confined; but strange to say, not till they were penitent….This coffin-­ cell of the Templars had been suffered to remain in the demolition of the general edifice, to make way for the erection of the new, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. It was enlarged somewhat, and altered and additionally ventilated, to adapt it for a place of concealment in times of civil dissention.87

Melville places Israel Potter in a hole in history, literally forgotten (his benefactor dies unexpectedly before releasing Potter, leaving him friendless) and, more significantly, swallowed up by the history around himself. The (w)hole in history signifies both Potter’s silence, and that he has no choice but to contemplate the totalizing force of history, the grand sweep that has at its foundation the Middle Ages. Melville juxtaposes the antiquity of the space with the impermanence of the man entombed within it. The choice to present Potter in this way is fitting given the context of the novel. Melville, who published Israel Potter in its full form the same year as Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom, witnessed the gathering momentum behind a war that would fundamentally alter the country. Perhaps for this reason, Melville structured Israel Potter to meditate on the question of founding through this “found” work that only by good fortune came to the notice of the writer. Israel Potter depicts several founding fathers who present the construction of nation as defined by the workings of great actors. This is a proximal history of origins for Melville. The Revolutionary War generation was just a step removed from the time in which Melville was writing. The novel, through its long digressions on Potter’s time in England, probes the depths of the national mythos and reaches as far back as the Middle Ages to show how imbricated British  Ibid., 79.




history was within America. Melville, by putting Potter within this modified medieval “coffin-cell,” argues that one needs to contend with history on such a large scale to fully understand the changes the coming war would bring to the country and the ways in which the United States had already strayed from its founding principles. In a class I teach about American literature after the Civil War, I ask my students: When does the Civil War-era end? Is it after the final shot is fired in the war? Or the surrender at Appomattox? Or should we read the Civil War as mediated through the memorials and literary testaments that would succeed a war whose size, violence, and political meaning would continue to transform after 1865? Which one signifies the endpoint at which the meaning of the war can be fully reckoned? When the historical projects that brewed before the war and exploded into violence have finally run their course? How much digging must be done to know the contours and to be satisfied that the narrative one has constructed is sufficient? Toni Morrison describes her surprise at uncovering the story of Margaret Garner—whose decision to kill her children rather than return them to slavery would be the seed for her novel Beloved—as an accident in the archive, an unsought voice that spoke to her across a wide stretch of time. The point I hope to convince my students of is two-fold. First, I wish to have them see that past and present are coincident in the realm of historiography and fiction, that is, narratives are renewed over time, making “past and present contemporaries.”88 At the same time, I urge them to see where narratives are suppressed, which stories, in the process of history-­ making—the historian and literary scholar’s work of digging and uncovering—bury and silence others. The hole as absence, or void, is a prevailing metaphor in African-­ American literature, and in literature about African-Americans. The strength of this image rests in its double meaning, that the hole is both an absence and a shape in itself, that to read African-American history as simply an absence neglects its (de)formational potential. The converse of blackness as a void is the act of digging as a type of excavation, the productive act of digging downwards to learn what lies beneath. Parks, in her America Play, describes African-American history as “a great hole” which signifies a lacuna, but also the possibility of what can be unearthed by

88  Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press 1997), 19.



those willing to dig.89 The hole can be a space of creation or of destruction. For Parks, her writing is an act of creation, a way to “make history.”90 This study attempts to “make history,” and to contemplate the hole itself, to think about gaps and absences, to push against the imperative to see totality where there are only pieces. The story of medievalism as used by African-Americans is one that has clear importance, but has largely been forgotten, in part because this story must be pieced together from materials available from nineteenth century African-American archives that are in some cases merest suggestion, in others crumbling to dust. These are set alongside the vibrant newness of the celluloid images of the twenty-first century that serve to illuminate, but threaten to overshadow, their paper antecedents. But the silence behind this story is also due to the loud ­presence of a counter-narrative that insists on its primacy. I place all of these archives and meanings on the background of the used and oft-­ misunderstood “medieval.” By looking at the critical overlap of these pieces, one can view a set of projects to formulate how African-Americans fashioned identity within the nation, a way to read an ongoing and difficult set of questions about being placed on “alien soil.” Literary analysis is my spade. I’ll dig with it.

Works Cited Primary Sources Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. New  York: Penguin Books, 2003. Ellison, Ralph. “Harlem is Nowhere.” Harper’s Magazine, August 1964, 53–57. ———. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage Books, 1995. Hosmer, James K. A Short History of Anglo-Saxon Freedom: The Polity of the English-Speaking Race Outlined in Its Inception, Development, Diffusion, and Present Condition. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1890. Jefferson, Thomas. A Summary View of the Rights of British America. Williamsburg: Clementina Rind, 1774. ———. “Letter to Edmund Pendleton.” Philadelphia, August 13, 1776. Founders Online, National Archives. Jefferson/01-01-02-0210. 89  Suzan-Lori Parks, The America Play and Other Works (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1995), 157–199. 90  Ibid., 4.



———. “Letter to George W. Lewis.” Monticello, October 25, 1825. Founders Online, National Archives. Jefferson/98-01-02-5617. ———. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. Edited by Albert Ellery Bergh and Robert Holland Johnson. Washington, DC: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, 1904. ———. Letters of Thomas Jefferson Concerning Philology and the Classics. Edited by Thomas Fitzhugh. Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 1919. ———. “Letter to William Ludlow” September 6, 1824  in Jefferson: Political Writings. Edited by Joyce Appleby and Terrence Ball. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, 590. ———. The Essential Jefferson. Edited by Jean Yarbrough. Cambridge: Hackett, 2006. London, Jack. Jack London on Writers and Writing. Edited by Dale L. Walker and Heanne Campbell Reesman. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1999. Melville, Herman. Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile. New York: Penguin Books, 2008. Naylor, Gloria. Conversations with Gloria Naylor. Edited by Maxine Lavon Montgomery. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2004. Osgood, H.L. “Review: A Short History of Anglo-Saxon Freedom, by James K. Hosmer.” Political Science Quarterly, 6.1 (March 1891), 162–164. Unsigned review of A Short History of Anglo-Saxon Freedom: The Polity Of The English-Speaking Race Outlined In Its Inception, Development, Diffusion, and Present Condition]. The New  York Times (New York, NY), February 22, 1891, 19. Van Evrie, John H. White Supremacy and Negro Subordination, or Negroes: A Subordinate Race. New York: Van Evrie, Horton & Co., 1868. Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. New York: Modern Library, 1950. ———. Memoranda During the War. Edited by Peter Coviello. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Secondary Sources Akbari, Suzanne Conklin. Idols in the East: European Representations of Islam and the Orient, 1100–1450. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009. Beckert, Sven. Empire of Cotton. New York: Vintage, 2014. Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 2004. Blake, John. “Are Whites Racially Oppressed.” CNN, March 4, 2011. http:// Blight, David. Race and Reconciliation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.



Burton, Jonathan, and Aina Loomba, eds. Race in Early Modern England: A Documentary Companion. New York: Palgrave, 2007. Cannon, Christopher. The Grounds of English Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Cassidy, John. “Trump Embraces Nigel Farage, His British Alter Ego.” The New  Yorker, August 25, 2016. Cook, William, and James Tatum. African American Writers and the Classical Tradition. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2010. de Weever, Jacqueline. Sheba’s Daughters: Whitening and Demonizing the Saracen Woman in the Medieval French Epic. New York: Routledge, 1998. Dixon, Thomas. The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1905. Du Bois, W.E.B. “A Winter Pilgrimage.” The Crisis Magazine, 1.3 (1911), 15. ———. The Oxford DuBois Reader. Edited by Eric J. Sundquist. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Elfenbein, Andrew. Romanticism and the Rise of English. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009. Flax, Bill. “Forget Multiculturalism: Restore the Anglo-Saxon Philosophy of Liberty.” Forbes Magazine, September 9, 2011. sites/billflax/2011/09/29/forget-multiculturalism-restore-the-anglo-saxonphilosophy-of-liberty/#7e2f4c19f81f. Frantzen, Allen J. Desire for Origins: New Language, Old English and Teaching the Tradition. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990. ———. Bloody Good: Chivalry, Sacrifice and the Great War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. Frantzen, Allen J., and John D. Niles. eds., Anglo-Saxonism and the Construction of Social Identity. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1997. Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and Gene Andrew Jarrett. eds. The New Negro: Readings on Race, Representation, and African American Culture, 1892–1938. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. Grandin, Greg. “Living in Revolutionary Time: Coming to Terms with Violence of Latin America’s Long Cold War.” In A Century of Revolution: Insurgent and Counterinsurgent Violence During Latin America’s Long Cold War, eds. Greg Grandin and Gilbert M. Joseph. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010, 1–42. ———. The Empire of Necessity. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014. Greenblatt, Stephen. Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of The New World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991. Greenwood, Emily. Afro-Greeks: Dialogues Between Anglophone Caribbean Literature and Classics in the Twentieth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.



Hanlon, Christopher. America’s England: Antebellum Literature and Atlantic Sectionalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Hartman, Saidiya. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. ———. Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007. Heng, Geraldine. Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. Hohmann, James. “Trump Doesn’t Know Much about History. It’s Making His On-The-Job Training Harder.” The Washington Post, April 14, 2017. https:// w w w. w a s h i n g t o n p o s t . c o m / n e w s / p o w e r p o s t / p a l o m a / d a i l y 202/2017/04/14/daily-202-trump-doesn-t-know-much-about-history-it-smaking-his-on-the-job-training-harder/58f06ba2e9b69b3a72331e84/? utm_term=.605c91f3b64d. Horsman, Reginald. Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins Of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981. Howe, Nicholas. Migration and Mythmaking in Anglo-Saxon England. South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001. Hsu, Hua. “The End of White America.” The Atlantic, January 1, 2009. https:// Huntington, Samuel. Who We Are: The Challenges to America’s National Identity. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004. Kincaid, Jamaica. “Alien Soil.” The New Yorker, June 21, 1993, 47. ———. “Dances with Daffodils.” Architectural Digest 64.4 (2007), 78–82. Lepore, Jill. The Whites of Their Eyes. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010. Loomba, Ania. Shakespeare, Race, and Colonialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Looney, Dennis. Freedom Readers. South Bend: Notre Dame University Press, 2011. Mayer, Arno. The Persistence of the Old Regime: Europe and the Great War. New York: Pantheon Books, 1981. Mora, María José, and María José Gómez-Calderón. “The Study of Old English in America (1776–1850): National Uses of the Saxon Past.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 97.3 (July, 1998), 322–336. Moreland, Kim. The Medievalist Impulse in American Literature: Twain, Adams, Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Charlottesville: The University of Virginia Press, 1996. Morello, Carol, and Ted Mellnik. “Census: Minority Babies Now Majority in the United States.” The Washington Post, May 16, 2012.



Morrison, Toni. “Melville and the Language of Denial.” The Nation, January 27, 2014. Accessed March 12, 2016. melville-and-language-denial/. Myers, Karen Magee. “Mythic Patterns in Charles Waddell Chesnutt’s the Conjure Woman and Ovid’s Metamorphoses.” Black American Literature Forum 13.1 (Spring, 1979), 13–17. Parks, Suzan-Lori. The America Play and Other Works. New  York: Theatre Communications Group, 1997. Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985. Richardson, Robert. William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism. New York: Mariner Books, 2007. Roach, Joseph. Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance. New  York: Columbia University Press, 1996. Said, Edward. “The Poet as Oedipus.” The New York Times Book Review, April 13, 1975, 24. Smith, Ian. “Misusing Canonical Intertexts: Jamaica Kincaid, Wordsworth and Colonialism’s ‘Absent Things.’” Callaloo 25.3 (Summer 2002), 801–820. Stanley, Eric Gerald. Imagining the Anglo-Saxon Past. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2000. Swain, Jon. “Mitt Romney Would Restore ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Relations between Britain and America.” The Daily Telegraph, July 24, 2012. Accessed July 7, 2015. Mitt-Romney-would-restore-Anglo-Saxon-relations-between-Britain-andAmerica.html. Teskey, Gordon. Allegory and Violence. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996. Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1997. Twain, Mark. Life on the Mississippi. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1904. Watson, Ritchie Devon, Jr. Normans and Saxons: Southern Race Mythology and the Intellectual History of the American Civil War. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008.


Medieval Self-Fashioning: The Middle Ages in African-American Scholarship and Curricula

“We can never be a people without education.” —G.M. Elliott, “We Must Educate,” AME Church Review 1 (1884): 330. The problem with which [the Negro] is confronted is whether he shall be an alien in the land of his birth or shall continue to hold unimpaired and undiminished the rights guaranteed to him by the United States Constitution. —Frederick Douglass, “The Negro in the Present Campaign,” AME Church Review 9 (1892): 115.

The derivation of Fredrick Douglass’ name is well known. In the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) Douglass describes his decision to change his name from Bailey upon arriving in the North. He first considers “Johnson” but learns that this name is common among runaways. He instead gives the honor of choosing his last name to his benefactor in New Bedford, Nathan Johnson. Johnson suggests “Douglass,” a name taken from the Walter Scott poem The Lady of the Lake.1 The moment passes with little emphasis paid to the significance of the choice and perhaps it did not hold much for Douglass at the time the Narrative was published. But he surely found greater meaning in his name  Frederick Douglass, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, ed. Ira Dworkin (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), 104. 1

© The Author(s) 2018 M. X. Vernon, The Black Middle Ages, The New Middle Ages,




within the next few years when he traveled to Britain. Douglass used the trip to promote his abolitionist message and issue a sharp rebuke to the United States for continuing to allow slavery. He juxtaposed the former colony that “boasts of holy liberty and light” with the antiquated—to American eyes—British monarchy and wondered how this older nation could have advanced the cause of abolition before its scion. Douglass located the solution to this question within the antiquity of Britain itself. In particular, he understood the long struggles for Scottish independence to be a strategic cultural node into which he could draw the campaign for emancipation through his name’s history. While in Scotland, Douglass wrote a response (1846) in William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator to A.C.C. Thomson, a man who sought to discredit the narrative of the “recreant slave by the name of Frederick Bailey.”2 Douglass refutation offers a striking commentary on the affinities between his own bid for freedom and those for Scottish independence that were generated by his adopted name: Frederick Douglass, the freeman, is a very different person from Frederick Bailey (my former name), the slave. I feel myself almost a new man—freedom has given me new life. I fancy you would scarcely know me. I think I have altered very much in my general appearance, and know I have in my manners. You remember when I used to meet you on the road to St. Michaels, or near Mr. Covey’s lane gate, I hardly dared to lift my head, and look up at you. If I should meet you now, amid the free hills of old Scotland, where the ancient “black Douglass” once met his foes, I presume I might summon sufficient fortitude to look you full in the face; and were you to attempt to make a slave of me, it is possible you might find me almost as disagreeable a subject as was the Douglass to whom I have just referred. Of one thing, I am certain—you would see a great change in me!3

Douglass does subtle but sophisticated work to explode the expected lines of racial and national attachments and reconfigure them to construct a transnational community that objects to oppression. The name, which begins as a subtle marker of his manumission, here refers to a fundamental 2  A.C.C.  Thomson, “Refuge From Oppression. From the Delaware Republican to the Public. Falsehood Refuted.” The Liberator, 12 December 1845. 3  Frederick Douglass, “Letter to William Lloyd Garrison, Jan 27, 1846,” in The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, vol. 1, ed. Philip S. Foner (New York: International Publishers, 1950), 133.



change in identity that connects Douglass to the medieval wars for Scottish independence. Visible within this passage is the romantic image of the Middle Ages as constructed by a writer like Scott, but here too is Douglass’ own imagining of his relationship with the historical figure of “the black Douglass,” the fourteenth-century Scottish chieftain. Beyond asserting his trans-Atlantic positionality, Douglass formulates a cross-temporal set of solidarities with his audiences in America and Britain. The Middle Ages, through their reimagining in the hands of Walter Scott and in the historical form of the “black Douglass,” furnish a historical analogy and imaginative landscape within which Frederick Douglass negotiates his sense of self in relation to his own past of enslavement. He espouses this medieval personage as part of the larger political strategy of his lecture circuit through Britain; he shows himself to be a trans-Atlantic actor capable of positioning his own narrative to ally it within the terms of liberation struggles that were legible to his British audiences. Simultaneously, Douglass troubled the fictive bonds with medieval England to which white Americans laid claim, particularly the notion that they were inheritors of a “Saxon spirit,” which legitimated their rule over other races.4 Instead, Douglass offered himself and his own journey from slavery to freedom as a more suitable echo to parts of medieval Scottish mythology and history; the medieval “black Douglass” could assume new vitality in the form of a nineteenth-century black freeman named Frederick Douglass. This example presents the imaginative place afforded to the Middle Ages during the nineteenth and early twentieth-century resurgence of interest in medieval subjects within the United States. Frederick Douglass used the Middle Ages; he actively manipulated the cultural significance of the period as a symbol for black enfranchisement within his country. He utilized the power behind narratives, which associated the Middle Ages with the full promises of “natural rights” for citizens.5 Douglass feared 4  This was a common reading of American expansion. An example of this perspective’s reach within American culture can be read in Walt Whitman’s editorials for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle about the need to people the “New World” with the “noble race” of AngloSaxons. See Heidi Kathleen Kim’s arguments about this in “From Language to Empire: Walt Whitman in the Context of Nineteenth-Century Popular Anglo-Saxonism,” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 24 (Summer 2006): 1–19. 5  See Reginald Horsman’s discussion of the freedoms with which descendants of AngloSaxons were to be naturally endowed: Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), 18–23.



that the African-American would become “an alien in the land of his birth,” even decades after the Civil War and the incorporation of African-­ Americans into America’s body politic. He suspected that African-­ Americans were regarded as a “diseased member” of that body, and that the refusal to recognize them compromised the integrity of the nation.6 The conferral of legal citizenship did not, for Douglass, convey the deeper goal of “belonging” within the nation, that is, realizing promise of social advancement and “the common benefit of association.”7 Without that crucial step of creating a “common country” for all, he dismissed the prospect of African-American citizenship as a mere “delusion.”8 Throughout his life Douglass struggled to find the right framework to express the commingled feelings of alienation from and belief in the nation. In perhaps his most famous address, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” (1852), Douglass balanced admiration for the founding father’s revolutionary movement against how the nation failed to apply the principles of American independence to slaves. Eric Sundquist succinctly describes this strategy: “Douglass placed himself outside the American dream but within the circle of the post-Revolutionary generation’s principal rhetoric.”9 Douglass recognized that this type of analogizing was essential for rendering legible the contradictions inherent within African-American life, and for drawing support for his political causes. Similarly, African-American intellectual circles, during and for decades after Reconstruction, sought modes of reading American life that effaced the color line and instead placed emphasis on the work of self-fashioning that African-Americans undertook. When W.E.B.  Du Bois entered this discussion with Darkwater (1920), he argued that the United States eroded its own commitment to democracy by “training” European immigrants “to this despising of ‘niggers’ from the day of their landing.”10 Like Douglass, Du Bois framed the fight for racial integration not as one to be 6  Frederick Douglass, “The Nation’s Problem: An Address Delivered in Washington D.C. on 16 April 1889,” The Frederick Douglass Papers: Speeches, Debates and Interviews, vol. 5, eds. John W.  Blassingame and John R.  McKivigan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 407. 7  Ibid., 415. 8  Ibid., 411. 9  “Introduction,” in Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 14. 10  W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Souls of White Folk” in The Oxford W.E.B. Du Bois Reader, ed. Eric J. Sundquist (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 508.



staged in the courtroom or the battlefield, but in the sphere of cultural production. While other arenas of encounter made manifest the mechanics of racial discrimination, for Douglass and Du Bois the cultural work done to define African-American identity as outside “the possibility for human brotherhood” shaped the terms in which other modes of social engagement between races might occur.11 It was necessary to undo this “training” by presenting alternative means through which African-American life could be understood. The mythology of the Middle Ages provided the discursive means for African-American intellectuals to fashion their identity in the decades after the Civil War. Contemporary re-imaginings of the medieval period offered narratives of power, subjugation, encounter, and national foundation that African-Americans could wield to position their cultural experience as integral to the larger arc of American history. Moreover, the philological tools of medieval studies provided an analytical means to engage questions about the history of African languages and African-American letters. Taken together, this early piece in the lineage of African-Americans working with medieval materials redounds to the power of subversive histories. In writing against the grain of pervasive narratives which justified campaigns of racial oppression by linking contemporary America to a medieval heritage—visible in discussions of Manifest Destiny and arguments about the fitness of white Americans to rule over other races—AfricanAmericans could critique how national identity was articulated. The nineteenth-­ century African-American experiences of slavery, forced migration, and circumcision from the centers of political power were read through popular medievalisms about Saxon migration and the AngloNorman conquest. This strategy troubled representations of American power that did not reckon with the integral place of African-Americans within the creation of the American state. African-American intellectuals contemplated a radical reorientation of the way American history was read that would fundamentally alter the “ancient relation” between races which pre-supposed “Anglo-Saxon blood” to be superior to all others.12 In doing so they  Ibid.  James McCune Smith to Robert Hamilton, 27 August 1864, Weekly Anglo-African in Black Abolitionist Papers Vol. 5, eds. C. Peter Ripley et al. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press: 1992), 300–301; James McCune Smith, The Works of James McCune Smith: Black Intellectual and Abolitionist (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 259. 11 12



worked towards a theory that could foster solidarities that cut across the lines of race and, ultimately, those of nation. For example, soon after the Civil War, Douglass theorized that America needed to use immigration policy to become a “composite nation,” one that reflected his estimation of global demographics: “only one fifth of the population of the globe is white, the other four fifths are colored.”13 Douglass’ argument proceeds by suggesting that the strength of the nation depends on both respecting human rights and embracing diversity. To solidify his argument he notes that the most developed parts of Britain are those that “have received the largest and most diverse populations.”14 In contrast, he argues that those parts of Britain that believe themselves to have “pure blood” from the “ancient Britons” and to have never been conquered have little to recommend them: “no man can contemplate them without wishing they had been conquered.”15 The history of this myth will be discussed in Chap. 4, but here it suffices to say that Douglass chooses an example that has clear medieval roots. He understands the potency of presenting England as having a history of subjugation that it surmounted to develop into a global power. Moreover, he complicates the analogy by showing Britain as still divided about its past in a way that echoes the divided sentiment about where people of color fit within the nation. Abolitionist James McCune Smith makes a similar argument in his 1859 article “The German Invasion.” He refutes the notion of a pure Anglo-Saxon heritage and questions whether or not such a fantasy might even be desirable: [T]he frequent admixtures or amalgamation of variously endowed men which grew out of these repeated invasions, resulted in a composite intellect, greater in force, wider in grasp, more active in detail, than could have grown out of any one tribe or race, Cimbri or Celt, Angle or Norman, which ever dwelt on the British isle.16

13  Frederick Douglass, “A Composite Nation” (1869). In Racism, Dissent, and AsianAmericans from 1850 to the Present: A Documentary History, eds. Philip Foner and Daniel Rosenberg (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1970), 215–231. 14  Ibid. 15  Ibid. 16  Both Douglass and Smith had spent time in Britain. Smith even received his medical training at the University of Glasgow. Their readings of medieval history must be read as inflected by their lived experiences in Britain. James McCune Smith, “The German Invasion”, The Anglo-African Magazine 1 (1859), 44.



What is remarkable about Smith’s article in relationship to Douglass’ speech is both the congruity between them and that they were produced over a decade apart. The breathless optimism of one—Smith likens “the Negro” to a hero from “Romance times”—anticipates the global consciousness of the other.17 While the circumstances of African-American life changed dramatically over that period, the positioning of African-­ Americans’ integral status within the nation as articulable through a set of foundational fictions bespeaks both the power of such narratives and the ambitions of those who mobilized them. “The great change” Douglass sensed constituted the beginnings of a vision for the nation as a whole to progress in a way that accords with a bold reading of its mythical past.

The Construction of a Medieval Past: Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-African The Saxons were a race of people—she told me all about them when I was a little girl. They were wild, like Indians, only they were white. And they had blue eyes, and yellow hair, and they were awful fighters. As she talked, Billy followed her solemnly, his eyes steadily turned on hers. “Never heard of them,” he confessed. “Did they live anywhere around here?” She laughed. “No. They lived in England. They were the first English, and you know the Americans came from the English. We’re Saxons, you an’ me, an’ Mary, an’ Bert, and all the Americans that are real Americans, you know, and not Dagoes and Japs and such.”18

Jack London’s The Valley of the Moon (1913) leaves little doubt about the conjunction of Anglo-Saxon history with the era of America’s frontier expansion. He conflates the medieval past with the novel’s present in the way he switches from referring to a Saxon people in the past to Saxons who, in fact, still exist. The Saxons resemble the native people of the United States in their “wildness,” and thus are equally suited to possess the land. Billy, one of the novel’s protagonists, has eyes that are “deep blue and wide” like those of the “historical” Saxons. London even names the protagonist “Saxon Roberts” as though to eliminate any remaining ambiguity about the relationship between past and present. All of the complicating  Ibid., 48.  Jack London, The Valley of the Moon (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 17.

17 18



factors in London’s analogy are excluded; the speaker, Saxon, does not accept people of Italian or Japanese descent—well-established populations in California by the time the novel is written—as any part of American culture.19 “Real Americans” have unimpeded access to a Saxon past and the most audacious claims of nineteenth-century America: over the land and human life. Saxon envisions American migration to the West to be a shadow of Anglo-Saxon conquest: Yet, palpitating and real, shimmering in the sun-flashed dust of ten thousand hoofs, she saw pass, from East to West, across a continent, the great hegira of the land-hungry Anglo-Saxon. It was part and fiber of her.20

London’s depiction of Saxon’s reverie holds forth the possibility of a mystical union with the past. At the same time, the effort to associate Anglo-­ Saxons with white Americans reveals the nostalgic gaze cast over the project of Manifest Destiny as nation-building. London evokes “the great hegira” to create the sense of proximity between American history and the adventus Saxonum, but he simultaneously indicates that a total rapprochement with the Middle Ages is not possible. There is no land to be conquered in the novel; the characters spend much of their time facing down their disappointment with the realities of a multi-racial, industrialized California. The idea of a pure Anglo-Saxon lineage and the attendant fiction of a land waiting to be claimed by them responds to a desire to retreat from the modern and “recover the hard but satisfying life” of a pre-­ modern existence that is being threatened with “overcivilization.”21 London’s work exemplifies the attitude of many middle-class white Americans from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century who used the Middle Ages as a fantastical escape from the realities of a

19  This sentiment is particularly significant as London writes this the same year that California passed the “Alien Land Law” which restricted the rights of Asian immigrants to own land. 20  London, 40. 21  This argument borrows from T.J. Jackson Lears’ No Place for Grace, which presents the wide usages to which medieval narratives were put in this period. See: No Place of Grace: Anti-Modernism and the Transformation of American Culture 1880–1920 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 96.



modernizing America or as a justification for the means of consolidating racial and political hierarchies.22 This renewed interest in the Middle Ages likewise guided nineteenth-­ century scholarly endeavors, as medievalist Allen J. Frantzen argues in his Desire for Origins: Anglo-Saxonists were vigorously engaged in issues of social and cultural change; they did not pursue knowledge for disinterested reasons. They used Anglo-Saxon studies to identify, and then recover, their cultural beginnings. Early Anglo-Saxonists identified closely with their subject. They recognized themselves in the texts they studied and were aware that they shared a horizon of interests with the horizons expressed in Anglo-Saxon texts.23

As was the case in France, Germany, and England, American philological study was a locus for national pride. The academicizing of the Middle Ages was woven tightly into the fabric of American foundational fictions. Thomas Jefferson, who was an antiquarian with an intense interest in Anglo-Saxon literature, cultivated the idea that America’s own colonization was akin to the Anglo-Saxon migration to Britain. He sought to codify this connection in the University of Virginia by attempting to make Old English a “regular branch of academic education” required for all students.24 Jefferson’s insistence on the importance of the Anglo-Saxon language, particularly its relevance to the law, was propelled by a belief that Old English continued to shape the thoughts and order of the societies that spoke a version of the Anglo-Saxon language.25 The philosophy of American medievalists followed in the tradition Jefferson initiated. Implicitly, the superimposition of medieval on American history carried a racial valence whose potency only strengthened as 22  Medieval narratives were also mobilized as a spur to chivalric action and self-sacrifice for the nation. This is the premise of Allen J. Frantzen’s Bloody Good: Chivalry, Sacrifice and the Great War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004). 23  Allen Frantzen, Desire for Origins: New Language, Old English and Teaching the Tradition (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990), 22. 24  Thomas Jefferson, An Essay towards Facilitating Instruction in the Anglo-Saxon and Modern Dialects of the English Language (New York: John F. Trow, 1851), 8. 25  Jefferson’s initial encounters with Old English derived from his study of the law. He flatly denied that the contemporary language of English speakers was substantially different from that of the Anglo-Saxons. He goes so far as to dismiss the influences of Latin, Greek, French, and Italian upon the language as mere “engraftments in [English’s] idiomatic stem.” Ibid., 4, 8.



American medieval studies flourished after the Civil War. The subject provided a narrative onto which some white Americans could displace their concerns for maintaining a sense of identity, that is, “originary status” conferred by their venerable lineage. Even when direct lineage was not claimed, the medieval world provided a useful historical analogy for these Americans. Southern schools began to expand the number of Old English classes taught in the years leading up to and after the Civil War.26 Before the war, the study of the Anglo-Saxon period provided southerners with historical justification for their paternalistic oppression of African-­ Americans. After the war, Anglo-Saxon history allowed some southerners to cast themselves as a politically oppressed people stubbornly preserving their culture from the invading North, that is, a modern version of the Anglo-Saxons after the Norman invasion.27 At the core of projects to read American history in parallel with medieval British history was a willingness to reinterpret and reshape the past based on fictional ties; the terms of belonging depended upon barriers that were arbitrary. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously critiques the fickleness of racial myth in The Great Gatsby, a novel about the power of fiction to alter one’s personal circumstances.28 Reasoning about race through an appeal to medieval history depends upon fictive alliances with the past; it, of 26  Gregory A.  VanHoosier-Carey, “Anglo-Saxon Studies in the Postbellum South,” in Anglo-Saxonism and the Construction of Social Identity, eds. Allen J.  Frantzen and John D. Niles (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1997), 157–172. 27  Ibid., 161. 28  Tom Buchanan, a pompous blowhard, expounds to his friend Nick Carraway the details of a “scientific” theory about race about which he had been reading:

This idea is that we’re Nordics. I am, and you are, and you are, and—” After an infinitesimal hesitation he included Daisy with a slight nod, and she winked at me again. “—And we’ve produced all the things that go to make civilization—oh, science and art, and all that. Do you see? Tom here refers to Theodore Lothrop Stoddard’s popular work The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy (1920) which advanced the notion of that the “white race”—the race that had guarded its “racial integrity”—was in danger of being overwhelmed by the other races of the world. Although the book focuses on creating an international, atemporal, “Nordic” race, Stoddard would clarify in his later work that America was founded by the “Anglo-Saxon Nordics.” Within The Rising Tide, Stoddard makes reference the essay “The African Roots of War” by fellow Harvardeducated intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois. The relationship between WWI and Du Bois’s theories about race are discussed in the introduction to this book. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004), 19.



necessity, must depart from the rigours of historical analysis and enter into myth-making. As arbitrary and fictive as the lines of race generated by these fictions might be, they had serious consequences as they seeped into popular discourse, laws, and, most insidiously, when the language of the Middle Ages became an uncontested synonyms for wealth, privilege, and whiteness, as is the case with the acronym W.A.S.P.29 The flexibility that made these originary myths so potent in shaping nativist narratives and fashioning the language of possession over the country also gave access to other groups seeking to articulate their own claims to the integrity of their own experiences in the projects of nation-­ building. In particular, during this crucial post-war period of promise and self-fashioning when African-Americans were seeking social equality, medievalia provided the means by which they could assert their place as citizens on equal terms with white Americans.30 Douglass’ fear of being “alien in the land of his birth” found its counter in the discourse of the Middle Ages, which offered African-Americans language to frame themselves as equally possessed of rights as those who constructed “Anglo-­Saxon” heritage to be a natural reason to claim political primacy. African-Americans shifted the language of conquest and domination to “amalgamation” and racial integration. Although many of the sources that will be discussed in this chapter were written after the Civil War it is important to foreground that this cultural project began long before the war’s conclusion. The following lines punctuate an 1832 address to those gathered at the “National Negro Convention,” subsequently published in The Liberator: This is Our own Our Native Land.31 29  Jerome Karabel, The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale and Princeton (New York: Mariner Books, 2006), 83–84. 30  Here I am borrowing the terms used by Frederick Douglass throughout his “The Civil Rights Case: Speech at the Civil Rights Mass-Meeting Held at Lincoln Hall, October 22, 1883” in The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, ed. Philip S.  Foner (New York: International Publishers, 1950) 4: 393. 31  Henry Sipkins and Philip A.  Bell, “Second Annual National Negro Convention” The Liberator, September 22, 1832, in A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States: From Colonial Times Through the Civil War, ed. Herbert Aptheker (New York: The Citadel Press, 1968), 134. See Christopher Z.  Hobson’s discussion of this line where it appears elsewhere in African-American speeches in The Mount of Vision: African American Prophetic Tradition, 1800–1950 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 91. Similar lines appear in George W. Bethune’s popular song “Patriotic Hymn,” however his Lays of Love and Faith: With Other Fugitive Poems, which contains the song was published in 1847.



They come amid a longer argument against plans for African-Americans to colonize other countries; the writers suggest that African-Americans need to “present to the world a general character, that they will feel bound to respect and admire” by building schools and learning all the arts of “civilized life.”32 The address’ authors seem to paraphrase the above lines from Walter Scott’s poem, “The Lay of the Last Minstrel,” which Scott claimed to shape like a metrical romance. The poem purports to tell of the “customs and manners, which anciently prevailed on the Borders of England and Scotland.”33 The transposition of this “medieval” story into the context of nineteenth-century African-American life works counter to the mythologization of Anglo-Saxon history. The appeal to Anglo-Saxon origins often asserted the “natural order” of the world by placing Anglo-­ Saxon culture at the foundations of global civilization; to be part of the Anglo-Saxon race necessarily meant having some claim to the innate genius of the race. This 1832 address’ reference to British history points to an alternative argument about cultural heritage that does not derive from the Anglo-Saxons. The authors, Sipkins and Bell, revise the reading practices that linked race, nation, and the Middle Ages. Their allusion to Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel transposes that text’s mediations on the possibilities for constructing both regional and national identities out of the friction at the seams between England and Scotland to America’s racial dynamics. Although this shift reified race as a category of difference, a semi-permeable boundary that would delineate a recognizable “general character” for African-Americans, it would also bring into view the imbrication of African-American identity in American society.34 This is an asynchronic and transnational argument in that it refutes the primacy of British ancestry but adopts the claims to citizenship and progress that were implicit within the discourse around the medieval. Sipkins and Bell’s subtle intervention made through the appropriation of Scott’s phrase foreshadows the utility subsequent authors would find in engaging the Middle Ages. Reading as a critical practice would enable African-American intellectuals to assert alternative visions of race and the nation. African-Americans’ new enfranchisement would allow for tremendous advances in the establishment of forums of culture: schools, journals, and books. It was through these enterprises that writers and scholars made  Ibid., 135.  Walter Scott, The Lay of the Last Minstrel (London: James Ballantyne & Co., 1808), i. 34  Aptheker, 135. 32 33



claims on citizenship and belonging of the sort that Douglass so adroitly executed in his letter to Garrison. These arguments crucially differed from the discussions of genealogical descent such as those made in Jack London’s The Valley of the Moon. The unlikely affinities asserted by African-­ Americans in reference to questions of American cultural inheritance untangled the complex of meanings bound up with “Anglo-Saxon” origins, which in turn struck at the construction of whiteness. This mode of critique unstitched the nineteenth-century association of the Anglo-Saxon with the unchanging character of whiteness and revitalized its association with encounter and the incorporation of difference. At the same time, the contest over the narrative of the nation created space to showcase erudition that even those who held opposing perspectives on race and nation would “feel bound to respect and admire.” Previous scholars of medieval studies and medievalism have largely neglected the story of the unique possibilities afforded by medieval history and literature as ways of explicating African-American history in the post-­ bellum period. There is perhaps good reason for this. The archival evidence is scanty and the priorities for these early schools were often general or industrial education rather than less practical subjects, like Old English. In fact, black intellectuals of the time often reprised Booker T. Washington’s concern over whether black institutions of higher learning should exist at all, as this type of education was considered inadequate to prepare black students for the types of work available to them. The ethnic complexity of this field of inquiry likewise frustrates a well-delineated reading of the sources. Although this chapter will often employ the term “African-­ American” to designate the ethnic make-up of institutions, the reality was of a far more inter-racial educational setting in which white faculty taught many courses and most of the assigned books were written by white writers. This would change as more African-Americans were educated, but as is often the case in education, this change was gradual and, to the outside observer, barely perceptible. Nonetheless, this is a crucial moment of identity formation that should be studied through this confluence of perspectives, rather than unexamined because of them. The prevailing sentiments held by white Americans who considered themselves descended from “Anglo-Saxons” informed and worked in conversation with the counter-narratives constructed by African-Americans. At times those narratives would work antiphonally, and, at other times, the narrative constructed by white Americans about their Anglo-Saxon origins would be taken up and harmonized with the



progressions of African-American thought. For example, when Frederick Douglass was faced with the circular argument that African-Americans were innately inferior to white Americans because they were enslaved, he appealed to the history of Anglo-Saxon and Norman conflict to subvert dominant narratives: This charge of inferiority is an old dodge. It has been available for oppression on many occasions. It is only about six centuries since the blue-eyed and fair-haired Anglo Saxons were considered inferior by the haughty Normans, who once trampled upon them. If you read the history of the Norman Conquest, you will find that this proud Anglo-Saxon was once looked upon as of coarser clay than his Norman master, and might be found in the highways and byways of old England laboring with a brass collar on his neck, and the name of his master upon it.35

This passage grounds itself in the medieval heritage Americans found for themselves, but it also inverts or usurps the narrative; the strategy of exclusion based on heritage is exposed as a fiction and instead is inverted for Douglass’ historical analogy. From the perspective that Douglass adopts, the Anglo-Saxon origins of white American citizens are little different than those of African-Americans. In this he takes justification by genealogy at its word. He accepts that the medieval may indeed inform the current condition of modern Americans insofar as it functions as a reminder that slavery was a common condition shared by Anglo-Saxons and African-­ Americans. In this reading, the Anglo-Saxon period need not signify a moment of cultural purity but instead could be mobilized to support the concerns of other peoples and times. Perhaps the clearest case of the political purchase behind this cross-­ temporal mapping comes in an 1841 issue of The Liberator. Abolitionist Lydia Maria Child published a short story entitled “The Black Saxons” in which a white slave owner, Mr. Duncan, after reading a history of the Norman conquest, slips into a reverie about the Anglo-Saxons who resisted the Normans (to his mind the ancestors of Robin Hood) and a regrettably-­ named slave, Bigboned Dick, who has recently escaped and set about taking the products of nearby plantations.36 Duncan is startled by this 35  Howard Brotz, African American Social and Political Thought, 1850–1920 (New York: Basic Books, 1966), 281. 36  Lydia Maria Child was an abolitionist and an early advocate for transracial adoption, about which she wrote extensively. The implications to this overlap in ideas between historical



association and fears that his slaves, who just that day had asked leave to go to a Methodist service, might be in league with the runaway: “The black rascal!” exclaimed he. “If my boys are in league with him!”----The coming threat was arrested by a voice with-in which, like a strain of music from some invisible choir, all at once struck up the lively ballad of Robin Hood; and thus brought Bigboned Dick, like Banquo’s Ghost, unbidden and unwelcome, into incongruous association with his spontaneous sympathy for Saxon serfs, his contempt of ‘base Saxon churls,’ who tamely submitted to their fate, and his admiration of the bold outlaws who lived by plunder in the wild freedom of Saxon forests.37

Although this story has mostly been forgotten, what happened next to it can give some indication that, however briefly, the impress of this story was felt widely.38 Five years after its publication, an African-American Oberlin College student, William Day, read a poem inspired by the story, titled “The Black Saxons: A Tale of America” before his Phi Kappa Pi literary society, and then, more remarkably, at an Emancipation Ceremony in Cleveland. Part of his poem was then reprinted in the Daily True Democrat in 1850.39 There are rich implications to this chain of uses for this story. Day’s decision to modify the title of the story to accentuate the ties between the imagined history of resistance against slavery and the abolitionist movement bespeaks a high degree of agency over the narrative. More generally, that Day preserved his college poem and recited it before a crowd on Emancipation Day shows that he used Child’s work to ­intertwine the histories of African-Americans and white Americans under surrogacy and adoption are rich, but beyond the scope of the present study. See the discussions of Child’s writing on family and adoption in Mark Jerng’s, Claiming Others: Transracial Adoption and National Belonging (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press: 2010). 37  “The Black Saxons” The Liberator (Boston, MA) January 08, 1841; Issue 2; col. E. 38  That is, with the notable exception of Daniel John McInerney’s The Fortunate Heirs of Freedom: Abolition and Republican Thought (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1994), 41. McInerney’s book examines this text in the context of several other abolitionist works that deal with Anglo-Saxons, but this treatment is quite short. 39  Evidence of the initial version of this poem is found in the Oberlin College Archives. See: “The Black Saxon: A Tale of America.—A Poem.” William Howard Day June 10, 1846 (Student Life: Literary organizations: Phi Kappa Pi-Box 1-History) I have only been able to locate a fragment of the poem, which is reproduced in the appendix to this chapter. Neither the newspaper nor the literary society program produced the poem in its entirety. Harry E. Davis provides more of the history of William H. Day in his “Early Colored Residents of Cleveland,” Phylon 4.3 (1941), 233–245.



the mythology of medieval origins. And finally, it confirms Day’s resistance to racialized interpretations of Anglo-Saxon history that would be taught in literature classes, even in progressive institutions such as Oberlin. He claims this foundational narrative as germane to an African-American experience with seeking freedom, not as evidence of white racial superiority. Day’s writing bespeaks a desire on the part of many African-American intellectuals to fashion a tradition that anticipates their participation in American society. In the examples that follow—African-American journals and the educational materials of universities—one can see the scale of the ambitions for this mode of reading. The thread of African-American history that this chapter traces is bright and strong; it illuminates the difficulties in creating a coherent identity in the wake of emancipation and is interwoven into some of the most powerful articulations of global human rights that have been leveled by African-American thinkers. The pull of the Middle Ages in this period gains its power from multiple overlapping and competing desires: for origins, new beginnings, prestige, and the means to resist oppression. From this network of ideas about the fictional past emerged strategies to escape the binaries—white and black; native and “alien”; civilized and barbaric; Anglo-Saxon and African-American—that threatened to limit the envisioned future of the nation’s newest citizens. The AME Church Review: Before the Renaissance The Anglo-African Magazine (1859–1862) was short-lived—it lasted just four years—yet during its brief run it articulated an intellectual agenda that would be reworked by African-American intellectuals until the cultural shifts of the Harlem Renaissance. As Ivy Wilson notes, this magazine was distinct in its attention to political and cultural works produced by African-Americans as an act of self-representation.40 In the “Apology” to The Anglo-African Magazine, the editors proclaimed that the magazine would give “an independent voice” to the black community, a voice that would show African-Americans as able to “maintain their rank as men among men.”41 Even more ambitiously, they argued that there was a great, 40  Ivy Wilson, “The Brief Wondrous Life of the Anglo-African Magazine or, Antebellum African American Editorial Practice and Its Afterlives” in Publishing Blackness: Textual Constructions of Race Since 1850 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013), 23–24. 41  The Anglo-African Magazine Vol. 1 1859 (New York: Arno Press, 1968), 1.



untapped potential within the African-American community. The African-­ American presence in the country was a “noir fainéant,” a “black sluggard […] somehow endowed with forces which are felt rather than seen” that may, “‘in some grim revel,’ ‘Shake the pillars of the commonweal!’” The term “noir fainéant” is an allusion to Scott’s Ivanhoe; it is the title given to the disguised king, Richard I, who shakes Britain out of its torpor when he returns to the country and reveals himself. The implications of “noir fainéant” well express the aspirational intellectual project of the magazine. It would be through cultural production that African-Americans would “shake the pillars of the commonweal”: The negro is the ‘coming man’…The European race would seem to have reached its destined development—of Arts, in Greece, of Jurisprudence in Rome, and on Industrial Economies in England and the United States. To advance still further, the tide of civilization requires what the great commoner of England prescribed for Ireland—new blood. And whence can this be procured, unless from a race hitherto unmixed in the current civilization?42

This argument echoes the one advanced by Sipkins and Bell; it likewise interrupts the expected narratives of civilization and citizenship to position African-Americans within the next stage of civilization’s teleology. Moreover, it draws upon the fractures within white racial identity, here between the Irish and English, to point to the possibility of union across lines that had long been considered impossible to transgress.43 There is an underlying irony to the magazine’s argument that it would present the potential of African-Americans through what had been construed as an Anglo-Saxon heritage. However, the magazine’s logic casts African-Americans as both in parallel with and in excess of white American formulations of heritage. The pages of The Anglo-African Magazine would be a refutation to “up-holders of an unbroken lineal descent” who held that only people descended from Anglo-Saxons could profitably contribute to the nation. The term “Anglo-Saxon” itself, the editors argued, implied hybrid identity: “[t]he inhabitants of Africa, like the ­Anglo-­Saxons,

 Ibid., 3.  By “the great commoner,” the authors refer to William Pitt who strongly argued that England would greatly benefit from a stronger union with Ireland. For more on “the Irish problem” in relationship to “the Negro problem” see Chap. 3. 42 43



are a mixed people.”44 They suggested that American identity was more genealogically and intellectually complex than was often admitted; the idea of “cultural purity” was belied by the history that fiction relied upon. Indeed, the name “Anglo-African” with its double emphasis on origins, echoed the pretentions of “Anglo-Saxon” as a designation of racial antiquity while it also held out the possibility for a novel reading of a social identity constructed around recognizing the crucial role “the negro” held within the rapidly developing West. The opening assertions of the magazine emphasized the inherent consonance between “Anglo-­Saxon” and “Anglo-African” identities. The fates of both peoples were intertwined; for the nation to advance one would have to embrace the innovative potential of the other. The more subtle argument nested within this claim is that to activate the potency of African-Americans as “the coming man” would reiterate the process of development that has happened before in Anglo-Saxon history. The magazine functioned as a medium for and demonstration of the magazine’s primary contention: that the African-­ American voice would be as integral to the shape of the nation as its medieval past. When the magazine collapsed at the beginning of the Civil War, its mission did not vanish with it. Rather, the far more renowned African Methodist Episcopal Church Review (AME Church Review) reclaimed this ideological territory two decades later. In 1884, the AME Church Review, the once pre-eminent forum for African-American political, academic, and artistic writings, began its run. In their History of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Charles Spenser Smith and Daniel Alexander Payne describe the intended audience and tenor of the Review as “a vehicle of expression for the higher order of intellectuals among the ministry and laity of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.”45 Like the Anglo-African Magazine, the AME Church Review displayed an awareness of the weight of tradition—not just the force it can exert, but also the cultural meaning of adopting and directing that tradition oneself. They used the resources that had once been denied to them to insist on their place in the scholarly world; these African-­ American intellectuals produced work to show themselves as shapers of 44  The writer goes yet further, describing the two as “Fratres patrueles—the Anglo-Saxon and the Congo negro!” S.S.N. “Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-African” The Anglo-African Magazine, 1, 1859 (New York: Arno Press, 1968), 249, 250. 45  Charles Spenser Smith and Daniel Alexander Payne, History of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (Philadelphia: Book Concern of the A.M.E. Church, 1922), 342.



the cultural landscape they saw around themselves or, as one writer puts it, “a genuine portion of mankind.”46 The AME Church Review advanced the Anglo-African Magazine’s assertions about “the negro” as “the coming man” not solely by using the journal to argue about large social issues and make philological inquiries; its predecessor had already done that. Rather, writers for the AME Church Review questioned the ideologies that undergirded familiar historical and linguistic arguments with which their work engaged. The Middle Ages were necessarily a point of origin for these claims, thus writers would frequently return to them. Questions about the pernicious legacies of the Middle Ages used to construct race were yoked together with the political implications of adopting the discourse of the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans or the language of Alfred the Great and Chaucer. Was it possible for African-Americans to have civil rights in a nation so deeply marked by the stamp of the “Anglo-Saxon character”? Could African-American literary contributions mark their authors as full members within a linguistic community and confer a degree of ownership over a language and set of linguistic practices that had so long marginalized African-Americans? To what degree did one’s literary and linguistic genealogy direct the trajectory of one’s future endeavors?47 Some of these were questions that American writers struggled with even in Jefferson’s lifetime, but they gained the dimensions of race and power through these later writers.48 The inter-relationship between history, language, and personal agency is suggested in a speech given by Booker T. Washington at The New York 46  J.A.M. Jones, “The Proverbial Philosophy of the Colored Race,” AME Church Review 1 (1884), 127. The proverbs he quotes encompass the serious and the playful; they sometimes have European counterparts in mind. He describes them as: “coined in our own mint, not borrowed, but circulated as our own race currency in all our social merchandise and not losing one iota of value, either by frequent usage or from the lapse of time.” The following examples contain a range of expressions: “A parasite has no root; every tree is its kindred”; “The thread follows the needle”; “The tide carries me in and out”; “Riches are the pillars of the world”; “‘Labor comes wealth’ or as a Roman would express it, ‘Labor omnia vincit’” (130–131). Here too, the relationship between African-American and other literary traditions is apparent. 47  T. Thomas Fortune, “Civil Rights and Social Privileges,” AME Church Review, 2 (1885), 220. 48  Stanley Hauer discusses Thomas Jefferson’s controversial (and counterintuitive) support of an emergent “American dialect” of English. This opinion was based in his interest in his study of Old English and his belief that archaisms and dialects should not be abandoned. See “Thomas Jefferson and the Anglo-Saxon Language,” PMLA 98.5 (October 1983), 879–898.



Home Mission Rally, which was excerpted in the 1896 edition of the Lincoln University Herald: Think, under God’s help and yours, from whence we have come, spurred and cheered on in the darkest hour by our midnight groans, our songs and before day prayers, and an inherent faith in the justice of our cause. We went into slavery property and came out citizens; we went into slavery pagans, we came out Christians; we went into slavery without a language, we came out speaking the proud Anglo-Saxon tongue; we went into slavery with the slave chains clinking on our wrists, we came out with the American ballot in our hands. This, this is our past.

Like much of Washington’s thinking, this thesis is both insightful and troubling. One can see the slippage between Anglo-Saxon as a people and Anglo-Saxon as a language, which confuses the relationship between human beings and the language they speak. The ability to use language is placed on the same plane as physical and political liberty. This thinking is problematic insofar as it treats language as a means to erase the sense of a past that precedes enslavement; the use of the “proud Anglo-Saxon tongue,” for Washington, was a marker of African-American progress from their pre-linguistic and seemingly pre-historic state into modern society. Through his reference to the Middle Ages, Washington linked African-American emancipation to the origin myth of the United States. In doing so, he shows the hazard of simply adopting this fictive history as one’s own; the history of slavery becomes subsumed under the narrative of progress, while the meaning of enslavement itself as it relates to the construction of the nation is effaced. The AME Church Review, through its discussions of the Middle Ages, acknowledged the significance of medieval tropes within American society but also harnessed them to challenge the racial sentiments they encouraged. In taking up medieval narratives and redirecting them to contend with “the African-American presence” within the United States, these writers intervened into ongoing discussions of nationalism and the nation’s constitution. Through much of the nineteenth century, work on the Middle Ages in both popular and learned venues was inflected by a desire to set a medieval heritage above and in opposition to other lineages.49 In 49  Allen J. Frantzen offers a rich study of these nineteen-century attitudes as a crucial part of “orientalist” projects and the expansion of empire in his Desire for Origins: New Language, Old English, and Teaching the Tradition (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990), 27–61.



its American iteration this meant transuming British claims on their ­cultural heritage. For many of the Revolutionary generation, eighteenth-­ century British law contained “corruptions introduced into the English constitution after the Norman Conquest.”50 The same was argued about the English language. Noah Webster used the word “corrupt” to characterize British English which was riddled with regionalisms. Americans, despite being “children” of Great Britain, spoke a language free from such impurities.51 Thomas Jefferson based part of his claims of American independence on the fact that “[i]n the earlier ages of the Saxon settlement, feudal holdings were altogether unknown.” Jefferson argued that it was the Normans who subjected the Anglo-Saxons to “feudal burthens.”52 As the United States was not won by William the Conqueror, the king had no rights to the land occupied by colonists. Rather, they should be governed according to the “Saxon laws of possession.”53 The war, when read from this perspective, was an opportunity to reinvigorate the mythology of Anglo-Saxon liberty to inform the construction of the new nation. The flimsy reasoning that situated Americans as inheritors of a “medieval spirit” and cast the nation’s expansion as an echo of medieval British conquest invokes what Benedict Anderson calls “the magic” of nationalism which can “turn chance into destiny.”54 Proponents of this position operated under the belief that “Anglo-Saxon supremacy would ensure the ultimate expansion and supremacy of the United States.”55 It is precisely the malleability of nationalism that African-American scholars exploited to broaden the roster of participants in American narratives of progress. This vision of history emphasized the medieval period as one in which social fractures could be sutured and true civil progress made. 50  Reginald Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), 19. 51  Ibid., See also: Noah Webster, “Author’s Preface,” in An American Dictionary of the English Language (Originally Published in 1826), Revised and Enlarged (Springfield: Merriam, 1862), xiii, xxi. 52  Thomas Jefferson, A Summary View of the Rights of British America (Williamsburg: Clementina Rind: 1774), 17. 53  For a full discussion of the legal reasoning behind Jefferson’s Summary View see: Brian Steele, Thomas Jefferson and American Nationhood (Birmingham: University of Alabama Press, 2012), 29. 54  Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Oorigin and Spread of Nationalism, 2nd edition (London: Verso, 2006), 12. 55  Reginald Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny:The Origins of American Anglo-Saxonism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), 180.



The subtext to this historical reading is the desire to fashion a narrative of medieval history that could be used to proleptically answer the political problems of post-War America. By recalling the “secular legacy of the Anglo-Saxons”56 as a cultural matrix that subtended America’s founding, these writers could frame the post-war period as an opportunity to critically re-examine the promises of the Revolutionary and Early Republic periods. Reverend R.L.  Beal, for example, in 1888 describes the preNorman Conquest governing system and Anglo-Saxon resistance to Norman rule as evidence of a political structure that shares commonalities with the American governing system: A people [Anglo-Saxons] of noble ancestry, who never bowed willingly to the yoke of any potentate—a people who from their earliest times brought to their island home a love for independence which is the genius of true liberty. While continental Europe bowed the knee in humble suppliance and worshiped monarchies, England recognized her king merely as a chief or father, who was assisted in ruling by councilors from among the people. They were at all times seeking to make the monarchy the mildest form of its kind known. But, overpowered and overawed by the greatest military chieftain and soldiery of the age rarely was subjugation more complete.57

Beal’s reflections on Anglo-Saxons’ “genius of true liberty” echo those of Jefferson. Both Beal and Jefferson saw the potential for political theorizing through an appeal to medieval history. However, Jefferson’s arguments read Anglo-Saxon and Norman conflict as a basis to maintain a schism between England and America, which would never be reconciled. Beal, on the other hand, revises the historical narrative Jefferson follows to suggest that some reconciliation might be possible between the oppressor and the subjugated, as was the case “when neighborhood and traffic and intermarriage drew Englishmen and Normans so rapidly into a single people, that the two people soon ceased to be distinguishable from one another.”58 Beal uses the AME Church Review to advance this alternative history of the United States that sees the medieval period as a crucial guide for how the United States could develop in opposition to Jefferson’s  Nicholas Howe, Migration and Mythmaking (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 2.  Rev. R.L. Beal, “The Successful Mission of Oliver Cromwell and Napoleon Bonaparte,” AME Church Review, 5 (1888), 97. 58  Ibid., 98. 56




model which presented liberty derived from the Anglo-Saxon period as an end in itself. Beal’s article also highlights the space the AME Church Review created for advancing challenging perspectives on issues with national implications. Because the AME Church Review was a venue in which major African-American voices responded to one another’s ideas, its articles provide insight into the complexities of narrating one’s intellectual tradition in the midst of large-scale political discussions about American policy towards African-Americans. Fittingly, the initial references to the Middle Ages come in an early issue of the journal. The poem “Dante”59 appears in the first volume of the AME Church Review, directly following the discussion: “The Democratic Return to Power—Its Effect?”60 The roster of interlocutors in this article included the pinnacle of black intellectual authority, from political leaders Fredrick Douglass and W. S. Scarborough, to writers Frances E. W. Harper and Timothy Thomas Fortune, to a host of lawyers and clergy. Fortune concisely describes the purpose of their discussion as being to speak out against the “Democratic party as a menace to [African-Americans’] inherent and constitutional rights.” The presidential election between Grover Cleveland and James G. Blaine was tightly contested. Cleveland’s victory was thought to be a sign of American weariness with Reconstruction and a general fear of “negro supremacy.”61 Douglass begins his comments with a jeremiad, lamenting the loss of the advances the country has witnessed under the power of the Republican Party, the party which: has suppressed a stupendous slaveholding rebellion, abolished slavery, enfranchised the freedmen, reconstructed the rebellious states, made the American Negro an American Citizen, proclaimed equity as the fundamental law of the land…62

 AME Church Review 1 (January 1885), 231.  “The Democratic Return to Power—Its Effect?,” AME Church Review 1 (January 1885), 213–230. 61  This language of “supremacy” abuts the notion of “white superiority,” one was used as a foil for the other. Frederick Douglass to Robert Adams, December 4, 1888 (Gilder Lehrman Collection). 62  “The Democratic Return to Power—Its Effect?” AME Church Review. Vol. 1 (1884), 213. 59 60



Douglass’ statements represent the indignation of all the writers against a state poised to deviate from twenty-four years of faithful governance, a situation that seemed nothing short of betrayal. The vehemence of these statements underscores the fracture separating the newfound sense of belonging in the country from the impending alienation from the country’s new identity. In her response, the poet Frances E.W. Harper articulates the unique position African-Americans occupy as both part of and separate from their country by making the familiar comparison to the Israelites, who, she argues, were similarly oppressed.63 However, she disrupts the expected mapping between the Israelites and African-Americans by suggesting that the former did not have to undergo the mental struggle of becoming part of the nation that oppressed them: [The Israelites] left behind them the land of their oppressors, and turned their faces to a land made sacred by the grand traditions of their race and memories of their kindred dead. But the negro, torn away ages since from Africa, having in many instances in his veins the blood of the dominant race, and being in physiological accord with America, has no grand historic memories or sacred traditions to impel him to Africa.64

In the context of this discussion about the tenuous hold African-Americans had on the promises of liberty, even the familiar analogy to the Israelites falls short; African-Americans never received the benefit of being disarticulated from their oppressors. This quotation speaks to the larger project of a people trying to find a voice within a culture that is oppressive not only in its political practice but also in how thoroughly it had been able to erase cultural identity—“memories” and “sacred traditions”—available to Africans before the Middle Passage. The Democratic Party even threatened the emerging structures of thought and tradition contributors to the journal sought to create. W.S.  Scarborough, president of Wilberforce University, framed the growing unrest about the election results as a clash between the forces of civilization and barbarism:

63  This discussion should recall the famous anecdote about Thomas Jefferson’s design for the great seal of the United States which would have the Israelites being led through the desert by a pillar of fire one side and Hengist and Horsa arriving in Britain on the other. 64  “The Democratic Return to Power—Its Effect?,” 223.



Already in parts of the South and North there have been signs of trouble between the lower stratum of the Democratic party and citizens of African descent—the former taunting the latter with the boast that the Democratic party is now in power and negro rule is at an end. Such treatment with many outrages will probably increase in the less civilized parts of the South and North, inasmuch as this element of that party will feel that it has the support of the Democratic Administration behind it.65

The time of this writing represented a moment of possibility, but more profoundly, it was a moment of possibility denied. The edges of black liberty were already eroding in the eyes of all involved in this discussion. Notably, this period saw inroads into African-American political advancement blocked; P.B.S.  Pinchback, who also contributed to this article, assumed the seat of Louisiana’s governor and served for just thirty-five days. Years later he was elected to the House of Representatives and the Senate. These last two results were contested and eventually overturned on the grounds of corruption. In writing about his disappointment with recent political developments he turned to the words of James G. Blaine, the man whose loss embodied this moment of missed opportunity. Blaine predicted that if African-Americans did not receive full suffrage in the South, the balance of electoral power would be weighted towards the South with catastrophic consequences for the structure of American society that developed after the Civil War: Even those who are vindictively opposed to negro suffrage will not deny that if president electors are assigned to the South by reason of the negro population, that population ought to be permitted free suffrage in the election. To deny that clear proposition is to affirm that a Southern white man in the Gulf States is entitled to double the political power of a white man in Northern lake states. […] If that be quietly conceded in this generation, it will harden into custom, until the badge of inferiority will attach to the Northern white man as odiously as ever Norman noble stamped it upon Saxon churl.66

Blaine likened the expected shift in political power to the cultural moment that forever changed the English people, yet he switches the expected referents. Although one might expect “Saxon” to be a term broadly applied to all white members of society, Blaine revisited the roots of  Ibid., 215–216.  Ibid., 218.

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English racial myth and found a narrative of oppression to divide whites in the country as a way to account for the African-American voting bloc.67 African-Americans functioned as the fulcrum point over which Blaine balanced his vision of America’s identity: on one side were the northerners, modeled as the oppressed Saxons, and on the other, the haughty and powerful southerners, styled as Normans. This reference to the Middle Ages constructs a metaphor that depends on African-Americans to coalesce, but without space for them within its rhetorical system. This is a telling elision of African-American agency within the American political system. Although Blaine sympathized with African-American voters deprived of political power because of a system of “cruel intimidation…violence and murder,” he read the issue of black suffrage not as a moral issue or an opportunity to conceive of racial integration, but as a means of consolidating his party’s power.68 His reference to Saxons and Normans merely reinforces existing racial divisions. Pinchback, by framing this quotation within the AME Church Review, reoriented the meaning of this organizing metaphor to argue for the centrality of African-American voting power, but more importantly, to underscore the sense that African-­ Americans were being abandoned by their political allies. This background in which the promises of suffrage and civil rights were replaced by political betrayals provides the critical context for the poem

67  Gregory A. VanHoosier-Carey presents the history of Anglo-Saxon study in the South in “Byrhtnoth in Dixie: The Emergence of Anglo-Saxon Studies in the Postbellum South.” He quotes Schele De Vere (1820–1898) a University of Virginia professor who advanced the idea that Anglo-Saxon history could be read as a story of cultural triumph against the invading Norman forces: “The Normans had conquered the land and the race, but they struggled in vain against the language that conquered them in its turn, and by its spirit, converted them into Englishmen.” Anglo-Saxonism and the Construction of Social Identity, ed. Allen J. Frantzen (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1997), 161. 68  Frederick Douglass lamented that the Republican Party traded away its moral authority and thus its most potent asset against the Democratic Party:

The defeat of the Republican party in 1884 was due rather to its own folly than to the wisdom of the Democratic party. It despised and rejected the hand that had raised it to power, and it paid the penalty of its own folly. The life of the Republican party lay in its devotion to justice, liberty, and humanity. When it abandoned or slighted these great moral ideals and devoted itself to materialistic measures, it no longer appealed to the heart of the nation, but to its pocket. It became a Samson shorn of its locks. Frederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Mineola: Dover, 2007), 406.



“Dante.”69 This poem, which immediately follows “The Democratic Return to Power—Its Effect?,” speaks to the two topics debated by African-American intellectuals that this chapter has been outlining: the political implications of beginning an African-American literary tradition and the terms under which full citizenship could be realized. The confluence of these factors—the desire for their words to be promulgated and preserved and the exercise of a newfound voice that celebrated emancipation but had begun to be tempered by disdain for political setbacks—gains expression through Henrietta Cordelia Ray’s poem. The poem draws an explicit connection between Dante’s rage at being exiled from Florence and the contemporary fear that the Democratic Party would erode the gains made towards racial equality after the Civil War: Through the dim centuries thou speakest still In tones of thunder; and subdued by awe We listen for thy intuitions fine, Thy country’s weal a cherished charge became; And Destiny stern frowning o’er the land, Upheaved thy feelings and inflamed thy speech. Indignant at the wrongs that Florence bore, Florence, thy well-beloved, thy hallowed home, With stern denunciation thou didst wage Against the law’s lax mandates bloody war…70

Dante speaks, “we listen.” The poem transmutes Dante’s concerns about exile and political alienation in thirteenth-century Florence into those of the nineteenth-century African-American life. The poem lingers over the historical distance Dante’s word is able to eclipse through the enjambment which stretches from the Italian writer’s utterance to its reception two lines later. Although Ray wrote other poems with clear political themes, including “Lincoln” and “Toussaint L’Ouverture,” and several about other writers, including “Shakespeare” and “Milton,” only “Dante” makes the ambitious conjunction between time periods and subject matter. This presentation of speech’s longevity mirrors the intellectual agenda of the AME Church Review, which sought to create its own forum within which the words of the great intellectuals of the time could resound. Fittingly, the  The full version of this poem is reproduced in the appendix to this chapter.  “Dante,” AME Church Review (January 1885), 25.

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poem’s description of the denunciation Dante leveled corresponds to the critiques advanced within the Review’s pages. This relationship is particularly noticeable in the way the poem presents Dante’s indignation about the disregard for law. With stern denunciation thou didst wage Against the law’s lax mandates bloody war…71

The war he wages is one of words, victory would mean a return to the rule of law within his native Florence. The focus on Dante as exile, social critic, and eloquent voice of civitas resonates with the larger discussion conducted within the magazine about how to understand the patchwork of legislative achievements and setbacks across the country. The analogy elevates the set of political problems facing African-Americans at the end of the Reconstruction Period out of narrow issues like constructing voting coalitions and into the enduring problems of preserving the “country’s weal.” Protecting minority rights is read as a fundamental issue for ensuring the health of the democracy. This is not to suggest that Ray merely ventriloquizes Dante to make his poetry echo ideas already voiced by African-American leaders. Rather, she allies Dante with late nineteenth-­ century African-American political thought to contextualize and order the issues that were before the country. The dissenting voices of African-­ Americans speak to enduring and fundamental issues of governance and justice. Dante’s voice cuts across the divisions of race and dwarfs the timescale of the young nation; this strategic reading suggests that the problems brewing because of the Democratic Party’s return to power threatened to darken the future of the whole nation for generations. Moreover, the poem borrows from the Commedia its chronological and spiritual trajectory. Just as Dante travels through spiritual realms towards Paradise, the poem moves from its worldly concerns with the law to rapturous peace. This tracks the progression of thought in the preceding article, “The Democratic Return to Power—Its Effect?”, which moves from bleak assessments of the present to optimism that some positive change will emerge from contemporary circumstances. Douglass concludes this article by testifying to his belief in the human inclination to righteousness the rest of the contributors share:





I however think this period of suffering will not last long. There will be satiety here, as elsewhere. Even the taste for blood will fail. Besides, I am not without hope for the Democratic party. Though it is, by its history and antecedents, bitterly opposed to every measure of justice and equality urged in our favor, it is still composed of men, men with heads and hearts like other men.72

Douglass’ faith that the hateful rhetoric and violence of the period would subside in favor of more civil discourse is remarkable. However, this is not naiveté on the part of a man who understood the depths of human cruelty. Douglass intertwines clear-eyed political observation and faith in a way that suggests that the project of achieving racial equality depended upon a belief in the inexorable movement from chaos to order and from violence to peace, that is, the progression of Dante’s pilgrim from the Inferno to Paradise.73 As the example of Ray’s “Dante” indicates, the Middle Ages offered a lens through which to read the paradoxes and complexities of contemporary politics. The analogy positioned the progress of African-Americans towards social equality as integral to the nation’s movement forward. The power of the mapping between medieval and American history was magnified when trained backwards onto the roots of African-American identity and the means by which the nation was constructed: the proximal history of slavery. The Middle Ages were read as a critical moment in history in which slavery was abetted and in some cases perfected into the form it would take in America. Feudal economics and a desire for conquest were understood to have been the legacy the Middle Ages bequeathed to the United States. African-American slaves were simply the latest targets in a longer pattern of European rapacity. When T. Thomas Fortune, editor of The New  York Freeman, argued that the “Anglo-Saxon character” has “enabled that people to dominate, wherever they have planted the standard of St. George,” he posits this same narrative of “progress” premised

 Ibid., 214.  Dennis Looney discusses Frederick Douglass’ connections to Dante throughout his book Freedom Readers. While he does build an argument about Cordelia Ray’s poem, he does so on the basis of a 1910 revision to the work. Given its place of prominence within the AME Church Review, particularly its relationship to “The Democratic Return to Power—Its Effect?” I would argue that it is essential to read the earlier version. See: Dennis Looney, Freedom Readers (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press: 2011), 58–61. 72 73



on medieval barbarity.74 Rev. C.O.H.  Thomas, in an 1893 issue of the AME Church Review, charted a history of slavery in which medieval slavery was only a step removed from the African slave trade: In the Middle Ages the pirate and kidnapper, together with the conqueror, still continued the slave trade. The Saxon race carried the most repulsive forms of slavery to England, where not half the population could assert a right to freedom, and where the price of a man was not four times the price of an ox. Even after the conquest, slaves were exported to England from Ireland, till in 1102, a national synod of the Irish, to remove the pretext for an invasion, decreed the emancipation of all their slaves.75

Thomas borrows significantly from George Bancroft’s account of Saxon and English history. However as the article’s provocative title, “The Negro–His Past and Present,” indicates that Thomas recenters Bancroft’s history to create a transnational argument about blackness, slavery, and inequality, of which British history is an intersecting factor but not the sole determinant of African-American progress. By disarticulating slavery from race, he dismisses the notion of slavery as a natural or necessary condition for “the negro.” Rather, his critique rests on a failure of “progress,” in the nineteenth century meaning of the word—a concept that, not coincidentally, was central to Bancroft’s ethos as the chronicler of American history.76 Instead of seeing the nation as Jefferson did—the cradle of liberty—or the century as Bancroft did—a steady stream of technological and military advancements, including “the new conquest of Mexico”77—Thomas casts American history as mired within the past of slavery. This argument was necessary because the opposite seemed so evident; for many, that Western civilization had in fact left behind Anglo-Saxon barbarism was hardly in  AME Church Review, 2 (1885), 220.  “The Negro-His Past and Present.” AME Church Review, 10 (1893), 472. This is not to say that Bancroft minimized slavery’s importance or its cruelty. He spends a considerable amount of time tracing its history. However, as mentioned above, his emphasis is on its implications for America. See George Bancroft’s The History of the United States of America, from the Discovery of the American Continent, 1 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1870), 162. 76  See George Bancroft, The Necessity, the Reality and the Promise of the Progress of the Human Race: An Oration Delivered before the New  York Historical Society (New York: New York Historical Society, 1854). 77  George Bancroft, The Life and Letters of George Bancroft. Edited by Mark Anthony de Wolfe Howe, 2 vols. (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1908), 2:36. 74 75



doubt. Thomas inverts the polarity of Bancroft’s historical parallels to argue that true progress depended upon the “coming man” and his new relationship with the world after emancipation. Here, one cannot help but recall the arguments advanced in Frederick Douglass’ North Star objecting to various campaigns of expansion through the Americas. An unsigned editorial laid bare the historical and racial dimensions of the paper’s stance on the United States-Mexico War: “Mexico seems a doomed victim to Anglo Saxon cupidity and love of dominion.”78 A crucial piece of African-­ Americans understanding hemispheric solidarities caused by American expressions of force is this evocation of mythical self-conceptions. Despite the optimism that limns much of the preceding discussion of the AME Church Review’s intervention into imagining African-American relationships with the past, the medieval period was hardly an ideal time to be reclaimed. Rather it was a precursor to the sorts of violence that would be visited upon African-Americans centuries later. In 1901, the educator Edward L. Blackshear forcefully reiterates this type of argument to directly put into parallel historical instances of feudal servitude and American plantation life: The plantation, with its broad cultivated acres, its forest lands, its hunting grounds, its grand mansions,—the theatre refined, elegant, leisurely, home-­ life and of beautiful and lavish hospitality—its retinue of happy, careless, but willing servitors who were like the feudatories of Middle Age Chivalry in their loyalty; its Negro quarters of hardy brawny slave workers, with the master as Lord of the Manor, whose will in his boundaries none presumed to dispute, presents the ideal on which the Southern State was based. The planter was a sovereign among equal sovereigns, and among equals there could be no coercion. […][Slavery] produced the master class by the constant, daily, personal exercise of domination over the enslaved class: an imperious will, an ever-present consciousness of superiority, and a growth of personal independence and personality paralleled only in the feudal system of Europe.79

78  “The War with Mexico,” North Star, January 21, 1848, quoted in Roderigo Lazo, “The Ends of Enchantment: Douglass, Melville, and U.S.  Expansionism in the Americas,” Frederick Douglass & Herman Melville: Essays in Relation, eds. Robert S. Levine and Samuel Otter (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 218. 79  Edward L. Blackshear, “The Negro as Passive Factor in American History,” AME Church Review, 20 (1901), 62–363.



For the author, reference to the Middle Ages can be deployed as a seductive illusion that disguises historical fact. Blackshear exposes both the strength of this fiction and its clay feet by following its logic from the people who benefitted most from the narrative down to those who were most exploited. In overlaying the plantation and the feudal estate, Blackshear works with the familiar fictions of a refined and venerable medieval society to expose how incomplete those characterizations were. The quotation is subtle in its progression. It begins with the facade of order, both on the imagined medieval estate and the plantation, and then moves through that appearance into the atrocities that lay beyond. Blackshear disarticulates the fantasy of the past—southern gentlemen as the “knights-errant of the New World”—and the realities of the labor upon which it depended; he indicts the mythology of the medieval feudal estate that was mobilized to disguise slavery’s abuses, but more importantly, he lodges slavery within the framework of feudalism as an economic, political, and psychological system. Although he rejects the nostalgic depiction of the feudal estate as a parallel to the plantation, he does accept the institution of slavery served to tie the country more closely to its feudal heritage. This final example underscores the utility of the Middle Ages to articulate the political aims of the AME Church Review. The most far-reaching implications of Blackshear’s argument break down race as a barrier to equality. If Britain could revise the relationships between ethnicity and class as it moved from a feudal economy, America could realize similar ends with race after the Civil War. The Revolutionary War generation misapprehended, or miscast, a victory that depended upon a social hierarchy that betrayed the nation’s newfound principles; America could only achieve its promises of liberty by making possible the emergence of African-American “independence and personality”—the intellectual and material growth of African-American communities. More generally, the approach that AME Church Review writers themselves deployed was part historical analysis and part myth-making; that is, it sought to capture some of the rhetorical power available within the immanent text of medieval history. It produced narratives that could begin to put the brutality and mnemonic damage caused by American slavery within a longer pattern of history, a strategy that could have rendered past wrongs and enduring social uncertainty, if not surmountable, at least intelligible.



From Vernaculus to Vernacular: The Medieval in African-­ American Education “Not a single drop of foreign blood” says Max Muller, “has entered into the organic system of the English language. The grammar, the blood, the soul of the language, is as pure and unmixed in English as spoken in the British Isles, as it was when spoken on the shores of the  German Ocean by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes of the continent.”80

In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, philology held forth the promise of disinterested linguistic analysis, what Max Muller would call “the science of language.”81 Yet, often this endeavor merely cloaked the inherent political and racial valences of seeking the origins of language; in the case of English, philology and mythogenesis were allied in their construction of an august British past. Educational texts purporting to tell the history of English, spoke of Old English in terms that personified and valorized it. To one writer “Anglo-Saxon” formed “the ruling and ascendant” influence on modern English.82 To another, Old English took on the guise of a romance hero: “briefly humbled” while the “foreign” Norman language “reigned in the castle” of England, but ultimately was able to outlast the threat to its purity.83 Muller, whose scholarly imprint widely influenced nineteenth-century philologists, deploys a metaphor that fuses human development and linguistic change. His analogy between “organic systems” and the “pure and unmixed” English language shows how readily the analysis of language could morph into arguments with nationalist and racial import. The category of the “foreign” is absolute for Muller and many of the writers who followed in his footsteps. As Allen J. Frantzen argues, such a reading of language has a clear relationship to patterns of Orientalism within academia developing in nineteenth-century Europe.84 Colonialist projects to master the languages of colonized nations 80  Arthur Gilman, First Steps in English Literature (New York, A.S. Barnes & Company, 1870), 30. Textbook used by Atlanta University during the final quarter of the nineteenth century. 81  Max Muller, Lectures on the Science of Language (London: Longmans, Green and Company, 1871). 82  Richard Chenevix Trench, English, Past and Present (London: Macmillan and Co., 1877), 31. 83  Hannis Taylor, The Making of the Constitution (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1899), 81. 84  Desire for Origins, 29.



were paralleled by scholarly efforts to establish an English literary tradition that reaffirmed the notion of innate Anglo-Saxon superiority. African-American colleges, universities, and journals that developed after the Civil War operated within these metaphorical and disciplinary spaces to challenge the political and racial meanings that had become implicit within the study of language. The examples from the AME Church Review demonstrate the power that creating cultural institutions held for African-American scholars and intellectuals in giving voice to their positions on national political issues. Evidence from the AME Church Review is indicative of strategies for mobilizing access to education and modes of “scientific” discourse that became increasingly available to African-­ Americans throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century. Educators deployed the tools and social purchase of philological study to construct intellectual frameworks that contested predominant narratives of language and nation. The projects these scholars developed intervened in existing paradigms for the generation and propagation of scholarship related to the imagined boundaries of the nation. As Christopher Hanlon argues in his study America’s England, the territorial instability of the nation leading up to the Civil War generated multiple overlapping alignments of identity that reflected influences from foreign countries and dissatisfaction with domestic policies.85 Similarly, the desire among African-Americans to articulate their identities to contend with newfound freedoms and social obstacles they met with in the decades after the Civil War provoked complex assemblages that overlaid seemingly irreconcilable social fictions. Frustrations with incomplete social integration, such as those discussed in “The Democratic Return to Power—Its Effect?,” led African-American writers and intellectuals to speculate upon alternative positionalities that could collude with and co-opt established forms of social legibility to stake out space within the public imaginary. While legal citizenship had been achieved with the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, this status was merely a promise of equality that could not be redeemed without significant shifts in the meaning of American citizenship as a cultural abstraction. This argument is not meant to make a detour around strategies of violence that sought to erect and enforce the jagged line of race. Rather, I wish to foreground the place of this cultural work as one locus of resistance that held the potential to 85  Christopher Hanlon, America’s England: Antebellum Literature and American Sectionalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 11.



reconstitute or further blur the lines upon which racial divisions were drawn. At its utmost potency, this alternative perspective proposed a global reassessment of social order premised on vernacular linguistic connection as opposed to the color line that would continue to be theorized into the late twentieth century. This is discussed with respect to the novelist Gloria Naylor in Chap. 5. Higher education was one of several arenas where this “cultural mission” to undo the logic of citizenship as a function of biological essentialism or an affinity of “spirit” was advanced.86 The apparatus of higher education, in particular the study of language, offered critical tools to theorize racial identities that encompassed a long, transnational history of America. This work adopted perspectives that placed the development of the nation within a lineage of intercultural contact and evolution that had its roots in the adventus Saxonum and held the development of African-­ American cultures as the latest iteration in a pattern of cultural intersections. To position the study of African-American language and history within a larger project that defined the nation’s imaginary contours implicitly critiqued the political legacies embedded within the academic disciplines they used. The case of Lorenzo Dow Turner illustrates how the study of language and the space of the university could reassess the place of African-Americans in the foundation of American history. In 1917, Turner, a scholar of English literature, took up his first post as an instructor at Howard University after graduating from Harvard University with a master’s degree. He taught American literature and British prose from Arthurian romance to the present. In this he was both like and unlike his predecessors in the post. Until the first years of the twentieth century, new faculty at Howard often taught the general course on English literature—the basis of further English education—which began with the Middle Ages and ended in the nineteenth century. In the decade’s first years, the department steadily began to offer more classes in medieval literature, starting with medieval drama, expanding to Chaucer and, finally, Old English. Turner, perhaps because of his training in philology, began to teach 86  W.E.B. Du Bois uses this term “cultural mission” to describe the educational philosophy behind Atlanta University. He underscores the financial and social pressure the school was under to alter its principles to teach subjects deemed befitting for the “caste” of African-Americans. W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Cultural Missions of Atlanta University,” in W.E.B. Du Bois: A Reader, ed. Meyer Weinberg (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), 187–200.



Chaucer and Old English as he rose to become the head of the department and until he left the university in 1928.87 Turner is not known for his accomplishments as an English professor at Howard. Rather, his scholarly gaze turned from the island of England to the barrier islands off South Carolina. There he began a movement in linguistic research whose repercussions are still being felt. While in South Carolina he heard a type of speech he could not identify; it was a linguistic pattern that had long been considered nothing more than a particularly thick accent. Turner dedicated himself to the study of this language, returning there for years to investigate the particularities of what he would later classify as the Gullah dialect, a tongue developed by a remnant of slaves left on the islands, thus a true American vernacular, both in the sense of this word’s etymological meaning—the language of slaves—and in the sense of being a native tongue, particular to a locality, separate from British English but also from African languages.88 Read in a certain light, Turner’s research takes on the dimensions of myth: the violence of forced migration, the survival and development of a culture away from the mainland. Although this story is clearly not one of myth—the violence of slavery was real—Turner did not discover the Gullah language, but instead was one of many scholars who had examined it. His treatment of Gullah and his conviction of its place as a language has pushed Turner’s work into a place of cultural pre-eminence,89 as David Decamp, one of the scholars who worked on African-American vernacular in his wake suggests: The possibility that the black, like the Chicano, may have (or even may have earlier had) a separate language of his own is of immense importance to those who are trying to give the black child pride in his cultural heritage… Turner devoted his career to making the study of black English academically respectable. He was a scholar, not a political activist, but he brought about his own little revolution.90 87  For example, among his other courses, Turner took classes in Old English poetry, Beowulf, and “The Structure and Growth of Language” at the University of Chicago while also employed at Howard University. See: Margaret Wade-Lewis, Lorenzo Dow Turner: Father of Gullah Studies (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2007), 43. 88  Here I am referring to the OED’s etymology of “vernacular”: f. L. vernacul-us domestic, native, indigenous (hence It. vernacolo, Pg. vernaculo), f. verna a home-born slave, a native. 89  He traveled throughout the country to speak on this subject and was even a research fellow at Yale University, during which time he spoke about “the survival of 400 African words and phrases that are still in use in coastal South Carolina and Georgia.” 90  Lorenzo Dow Turner, Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002), xi.



The discourse surrounding the classification of language would have been particularly close to the mind of a professor like Turner, who simultaneously taught a subject that had generated a narrative of racial purity and worked in a university which was, for a time, home to a radical brand of scholarship on race. Turner’s work occupies the space between these two sides, employing the tools and structure of a traditional field to construct a revolutionary idea.91 Turner taps into a deep-seated connection between language, nationalism, and the attendant vocabulary of cultural superiority. Language, particularly the way in which it is codified, has long been inflected by nationalist pride. James Boswell recounts how Samuel Johnson considered himself equal to finishing his dictionary in three years, as compared to the forty years it took forty French scholars to complete a similar undertaking. When met with incredulity, he justified his confidence by appealing to his national superiority: This is the proportion. Let me see: forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman.92

The American lexicographer, Noah Webster, went so far as to consider it “treason against the character and dignity of a brave, independent people” for American citizens not to have command over their national language.93 For Webster, asserting the difference between American English and the “corrupted” language of Britain was part of the American revolutionary cause.94 Standardized speech would “annihilate” the transformations of language adopted from foreign influence.95 Where external powers were 91  Turner was not alone in this endeavor. The instructor of Old English at Atlanta University from 1927–1957, Nathaniel Tillman, demonstrated a similar interest in the African roots of southern English dialect. In 1942 he published a brief article that suggested a possible African derivation for the word “tote.” “A Possible Etymology of ‘Tote’,” American Speech 17:2 (1942): 128–129. His doctoral dissertation was entitled “Lydgate’s Rhymes as Evidence of Pronunciation” and was similarly oriented towards philological research. 92  James Boswell, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, ed. George Birbeck Hill (London: Oxford University Press, 1934), 186. 93  Noah Webster Dissertations on the English Language (Boston: Isaiah Thomas and Company, 1789), 406. 94  Ibid., 20, 397. 95  Noah Webster, Dissertations on the English Language: with Notes, Historical and Critical (Boston: Isaiah Thomas and Company, 1789), 19, 107.



not to blame, linguistic differences among Americans were attributed to social fractures within the country. For example, the paucity of slave ownership in the New England region, writers following Webster argued, led to a diffident style of speech among New Englanders as compared to “those who are accustomed to command slaves.”96 These discussions of English as emblematic of cultural difference, particularly Anglo-Saxon superiority, inextricably link politics to real and metaphorical types of contestation. For Turner, Old English would have carried a host of significations about race, learning, and exclusion within contemporary American society. This was how early European history was presented at Howard around the time of Turner’s tenure at the school, as exampled by the course description for “English History” first offered by the university in 1908. The purview of this course spans nearly a millennium: The aim of this course is to concentrate attention upon the growth of Anglo-Saxon institutions and to trace the varied phases of English civilization, as that civilization has affected and still influences a large part of the world today. The various invasions are shown in the effects upon the fusion of races and the blending of their tongues and in the modifications of the life, customs, laws and characteristics of the people. The details of war are dwelt upon only so far as to illustrate and contribute to the progress of society and thus are subordinated to the exhibition of the stages of English civilization…This course, while self-sufficient, has also the ulterior object of laying a broad foundation for the intelligent and fruitful study of American history, as showing the root out of which American institutions have grown and have been in large measure fashioned.97

The description shows an underlying suspicion of a “pure” Anglo-Saxon identity. Rather, the course emphasizes “the fusion of races” and “blending” as critical stages in British history. This perspective is suggestive given the course’s overriding interest in presenting a discernable chain of ­influence from the Anglo-Saxon period to the present, from Britain to the United States.98 This evidence serves as a valuable complement to the 96  Horace E.  Scudder, Noah Webster (Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1890), 210. 97  Howard University Course Catalogue 1908–1909, Howard University Archives, 46. 98  The use of older texts as a reflection of the present was by no means a ubiquitous intellectual maneuver. In an analogous class taught in 1898 at Oberlin College, the students are instructed using Stubbs’ Selected Charters and the description warns that “the work of the



argument presented in the first section of this chapter about how medieval events and mythologies were used as a prism through which one could read contemporary American history. The intellectual ambitions of the Howard’s “English History” course come into sharper focus when they are compared to the movement to found and codify an African-American historical lineage simultaneously being formulated within the university. As this history course was being taught at Howard University, Carter G. Woodson—the man who established what would become Black History Month—began to teach “The Negro in American History.” While the university’s archives do not contain this course description, one can read a likely version of Woodson’s class program in his book, The Mis-education of the Negro, a response against schools in which “[n]egroes are taught to admire the Hebrew, the Greek, the Latin and the Teuton and to despise the African.”99 Although Turner’s debt for his later work to Woodson is widely acknowledged, I would argue that the discourse of linguistic “survivals”—to use Turner’s word—as well as the deployment of the tools of philology, are as steeped in the intellectual milieu of Howard’s English history course as Woodson’s reflections on the history of Africans.100 It is important to note again that the language of survival, which has become so fraught in contemporary scholarly discussions of African-American life, has a critical antecedent in this discussion of linguistics. In The Mis-education of the Negro, Woodson presents the case that even the most basic education is freighted with the racial conceptions of the people who formulated it, thus disciplines must be reconceived to contend with “the body politic” as a whole and the meanings generated by “a particular race.”101 The “English History” course’s careful negotiation between its vision of the past and its relationship to the present evidences the type of thinking that Woodson argues is year may not extend beyond the War of the Roses and the beginning of the Tudor dynasty, A.D. 1485.” The course shows none of the insistence on the relation between medieval history and the immediacy of the present. 99  Carter G. Woodson, The Mis-education of the Negro (Washington, DC: The Associated Publishers, 1933), 1. 100  Wade-Lewis, Lorenzo Dow Turner: Father of Gullah Studies, 35. 101  Turner in his initial description of Gullah writes: “Gullah is a creolized form of English revealing survivals from many of the African languages spoken by the slaves who were brought to South Carolina and Georgia during the eighteenth-century and the first half of the nineteenth. These survivals are most numerous in the vocabulary of the dialect…” Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect. 3rd edition (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002), lix.



essential to African-American education. The course offered a critical re-­ examination of what had, since the time of Jefferson, been considered the foundational material for American institutions. This section will seek to contextualize how educators like Turner used their instructional work in colleges and universities to reshape the myth of continuity and progress from the Middle Ages to the present, appropriating and redefining contradictory elements hostile to it.102 Turner’s celebrated research and the shift of many scholars during the 1930s to Black Studies must be understood in the context of early educational materials and courses, which were at times alienating and at other times provided the intellectual apparatus and impetus for thinking about African-American experiences. Language will be the primary focus of the following argument because it bears so much significance as a receptacle of memory and, at times, as an actor working in tandem with its speakers. Language, because it could explicate the history of its speakers, was viewed as having enormous potential as a political tool for achieving the mission of social equality and as an intellectual tool that could combat arguments of the sort advanced by Max Muller and Noah Webster. In an 1887 article on the history of the English language, Josephine Turpin, an instructor at Wilberforce University, repeats the myth of Old English’s survival after the Norman invasion: Linguistic supremacy is a natural attendant of political ascendancy. French became the language spoken at court, the language taught in the schools and used in all judicial proceedings. The common people clung to their native vernacular with the greatest tenacity. It was their speech; they knew no other, they wanted no other. The allegiance saved it from absorption and preserved it from decay.103

This is a common reading of the English language’s history in the nineteenth century. However, in the hands of Turpin, the language of linguistic survival and its political effect carries a different valance than that offered by most contemporary writers on the subject. For Turpin, the 102  Woodson, 25. Here I am also referring to some of the language Larry Scanlon employs when he refers to the work of early African-American scholars and poets who are reacting against a tradition of sociolinguistics and philology. “Poets Laureate and the Language of Slaves,” in The Vulgar Tongue, eds. Fiona Somerset and Nicholas Watson (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003), 227. 103  “The Origin and Progress of the English Language,” AME Church Review 4 (1887), 280.



interaction between the Norman and Anglo-Saxon languages and the narrative of linguistic inheritance had significance that transcended academic interest: No language is so widely used as is the English. What it will ultimately accomplish we cannot know. It will be neither stronger nor weaker than the men who use it. Language is but a sign, a symbol, a token, a representative of something which lies back of it. [sic] Representatives lose force when that represented has no existence. Upon the future of the English-speaking people, depends what the English language will be.104

Turpin’s conclusions stand in stark contrast to Noah Webster’s reflections on language. While Webster sought to constrain English through his emphasis on prescriptive standards, Turpin argues for the boundless potential of language as expressed through those who deploy it.105 She destabilizes the study of language to make both the evolution of English and the simultaneous development of people who use the language dual focuses of study. She substantially broadens the scope of Webster’s claims about language as a means of making a coherent community. Absent from Turpin’s writing is the language of purity and the boundedness of the nation that were crucial to Webster’s theories of an English-speaking America. For Turpin the potency of the language rested within its ability to expand and incorporate new voices. This is an argument that has clear relevance to the writers of a fledgling journal whose members are those who labor to augment the rights of African-Americans. The living, mutable potential of vernacular language for African-­ American scholars found its most consequential precedent in their own recounting of medieval history. The vernacular, in this formulation, was a mode of speech that bore the marks of oppression, made visible in its deviations from the dominant tongue: The survival of the Vulgar tongue in modern times, where the influence of formal and conventionalized civilization has penetrated among primitive communities, is in dialect, the attempt of the invaded, enslaved, and suppressed peoples to imitate phonetically the speech of the dominant class or race. Dialect is not, thus, the corruption of the folk, or tribal language, of  Ibid., 284.  The Oxford Handbook of the History of English, ed. Terttu Nevalainen and Elizabeth Closs Traugott (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 449. 104 105



the Frankish invaders of Gaul, of the Anglo-Saxon conquest of ancient Britain, of the absorption of the African savages—who may be likened in every tribal respect to the Franks, Angles and Saxons—by America, but of the language of the Latins, the Britons and the English.106

Here William Braithwaite usurps the narrative of linguistic survival that was frequently used as an analogy between Anglo-Saxons and southern whites. Instead, he abstracts the notion of the “suppressed peoples” to encompass a much wider swath of humanity linked by a linguistic mode that operated within structures of power that reproduce themselves over time. His argument responds to the concern that African-American authors had “no inherited poetic traditions,” because of slavery’s violent displacements.107 This suggestion carried the implication that African-­ American literature was underdeveloped and needed to proceed through a “civilizing process” of centuries to produce great literary work. Braithwaite rejected this analysis of African-American literature through his formulation of the vernacular. The vernacular was a reactive mode whose character is responsive to dominant political ideologies and expressions of the state’s power. The trajectory of the vernacular in the cases of French and English foreshadowed the development of African-American letters as a form that could absorb and adapt the “standard” tongue and then contend with the meaning of conquest and suppression.108 In the case of the nascent forms of African-American literature, the vernacular bore evidence to the global and historical forces implicated in the construction of American institutions. For this reason, Braithwaite argued, the African-American literary work produced as the successes and failures of Reconstruction became known were representative of a wider “American cultural nationalist revival” movement.109 The vernacular of African-­ Americans evidences a yearning for “full and complete nationalism—that of American democracy.”110

 “Contemporary Poets of the Negro Race” The Crisis 17 (1919):275–280, Reprinted in The William Stanley Braithwaite Reader (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972), 50. 107  Ibid. 108  Ibid., 54. 109  George Hutchinson, The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White (Cambridge: Harvard University Press: 1996), 151. 110  “Contemporary Poets of the Negro Race,” 53. 106



This reasoning that elided cultural history and contemporary politics mirrors the animating philological myths discussed above, but inverts their polarity. Braithwaite, in his analysis of the vernacular, seeks to implicate African-American literature at the heart of a larger conversation about the health of American democracy and the limits of American culture, as expressed through the nation’s protection of minority rights. Braithwaite demonstrates that literary critique itself was a political intervention into discussions of African-Americans within the world. The utility of the work, as a necessary component of realizing oneself within the nation, was a strategic assertion of both intellectual ability but also the impulse to do comparative historical work to chart the development of African-American integration within society. The arguments Turpin and Braithwaite make in terms of using philological inquiry to assert a cultural inheritance, in terms of language, redound to the approach of African-American schools to teaching English as a political act, as is visible in the archival evidence of university education. The oldest versions of curricula in African-American schools emphasized the classics, a tradition from which they departed at uneven rates. However, the turn to English literature was universal. The liberalization of education in terms of developing English departments seemed to have engendered great pride in the language. It bore the extra significance of being a token of citizenship because English was discussed as a sign of membership into a community of speakers, and into the power that the community wields. A zealous example of this manifestation comes from Professor W.G. Sears of the Lincoln Institute: The history of language is the history of our race and its development and great command over the resources of language is only another name for great command over the ideas and conceptions which make up the wealth of intellectual life. No question arises as to the necessity of knowing how and what our predecessors thought: nor does anyone doubt that language is the channel through which that knowledge must come to us; for language is indeed, but the medium and the telescope.111

In this formulation, language is a conduit to a much deeper past; to take part in this heritage of language is to gain possession of the country’s 111  W.G.  Sears of the Lincoln Institute, in part quoting the educational reformer J.  G. Fitch. AME Church Review 3 (1885), 13.



other legacies. Sears suggests that these predecessors are not his literal kin, but those connected by the ties of language. His use of the phrase “our race” subtly avoids the point of disjunction in his argument, privileging language over racist ideology. He goes on to list those he thinks should be on the list of required authors, and he stresses his disdain for the classics. For early education, grammar would be taught through Irving, Addison, and Goldsmith, with the “highest grammar” as Shakespeare. He would then proceed to Milton and preserve Chaucer as the “crown” of his literary regime. This educational structure would displace Latin and Greek as the foundation for a complete education. Sears’ idea was at the forefront of an educational reform that would develop gradually across historically black schools. At roughly the same time as Sears proposed his course of study, Atlanta College still adhered to a rigorous program of Latin and Greek study, which it believed to be the only safe course, “which has never been improved upon and never will be.”112 Yet the general trend towards teaching English literature in black colleges and universities was undeniable. In Atlanta College, the English department introduced Shakespeare and Milton first in 1877, by 1881 it began to offer American texts. The number of classes dedicated to specific fields of literature gradually expanded. Through these years they used general literary histories, which presented English literature as a great chain connecting the Anglo-Saxon period to their own; modern readers were the direct inheritors of this literary tradition. There are many examples of this, but here only two will be highlighted. English Literature, the textbook by Brainerd Kellogg (1882) used in Atlanta College, speaks of the English tradition with the same exuberant identification one detects in Sears’ statement: The History of English Literature.—This is the story of what great English men and women thought and felt, and then wrote down in good prose or beautiful poetry in the English language. The story is a long one. It begins about the year 670, and is still going on in the year 1882. Into this book, then, is to be put the story of 1,200 years. English men and women have good reason to be proud of the work done by their forefathers in prose and poetry. Every one who can write a good book or a good song may say to himself, “I belong to a great company which has been teaching and

112  Letter to Horace Bumstead from Board of Trustees, Box 12, Clark-Atlanta University Archives.



delighting for more than 1,000 years.” And that is a fact in which those who write and those who read ought to feel a noble pride.113

More frequently, there was some admission that the language was not a product of a singular culture. An extreme version of this was Henry Pancoast’s description of the creation of the English language from the textbook used by Fisk University at the beginning of the twentieth century. He argues against the periodization of English literature, as the language had “a continuous life and growth for more than twelve hundred years”: We thus see that on every side the characteristic of this preparatory period was the progress toward unity, by the absorption and combination of separate elements. One race is made by the fusion of many; one language by the amalgamation of French and English; one literature out of the literature of the English, the British, and the Norman, enriched and developed by the learning and culture of Rome.114

Pancoast whittles the meaning of racial-linguistic unity down to near meaninglessness as he delimits it to transformations in the language brought about by medieval migration, invasions, and education. It is important to linger over literary histories such as Pancoast’s because they were the conduit through which African-American students received narratives of language that informed the political issues behind them. For example, during the first twenty years of the twentieth century Atlanta College constructed its core literature course by using such anthologies to 113  Brainard Kellogg, English Literature. (New York: Clark & Maynard Publishers, 1882), 22. Kellogg’s text goes on to frame the survival of language as akin to a military victory, citing how resilient English was against the invasions of both Scandinavian and Norman forces:

But that which happened to the Danes happened to the Normans also, and for the same reason. They were originally of like blood with the English, and of like speech; and though, during their settlement in Normandy they had become French in manner and language, and their literature French, yet the old blood prevailed in the end. The Norman felt kindred with the English tongue, became an Englishman, and left the French tongue to speak and write in English… There are early sermons of the same century, and now early in the next century, at the central time of this struggle, after the death of Richard the first, the Brut of Layamon and the Ormulum come forth within ten years of each other to prove the continuity, survival and the victory of the English tongue. 114  Henry Spackman Pancoast, An Introduction to English Literature (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1895), 11. Emphasis in the original.



“have the students form an acquaintance with all the reputable English authors by reading extracts from the best productions of those authors.” In the absence of full texts, students had to work with the intellectual frameworks constructed by the literary historian. Although these early materials often made racially exclusionary arguments, they worked as the critical grounding out of which later arguments about the expanded canon emerged. The focus on “racial unity” provided the critical purchase for writers like Turner, Turpin, and Braithwaite to mount their radical linguistic and historical reassessments of medieval English’s value for reading African-American voices as a new participant in a linguistic community. The ties between language, nation, and race are crucial for understanding the force of the critiques these scholars make. Their meditations on the history of language enter into the long-standing conversation about the production of an American vernacular English that functions as a post-­colonial refutation of the British empire’s “degradations.”115 Early Republic Era assertions about “American English” failed to contend with the “vernaculus,” that is, slaves within the country, and the contradictions implicit within being a slave-holding nation that sought to define itself against the subjugations of its colonial past. African-American scholars re-­engaged this discourse of language as a proxy for race and the freedoms of citizenship in ways that exploded assumptions about the means by which language is controlled. This resistance was ultimately made manifest in appeals for African-Americans to write their own textbooks as a demonstration of their intellectual independence from the narratives generated by white Americans.116 Benjamin Brawley’s A New Survey of English Literature, the first literary history written by an African-American, represents an endpoint to the trajectory that this section has graphed. It symbolizes the maturation of a 115  Vincente Rafael, “Translation, American English and the National Insecurities of Empire,” Social Text 27.4 (2009): 7, 9. 116   R.R.  Wright, president of Georgia State Industrial School for Colored Youth (1891–1921) issued this call for African-Americans to begin to make their own distinct tools for education:

But it is requisite to remark that not all has been gained, nor could be gained under Anglo-Saxon teachers. Good and successful as those noble teaches have been, I yet propose to say I think the negro is on the eve of graduating from their tutorage. This, too, is in the line of progress. The next stage of our development is to be under Negro teachers and by Negro methods and not without textbooks written by Negros. R.R. Wright, AME Church Review Vol. 10. No. 4 (1893), 460.



generation of scholars, who began to teach in and run African-American colleges and universities. In 1926, the year after Brawley’s book was published, Howard University elected John A.  Gregg as its first African-­ American president.117 Atlanta University began to focus on graduate instruction, and John Hope became the first African-American president of the new institution in 1929. Brawley’s book, besides being the first of its kind by an African-American author, was published by a major company, Alfred A.  Knopf. Despite the meaning with which the book is freighted, the actual text itself is ecumenical in its stated goals to appreciate “the best efforts of the human to express itself in words.”118 This work’s silences about the potential intellectual and political importance of Brawley’s Survey are eloquent in that they signal the development of deep ambivalences about the question of literary origins.119 Brawley was steadfastly disappointed with the state of African-American letters. He rejected the Harlem Renaissance’s creative output as e­ vanescent, merely “the glitter and tinsel of Lennox Avenue.”120 Instead, he posited a type of “vernacular” that would form the African-American literary canon: “when the permanent books written by Negroes appear, they will come from the great open spaces and not from the sidewalks of New York.”121 While he could point to few examples of writers who fulfilled his vision of creating books from the “open spaces,” Brawley devoted much of his literary energy to constructing volumes of triumphalist African-American histories that showed what he believed could be the basis of such writing: A 117  He, however, did not serve. Believing his calling was religious work in South Africa, he demurred and Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, another African-American man, was elected and served. See: Walter Dyson, Howard University: The Capstone of Negro Education (Washington, DC: The Graduate School Howard University), 398. 118  Benjamin Brawley, A New Survey of English Literature (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1925), xiv. 119  He does write the book The Negro in Literature and Art in the United States, but his premise in the book is that African-American letters have a promising future:

No race can rise to the greatest heights of art until it has yearned and suffered. The Russians are a case in point. Such has been their background in oppression and striving that their literature and art are to-day marked by an unmistakable note of power. The same future awaits the American Negro. The Negro in Literature and Art in the United States (New York: Duffield & Co., 1918), 7. 120  Benjamin Brawley, review of The Negro in Contemporary Literature by Elizabeth Lay Green, Opportunity 6 (1928), 381. 121  Quoted in John W.  Parker, “Benjamin Brawley—Teacher and Scholar,” Phylon 10.1 (1st Qtr., 1949): 22.



Short History of the American Negro, The Negro in Literature and Art, A Social History of the American Negro, and Negro Genius. Although his work on the broad strokes of English literature was widely accepted and used in classrooms, these histories of African-­Americans drew the derision of younger writers who accused Brawley of engaging in a “minority jingo,” that is, essentializing the realities of African-American life and decontextualizing the lives of the African-­Americans he profiled. One critic went so far as to describe Brawley’s Negro Builders and Heroes, as “totally innocent of the least perception of the deep and complex and distorted tragedy of class relations of American society.”122 This sentiment is representative of a strain of critique that gained potency in the late 1920s and 1930s among African-American writers seeking the means to conceive the intervention of African-American letters within a global literary scene.123 The debate around Brawley’s work represents a crux in the thinking about origins that had been so vital in the shadow of the Civil War. The two sides of this conversation, while seemingly opposed, both seek to revisit the terms under which the allegiances between African-Americans and the deep history of the nation could be understood. As part of a larger strategy to theorize blackness as a transnational and transhistorical concept, both Brawley and his critics depart from arguments that positioned African-American literature within an English literary tradition that derived from the Middle Ages. This maneuver is perhaps an ironic response to earlier assertions about the place of African-American letters within a larger literary matrix because it provoked suspicion that the ties of blackness might be just as fictive as the bonds of language: To divorce himself [the African-American writer] from the American past and the challenging present in the interest of a mythical alliance with the black folks throughout the world is as mistaken and regressive an effort as 122  Benjamin Stolberg, “Minority Jingo,” The Nation, 145 (October 23, 1937), 437–39. His scathing review drew enough attention to spur Alain Locke to write a response, “Jingo, Counter Jingo and Us,” Opportunity, 16 (1938), 8. 123  Although there was fervent opposition to Brawley’s positions on African-American literature—he believed that the Harlem Renaissance would not produce great literature, which set him against many of the most prominent writers of his time—their positions were perhaps not quite as far apart as they might seem. Brawley himself once claimed African-American literature to be on equal footing with other world literatures because there is “something very elemental at the heart of the race, something that finds its origin in the African Forest, in the sighings of the night wind, and in the falling of the stars.” The Negro in Literature and Art, 7.



trying to overcome the evils of industrialism by wrecking factories and returning to the simplicity of the medieval guild system of handicrafts…As a writer, he uses the language that Shakespeare spoke and Milton wrote, the language of Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman.124

Nonetheless, the idea that African-American letters might be traced to medieval origins began to lose currency during the early twentieth-­century. The cultural work that led to the efflorescence of African-American literature and scholarship in the 1920s and 1930s had been done so thoroughly as to be rendered invisible. Although Brawley himself seemed to reject any special emphasis on the Middle Ages as they relate to African-American literature, two of the poems for which he is best remembered make reference to the Middle Ages: “Chaucer” and “My Hero.” The Middle Ages as read through his poetry occupy an imaginative space for Brawley that is not clearly discernable in his scholarly work. Both poems were reproduced in The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922).125 Brawley’s poems take up subjects that are distant from one another: “Chaucer” describes the author’s reaction to reading Geoffrey Chaucer’s oeuvre; “My Hero” was written in memory of Robert Gould Shaw, and likens the Colonel of the African-American Civil War regiment to the “Blameless knight” Galahad.126 Despite the disparity in topics, his use of the Middle Ages achieves what he describes as the “true touchstone for poetry”: suggestiveness.127 In defining the term he writes:

124  Charles I. Glicksburg “The Negro Cult of the Primitive,” The Antioch Review Spring 10.1 (1944): 48, 52. 125  James Weldon Johnson, editor, The American Book of Negro Poetry (New York, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1922), 197–199. 126  Brawley fully engages with the tropes of medievalisms in “My Hero” by touching upon chivalry, martyrdom, and the other knights who engage in the grail quest but fail. This poem is a fitting but probably unconscious counter to the poetry of the Civil War that evoked similar language and themes to describe members of the Confederate army. For example, the General Turner Ashby was nicknamed the “Knight of the Confederacy” and his life was memorialized by verse that framed the conflict between the North and South as akin to a war between Christians, “Moors and Pagans.” Ashby led his side with his “sabre” and “manly breast.” See Cynthia Wachtell, “The Author of the Civil War,” The New York Times, 6 July, 2012. 127  A New Survey of English Literature, xiii.



That which is remote or strange or unattainable beckons us away to an ideal realm of wonder; it is this ‘devotion to something afar’ that accounts for the appeal of the Middle Ages or fairyland or hereafter.128

Read through this lens, his poetry seems to use the Middle Ages as a vehicle to express the sublime, his ecstatic visualization of what is out of reach. These poems carry the added significance of appearing in a volume edited by James Weldon Johnson, one of the most important literary critics of his time. This is to say, even as young writers sought out novel points of origin, the medieval was embedded within one of the earliest attempts to envision an African-American literary canon.129 Johnson himself was the subject of a poem that makes extensive reference to the Middle Ages. It appears on a notecard addressed to Johnson, written by an African-American member of Cornell University’s literary club: King Arthur Speaks: Spread the Round Table, sound the clarion call! Bring choicest viands, rich and mete for all! And Galahad and Percivale, be fleet, For such as you our lordly guest must meet. Athwart the table see a shadow creep! The Holy Grail, envisioned bright and deep, Make way! Give place! Let welcomes abound! A gallant knight comes to the Table Round!130

The poem, written in heroic couplets, is partly a joke, thus one should not overburden it with interpretation. However, there is something to be gleaned from the use of King Arthur’s court as a recognizable cultural point of reference on a piece of ephemera. The frivolity of the medium and the poem’s deliberate anachronism are freighted with the history of the Middle Ages discussed above and bespeak the cultural penetration of medieval narratives. Given Brawley’s vision of the sublime power of the  Ibid.  In his preface to the volume, Johnson sardonically argues that the book needed to be written so people would know that there were African-American poets. The American Book of Negro Poetry, vii. 130  Haille E.  Queen, Personal Note written to James Weldon Johnson. Mss. 797, 3.4. Emory University Archives. Queene also corresponded with Du Bois. In a 1907 letter she mentions that she is her club’s literary critic and sole African-American member. “Letter to W.E.B. Du Bois” Ithaca, February 11, 1907. The Correspondence of W.E.B. Du Bois, Vol 1. Edited by Herbert Aptheker. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1973. 128 129



medieval, it is fitting that this poem provides a fantasy of Johnson, who asserted in his own writing the importance of transcending race, arriving at a court in which all are equal.

Appendix: Dante Henrietta Cordelia Ray Rare medieval Spirit! brooding Seer! Grand, lonely Poet! scaling heights divine, And lifting from grave mysteries the veil, Through the dim centuries thou speakest still In tones of thunder; and subdued by awe We listen, for thy intuitions fine, Thy insight keen discovered motives hid, And aim close wound in aim thou couldst perceive, Unwinding minor aims in which ’twas wrapt. Knit with the very fibres of thy soul, Thy country’s weal a cherished charge became; And Destiny stern frowning o’er the land, Upheaved thy feelings and inflamed thy speech. Indignant at the wrongs that Florence bore, Florence, thy well-beloved, thy hallowed home, With stern denunciation thou didst wage Against the law’s lax mandates bloody war, And all unawed, rebuked the false decrees Of kings, of conquerors, popes and cardinals, The pure “white flower” waving in thy hand. Thy thought self-poised, self-centered, dragged thy soul Into what depths of grief and deepest pain! But to posterity thou didst bequeathe— Despite the scathing of the contest fierce— Thy reveries’ illuminated page. The groans of spirits plunged in woe’s abyss, The sweet repentance of the wistful souls Climbing in patience Purgatory’s steep, Called thee to muse on life’s strange mystery. Before thy vision what fair vistas stretched, Empurpled with the glow of Paradise! Thou heardst in dreams the harmonies sublime Of martyr glorified and rapturous saint.



And she, Beatrice the celestial one, Who woke thy heart’s best love and sweetest joy, Alone was meet to guide thy willing steps From planet to fixed star, and onward still, Above the splendor of the luminous stars, Where blessed souls their orisons uplift, And isles supernal bloom with amaranth fair, Up to the Empyrean’s crystal courts, Where Majesty Divine enthrones itself. And soon the Perfect Vision met thy gaze, The mystic Trinity all solved by light, Three colors, three reflections in the one, Christ was revealed—the Human, the Divine! God’s plan for our redemption clear to thee! And now, O lonely Spirit, brooding Seer! So long in conflict, weary with unrest, Within the beatific realms above, Bathed in that Light Ineffable thou dwell’st, O yearning Soul, at last, at last in peace!

Works Cited Primary Sources 1908–09: Catalog of the Officers and Students of Howard University. Howard University Catalogs. 39, 1908. The Anglo-African Magazine, vol. 1, 1859. Reprint: New York: Arno Press, 1968. Beal, Rev. R.L. “The Successful Mission of Oliver Cromwell and Napoleon Bonaparte.” AME Church Review 5 (1888), 97. Blackshear, Edward L. “The Negro as Passive Factor in American History.” AME Church Review 20 (1901), 362–363. Boswell, James. Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Edited by George Birbeck Hill. London: Oxford University Press, 1934. Braithwaite, William Stanley. “Contemporary Poets of the Negro Race.” The Crisis 17 (1919), 275–280, Reprinted in The William Stanley Braithwaite Reader. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972. Brawley, Benjamin. The Negro in Literature and Art in the United States. New York: Duffield & Co., 1918. ———. A New Survey of English Literature. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1925. ———. review of The Negro in Contemporary Literature, by Elizabeth Lay Green, Opportunity 6 (1928), 381.



Brotz, Howard. African American Social and Political Thought, 1850–1920. New York: Basic Books, 1966. Clark-Atlanta Board of Trustees. Letter to Horace Bumstead from Board of Trustees, Box 12, Clark-Atlanta University Archives. Day, William H. “The Black Saxon: A Tale of America.—A Poem.” 10 June 1846, Student Life: Literary organizations: Phi Kappa Pi-Box 1-History, Oberlin College Archives. Douglass, Frederick. Frederick Douglass to Robert Adams, Anacostia, DC, December 4, 1888, Gilder Lehrman Collection, Yale University. https://www.­ voters-1888. ———. “The Negro in the Present Campaign.” AME Church Review 9 (1892), 114–126. ———. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vols. 1–5. Edited by Philip S. Foner. New York: International Publishers, 1950. ———. “A Composite Nation,” 1869. In Racism, Dissent, and Asian-Americans from 1850 to the Present: A Documentary History, eds. Philip S.  Foner and Daniel Rosenberg. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1970. ———. Frederick Douglass: The Narrative and Selected Writings. Edited by Michael Meyer. New York: McGraw-Hill Inc., 1984. ———. “The Nation’s Problem: An Address Delivered in Washington D.C. on 16 April 1889.” In The Frederick Douglass Papers: Speeches, Debates and Interviews, eds. John W. Blassingame and John R. McKivigan, vol. 5. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992. ———. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Edited by Ira Dworkin. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. ———. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Hartford: Park Publishing, 1881. Reprint: Mineola: Dover, 2007. Douglass, Frederick, et al. “The Democratic Return to Power—Its Effect?” AME Church Review 1 (1884), 213–250. Du Bois, W.E.B. “The Cultural Missions of Atlanta University.” In W.E.B. DuBois: A Reader, ed. Meyer Weinberg. New York: Harper & Row, 1970, 187–200. ———. “The Souls of White Folk.” In The Oxford W.E.B. DuBois Reader, ed. Eric J. Sundquist. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Elliott, G.M. “We Must Educate.” AME Church Review 1 (1884), 330. Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004. Fortune, T. Thomas. “Civil Rights and Social Privileges.” AME Church Review 2 (1885), 119–131. Gilman, Arthur. First Steps in English Literature. New  York, A.S.  Barnes & Company, 1870. Jefferson, Thomas. A Summary View of the Rights of British America. Williamsburg: Clementina Rind, 1774.



———. An Essay towards Facilitating Instruction in the Anglo-Saxon and Modern Dialects of the English Language. New York: John F. Trow, 1851. Johnson, James Weldon, ed. The American Book of Negro Poetry. New  York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1922. Jones, J.A.M. “The Proverbial Philosophy of the Colored Race.” AME Church Review, 1 (October 1884), 126–133. Kellogg, Brainard. English Literature. New  York: Clark & Maynard Publishers, 1882. Locke, Alain. Jingo. “Counter Jingo and Us.” Opportunity 16 (1938), 7–11. London, Jack. The Valley of the Moon. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Muller, Max. Lectures on the Science of Language. London: Longmans, Green and Company, 1871. Pancoast, Henry Spackman. An Introduction to English Literature. New  York: Henry Holt and Company, 1895. Parker, John W. “Benjamin Brawley—Teacher and Scholar.” Phylon 10.1 (1949), 22. Queen, Haille E. Personal Note written to James Weldon Johnson. Mss. 797, 3.4. Emory University Archives. Ray, Henrietta Cordelia. “Dante.” AME Church Review (1885), 231. S.S.N.  Anglo-Saxon, and Anglo-African. The Anglo-African Magazine, Vol. 1, 1859. Reprint: New York: Arno Press, 1968. Scott, Walter. The Lay of the Last Minstrel. London: James Ballantyne & Co., 1808. Sears, W.G. AME Church Review 3 (1885), 13. Sipkins, Henry and Philip A. Bell. “Second Annual National Negro Convention” in The Liberator, 22 September 1832, A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States: From Colonial Times Through the Civil War. Edited by Herbert Aptheker. New York: The Citadel Press, 1968. Smith, James McCune. “The German Invasion.” In The Anglo-African Magazine, Vol. 1.2 (February 1859), 44–52. ———. “Letter to Robert Hamilton, 27 August 1864.” In Black Abolitionist Papers, eds. C. Peter Ripley et al. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1992. ———. The Works of James McCune Smith: Black Intellectual and Abolitionist. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Stoddard, Theodore Lothrop. The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-­ Supremacy. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1921. Stolberg, Benjamin. “Minority Jingo.” The Nation, 23 October 1937, 437–439. Sundquist, Eric J., ed. Frederick Douglass: New Literary and Historical Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Taylor, Hannis. The Making of the Constitution. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1899.



Thomas, Rev. C.O.H. “The Negro-His Past and Present.” AME Church Review, 10 (1893), 470–477. Thomson, A.C.C. “Refuge from Oppression. From the Delaware Republican to the Public. Falsehood Refuted.” The Liberator, December 12, 1845. Trench, Richard Chenevix. English, Past and Present. London: Macmillan and Co., 1877. Turner, Lorenzo Dow. Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect, 3rd edition. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002a. Turpin, Josephine. “The Origin and Progress of the English Language.” AME Church Review 4 (1887), 280. Webster, Noah. Dissertations on the English Language: with Notes, Historical and Critical. Boston: Isaiah Thomas and Company, 1789. ———. An American Dictionary of the English Language (Originally Published in 1826), Revised and Enlarged. Springfield: Merriam, 1862. Woodson, Carter G. The Mis-education of the Negro. Washington, DC: The Associated Publishers, 1933. Wright, R.R. AME Church Review 10.4 (1893), 460.

Secondary Sources Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, 2nd edition. London: Verso, 2006. Bancroft, George. The Necessity, the Reality and the Promise of the Progress of the Human Race: An Oration Delivered before the New  York Historical Society. New York: New York Historical Society, 1854. ———. The History of the United States of America, from the Discovery of the American Continent, vol. 1. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1870. ———. The Life and Letters of George Bancroft, 2 vols. Edited by Mark Anthony de Wolfe Howe. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1908. Child, Lydia Maria. “The Black Saxons.” The Liberator, 8 (January 1841), 5–6. Davis, Harry E. “Early Colored Residents of Cleveland.” Phylon 4.3 (1941), 233–245. Dyson, Walter. Howard University: The Capstone of Negro Education. Washington, DC: The Graduate School Howard University, 1941. Frantzen, Allen J.. Desire for Origins: New Language, Old English and Teaching the Tradition. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990. ———. Bloody Good: Chivalry, Sacrifice and the Great War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. Glicksburg, Charles I. “The Negro Cult of the Primitive.” The Antioch Review 10.1 (1944), 47–55. Hanlon, Christopher. America’s England: Antebellum Literature and American Sectionalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.



Hauer, Stanley. “Thomas Jefferson and the Anglo-Saxon Language.” PMLA 98.5 (October 1983), 879–898. Hobson, Christopher Z. The Mount of Vision: African American Prophetic Tradition, 1800–1950. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Horsman, Reginald. Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981. Howe, Nicholas. Migration and Mythmaking. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989. Hutchinson, George. The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996. Jerng, Mark. Claiming Others: Transracial Adoption and National Belonging. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. Karabel, Jerome. The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale and Princeton. New York: Mariner Books, 2006. Kim, Heidi Kathleen. “From Language to Empire: Walt Whitman in the Context of Nineteenth-Century Popular Anglo-Saxonism.” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 24 (Summer 2006), 1–19. Lazo, Roderigo. “The Ends of Enchantment: Douglass, Melville, and U.S. Expansionism in the Americas.” In Frederick Douglass & Herman Melville: Essays in Relation, eds. Robert S. Levine and Samuel Otter. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008, 207–232. Lears, T.J. Jackson No Place of Grace: Anti-Modernism and the Transformation of American Culture 1880–1920. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. Looney, Dennis. Freedom Readers. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011. McInerney, Daniel John. The Fortunate Heirs of Freedom: Abolition and Republican Thought. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1994. Nevalainen, Terttu, and Elizabeth Closs Traugott, eds. The Oxford Handbook of the History of English. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Rafael, Vincente. “Translation, American English and the National Insecurities of Empire.” Social Text 27.4 (2009), 451–468. Scanlon, Larry. “Poets Laureate and the Language of Slaves.” In The Vulgar Tongue, eds. Fiona Somerset and Nicholas Watson. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003. Scudder, Horace E. Noah Webster. Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1890. Smith, Charles Spenser, and Daniel Alexander Payne. History of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Philadelphia: Book Concern of the A.M.E. Church, 1922. Steele, Brian. Thomas Jefferson and American Nationhood. Birmingham: University of Alabama Press, 2012. Tillman, Nathaniel. “A Possible Etymology of ‘Tote.’” American Speech 17.2 (1942), 128–129.



Turner, Lorenzo Dow. Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002b. VanHoosier-Carey, Gregory A. “Byrhtnoth in Dixie: The Emergence of Anglo-­ Saxon Studies in the Postbellum South.” In Anglo-Saxonism and the Construction of Social Identity, ed. Allen J. Frantzen. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1997. ———. “Anglo-Saxon Studies in the Postbellum South.” In Anglo-Saxonism and the Construction of Social Identity, eds. Allen J.  Frantzen and John D.  Niles Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1992. Wachtell, Cynthia. “The Author of the Civil War.” The New York Times, July 6, 2012. Accessed August 12, 2015. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes. com/2012/07/06/the-author-of-the-civil-war/. Wade-Lewis, Margaret. Lorenzo Dow Turner: Father of Gullah Studies. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2007. Wilson, Ivy. “The Brief Wondrous Life of the Anglo-African Magazine or, Antebellum African American Editorial Practice and Its Afterlives.” In Publishing Blackness: Textual Constructions of Race Since 1850. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013.


Failed Knights and Broken Narratives: Mark Twain and Charles Chesnutt’s Black Romance

The historical material presented in Chap. 2 shows an unexpected network of connections between African-American authors who made strategic use of medieval material and medievalisms across the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century. This chapter seeks to move from the broad evidentiary base presented in that chapter and into sources that must be read through their ambivalences and the gaps in archival records. Such works are elusive and deeply allusive; they demand a mode of critique that can engage with the multiple attitudes they present and, equally importantly, these texts must be read as negotiating between the tradition that informs them and the creator’s revivification of that source material. Here one might consider a quote from Harryette Muller’s article on passing and racial forgetting that contrasts with the primary intervention this chapter makes about the nature of myth as it relates to the construction of race: It may be African-Americans, supposedly those Americans with the most sketchy genealogical records, who have most consistently constructed racial identities for themselves that do not rely on myths of racial purity.1

In her article Muller advances the larger argument that “America’s ethnic minorities have remembered what other Americans have chosen to

 Harryette Mullen, “Optic White: Blackness and the Production of Whiteness,” Diacritics 24.2 (1994), 72. 1

© The Author(s) 2018 M. X. Vernon, The Black Middle Ages, The New Middle Ages,




forget.”2 Specifically, she points to an inter-racial past that is often ­whitewashed from popular iterations of national histories. Her assertion about racial memory intersects with the argument made in Chap. 2 about African-Americans’ use of medieval materials to deconstruct the notion of white purity: however, this chapter will question the opposition between blackness and racial myth-making. In so doing, what follows will work counter to the impulse articulated in “Black to the Future,” Mark Dery’s oft-quoted orientation to the genre of Afrofuturism: Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?3

Dery tentatively answers in the affirmative but warns that these visions of the future must be sought in unlikely spaces and may take forms that are difficult to reckon with. This presentation of the stakes and difficulties of Afrofuturism stands in curious relation with those laid out by Muller; the desire to illuminate the past despite the occluding power of myth cuts across the decision to speculate on the future in defiance of the attraction to construct narratives out of the remnants of history available to African-­ Americans. I follow Alys Eve Weinbaum in drawing these arguments together to suggest that a counter-narrative can emerge from the space between such broad and contrasting claims about the agendas of African-­ American literature.4 This chapter will examine the construction of speculative Afro-pasts, how “myths of racial purity” were reoriented to create a fictional heritage that contests the primacy afforded to narratives meant to make whiteness into a mode of thought. The difficulties and rewards for this approach to reading for these Afro-pasts are encapsulated in the observation Mark Jerng makes about the narrative strategies of post-Civil War romances in which writers embedded “racial markers in unusual places in order to build in knowledge of the projected world.”5 What  Ibid.  Mark Dery, ed., Flame Wars: The Discourses of Cyberculture (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994), 180. 4   Alys Eve Weinbaum, Wayward Reproductions: Genealogies of Race and Nation in Transatlantic Modern Thought (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 197. 5  Mark Jerng, Racial Worldmaking: The Power of Popular Fiction (New York: Fordham University Press, 2018), 73. 2 3



Jerng brings to light is a complementary image to an Afro-futurist project of interrogating knowledge formation by intermeshing generic and racial codes. The “unusual” sites construct a speculative past loaded with meaning that aspires to scaffold onto contemporary imaginings of race. However, to access these markers requires some excavation and their meaning can be fleeting; the optimism within creating them falters as the authors seem to be unable to linger within their own fantasies. This in turn prompts a corollary question to Dery’s: Can a community whose future so often has seemed to be under threat and whose gaze is trained at ever-­ evolving issues of the present, inhabit an imagined past? This chapter will examine several evanescent moments where the expectations of medieval romance collude with attempts to depict black bodies to briefly reveal the interstices of race and anti-racist possibilities before collapsing under imperatives that solidify racial boundaries. The example of W.E.B. Du Bois’ use of romance shows some of this dynamic’s workings. His speech and later article “Criteria of Negro Art” (1926) is a practical call for art that is useful as propaganda. However, the context for his argument is an unusual departure from his stated goal; he chooses to begin with his recollections of Loch Katrine, the site of Walter Scott’s long poem The Lady of the Lake (1810) and “the romance of the world” which “did not die and lie forgotten in the Middle Age [sic].”6 He pairs his reading of the critical perspective African-Americans bring to normative American ideologies with his recollections of a visit to Loch Katrine: Once in a while through all of us there flashes some clairvoyance, some clear idea, of what America really is. We who are dark can see America in a way that white Americans cannot. And seeing our country thus, are we satisfied with its present goals and ideals? In the high school where I studied we learned most of Scott’s “Lady of the Lake” by heart. In after life [sic] once it was my privilege to see the lake. It was a Sunday. It was quiet. You could glimpse the deer wandering in unbroken forests; you could hear the soft ripple of romance on the waters. Around me fell the cadence of that poetry of my youth. I fell asleep full of the enchantment of the Scottish border.7 6  W.E.B.  Du Bois, “Criteria of Negro Art,” in African-American Literary Theory: A Reader, ed. Winston Napier (New York City: New York University Press, 2000), 19. 7  Here it should be noted that the region that inspired Douglass, Duncanson, and Du Bois had begun to be freighted with a parallel set of associations about black imagination that are a step removed from the influence of Scott. Ibid., 17–18.



Du Bois continues to compare his experience at Loch Katrine with those of white excursionists to suggest that white Americans could not truly see the world before them, but more importantly that they could not visualize “what the world could be if it were really a beautiful world; if we [African-­ Americans] had the true spirit; if we had the Seeing Eye, the Cunning Hand, the Feeling Heart.” Du Bois alludes to Scott here in much the same way Frederick Douglass came to read his own name through Scott’s romances. When Douglass’ performative transformation by engaging with the provenance of his name was discussed in Chap. 2, I suggested that he used romance to foster trans-Atlantic allegiances: however, it is equally significant that Douglass was reading trans-historically to align the history of Scottish and Irish independence struggles with those of African-­ American slaves, risking the “superimposition of European history”8 for the potential power of laying claim to history-making. Similarly, Du Bois reads black temporality and black struggles as an index of American nationalism derived from romance. He argues that African-Americans inhabit the dual, complementary frames of romance: the imaginary and the imminent.9 Romance as a mode runs parallel but counter to Ellison’s famous depiction of black progress as the “step from feudalism into the vortex of industrialism.”10 The difference between the perspectives of Ellison and Du Bois is fine but significant because perspective itself is in question. Du Bois presents the entanglements of blackness within the absolutizing tendencies of nation. Du Bois’ concept allows for the problems of modernity and narratives of progress but situates African-­ Americans as uniquely capable of reading across temporal frames and thus able to rearticulate and reorient the discursive logic that African-Americans were subject to. This positionality enables habits of reading that destabilize the teleology of the Western literary tradition. Du Bois hints at this by layering recollections of his childhood, his older self, and Scott’s Lady of the Lake onto the physical landscape of Loch Katrine and the implied political 8  Walter Johnson, “Possible Pasts: Some Speculations on Time, Temporality and the History of Atlantic Slavery” American Studies 45.4 (2000), 499. 9  Fittingly, the scholar who was being honored in Du Bois’ speech, Carter G. Woodson, in his The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861 described the narratives of “the successful strivings of Negroes for enlightenment under most adverse circumstances” as “like beautiful romances.” See: Carter G. Woodson, The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861, 2nd edition (Washington, DC: The Associated Publishers, Inc., 1919), iii. 10  Ralph Ellison, “Harlem is Nowhere,” Harper’s Magazine (August 1964), 53.



l­andscape of America. Du Bois’ imbrication of temporalities and geographies held immense transformational potential for the ways in which black bodies would be perceived. He ends his address with the hope that the world would see that “[negro] art is as new as it is old and as old as new”; through this intervention within art he proposes that audiences would “recognize” the humanity of African-Americans.11 Du Bois has attracted attention for his speculative science fiction work although this classification has proved to be difficult to maintain.12 In their introduction to the recently uncovered Du Bois short story “The Princess Steel,” Adrienne Brown and Britt Rusert use the term “speculative romance” to loosely describe a tone and a set of generic conventions in Du Bois’ fiction that range from fantasy, to gothic fiction, to pulp, to Marxist propaganda, to allegory, to conventional science fiction. In locating Du Bois within the nexus of such a broad set of meanings, the authors seek to assert an artistic trajectory parallel to his familiar public intellectual career. However, this recuperative work to read Du Bois as anticipating later speculative African-American writing threatens to evacuate the meanings Du Bois calls upon when he evokes romance. The use of romance produces a set of perspectives orthogonal to those Brown and Rusert lay out and demand their own threads of inquiry. Du Bois’ longest sustained version of romance, Dark Princess, which adheres to the main mandate of “Criteria of Negro Art,” introduces an unusual allusion to a questing knight in the midst of the reunion after a long separation between its two main characters, Matthew Townes and Princess Kautilya:

11  Du Bois, 23. His use of the word “recognize” should be accorded the full emphasis that Judith Butler accords it in her Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?:

The epistemological capacity to apprehend a life is partially dependent on that life being produced according to the norms that qualify it as a life or, indeed, as part of life. In this way the normative production of ontology thus produces the epistemological problem of apprehending life, and this in turn gives rise to the ethical problem of what it is to acknowledge or, indeed to guard against injury and violence…The “frames” that work to differentiate the lives we can apprehend from those we cannot (or that produce lives across a continuum of life) not only organize visual experience but also generate specific ontologies of the subject. Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (New York: Verso, 2009).  W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Princess Steel,” PMLA 130.3 (2015), 819.




Like Galahad you would not ask the meaning of the sign. You would not name my name. How could I know, dearest, what I meant to you?13

This reference to Galahad is provocative and somewhat puzzling. Although it is Percival who neglects to question the signs he sees before him in most iterations of the Arthurian legend, the choice of Galahad echoes his reading of the same knight in the passage of Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil discussed in Chap. 1, albeit with an inversion of the reference’s polarity: Down the dark forest of inmost Africa sailed this modern Sir Galahad, in the name of “the noble-minded men of several nations,” to introduce commerce and civilization. What came of it? ‘Rubber and murder, slavery in its worst form,’ wrote Glave in 1895.14

In Darkwater Galahad was merely the avatar of whiteness guided by a desire for colonization and extraction, a perverse image of the knight on the grail quest. In Dark Princess, the global color line and “the mission of the darker peoples” has taken the place of European imperialism.15 Du Bois resurrects the purity of chivalry by detaching it from the contradictions between legend and history; he instead attaches it to the hope for a union among people of color represented by the “golden brown” child Townes and the Princess conceive as well as to the legacy of racial achievement of which the parents are already recipients. This additional bit of information about the temporal position of people of color is significant, particularly Du Bois’ play on incorporating the antiquity of Indian history as a natural companion to African-American political development. The lingering conflict of the text is about whether or not African-­ Americans, read through Townes, have developed enough to take their place alongside other global peoples of color. And at the risk of over-­ extending her analysis, I would suggest that Du Bois seems to outdo the associative layering Hortense Spillers uses to discuss markers on black female bodies that are “so loaded with mythical prepossession that there is

 W.E.B. Du Bois, Dark Princess, 2nd edition (Jackson: Banner Books, 1995), 224.  W.E.B.  Du Bois “The Souls of White Folk,” in The Oxford W.E.B.  Du Bois Reader (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 502. 15  Dark Princess, 257. 13 14



no easy way for the agents buried beneath them to come clean.”16 Du Bois risks instrumentalizing his main female character to generate a historical lineage that can rival any European power’s. Moreover, Du Bois conflates the Princess with the Queene of Faerie to whom he alludes in the novel’s dedication and envoy. Not only does this link the Princess to Shakespeare’s Titania, Kautilya attains the ultimate significance available in romance; she determines the contours and depth of the romance’s allegory, in this case, African-American integration into the struggles of the global color line maps onto her narration of Townes’ attempts to be an adequate suitor. Du Bois has rightly been criticized for diminishing the place of the black woman in his writing, paradoxically by assigning them “surplus symbolic value” of this sort.17 However, Du Bois’ treatment of Queen and Princess does not operate in service of masculine desire, rather it redounds to his concerns about the possibilities held within the genre he has chosen. Dark Princess’ envoy concludes with a request to the Queene of Faerie to fix the preceding text’s epistemological status: Beg her, sometime, somewhere, of her abundant leisure, to tell us hard humans: Which is really Truth—Fact or Fancy? the Dream of the Spirit or the Pain of the Bone?18

Du Bois presents the dialectical problem of black fantasy’s allure against the pressing need to address what he would later describe as the “propaganda of history” and the imperative of “telling the truth about [the historical actions of nations], so far as the truth is ascertainable” against “fine romance” that comes under the guise of history. These are two seemingly opposed engagements with temporality, signaled by the “abundant leisure” available to the Queen who exists in fancy as opposed to the “hard humans.” Du Bois offers no definitive resolution to the dilemma beyond offering his book as a possible compromise between the two. However, what is significant about this line is that such a question could be entertained, that is, fantasy might operate on the same plane as social realism or historical analysis to counteract the production of racist ideology. What Du Bois offers is not speculation in the sense of science fiction or time 16  Hortense J.  Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17.2 (1987), 65. 17  Hazel Carby, Race Men (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), 33. 18  Dark Princess, 312.



travel. His work conjectures temporalities or modes of reading history that contest predominant ones and implies alternative structures for formulating a history of race. Despite the narrative drive towards the child Townes and Princess Kautilya conceive, the text is emphatically about establishing a racial past. In this respect, his work anticipates the trends of Afro-futurism and the recuperative narratives of traveling backwards through time found in Octavia Butler’s Kindred or instantaneously moving across time and space in Gloria Naylor’s Bailey’s Café. This latter example is discussed in Chap. 5. Du Bois is “taking time seriously”19 in speculating about multiple temporalities that intersect with and pull against imperialist forms of keeping time through the written word. Bound together with the optimism of envisioning a “beautiful world” is the simultaneous recognition that this alternative world has failed to take root. The politics of failure puts stress on historical reasoning and myth-making as a process for rationalizing power structures that have yielded the ends visible in the world. Failure as narrative strategy creates opportunities for usurping dominant historical or mythical narratives and allows for a black presence to reflect backwards upon them—thus the “traditional” and what Paul Gilroy calls the “non-traditional tradition” of black political and artistic discourse come into view at the same time.20 Dark Princess comes to a bathetic end wherein the “golden brown” child who will unite the “darker peoples” of the world is announced, yet no corresponding political change comes to fruition either in a final literary flourish or, obviously, in the real world. Here again, the text’s question about the significance of the imaginative over the historical seems trenchant. At the limits of romance’s means to express the modalities of black temporality, the force of the genre’s availability to the European and white American world is felt as an ideological lack, what Du Bois rightly identifies as romance’s collusion with producing a unified and “beautiful” world. Toni Morrison provides a theoretical apparatus for approaching work like Du Bois’ which poses this tangle of questions about temporality, blackness, and genre. When Homi Bhabha theorized the relationship between race and the Western literary tradition in his The Location of Culture, he turned to Toni Morrison’s use of a haunting narrative in Beloved to attest to African-American lives that can only be glimpsed  Johnson, 486.  Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), 109. 19 20



through archival evidence.21 Implicit within her strategy of countering the “dissolution” that threatens the roots of African-American letters in the absence of historical material is an inversion of racial expectations; she largely kept white characters out of view and supplemented a haunting narrative as a proxy for memory.22 Her ghost, Beloved, crosses between the bodily and the narratival; although Beloved takes physical form and lives with the main character Sethe (who in turn is based on the real woman Margaret Garner), Beloved gives voice to the “dissolution,” revealing gaps in historical memory.23 Beloved’s fragmented narration skips between the chronological period of the text and the earlier one of the slave trade. In a passage that recreates the Middle Passage, Beloved refers to the main character, Sethe, as well as to Beloved’s own capture: I am not separate from her there is no place where I stop her face is my own and I want to be there in the place where her face is to be looking at it too a hot thing All of it is now it is always now there will never be a time when I am not crouching and watching others who are crouching too I am always crouching …24

This narrative style bears no resemblance to that of the rest of the text, yet its content demonstrates a substrate that connects the two times and their characters in the “now,” a moment that stretches over generations who are affected by slavery: the technologies and economies that could engineer the slave trade and the underlying cruelty that kept the wheels of slavery in motion. Morrison allows no space for thinking of what came before the slave trade within her work to recalibrate our sense of the modern; Beloved’s memories are the oldest in the book and they begin on a slave ship, a transitional space to European temporal and political paradigms.25 These maneuvers assert the primacy of African-American narratives within the American literary tradition, although these stories had to be excavated and reconstructed from predominately white texts and curated with authorial care.  See: Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994) 284–285.  For a summary of the Margaret Garner case that is thought to be the inspiration for Beloved see: Carmen Gillespie, A Critical Companion to Toni Morrison (New York: Facts on File, 2008), 327. 23  Paul Gilroy, Small Acts: Thoughts on the Politics of Black Cultures (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1993), 178. 24  Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Vintage, 2004), 211–212. 25  Johnson, 487. 21 22



Morrison more fully articulates the possibilities of reading an African-­ American presence written within “white” texts through her series of lectures, Playing in the Dark, in which she meditates on the idea of racially “unconscious” texts and the implications of rereading novels for embedded details that radically alter their explicit meanings: The imagination that produces work which bears and invites rereadings, which motions to future readings as well as contemporary ones, implies a shareable world and an endlessly flexible language. Readers and writers both struggle to interpret and perform within a common language shareable imaginative worlds… What does positioning one’s writerly self, in the wholly racialized society that is the United States, as unraced and all others as raced entail? What happened to the writerly imagination of a black author who is at some level always conscious of representing one’s own race to, or in spite of, a race of readers that understands itself to be “universal” or race-free?26

Reading and writing here are presented as speculative endeavors in the sense that they create the “projective past”; they intercede in reconstructing the past and also try to imagine new configurations for reception in the future.27 Morrison’s theorization is fueled by the interdependence of race and language—biology and narrative—as is made visible by the desire of African-American writers to locate a heritage of blackness within the seams of literature dominated by whiteness or how language that has grown mundane can be transformed by reassessing history’s burdens. The “shareable imaginative world” reader and writer discover breaks down race as a reified category and forces a critical re-examination of racial dichotomies encoded to produce meanings that do not inhere within the logic of a plot or dominant narratives of history. This chapter will consider Charles Chesnutt’s The House behind the Cedars (1900)28 as presenting a speculative text with a set of archival, literary-­ traditional, and temporal problems akin to those laid out by Morrison. Here it is important to distinguish the notion of speculation this  Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), xii.  Bhabha, 364. 28  All references to The House behind the Cedars and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court will be to the following editions: Charles Chesnutt, The House behind the Cedars (New York: Penguin Books, 1993); Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (New York: Penguin Books, 1971). 26




chapter will advance from the intersecting arguments Saidiya Hartman puts forth about “critical fabulation.”29 Hartman responds to the absence of archival sources by reasserting perspectives considered “nonhistorical” or disposable within historical narratives to “topple the hierarchy of discourse and engulf authorized speech in a clash of voices.”30 This book instead draws on a large assemblage of archival material and shows that when dealing with the Middle Ages scholars and fiction writers often entered a counter-factual mode in the sense that they reconfigure “universally accepted, uncontroversial fact.”31 Chapter 2 sets forth a number of instances where African-American authors and intellectuals revisited received knowledge about the Middle Ages to posit a multicultural medieval England with the implicit aim of yoking that past to racial synthesis in America’s future. What Chesnutt derives from Sir Walter Scott is more ambiguous about the relationship between the past, present, and future despite how closely his novel hews to the romance genre. This ambiguity is partially an incident of the context surrounding the novel’s production but is also itself an intervention into the linearity of dominant historical trajectories. Because The House behind the Cedars makes explicit reference to its primary source, Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1820), and because Chesnutt has left behind an extensive archive of letters and writings that seemingly give ample context to the novel’s evolution, it is rarely read in conversation with other African-American writers who themselves sought to overcome mnemonic gaps or who have to be recovered through strategies that assume the major archival silences. Ironically, this abundance of material has directed a significant amount of scholarship on Chesnutt through narrow channels, frequently directed towards the novel’s mulatta character, Rena Warwick. One of the earliest assessments of Chesnutt’s work published in Phylon situates Chesnutt as “the outstanding delineator of the Negro–white offspring” and points to The House behind the Cedars as his psychological study of the topic.32 Some seventy years later, Rena’s body

 Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 12.2 (June 2008), 1–14.  Ibid., 13; 12. 31  Catherine Gallagher, “Telling It Like It Wasn’t,” Pacific Coast Philology 45 (2010), 12. 32  Penelope Bullock, “The Mulatto in American Fiction,” Phylon, 6.1 (1945), 81. An even earlier overview of Chesnutt’s work emphasizes that the relationship between Rena and her white suitor was “decent and respectable” as opposed to the highly sexualized inter-racial encounters shown in Thomas Dixon’s work. See: Hugh M. Gloster, “Charles W. Chesnutt, Pioneer in the Fiction of Negro Life,” Phylon, 2.1 (1941), 61. 29 30



continues to be re-evaluated in ambitious ways, once she has even been described as having two bodies.33 Rena’s body, the nuances of her biology down to the marrow of her bones, has attracted this critical gaze, perhaps for good reason.34 Chesnutt described the novel in strikingly biological terms: as a “favorite child, for Rena was of ‘mine own people.’”35 Moreover, the same year that he published The House behind the Cedars he also penned a problematic article series called “The Future American” (1900) that lays out the means by which the nation could “lighten the breed” through inter-racial “amalgamation.”36 What gets lost behind the blank practicality of his suggestion of “mechanical mixture” between races that threatens to darkly mirror the discourse of “Anglo-Saxon purity” to which he objected is Chesnutt’s awareness of racial discourse as a powerful “social fiction”—a phrase Chesnutt uses—that requires a speculative gaze at both the heritage of those constructions and the alternative trajectories for their futures.37 The power of Chesnutt’s argument lies in his suggestion that not only is racial admixture as a habit of thought an inevitability, it is already a fact of America’s past. When writing about the genesis of his popular conjure stories, he traces a literary genealogy that tracks from “the dark continent along with the dark people” into a shared history of African beliefs “mingled and confused with the witchcraft and ghost lore of the white man, and the tricks and delusions of the Indian conjurer.”38 33  Melissa Ryan, “Rena’s Two Bodies: Gender and Whiteness in Charles Chesnutt’s ‘The House Behind The Cedars,’” Studies in The Novel 43:1 (2011): 38–54. Even when Scott’s influence is the center of an argument, it is often discussed in relationship to Rena. See, for example, Earle V.  Bryant, “Charles Chesnutt’s Southern Black Jew: Rena Walden’s Masquerade in the House Behind the Cedars,” American Literary Realism 1.2 (1999): 15–21. 34   Stephen P.  Knadler, “Untragic Mulatto: Charles Chesnutt and the Discourse of Whiteness,” American Literary History 8.3 (Fall 1996): 426–448. 35  Chesnutt to John Chamberlain, June 16, 1930, in Charles Waddell Chesnutt Papers, Western Reserve Historical Society Library, Cleveland, Ohio. 36  Charles Chesnutt, “The Future American,” in Charles Chesnutt: Essays and Speeches, eds. Joseph R. McElrath, Robert C. Leitz, and Jesse S. Crisler (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1999), 134. 37  Ibid. 38  This account of African-American folklore mirrors contemporary readings of white folklore used to describe Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn discussed in the following section. Charles Chesnutt, “Superstitions and Folk-lore of the South,” in Charles W. Chesnutt: Stories, Novels & Essays, ed. Werner Sollors (New York: The Library of America, 2002), 155–161.



Chesnutt anticipates Morrison and Hartman in creating a lineage between his stories and African storytelling before the Middle Passage as a means of uncovering seemingly lost black voices. However, Chesnutt crucially deviates from those writers in that the endpoint of this genealogy constructed through fiction is not self-recognition. Indeed, Chesnutt resists the clarity of racial distinctions and thus the solidity of historical closure. The contentiousness of his narrative choices was made manifest in his struggles to get The House behind the Cedars published in the form he wished, particularly with respect to Rena. For example, Chesnutt sent an early version of The House behind the Cedars to an editor of Century Magazine who his erstwhile mentor George Washington Cable had commended as able to provide a “faithful, wise word of friendly counsel.”39 After receiving a rejection, Chesnutt responded tartly to this estimation of the editor’s skill in recognizing the historical ambivalences Rena represented: Its faithfulness is obvious, its wisdom I cannot question, though I shall have to study both the letter and the story to avail myself of it, for while there is something lacking, Mr. Gilder only very vaguely intimates what it may be. I do not think I am deficient in humor, though I dare say the sentiment of the story is a little ‘amorphous.’ It was written under the ever-present consciousness, so hard for me to get rid of, that a very large class of people consider the class the story treats of as “amorphous.” I fear that there is too much of this sentiment to make mulattoes good magazine characters […]40

He adds towards the end of the letter that he would have to “drop the attempt at realism” in order to see his work in print.41 Chesnutt shuttles between considering Rena as representative of a racial category and as a “sentiment,” that is, a demographic reality and an avatar for a racial future. As he makes clear, “amorphousness” in terms of race and narrative construction is the goal of the story. His resistance to fully participating within either the accepted presentation of race or genre points to a larger refusal of the “active social relation” that links the two 39  Charles Chesnutt to George Washington Cable, June 13, 1890, in “To Be an Author” Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt 1889–1905, eds. Joseph R. McElrath, Jr. and Robert Leitz, III (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 65. 40  Ibid. 41  Ibid.



categories.42 His years of rewriting, including embedding Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe deeply into the world around Rena, seemed to be geared towards making her body more recognizable to his publishers and to the broadest possible audience. However, the amount of attention her body has garnered since the book was published suggests that her body remains only partially legible. The Century editor perhaps rightly calls the story “amorphous” in sentiment, as it does not conform to the expectations before it. Even when the novel met with enough success to become the subject of the film The Veiled Aristocrats (1932) the studio altered the story’s ending so that, in the words of the director, “an audience will leave the theatre ‘feeling that all good must triumph in the end, and with the words “Oh want [sic] that just wonderful” instead of gloomy muttering.’”43 Thirty years after its publication, Chesnutt’s vision of America’s historical trajectory was unthinkable. While the interpretation of Rena is indeed a central issue of The House behind the Cedars, it is necessary to read her through the negotiation and compromise that Chesnutt undertook in the years of developing the novel. The issues at stake in interpreting Rena’s character from the perspective of his evolving and more strategic approach to writing are not ones of the body, rather they concern genre and his interpretation of white sentiments about his character’s ambiguity. It is tempting to read Chesnutt’s use of Scott in The House behind the Cedars as an author’s attempt to place a “black message” in a “white envelope”: however, such an argument would miscast the difficulties of Chesnutt’s text.44 Here the archive’s silences become more evident as do the possibilities of reading against them. The two clear influences on Chesnutt’s work, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) and Ivanhoe, are not mentioned within Chesnutt’s letters. He only obliquely refers to the authors of either text. This is particularly surprising in the case of Twain, who he had met, who shared Chesnutt’s interest in writing folk narratives, who published in the same venues that Chesnutt wished to see his own work produced, and who was a friend of George Washington Cable. Nonetheless, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is intimately connected to  Colleen Lye, “Racial Form,” Representations 104.1 (2008), 99.  Oscar Micheaux to Charles Chesnutt, June 13, 1890, quoted in An Exemplary Citizen: Letters of Charles W. Chesnutt 1906–1932, eds. Jessie S. Crisler, Robert Leitz, III, and Joseph R. McElrath, Jr. (Stanford: Stanford University Press: 2002), 141. 44  See: John Sekora “Black Message/White Envelope: Genre, Authenticity, and Authority in the Antebellum Slave Narrative,” Callaloo 10.3 (1987): 482–515. 42 43



The House behind the Cedars through the speculative interventions both make when adopting narratives of the Middle Ages. I will use Twain as a critical antecedent to Chesnutt’s experimentations with reconfiguring the imaginative domains of medieval romance as a space allowed to be “race free.” What this chapter proposes is that just as Morrison reconstructs the terms of black modernity in Beloved, Twain and Chesnutt reframe the terms of American narratives of progress premised on romance to be inflected by blackness in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and The House behind the Cedars. Twain and Chesnutt comprehended the utility of romance as a means of producing a history of race, that is, mythopoesis reflected through Scott that anticipates and renders ineluctable the consolidation of racial identity and its expressions of power. When Twain critiques Scott’s “enchantments,” “sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries” that held sway in southern literature he diagnoses the dangers of tradition in the sense of drawing together across space and time discontinuous symbolic fields such that their meaning is fundamentally altered.45 Scott offers what Frederic Jameson identifies as one of the primary strengths of romance as a generic structure and a latent ideology: the apparent reinforcement of the notion of tradition, of some deep and unbroken continuity between the mythic imagination of primitive man and the sophisticated products of the modern societies.46

The critical node for this strand of reading Scott is the marriage at Ivanhoe’s conclusion that depicts peace between Normans and Saxons and more broadly anticipates a distant united Britain through characters that “cut across physical, political, legal, and cultural borders”47: But besides this domestic retinue, these distinguished nuptials were celebrated by the attendance of the high-born Normans, as well as Saxons, joined with the universal jubilee of the lower orders, that marked the ­marriage of two individuals as a pledge of the future peace and harmony 45  Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (New York: Harper and Brother Publishers, 1883), 328. 46  Fredric Jameson, “Magical Narratives: Romance as Genre,” New Literary History 7.1 (Autumn 1975): 156. 47  Ann Rigney, The Afterlives of Walter Scott: Memory on the Move (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 130.



betwixt two races, which, since that period, have been so completely mingled, that the distinction has become wholly invisible… [F]or as the two nations mixed in society and formed intermarriages with each other, the Normans abated their scorn, and the Saxons were refined from their rusticity. But it was not until the reign of Edward the Third that the mixed language, now termed English, was spoken at the court of London and the hostile distinction of Norman and Saxon seems entirely to have disappeared.48

Scott chooses to expand his gaze beyond the timeframe of the plot and look towards the Britain of his audience. This conclusion’s emphasis on futurity and racial intermixture proleptically reads the development of British society through the erasure of difference. While this is already a problematic view of Britain, in a trans-Atlantic context Scott’s romances carried an entirely different set of complications; they created imagined communities that excised unwelcome perspectives on the creation and constitution of the nation.49 The intersection of race, history, and fiction gained terrible relevance in the United States for a Civil War generation “drunk on Scott,” purchasing more than a half a million volumes of his work in less than a decade.50 The imaginative reach of this genealogical impulse can be seen in an 1887 speech by the so-called “Spokesman of the South” Henry Grady who provides a genealogy that sweeps across a thousand years from Anglo-Saxon England to America in just three sentences: The Anglo-Saxon blood has dominated always and everywhere. It fed Alfred when he wrote the charter of English liberty; it gathered about Hampden as he stood beneath the oak; it thundered in Cromwell’s veins as he fought his king; it humbled Napoleon at Waterloo: it has touched the desert and jungle with undying glory; it carried the drumbeat of England around the world and spread on every continent the gospel of liberty and of God; it established this republic, carved it from the wilderness, conquered it from the Indians, wrested it from England, and, at last, stilling its own tumult, consecrated it forever as the home of the Anglo-Saxon and the theatre of his transcending achievement. Never one foot of it can be surrendered while that blood lives in American veins and feeds American hearts to the domination of an alien and inferior race.51  Walter Scott, Ivanhoe (New York: Penguin Classics, 2000), 399.  This argument borrows from David Blight, Race and Reconciliation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 22. 50  Cynthia Wachtell, War No More: The Antiwar Impulse in American Literature 1861–1914 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010), 33–34. 51  Henry W. Grady, The Life and Labors of Henry W. Grady: His Speeches, His Writing, etc. (New York: H. C. Hudgins & co., 1890), 189. 48 49



Grady’s argument harbors the danger of mythopoesis; he brings logic to a constellation of events in order to backfill a pre-existing set of beliefs. The goal of this is as clear as the passage’s structure: to elide the difference between “events in illo tempore and in hoc tempore.”52 The bridging of time periods—the adjacency of medieval and modern—is already a speculative act in that it bewitches with the “hypnotic division of Americans into black and white” or in this case between Anglo-Saxon and African-­ American.53 Chesnutt’s article in response to this argument, “What Is a White Man?,” (1889) written as he began work on The House behind the Cedars, seizes upon the apparent fantasy of race as a constant across time and disarticulates the solidity of whiteness into historical difference between the “Celts and Teutons and Gauls and Slavs.”54 Given the stated resistance of Twain and Chesnutt to the literary and biological genealogies that spring from the reception of medieval texts, what is compelling about A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and The House behind the Cedars is that they mobilize those same sources. The two novels differ significantly from the standpoint of genre—Twain’s time-travel narrative and Chesnutt’s post-Civil War story—and are often read as anomalous within the authors’ literary careers. Pudd’nhead Wilson and The Marrow of Tradition are more commonly associated with each other because of their meditations on racial disguise and violence.55 Yet, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and The House behind the Cedars conceive of alternative temporal trajectories premised on the relationship between race and genre. These authors embed race into the romances they construct to critique the production of historical narratives that subtended American parables of virtue and progress as a function of “Anglo-Saxon descent.” In place of those genealogies, they present what I describe in the introduction to this book (see Chap. 1) as an “anti-­ genealogy,” a mode of reading race that refuses the expectations of literary or biological lineage.

52  John D. Niles, “Maldon and Mythopoesis,” in Old English Literature, ed. R.M. Liuzza (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 448. 53  Jean Toomer to Suzanne LaFolette, September 22 1930. Quoted in Matthew Pratt Guterl, The Color of Race in America 1900–1940 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 155. 54  Charles W. Chesnutt, “What Is a White Man?” The Independent 41 (30 May 1889), 5–6. 55  See: Sandra Gunning, Rape, Race, and Lynching: The Red Record of American Literature, 1890–1912 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).



This argument anticipates those I make about inter-racial collaboration at a distance—writers separated by hundreds of years—in Chap. 5. Here, these two novels gain new relevance when read as part of the same project of usurping the “strange mesmeric power” of tradition to speculate on blackness not as a deviation from the clarity of progress, but as a point of inflection within the imaginary of foundational fictions. When read in conversation with one another these novels conjecture “shareable” worlds, both literary and real.56

The Two Middle Ages: Reassessing Twain’s Failure That [Twain] had contradictory feelings does not detract from his achievement in A Connecticut Yankee or make it a “confused” book as critics frequently charge. Often because they shy away from the power of the social implications in the catastrophic ending, critics undervalue the novel. They typically set up a one-dimensional norm that they then fault Twain for violating.57

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is certainly not the first text of Twain’s that is considered troubled by the author’s inability to make up his mind. Critics have long struggled with how to wrestle with the possibilities Twain entertained in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, particularly in how the author dealt with the threat of lynching raised in the novel. In diagnosing the uneasiness at the core of Twain’s novel Ralph Ellison suggests that the author wrestled with the “deep dichotomies symbolized by blackness and whiteness,” particularly centered on the former slave character Jim: Writing at a time when the black-faced minstrel was still popular, and shortly after a war which left even the abolitionists weary of those problems ­associated with the Negro, Twain fitted Jim into the outlines of the minstrel tradition, and it is from behind this stereotype that we see Jim’s dignity and human capacity emerge.58

Twain was acutely aware of the affiliations between what Ellison described as the “Anglo-Saxon branch of American folklore” and African-American folk traditions, a pattern of borrowing and inhabitation that Twain 56  Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), 190. 57  Robert Shulman, Social Criticism and Nineteenth-Century American Fictions (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987), 147. 58  Ralph Ellison, “Change the Joke, Slip the Yoke,” The Partisan Review (Spring 1958), 215.



harnessed throughout his novel, which Shelly Fisher Fiskin outlines in her study Was Huck Black? 59 Huckleberry Finn’s treatment of Jim reveals the difficult balance Twain sought to maintain between his role as popular author and social critic, a tension that created ambivalences visible throughout the novel. Twain tries to fit the frame of American folklore, which adds depth to the relationship between Huck and Jim paradoxically by giving them archetypal roles. The result is a perplexing set of contradictory readings of America’s relationship to slavery. Twain’s novel perhaps shows Huckleberry Finn’s growing awareness of slavery’s injustice; or it parodies the ineffective efforts of white Americans to aid African-Americans who continued to live in danger because of failed Reconstruction policies; or it humanizes Jim through the inequality of danger to his life compared to Huck’s; or it places the past of slavery at a nostalgic remove from Twain’s present; or it minimizes the threat of racial violence aimed at African-Americans.60 Twain’s masterpiece is vexed by its own undecidedness, its inability to affirm any one position or even one side of its most consequential issue. This aspect of Twain’s writing is often read as one of his great failures. Albert Paine, Twain’s early biographer, eloquently damned the author’s efforts to speak directly about racial equality with faint praise: “[Twain] did not undertake any special pleading for the negro cause; he only prepared the way with cheerfulness.”61 At the same time this ambivalence, his literary “failure,” becomes a habit of reading that opens spaces for African-­ American perspectives to arise as native to the set of interpretations the 59  Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Was Huck Black? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994). Contemporary audiences seemed to have felt similarly about Huck Finn. One reviewer gamely suggests that Huck speaks from a tradition that cannot be simply delineated as white or black:

But in Huck this imagination has turned to superstition; he is a walking repository of the juvenile folklore of the Mississippi Valley—a folklore partly traditional among the white settlers but largely influenced by intimate association with the negroes. See: Brander Matthews, [Review] “Huckleberry Finn” London Saturday Review, 31 January 1885 in The Critical Response to Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, ed. Laurie Champion (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1991), 23. 60  Stacey Margolis, “Huckleberry Finn; Or, Consequences” PMLA 116.2 (March 2001), 330. 61  Albert Bigelow Paine, Mark Twain: A Biography Vol. 3 (New York: Harper Brothers, 1912), 1273.



text provokes. Throughout the novel, Jim responds to Huck’s “common sense” with arguments prompted by his acute awareness of his status as property; he becomes more sharply defined through his insurgent response to epistemic forms presumed to exist outside of time. This is to say that Twain had begun to engage in the type of literary speculation that he would continue in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. This mode of reading Twain gives a different dimension to the meaning of his time-travel narrative. The author sought to merge two literary traditions—the folk narrative (with Hank Morgan as a vernacular hero) and romance—and to introduce race into a seemingly race-free space. His romance is devoid of chivalry. In the eyes of his nineteenth-century protagonist, Hank Morgan, medieval England is notable only for it backwardness, its savagery, and its naiveté: traits he also assigns to the “Southern ‘poor white’” of the nineteenth century.62 The past and the present are equally “backwards,” for Hank; the absolute difference between the seventh and nineteenth century melts away.63 Here it is important to underscore that Twain does not merely allegorize myths about the Middle Ages onto modern realities. Twain does rely on such simple transpositions in some parts of the novel. Walter Scott includes slaves in his Ivanhoe, Twain instead describes human auctions, chain gangs, and lynchings that bear the weight of America’s history with slavery and medieval forms of oppression. Moreover, the clear and well-studied source for much of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is Scott’s Ivanhoe. Twain’s disdain for Scott and his influence on American letters has been well-­ chronicled, including by Twain himself, who described the renewed interest in the Middle Ages during his life as “absurdity gone crazy.”64 For Twain, such a longing for a golden age was not just careless, but dangerous. He accused Scott of doing “measureless harm” through his seductive fantasies of noble self-sacrifice and feudal order that helped feed the

62  In fact, Twain borrows many of his details for the slavery episode of A Connecticut Yankee from Charles Ball’s Slavery in the United States: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball, A Black Man (1836). See also Werner Sollors’ account of how Twain treats race and ethnicity in A Connecticut Yankee: “Ethnicity,” in Critical Terms for Literary Studies, eds. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 297–299; Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (New York: Penguin, 1986), 278. 63  Werner Sollors, 295. 64  Mark Twain, “The ‘Tournament’ in 1870 A.D.,” The Galaxy X (July 1870), 135.



imaginations of southerners during and after the Civil War.65 In brief, it would be deeply problematic to premise a reading of A Connecticut Yankee on Scott’s romances because of the grave reservations Twain had about works that followed in Scott’s wake. A second perspective on romance with Sir Thomas Malory at its root is threaded through A Connecticut Yankee and should be read as predominant. This source encourages a set of reading practices that complicates the novel’s narrative failures and depart from a strict parody of Scott; the narrative thrust of Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur (1485) follows the contours of individual and societal failure as the chivalric order around Arthur collapses. To make this argument is to take seriously romance as distinct from that produced by Scott and to see Twain as intervening in and not simply responding to the romance tradition. Two important points of context frame the intercession Twain makes into historiography through Malory. The first comes from The Boy’s King Arthur, a resource Twain used to guide him through Le Morte D’Arthur as he was composing A Connecticut Yankee.66 It has been argued that Twain was misled by this text into believing that the Middle Ages were a “Golden Age of childlike innocence,” and only when he was able to read Malory without its guidance—midway through his composition of A Connecticut Yankee—did his portrayal of the era turn ponderous and apocalyptic.67 While this claim seems untenable given the jaundiced gaze he had already cast upon medievalism over a decade before he began the long period of writing A Connecticut Yankee, The Boy’s King Arthur is an unlikely source for an entirely separate reason that speaks to the positive use he makes of medieval narratives. Despite its name, The Boy’s King Arthur contains a learned introduction by the editor Sidney Lanier with a sophisticated excursus on the development of the King Arthur narrative (and the narrative of Britain’s founding by the mythical leader Brutus) across the Middle Ages from Geoffrey of Monmouth through Walter Map, Layamon, and finally Malory. Lanier, a former Confederate soldier,  Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (New York: Collier and Son, 1883), 347.  Alan Gribben establishes that someone in Twain’s household ordered this book and that Twain makes reference to it. See: “The Master Hand of Old Malory: Mark Twain’s Acquaintance with Le Morte D’Arthur,” English Language Notes 16 (September 1978): 32–40. 67  This is the argument advanced by Betsy Bowden in her “Gloom and Doom in a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” Studies in American Fiction 28.2 (Autumn 2000): 179–202. 65 66



touched upon the problems of historical reliability that often attend discussions of Geoffrey, writing: “It must be confessed that [Geoffrey’s] ideas of probability seem very unsatisfactory to the modern view of historic dignity.”68 Lanier’s suspicions of the Brut narrative’s historical value is tempered by his admiration that the story found “an English audience still desiring to hear” it hundreds of years after Geoffrey.69 Indeed, Lanier positions himself as a “later editor re-arranging the old grown-people’s story for many and divers [sic] boys both of England and America.”70 Although Lanier holds at a distance the content of the medieval materials he introduces because they confect a historical narrative, he asserts as real a natural audience and a literary tradition in which he takes part. Twain’s narrative choices must be understood as alert both to the allegorical potential attendant to the historical transposition inherent in the novel’s conceit and the novel’s participation in perpetuating the Arthurian narrative for a new audience. The second informing context, how Twain uses Malory in the novel itself, builds from this awareness of his novel’s position in the Arthurian tradition. Even though Twain begins A Connecticut Yankee with a chapter from Le Morte D’Arthur, the novel’s debt to Malory often goes unacknowledged in Twain’s criticism. Much has been written about how Twain employs A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court as a reading of nineteenth-century technological and social developments. The medieval setting is most readily understood as a foil for the nineteenth-century problems that make the Connecticut Yankee want to “hang the whole human race and finish the farce.” However, this approach to the medieval content within the novel threatens to diminish the significance of Twain’s choice to reject Scott’s relentless triumphalism—Ivanhoe ends in a marriage, Norman and Saxon peace, and the promise of many generations—in favor of a perspective akin to that of Malory and his particular emphasis on the indecision and failings of his knights. Twain accords a place of prominence to the medieval author: an extended quotation from Le Morte D’Arthur frames the whole novel.

68  Thomas Malory, The Boy’s King Arthur Being Sir Thomas Malory’s History of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, ed. Sidney Lanier (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1881), v. 69  The Brut narrative’s longevity and remobilization is discussed in Chap. 3. Ibid., xvi. 70  Ibid., xx.



Within the passage, Lancelot71 participates in combat with two giants and later three knights, all of whom he defeats. He frees “three score ladies” from imprisonment and forced labor. Finally, Lancelot saves the life of Sir Kay and bestows some of his own considerable authority upon the weaker knight by switching armor with him, which assures Kay’s security. Read from one angle, this passage redounds to Lancelot’s greatness: his singular heroism is able to correct inequalities he sees within medieval society; Lancelot is constantly outnumbered and only concerned for the welfare of the weak. Such an argument is not compelling because it only suggests that Twain quotes Malory simply to distinguish his work from his medieval antecedent. Seen from a different angle, this passage speaks to the politics of failure that are shot through Malory and color Twain’s novel. At the center of the framing passage is the weaknesses of Kay, the braggart knight who never reaches the heights of nobility Lancelot attains. However, the inclusion of Lancelot, Malory’s epitome of secular virtue who is unable to achieve the perfection of his son Galahad, suggests that failure will be construed more expansively. Twain echoes Malory’s Lancelot by making his novel’s iteration the ideal capitalist whose manipulation of the stock market destroys the court. Sociopolitical instability as Malory depicts it becomes an opportunity for speculation in Twain’s nineteenth-century version of the romance; Twain explores the productive potential of using an overlap or fusion of identities to subvert expected symbolic systems.72 The epistemic gap between armor and man in the cases of Kay or Lancelot glosses the problematic interventions of Hank Morgan, the novel’s “failed vernacular hero.”73 Hank believes that he is decidedly the superior knight because his nineteenth-century knowledge allows him to bring modern solutions to the injustices he sees in the medieval world; thus he resembles Lancelot in terms of his perceived social stature. At the same time, the Yankee also resembles Sir Kay, an overmatched man who ends up wearing armor ill-­ suited for a man saddled with finding answers to problems that seem little different than those of his world. 71  Twain uses a different spelling of this knight’s name, but for the sake of consistency, I will use the more common version. 72  This articulation of hybridity derives from Homi Bhabha’s discussion of the concept in The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994), 83. 73  Henry Nash Smith, Mark Twain’s Fable of Progress (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1964), 68–69.



The disjunction between the two visions of the Arthurian “golden age” exposes the silences of nineteenth-century narratives that held up the medieval chivalric ideal as a model for American society. A Connecticut Yankee’s conceit is that a manuscript diary of Hank’s recollections has survived from the sixth century into the nineteenth century. This casts the whole fiction as a product of the Middle Ages, yet the result of a modern mind. The Middle Ages are not easily disambiguated from the present, as is made evident by Hank’s final, delirious speech, which he delivers on his deathbed. It confuses, in the sense of joining, the two time periods: I seemed to be a creature out of a remote unborn age, centuries hence, and even that was as real as the rest! Yes, I seemed to have flown back out of that age into this of ours, and then forward to it again, and was set down, a stranger forlorn, in that strange England, with the abyss of thirteen centuries yawning between me and you! Between me and my home and friends! Between me and all that is dear to me, all that could make life worth the living!74

Hank’s delirium causes him to believe he is speaking to his wife Sandy but he actually addresses a person living hundreds of years later. In jumbling past and future, Twain denies the expectation of forward historical progress that accompanies Ivanhoe. The added effect of this choice is to complicate narratives of white purity that depend on the clarity of lineage as the crucial metric to gauge white superiority. It would be too simplistic to say that the nineteenth century becomes just another feudal age. Rather, the collapse of time periods mires whiteness in the same atemporal morass associated with blackness. The common critique of A Connecticut Yankee’s handling of the subject of race and slavery is that Twain merely reproduces pieces of Charles Ball’s Slavery in the United States on a medieval background.75 Leaving aside the complicated history of how medieval slavery was depicted in a variety of nineteenth-century texts, such a reading diminishes the more subversive possibilities Twain’s approach opens up. Drawing together these two time periods not only forces the reader to see  A Connecticut Yankee, 409.  This reading of Twain’s scenes of slavery has a long history in criticism and is popular. See: John D. Williams, “The Use of History in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” PMLA 80.1 (March 1965), 109; Howard G. Baetzhold, “Charles Ball,” in The Routledge Encyclopedia of Mark Twain, eds. J.R. LeMaster and James D. Wilson (New York: Garland Publishing, 1993), 61–62. 74 75



the interpolation of blackness in a space that is traditionally reserved for the consolidation of white identity—medieval romance—the reader is also confronted with the challenge of reading across race without the stability of timeframes to encode the bodies under scrutiny. At no point are the stakes of such a reading made more evident than during the novel’s infamous lynching scene. At this point in the novel, Hank and King Arthur have decided to go into the countryside disguised as peasants to observe the king’s subjects. They exit the house of a family who has died of smallpox under the cover of darkness and approach a fire on a distant hill. As they creep forward, Hank walks into a body hanging from a tree and still writhing. He is only able to see it in intermittent flashes of lightning in the middle of a thunderstorm. They continue through the night and find eight more hanged as well as a pursuing mob of people. The king forbids Hank from interceding for fear of discovery and because he believes that the victims must have been justly killed. Hank can merely observe. The next morning Hank discusses what he witnessed with a peasant who reacts with pleasure at the night’s events. Hank reflects on this with disgust: It reminded me of a time thirteen centuries away, when the ‘poor whites’ of our South who were always despised, and frequently insulted, by the slave-­ lords around them, and who owed their base condition simply to the presence of slavery in their midst, were yet pusillanimously ready to side with slave-lords in all political moves for the upholding and perpetuating of slavery and did finally shoulder their muskets and pour out their lives in an effort to prevent the destruction of that very institution that degraded them.76

Hank’s diffidence in naming what this sequence would surely evoke for his contemporary readers recalls his reluctance to address lynching in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. As Jacqueline Goldsby argues in her study, A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life And Literature, Twain looks unflinchingly at the brutality of modern warfare, but in the case of lynching he is unable to “hold democracy accountable for its crimes of excess…because Hank insists that the mass hangings he discovers symbolize the fate of ‘poor whites’ in the South.”77 Goldsby continues not by  A Connecticut Yankee, 277–278.  Jacqueline Goldsby, A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 36. This, of course, is not the only perspective 76 77



condemning Twain for cowardice but instead by reading the scene as a type of eloquent silence which reports on the wider context of the contemporary discourse around lynching. Twain’s depiction of lynching fits within a larger pattern of writers engaged in a “continual renegotiation and redefinition of the terms and boundaries of a sectional and ultimately national dialogue on racial violence in the 1890s and early 1900s.”78 The “perverse delight in racial disorder” Twain shows in his subsequent novel, Pudd’nhead Wilson (serialized 1893–1894, published 1894), however, does not appear in A Connecticut Yankee. Instead, the American tendencies for absolutizing racial categories, making instances of boundary crossing exceptional, occupy the center of the novel’s attention.79 The dual timeframes of the novel collapse around the hanged bodies as the fictional violence visited upon medieval peasants forcefully recalls the contemporary lynching crisis. The setting heightens the instability of how these bodies are to be read. Shrouded in darkness, they are momentarily illuminated by flashes of light. They are made visible through their negative: the black through the white. The symbolism of this scene is seemingly quite clear. The text embeds the horror of lynching in an originary narrative through the superimposition of bodies and times to underscore that nineteenth-century racial violence is heir to the barbarity of the Middle Ages. However, the implications of oscillating between times and between habits of reading are far more elusive. Lynching’s significance, apart from other forms of racialized violence, is as spectacle, particularly as it implied communal action to carry out and the circulation of descriptions and images: Lynching terrorized…because it existed purely in the realm of representation as horrific images that haunted…It was the spectacle of lynching, rather than the violence itself, that wrought psychological damage, that enforced black acquiescence to white domination.80 on the way that Twain dealt with the issues of race. In his influential study of the political stands Twain took throughout his life, Philip S.  Foner offers a sympathetic account of Twain’s writing on slavery in Mark Twain Social Critic (New York: International Publishers, 1958), 195–212. 78  Sandra Gunning, Race, Rape and Lynching: The Red Record of American Literature, 1890–1912 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 4. 79  Ibid., 53. 80  Amy Louise Wood, Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890–1940 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 2.



Twain rejects the spectacularity of lynching in clear racial and social terms, which creates a set of challenges for how to read the novel’s temporal frames, particularly whether he privileges white suffering as a bridge to a racial reading or if he means to deprive the image of the lynched body of its racial significance. I would argue that no stable interpretation is available here, rather the point of the scene seems to be its presentation of incomplete sight and the hermeneutic uncertainty that confronts the reader. The multiple shifts that are marked within this scene recall the paratactic strategies of Malory’s narrative that open inquiry about the conjunction of temporality and morality.81 The instability of subordination—the politics of whether the Arthurian narrative should occupy a place of primacy as a foundational fiction and if justice can be realized through the paradigm of chivalry—leaves uncertain from what perspective the text should be read. These ethical dilemmas redound to deeper questions about the fallibility of Arthur’s knights, their inability to live up to their own reputations or their duties.82 The metrics of just action interwoven within the fabric of Le Morte D’Arthur complicate how Twain uses the lynching scene as a mode of critique. This vision of a mass lynching would abide in Twain’s imagination long after he published A Connecticut Yankee. In “The United States of Lyncherdom” (1901), Twain writes a scene that closely resembles the above description of a nightscape crowded with fire and death. Moreover, he weds contemporary violence to medieval tropes; he notes that a few people had already begun to object to lynching and he calls for others to join and to “wake up drowsing c­ hevaliers of the same great knighthood and bring them to the front.”83 Twain 81  Here I am evoking Bonnie Wheeler’s argument about the “polysemous” nature of Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur in “Romance and Parataxis,” Arthurian Literature XII, eds. James P. Carley and Felicity Riddy (Cambridge: Boydell and Brewer, Winter, 1993),109–132. 82  See, for example: Laura K.  Bedwell, “The Failure of Justice, The Failure of Arthur” Arthuriana 21.3 (Fall 2011), 3–22. 83  The following is an extract from the scene in which Twain, after quoting a telegram relating a particularly gruesome murder, asks his reader to imagine the scale of the lynchings that occurred in the last year, by thinking of them as occurring in the same place:

We ask them to read that telegram again, and yet again, and picture the scene in their minds, and soberly ponder it; then multiply it by 115, add 88; place the 203 in a row, allowing 600 feet of space for each human torch, so that there be viewing room around it for 5,000 Christian American men, women, and children, youths and maidens; make it night for grim effect; have the show in a gradually rising plain, and let the course of the stakes be uphill; the eye can then take in the whole line of twenty-four



makes use of medieval imagery to evoke the need for a noble brotherhood to illuminate “a dark moment in the history of American civilization.”84 What should be a signature statement about race and violence instead epitomizes Twain’s great reluctance to openly take a stance on this issue without the guise of fiction and humor. Twain himself demurred from publishing “The United States of Lyncherdom,” in part, for fear of alienating his readership and killing his sales in the South.85 The comparison between A Connecticut Yankee and “The United States of Lyncherdom” reveals how seriously Twain took the rhetoric of chivalry and knighthood for critiquing the struggle towards racial justice. At the same time, the comparison makes clear how far from these ideals Twain viewed much of the country and perhaps himself to be. Hank’s ability to see these bodies is occluded by darkness, the narrative’s view of race is occluded by whiteness. The reader is asked to read “universally” as Hank does when on the morning after the lynching he proclaims that “a man is at bottom a man.”86 This thought fuels the Yankee’s optimism that medieval peasants—“the twin of the Southern ‘poor white’”—might be reformed to destroy the institutions that degraded them and created conditions of fear and vulnerability that led to the violence the Yankee just witnessed.87 Hank adopts a position on slavery that can only encompass the institution from the perspective of the medieval peasant or poor white. Read against “The United States of Lyncherdom,” Hank’s fixation on class and social institutions and his appeal to masculine solidarity only miles of blood-and-flesh bonfires unbroken, whereas if it occupied level ground the ends of the line would bend down and be hidden from view by the curvature of the earth. All being ready, now, and the darkness opaque, the stillness impressive—for there should be no sound but the soft moaning of the night wind and the muffled sobbing of the sacrifices—let all the far stretch of kerosene pyres be touched off simultaneously and the glare and the shrieks and the agonies burst heavenward to the Throne. Mark Twain, “The United States of Lyncherdom,” in Europe and Elsewhere, ed. Albert Paine (Harper & Brothers, 1923), 239–249. 84  Editorial, “Wanted: Heroes and Martyrs of Law and Order,” Century Magazine, 62 (August 1901): 631. 85  Arthur G. Pettit, Mark Twain and the South (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1974), 136. Also, Justin Kaplan, Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain: A Biography (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1966), 364. 86  A Connecticut Yankee, 278. 87  Ibid., 277.



serve to identify the frailties of people too fearful to resist being the hands of oppression with Twain’s frustrations at moral cowardice in the real world including, one suspects, the writer’s own fear of action. Despite the implications of the form Twain chooses to write in and the prospects of his character for bringing nineteenth century advances to the Middle Ages, Twain’s novel cannot seem to escape the gravity of Malory’s precedent. The result of Twain folding Malory into his speculative fiction is a set of ironies the text cannot resolve. Hank despises the institution of chivalry and yet he would fit well next to any of Malory’s failed knights drawn to conquest. The narrative holds forth the promise of equality but the latter half of the text relates a string of abjections and tortured involutions of causality from which neither Hank nor Twain seem to know how to escape. A Connecticut Yankee received one of the most sensitive and clear readings of this project from William Dean Howells, writer, editor, and friend of Twain. Howells tellingly elides the difference between the Middle Ages and the nineteenth century, fantasy and realism: There are incidents in this wonder book which wring the heart for what has been of cruelty [sic] and wrong in the past, and leave it burning with shame and hate for the conditions which are of like effect in the present. It is one of its magical properties that the fantastic fable of Arthur’s far off time is also too often the sad truth of ours and the magician who makes us feel in it that we have just begun to know his power, teaches equality and fraternity in every phase of his phantasmagory.88

What is most striking about this assessment of the novel is Howells’ rhetorical twist that binds Twain’s authorial ability together with the fantasy that he employs by calling the author “the magician” that cannot help but echo Scott’s nickname, “The Enchanter.” This is a tempting way to approach Twain’s work because the text centers on a character that is reminiscent of Twain. Howells’ certainty that Twain “imparts more of his personal quality” surely works to disguise the problems of narrative and moral integrity that have been laid out above.89 And yet, as this chapter has argued, the narrative trajectory of A Connecticut Yankee for which Howells provides an alibi might be read as a productive result of Twain’s brush with Malory. The fundamental fail88  William Dean Howells, “Editor’s Study,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 80.476 (January 1890), 321. 89  Ibid., 319.



ings of Twain and thus Hank to satisfactorily meet the demands instead should be read to reflect the iterative function of the Arthurian narrative. Twain’s work is of a piece with Malory’s in its imperfection that anticipates revision. Echoing the melancholy but laconic relation of knights unaccounted for and Malory’s supplication before his reader, Twain’s novel hastens to a conclusion and ends with the thoughts of the Yankee trailing away, incomplete. Here, A Connecticut Yankee intersects with Chesnutt’s The House behind the Cedars. If Twain “prepared the way” for later writers to argue forcefully for the cause of racial equality in literature, it is Chesnutt, who most directly sets forth on that path. Chesnutt published his novel a decade after A Connecticut Yankee. Like Twain, he abandoned the space of southern dialect fiction for which he had been celebrated to enter the realm of romance. In so doing, he assumes Twain’s experimentation with the cultural charge of romance to trouble the fixity of race and its effects in time. The Middle Ages helped both writers consider race as a category that is imagined and flexible enough to embrace traditions and depictions temporally far removed, yet still strangely kin. Mythopoesis and Master Narratives: Charles Chesnutt’s Deviant Romance A Connecticut Yankee represents a period of erring in Twain’s literary career, both in the sense that he misjudged his ability to handle the material before him but also in the medieval sense of the word of wandering in paths that allow for revelatory incidence. His book deviates from a clear trajectory of a writer realizing his full powers. Nonetheless the resulting text is multi-valent in terms of its speculation on the possibilities of reading the problems of Americans countenancing race within the familiar tropes of romance. The pattern of falling into romance anticipates the peculiar progression Charles Chesnutt took in his own writing that moved quickly from being critically lauded to being marginalized for its political forthrightness. The rapid decline of Chesnutt’s literary fortunes can be exemplified by the changing esteem in which William Dean Howells held Chesnutt over the course of two years (1900–1901). At first Howells put Chesnutt’s early stories in the company of Henry James and Sarah Orne Jewett; by the end of this period he lamented Chesnutt’s turn to social commentary in his “bitter, bitter” novel The Marrow of Tradition



(1901).”90 At the center of this arc is The House behind the Cedars, which he structured around the contested text that subtends this whole chapter: Scott’s Ivanhoe. By the time Chesnutt approached the romance, it had been accused of distorting southern literature and values (by Twain) and had been considered suitable reading for British and American schoolchildren.91 Ivanhoe possessed the curious ideological ambivalence that rendered it simultaneously dangerous and wholly innocuous in its ubiquity. Thus its value reached a pinnacle of cultural determination within American society that allowed it to transcend the merely textual and enter into the realm of the mythopoetic; it permitted the interplay between the nostalgic fantasy of nation and the realities of social boundaries erected and enforced by adherents to that same set of desires. Given the point of Chesnutt’s career at which he writes the novel, it is unclear if Chesnutt mobilized Scott’s Ivanhoe to placate or provoke. As was the case with A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the text’s difficulties stem from its willingness to interrogate the temporal and generic terms under which it operates. However, The House behind the Cedars troubles in ways that Twain’s novel cannot because its speculation is implicit within the intersection of race and form, rather than explicit in the narrative’s framing. This is to say character, genre, and social situation pull against one another. Chesnutt undermines the solidity of Ivanhoe as a master narrative infused with mythopoetic power by assigning blackness as an imagined category tied to the notion of deviation—temporal and genealogical—within spaces Scott uses to consolidate white identity. The novel situates its African-American heroine at the center of what should be an originary narrative that contains within it a proleptic view of a future American society. Instead the narrative collapses under the weight of racial expectations and denies the clarity of Ivanhoe’s conclusions. 90  This argument is advanced by Joseph R.  McElrath Jr., one of the primary editors of Chesnutt’s letters. See: “W.D. Howells and Race: Charles Chesnutt’s Disappointment of the Dean,” Nineteenth-Century Literature 51.4 (March 1997), 474–499; William Dean Howells, “A Psychological Counter-Current in Recent Fiction,” The North American Review, CLXXIII (December 1901), 882. See also: Joseph R. McElrath, Jr. “W. D. Howells and Race: Charles W.  Chesnutt’s Disappointment of the Dean” Nineteenth-Century Literature 51.4 (March 1997), 474–499. 91  By the time Chesnutt was writing, Ivanhoe had begun to find a new audience with children. Several abridgements and school editions were published in the United States throughout the 1890s. See: Nicola J.  Watson, “Afterlives,” in The Edinburgh Companion to Sir Walter Scott, ed. Fiona Robertson (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), 152.



I use the term “master narrative” to invite the multiple valences that come with the phrase, particularly Scott as the architect of dominant cultural and literary conventions used in the service of racial domination.92 History and fiction collude within foundational fictions to normalize unruly patterns of action: the operations of fantasy and erotic desire. In Ivanhoe the reader’s expectation of political unity is mirrored, or perhaps created, by the model of chivalric (masculine) power and the imagined marriage bed. Chesnutt disappoints these expectations with his racially ambiguous heroine and “Anglo-Saxon knight” character who can only offer stalled chivalric action and a failed marriage plot. The novel’s deviation from generic expectations parallel Chesnutt’s authorial deviations. His usurpation of the master narrative, I argue, eroded his popularity but was consequential in forming his political voice. This assertion of his authorial identity in defiance of tastemakers such as William Dean Howells, constitutes a point of inflection in Chesnutt’s authorial trajectory from Twain’s; his heroine exposes the ironies of American racial myth-making without relying on the paratactic strategies Twain employs to imply blackness but never fully engage it. At the same time the satisfactions of romance still obtain; the reader is left longing for the consummation of desire across social boundaries that inheres within Scott. An alternative world exists within the absence created by the distance between generic expectations and Chesnutt’s actual narrative in which a future of American race relations exists beyond the assumed mandates of an unreconciled America. Chesnutt, like Twain, came to romance from the direction of vernacular fiction. His collection of short stories, The Conjure Woman (1899), which helped  catapult him to success, acts as a critical background to The House behind the Cedars. The conceit of the collection is that a couple from Ohio moves to South Carolina and acquires land for grape c­ ultivation. They discover that a man called Uncle Julius occupies the plantation they have purchased. They take him into their employ. In a series of vignettes, the couple makes demands of Julius and he responds with stories about the pre-war plantation, all of which revolve around the trickery of a magical “conjure” woman. These tales are tangentially related to the couple’s requests but ultimately lead to Julius getting what he wishes out of the exchange. Chesnutt’s stories demonstrate a complex 92  Here I borrow from the discussion of master narratives and gender in medieval literature advanced by Mary Carpenter Erler and Maryanne Kowaleski in Gendering the Master Narrative: Women and Power in the Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003).



command of signifying—they play with multiple meanings and intentions—a rhetorical maneuver the author uses to bind together the narrative frame of carpetbaggers descending on the South and the central stories about antebellum plantation life.93 Although the two levels of storytelling would seem to echo one another—each has black characters fooling white ones—the interaction of frame and tale insists on a more nuanced relationship between characters and time periods. It is never clear if Julius is strategically retelling stories or creating them to feed the imagination of his white audience; in either case, his stories gain meaning from the dynamics of power and competing desires that prompt the storytelling. For Chesnutt, the literary tradition in which he writes these stories emerges from this system of exchange. The stories act as a proxy for the renegotiation of power between Julius and the couple in the absence, or shadow, of slavery. The possibility for a new southern society premised on shared perspectives is held out by how the characters contend with slavery’s meaning through the tales. Performing and listening to these stories becomes critical work in reinterpreting slavery, that is, making it visible and central to the politics of a post-war South.94 Importantly, one is not meant to linger in nostalgia, as one is tempted to in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, particularly in the “evasion” episode which delays Jim’s emancipation. Chesnutt’s frame-tale structure allows the reader to see how the past can be directly mobilized for the needs of the present.95 Neither the carpetbagging couple, who are ideal representatives of modernization, nor Julius, who substantially benefits from them, wants to recreate the dynamics of the antebellum ­plantation. The fantasy of the conjure woman, Chesnutt argues, is to be left in the past: Relics of ancestral barbarism are found among all peoples, but advanced civilization has at least shaken off the more obvious absurdities of superstition.96 93  Eric J.  Sundquist, To Wake Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), 273. 94  See: Jennifer Lynn Stoever, The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening (New York: NYU Press, 2016). 95  Here it simply suffices to note that Chesnutt’s frame tale structure is in the tradition of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and Chesnutt takes similar advantage of his frame as a means to link members of society who have apparent differences in status and perspective. 96  Ibid., 865.



One could go as far to read the discrepancy between the sophistication of the frame narrative and the simplicity of the folk tale as a hopeful assessment of the social progress made from the pre- to post-war United States. These tales demonstrate Chesnutt’s ability to use narrative structure to make temporal and political claims. Genre and form enable the literary interventions Chesnutt of his early work, which lends special significance to his turn from the vernacular tale to a realist novel that draws on romance. Whereas Twain chose Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur over Scott’s Ivanhoe to locate his critique at the heart of Arthurian mythology, Chesnutt directly engages Scott, who cast a long shadow over African-American medievalism. Malory, as interpreted by Twain, gives a lie to the foundation of American medievalism, but nineteenth-century America itself is often kept at the remove of metaphor and analogy. Fittingly, the novel is considered an example of science fiction because its time-travel conceit enables speculation that does not have an isomorphic relationship to the nineteenth century. Chesnutt is similarly making a speculative intervention into the American past under the guise of Rowena Warwick as a reification of the romance tradition derived from Scott. Chesnutt hints at the type of speculation he will engage in through “The Wife of his Youth” (1898), his story about a financially successful mixed-race man named Mr. Ryder who is on the verge of proposing marriage to a young woman “whiter than he.”97 Ryder searches for a poem to commemorate the occasion and settles on Tennyson’s “Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere: A Fragment” (1842). His preparations are interrupted by an encounter with a woman who claims that over the course of twenty-­ five years she sought her husband from whom she was separated shortly before the Civil War. The story emphasizes that this marriage was a “slave marriage,” implying that the expectations of commitment were ­fundamentally different than those made after emancipation. In the novel’s last lines Mr. Ryder reveals the strange woman to be “the wife from his youth.” Cynthia Wachtell has suggested that the wife’s speech to her husband, which seems too knowing about Mr. Ryder’s current circumstances, is an elaborate performance of vernacular trickster fiction in keeping with The Conjure Woman stories and a longer line of African-American folk

97  Charles Chesnutt, The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1901), 5.



tales.98 The danger of such a reading is the allure of its explanatory power, that this story reproduces a set of values around and within his fiction about what is to be privileged, namely that he cannot depart from the generic groves of vernacular fiction. Mr. Ryder leads a society of mixedrace people called “The Blue Veins,” an allusion to the whiteness of their skin and their desire for future generations to become lighter. Ryder laments the inbetween-ness of being insufficiently white and unwilling to be considered black: “The one doesn’t want us yet, but may take us in time. The other would welcome us, but it would be for us a backward step.”99 If this story is read as a covert trickster tale, the trick shocks him into re-­evaluating his social climbing and his vision for the future of mixedrace Americans through the connection to his wife ’Liza Jane. Mr. Ryder’s love of poetry would then merely redound to his literary snobbery, his desire to assimilate that has led him to a foppish poem. More perniciously, the elevation of the trickster narrative over romance runs the risk of reasserting a color line within fiction that Chesnutt sought to complicate.100 Even Howells’ enthusiastic review of Chesnutt’s early writing that compared him to Henry James and Sarah Orne Jewett trotted out the comfortable trope of African-American literature “touching all the stops…of real tragedy, comedy and pathos.”101 James Weldon Johnson would borrow this phrase when writing the introduction to The Book of American Negro Poetry to point out the limitations of early African-American dialect writing for writing about racial themes.102 This is to say that what Howells saw in Chesnutt was  that he did not transgress the clarity of racial and generic boundaries, he valued the author’s “simplicity” and “reticence.”103 The context given in the second chapter of this book allows for a more multi-valent reading of this story’s conclusion. Ironically, a central part of Howell’s praise for Chesnutt is the author’s unwillingness to indulge in the fantasy of romance: 98  Cynthia Wachtell, “The Wife of his Youth: A Trickster Tale,” in Charles Chesnutt Reappraised: Essays on the First Major African-American Fiction Writer, eds. David Garrett Izzo and Maria Orban (Jefferson: McFarland & Co., 2009), 159–173. 99  “The Wife of His Youth,” 7. 100  William Dean Howells, “Mr. Charles W.  Chesnutt’s Stories,” Atlantic Monthly 85 (1900), 700. 101  Ibid. 102  James Weldon Johnson, “Preface,” The Book of American Negro Poetry, ed. James Weldon Johnson (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922), xl. 103  “Mr. Charles W. Chesnutt’s Stories,” 700.



As these stories are of our own time and country, and as there is not a swashbuckler of the seventeenth century, or a sentimentalist of this, or a princess of an imaginary kingdom, in any of them, they will possibly not reach half a million readers in six months but in twelve months possibly more readers will remember them than if they had reached the half million.104

This is not only factually incorrect, it also misjudges what the mobilization of romance can accomplish. If Chesnutt indeed takes romance seriously, the text asks if it is possible or permissible to conceive of love originating in the period of American slavery within the genre’s paradigms. This line of thinking continues the negotiation between racially inflected perspectives of the pre-War South that he began to explore in his Uncle Julius stories. Chesnutt shifts the grounds of inquiry from the tragic love of slaves as entertainment that smuggles in didacticism to the radical humanization of quotidian slavery practices through the extraordinary happenings that romance demands. Chesnutt quotes two stanzas from Tennyson’s poem that suggest how he uses romance: She seem’d a part of joyous Spring: A gown of grass-green silk she wore, Buckled with golden clasps before; A light-green tuft of plumes she bore Closed in a golden ring. … .… She look’d so lovely, as she sway’d The rein with dainty finger-tips, A man had given all other bliss, And all his worldly worth for this, To waste his whole heart in one kiss Upon her perfect lips.105

These lines, rich with references to youth, physical beauty, and springtime have obvious connections to Mr. Ryder’s choice between the young woman to whom he wishes to propose and his wife who is aged and worn by her efforts to find her husband. Chesnutt astutely signals the evanescence of these values by including the final stanza that recalibrates all the 104 105

 Ibid.  Ibid., 9.



lines that have come before, that “waste” is the penalty for the expression of the tremendous love Lancelot and Guinevere have for one another. The poem meshes with the story in unexpected ways. ’Liza Jane recounts that her husband was a free man but was forced to flee from his apprenticeship in Missouri after she warned him that her slave master intended to sell him to a slaveholder in the deep South. Her sacrifice for love is marked on her body both from being whipped for saving her husband and in the form of the intervening years of supporting herself during her search. The threat of “waste” is thus not solely Mr. Ryder’s denied opportunity to marry and partially realize his hopes for the future of mixed-race people, much of ’Liza Jane’s life has already been expended because of the distortions of slavery. Just as Lancelot’s union with Guinevere is bittersweet, the narrative’s conclusion is torn between the fittingness of Mr. Ryder’s decision and the sense of an irretrievable loss. The expectations of romance do not squarely fit upon this narrative; the reader is asked to contend with points of convergence and disjunction that arise from elevating these spheres of African-American life—the history of slavery and the difficulties of being mixed-race—into the realm of romance. The traumatic ruptures of a family caused by slavery’s economic imperatives and ’Liza Jane’s tremendous efforts to close those gaps are juxtaposed with the adulterous affair between Lancelot and Guinevere and the knight’s heroic efforts to remain with her. Similarly, multiple temporalities within each narrative are put in conversation. Mr. Ryder exists in two timeframes that are wholly distinct from one another. As a member of the Blue Veins society, his gaze is fixed upon generations beyond himself; as a man who chooses not to remarry despite being separated from his wife for decades he is also tied to a pre-Civil War past that irrupts into his life. These dual time temporalities play against romance’s place as ahistorical and intimately bound up with the production of history. The intersections between race and romance produce a matrix of meaning that rivals the triumphalism and unities implied by white racial mythology. African-­American experiences informed by slavery and racial violence both more fully and incompletely fill the space that romance makes available for creating legitimating and authenticating narratives than the experiences of white Americans; the extremity of slavery’s cruelty that produced extraordinary narratives of sacrifice along with the ongoing debates about what constitutes blackness that are bound together with the voyeuristic stigmatization of a variety of



inter-racial couplings created a volatile allegiance between the fantastical and the real, with each threatening to overwhelm the other.106 That Chesnutt mobilized romance within discussions of blackness signals his willingness to intervene in the shifting ideological formation of racial ideology. Here it is necessary to underscore how energetic this debate was at the time Chesnutt published this story and was finishing The House behind the Cedars. One of the articles within the same issue of The Atlantic that included Chesnutt’s “The Wife of His Youth” describes the strength of British and American ties through antiquated formulations of ethnic origins to imply racial solidarities across incredible distances: There indeed has been a large infusion of other elements into the population of the United States, but those elements are mostly drawn from the same sources, Teutonic and Celtic, which form the population of the British Isles and all have been, or are being moulded into the same normal American type…The influences of climate and institutions which tend to differentiate them are less potent than the influences of literature and thought which tend to assimilation.107

The article gives evidence to the anxiety around the possible dissolution of racial identity that is held at bay through the fiction of racial solidarities based upon categories that are themselves belated constructions. James Bryce, in his ponderous volume on American political institutions, casts a paternalistic gaze upon the United States, wondering if Americans would find “a background of romance”—a common imaginary of ideals filtered through narrative—to propel them further along the “pilgrimage of man” as industrial progress covered the landscape.108 An Atlantic Monthly reviewer responded by insisting that the pace and scope of progress were the pre-conditions for creating such unifying narratives:

106  However, this notion of slavery as capable of producing the sublime had traction far beyond Chesnutt. Not only do we see this in the examples of Du Bois and Duncanson that began this chapter, Carter G.  Woodson, in The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861 described the narratives of “the successful strivings of Negroes for enlightenment under most adverse circumstances” as “like beautiful romances.” See: Carter G.  Woodson, The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861, 2nd edition (The Associated Publishers: Inc. Washington, DC, 1919), iii. 107  Bryce James, “The Essential Unity of Britain and America,” The Atlantic Monthly (July 1898), 23. 108  Ibid.



Walter Scott needed to go back only sixty years to weave his magic spell, but Scott was the voice of a civilization highly developed. The very development of our American civilization is to give us this advantage, that what was material for prose to our ancestors becomes material for poetry for us.109

Romance functioned as a powerful heuristic that encodes a set of expectations about the constitution and direction of the nation. It evoked a shared history—a casual elision of “other elements into the population” that are not Celtic or Teutonic—and a sense of joint enterprise that should unspool the ever more perfect ends of those auspicious beginnings. Moreover, Scott recurs as the avatar for romance; his popular interpretations of the form preside over other available versions of it. When Chesnutt turns to Ivanhoe in The House behind the Cedars, he does so fully cognizant of the multiple valences it has for signaling a past of unity across categories of difference and for speculating on the future constitution of race. The difficulties that romance presents in mediating between the fictive and the real emerge from ambivalences within Scott’s own work. Scott begins his “Essay on Romance” (1834) with this evasive definition that creates a limitation on the genre of romance that his own work does not bear out: Dr. Johnson has defined romance, in its primary sense, to be “a military fable of the middle ages; a wild tale of adventures in love and chivalry.” But although this definition expresses correctly the ordinary idea of the word, it is not sufficiently comprehensive to answer our present purpose. A composition may be a legitimate romance, yet neither refer to love nor chivalry—to war nor to the middle ages. The “wild adventures” are almost the only absolutely essential ingredient in Johnson’s definition. We would be rather inclined to describe a Romance as “a fictitious narrative in prose or verse; the interest of which turns upon marvelous and uncommon incidents;” being thus opposed to the kindred term Novel, which Johnson has described as “a smooth tale, generally of love” but which we would rather define as “a fictitious narrative, differing from Romance, because the events are accommodated to the ordinary train of human events and the modern state of society.”110

109  Book Review: “Bryce’s The American Commonwealth,” The Atlantic Monthly 63.377 (March 1889), 424. 110  Walter Scott, The Prose Works of Sir Walter Scott, Bart: Essays on Chivalry, Romance, and the Drama (Edinburgh: Ballantyne and Co., 1834), 129.



Scott labors throughout his essay to show “romance” to be divorced from historical fact and unconcerned with the mimetic demands of the novel. However, this argument masks Scott’s own interest in creating a national literature by excavating the “scattered relics of an ancestral culture.”111 Anglo-Saxon virtues—“honest simplicity and hardihood”—are treated within Ivanhoe as national patrimony, the bequeathals of a society that preceded the cultural refinement and feudal organization Norman rule implied. The marriage of the pro-Norman Ivanhoe and the Saxon Rowena at the end of Scott’s text stands in for the cycles of generation that will lead to the reader of the text: the romance moves from the fiction of a mythical past to the reality of modern Britain. At the same time, the proleptic conclusion hints at the merger of genres the author tries to keep apart in his definition. Ivanhoe begins to realize the mimetic potential of the author’s hybrid form; this collapse becomes complete when the cultural purchase of Scott’s mythology, the “heralds, pursuivants, pages, garter king-at-­arms”112 Twain lamented, would take root in a society seemingly divorced from the British traditions the novel celebrates. Scott’s romance affiliates genre and genealogy structured around the linearity that governs the seemingly wild emplotment of the text: the long interlude of carnivalesque twists in the woods of Britain that are ultimately inconsequential to the plot. Scott’s popularity created a problematic tradition for writers who wished to intervene in the genre of romance without the burdens of Scott’s Middle Ages. As argued above, Twain resists Scott through his narrative of time travel that allows him to assert a different trajectory for Western civilization that resembles the melancholy ends of Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur. The House behind the Cedars accepts Scott’s vision of the Middle Ages insofar as it had become manifest in the attitudes and laws of the South. The novel is studiedly ambiguous about whether romance is a point of origin for southern traditions or merely a structure upon which these traditions hang, as is noted in the novel’s mockjousting scene:

111  Ian Duncan, Modern Romance and the Transformations of the Novel; The Gothic, Scott and Dickens, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 4. 112  “The ‘Tournament’ in 1870 A.D.,” 135.



The influence of Scott was strong upon the old South. The South before the war was essentially feudal, and Scott’s novels of chivalry appealed forcefully to the feudal heart.113

Chesnutt takes full advantage of the problems inherent in laying claim to Scott as creating a historical teleology that will lead southern society to speculate on what deviation from that history might look like, specifically when the plot of Anglo-Saxon and Norman unity is overlaid upon the slippery, contingent vector of American race. In Chesnutt’s novel, romance and realism are never fully disarticulated from one another. Rather, the text assumes the guise of a “historical romance” similar to what Scott creates with Ivanhoe. The House behind the Cedars mingles the tropes of romance with “the ordinary train of human events and the modern state of society,” to demonstrate how deeply one informs the other. This divergence from Twain offers a profound reading of Scott. Ivanhoe models the social cohesion that results from having a common cultural discourse; Scott successfully maps his romance onto the larger project of generating English identity through language, codes of conduct, and a shared history. Violence and acts of silencing that precede the harmony at the romance’s conclusion are only implied through the Jewish character, Rebecca, who nurses Ivanhoe to health and becomes embroiled in the struggle for power in Britain. Because of her bravery, self-sacrifice, and the strength of her faith, Rebecca should be a model for the nascent British society that Scott outlines at the end of the romance. Rowena, Ivanhoe’s wife, is incredulous when she hears that Rebecca will leave the country. Rebecca upends Rowena’s assumptions of the opportunities Britain holds for her: “And are you not then as well protected in England?” said Rowena. “My husband has favour with the King—the King himself is just and generous.” “Lady,” said Rebecca, “I doubt it not—but the people of England are a fierce race, quarrelling ever with their neighbours or among themselves, and ready to plunge the sword into the bowels of each other. Such is no safe abode for the children of my people.”114

Scott reifies British identity here in a curious way. He introduces divisiveness as a defining characteristic of the “fierce” Anglo-Saxon/Norman race. At the same time, he expels from the historical narrative Rebecca,  The House behind the Cedars, 31.  Ivanhoe, 399.

113 114



who exemplifies the virtues of chivalric heroism. Ivanhoe’s puzzling ending bespeaks Scott’s difficulties in situating Rebecca.115 Scott’s resolution hinges upon the primacy of genealogy superseding all other considerations. Rebecca presents genealogical affiliations and a sense of historical responsibility “to the time of Abraham downward” that extend far beyond the scope of Saxon and Norman history. Through them she inverts the expected coordinates of this moment of cultural genesis. Her steadfastness to her faith becomes a model of genealogical purity cast in opposition to Saxon and Norman intermarriage: she refuses a union that implies conversion and she has a far-sighted sense of responsibility to the “children of [her] people.” Ivanhoe thus ends ambivalently and unsatisfactorily as Ann Rigney argues: On the one hand, the novel proposes a view of nationality based on the sublimation of original differences; on the other hand, it performs the fact that differences remain.116

Scott demonstrates the reconciliation of difference, but he puts limits on this reconciliation demarcated by historical frameworks he deems to be incompatible. The reader is left with an unfulfilled desire for Rebecca but more profoundly they perceive the weight of history this denial confers. Scott would claim in response to heavy criticism of Rebecca’s choice that the conclusion merely bows to the mandates of accuracy and good taste: But, not to mention that the prejudices of the age rendered such an union almost impossible, the author may, in passing, observe, that he thinks a character of a highly virtuous and lofty stamp, is degraded rather than exalted by an attempt to reward virtue with temporal prosperity.117

This response to his readership’s fascination with Rebecca sublimates his authority as creator in favor of “historical necessity.”118 Scott chooses to 115  See James Shapiro “Race, Nation, or Alien,” Shakespeare and the Jews (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 167–193. 116  Ann Rigney, The Afterlives of Scott: Memory on the Move (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 91. 117  Walter Scott, “Author’s Introduction” [1830], Ivanhoe, ed. Ian Duncan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996 [1819]), 544–545. 118  See Rigney, 91; Duncan, xxv.



neglect the long tradition of conversions that romance heroines undergo in romance as well as a clear source for Rebecca: The Merchant of Venice’s Jessica. He also displaces any responsibility from Ivanhoe, who presumably should be capable of recognizing and rewarding her virtues. In short, deviation from genealogical and historical trajectories is not permissible under the framework that Scott erects within Ivanhoe, Rebecca’s reward must exist outside of temporality and outside of England. In assuming this stance, Scott subtly reaffirms the larger history-making project his romance advances within his fiction. The reader is asked to accept a set of ideological claims in order to read its conclusion as satisfying. That discrepancy between the stated ends and the ideological function of Ivanhoe makes Chesnutt’s fidelity to the romance’s narrative structure yet more perplexing. Chesnutt sets himself up to contend with a contradiction that becomes evident when the referent is changed to race in the post-Civil War South. The narrative is doomed to sink under the weight of the “historical necessity” that buoyed Scott’s work across the Atlantic. The problems in Chesnutt’s translation of Scott become evident early and often in the novel, as the characters begin to test the boundaries of chivalry and courtly conduct that govern how the reader should approach these characters. When Rena and her would-be lover, George Tryon, are first introduced, they are described as though they had just stepped out of the pages of Ivanhoe. One of the characters at the mock tournament jokes with Rena about what her role in a romance would be: If George were but masked and you were veiled, we should have a romantic situation. You the mysterious damsel in distress, he the unknown champion. The parallel, my dear, might not be so hard to draw, even as things are.119

Within the jest is the seed of the ironic connection between the two lovers that develops through the text. George is who he purports to be, a ­descendant of English “cavaliers” and has the horse-riding skills to prove it, while Rena is actually “veiled” behind the fiction of her racial identity. However, this also places Rena within Rebecca’s untenable position of being both the virtuous damsel and a sign of difference that must be rejected.120  The House behind the Cedars, 35–36.  The veil has strong resonances in both romance and the African-American literary tradition. One can think of Una’s veil in The Faerie Queene, or the number of veils seen in 119 120



The text signals Rena as deviating from the normative values expected in a romance; that is, she cannot possibly inhabit the roles that she is assigned. However, perhaps equally revelatory about the nature of Chesnutt’s romance is the character of Tryon who embodies the core generic function of romance as described by Fredric Jameson: “to draw the boundaries of a given social order” and provide an “internal deterrent against deviancy and subversion.”121 Tryon gives voice to that project by asserting the unbroken flow of Anglo-Saxon blood from the Middle Ages to the present: But no Southerner who loved his poor downtrodden country or his race, the proud Anglo-Saxon race which traced the clear stream of its blood to the cavaliers of England could tolerate the idea that even in distant generations that unsullied current could be polluted by the blood of slaves.122

This sentiment straddles the same line Scott does between the mythic and mimetic potentials of romance. Moreover, Tryon’s musing directly echoes that of Henry Grady discussed in this chapter’s first section and points to the potency of this narrative of continuity. However, what the contortions of Scott in defining romance and the insistence of Grady on the unbroken lines of genealogy lay bare is an anxiety about lineage and the need for romance to bridge the gap between an articulated tradition and latent realities, which in this case are inter-racial desires. Tryon’s appeals to the natural image of a stream of Anglo-Saxon blood from England to the American South forestalls the competing image of the slave trade across the Atlantic as the far more apparent representation of purposeful trans-Atlantic flows of people. The directed movement of the Anglo-Saxons is belied by the seemingly purposeless movement of Tryon himself. Tryon elides the difference between character and time to make clear the directing force of Anglo-Saxon history on the individual. However, his role in enacting the disciplinary functions of white society around himself is characterized by errancy—wandering, questing, and making mistakes in the name of love or what Scott would call “wild advenIvanhoe. See also the magisterial study of masking and veiling in African-American literature: Robert B.  Stepto From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979). 121  Fredric Jameson, “Magical Narratives: Romance as Genre,” New Literary History 7.1 (Autumn 1975): 140. 122  Chesnutt, 91.



tures.” Chesnutt strategically uses the contradictory structure of the romance that he borrows from Scott, wherein coincidence, misfortune, and desire move his characters from scene to scene, but fidelity and deviation, clarity, and deception as moral and temporal metrics preside over the plot as a whole. Chesnutt contrasts the freight of Anglo-Saxon history with that of African-Americans in a scene where Rena prepares to leave her home of Patesville to escape the humiliation following her broken engagement with Tryon. Peering through the cedar trees, he spies Rena, who has been reluctantly coaxed into a dance with one of her neighbors at her farewell party. The sight of this enrages Tryon and he speeds off on horseback reeling over Rena’s frivolity: Tonight his eyes had been opened. He had seen her with the mask thrown off, a true daughter of a race in which the sensuous enjoyment of the moment took precedence of taste or sentiment or any higher emotions. Her few months of boarding school, her brief association with white people, had evidently been a mere veneer over the underlying negro, and their effects had slipped away as soon as the intercourse had ceased. With the monkey like imitativeness of the negro she had copied the manners of white people while she lived among them and had dropped them with equal facility when they ceased to serve a purpose.123

Any sort of black historical positionality is reduced to temporary and shifting identity. The courtly veil disguising her features becomes the mask of whiteness Tryon believes she can throw off to show her “true” racial identity. This should be a moment of clarity within the text, wherein her “deviation” is punished and Tryon’s steadfastness is rewarded. He is, of course, wrong in his evaluation of Rena who has stayed true in her affections. It is Tryon who has begun to stray in the narrative. Tryon is left in a quandary that is uniquely enabled by the genre of romance. Once free from his marital obligations to Rena—he breaks off the engagement after discovering her family history—he is able to move in ways that she is not. While the difference in liberty might seem self-­ evident, this observation brings to the fore central issues in the novel’s tensions between myth and mimesis. The House behind the Cedars has been critiqued for the flatness of Rena’s character, which has prompted efforts  Chesnutt, 141.




to try to recuperate her as somehow existing outside the bounds of the narrative.124 This assumes that the novel situates her as a tragic mulatta whose subjectivity is misunderstood by the society around her. As a romance heroine, the simplicity of her character accentuates her impossibility in the eyes of Tryon—she is both a deviation from the teleology of Anglo-Saxon history as imagined by Tryon and the real history of inter-­ racial desire she embodies. As Tryon guards the color line in order to protect the clarity of his Anglo-Saxon origins, he finds himself drawn towards and repelled by Rena, which forces him into logical involutions: How was he to imagine that persons of their appearance and pretensions were tainted with negro blood? The more he dwelt upon the subject, the more angry he became with those who had surprised his virgin heart and deflowered it by such low trickery. The man who brought the first negro into the British colonies had committed a crime against humanity and a worse crime against his own race. The father of this girl had been guilty of a sin against society for which others—for which he, George Tryon—must pay the penalty. As slaves, negroes were tolerable. As freemen, they were an excrescence, an alien element incapable of absorption into the body politic of white men.125

The instability of Tryon’s desire causes him to invert the masculinist underpinnings of his arguments about lineage to which he makes recourse throughout the novel. He feminizes himself through his “deflowered” “virgin heart” as though Rena’s boundary crossing has already severed the clear streams of his Anglo-Saxon blood. Indeed, he turns his accusing gaze towards paternity itself; he blames Rena’s father and the founding fathers for their implication in slavery, so that he can disavow the desires he feels. In doing so, he comes quite close to contravening the mandates of racial purity; his arguments momentarily seem out of place in their resemblance of abolitionist and post-war arguments for racial equality before he forecloses the possibilities for reconciliation. One hears the echoes of Frederick Douglass’ image of the “child’s face standing in accusation against him who is master and father to the child” as well as any number of novels about tragic mulattos who lament the sins of their fathers, including the one under discussion.126 Tryon’s claims are ironized by the erotic desire he  Ryan, 38.  The House behind the Cedars, 169. 126  Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (New York: Miller, Orton & Mulligan), 59. See also William Bedford Clark, “The Serpent of Lust in the Southern 124 125



has for Rena; he likewise seeks to reiterate the patterns of sexual exploitation that he also resists. Tryon loses himself in the forbidding woods of race. This is almost literally the case; he reverses his position on Rena and seeks to express his love for her. To do so, Tryon dupes one of the students under Rena’s care into leading her through the woods along a path that will lead to him. Simultaneously, Wain, an African-American man who hopes to woo Rena, approaches her from a different but converging path. Confronted with the threat of having to choose between the two, she plunges into the underbrush lining the path and then deep into the forest. Tryon pursues, finding her too late after chasing the wrong woman, one “with the sallowness of a sandhill poor white.” One is tempted to read this as a scrap of humor in a text otherwise restrained by its form, although one suspects that encountering this white woman he believes to be Rena is the appropriate end for all his meanderings. Up to this point of this argument, I have lingered over Tryon, not to privilege him over Rena, but to demonstrate how his actions become distorted in her orbit. Rena herself follows a less eccentric path through the novel until its very end when she, like Tryon, gets lost. Her flight through the woods is one of her few acts of self-determination but it is also her act of self-eradication. The tragic mulatta narrative is premised on the socially constructed immutability of race that anticipates its generic recognition, yet Rena’s death is accompanied by two grim transformations that are coupled with the expectations of romance. When she is discovered she has lost not just any racial distinction but also many discernibly human features. Her clothes are torn to rags, and the first description “a tangled mass of dark brown hair, matted with twigs and leaves and cockleburrs, and hanging in wild profusion around her neck” suggests an animal rather than the vision of beauty the men in the novel recklessly pursue.127 She transforms once more after her death. She is described transcendently; her soul, suffused in “red and golden glory,” takes flight. Finally, and perhaps most perversely, her willingness to die rather than live with either man under social guises that are untrue to the realities of her being between racial categories proves her fidelity to the prevailing social codes that Ivanhoe propounds. Her death is a model of Garden,” in Interracialism: Black-White Intermarriage in American History, Literature, and Law, ed. Werner Sollors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 301. 127  Chesnutt, 181.



civic martyrdom or death into citizenship.128 She becomes incorporable within the structures of American society via romance and the extremity of her self-sacrifice, which finally effaces racial difference and replaces it with the language of spiritual ascent.129 Rena’s end presents a crux in how Chesnutt theorizes temporality. He casts Rena as an object of desire, the ideal version of his “future American,” while he simultaneously denies the “amity between the two races whose destiny seems bound up together in the Western world” that the romance form promises.130 Ostensibly the narrative’s failures are an expression of Chesnutt’s pessimism about the possibility of an inter-racial future: the two states in which Rena ends the novel cannot exist at once. As a novel that speculates about the nature of history, the point of divergence between the world the reader knows and the world of the text only arises at this final narrative crux of Rena’s death. Catherine Gallagher argues that speculative fiction responds to a desire to “tell it how it wasn’t” that allows readers to level moral judgments on history.131 Chesnutt, on the other hand, actually does tell it how it was. Rena testifies to the impossible logic of post-Reconstruction racial ideologies; she bodies forth as an attestation of a wholly different historical trajectory to that of Anglo-Saxon progress. Rena becomes a “historical necessity” in the sense that Scott deploys the term to describe Rebecca, a troublesome presence that chafes against the desire for “romances of nation”: narratives that are complicit in subduing the creole of cultures that calls nation into being.132 The marriage plot that should conclude the romance fails, which prompts the reader to cast moral judgments upon the future of race in American. One anonymous reviewer 128  I borrow this phrase from Julia Lupton’s study of citizenship in Othello. For Lupton, Othello’s death is a final proof of his conversion into Venetian society. See: Julia Reinhard Lupton, Citizen Saints: Shakespeare and Political Theology (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), 105. 129  Here I think particularly of Allen J. Frantzen’s argument which reads chivalric self-sacrifice to be in imitation of Christ’s death. Through the crucifixion, one is meant to see “the terror of [Christ’s] death and proof of his triumph over the end his killers intended for him.” This linkage becomes yet more suggestive when one takes into account that Franzten’s larger argument is about soldiers in WWI who were subject to significant propaganda that framed their participation with this rhetoric. The ideas of dying for one’s nation and dying for virtue collapse upon each other. See: Bloody Good: Chivalry Sacrifice and the Great War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 12. 130  The House behind the Cedars, 117. 131  Gallagher, 13. 132  Sara Suleri, The Rhetoric of English India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 10.



of The House behind the Cedars indicates the sort of interpenetration between fiction and reality that the novel prompts: Whether there are many “Renas” in the world we do not know; we can only say we wish there were thousands of them. The world would be distinctly better, taint and all.133

The reviewer’s desire for other “Renas” reveals the complicated nature of Chesnutt’s speculative fiction. Chesnutt’s work achieved an “aura of authenticity” such that Rena becomes a desirable model of citizenship through her fulfillment of the mythopoetic functions of romance. Although The House behind the Cedars was less popular than Chesnutt’s earlier works, it conveys its speculative ends to critics with surprising clarity: The book is something more than a clever combination of a romantic novel and a social study of conditions which one instinctively recognizes were not only of the past, but are likely to become questions of the future. It will not only interest the reader, but furnish food for thought upon certain phases of one of the greatest problems that concern the future of our country.134

This review is emblematic of a pattern of responses to the novel as both conveying some truth and speaking to the possibility of a new social mythos that loosens the artificial bonds of race.135 On the other hand, the sentiments of these reviewers profoundly miss how Rena’s death provides an example of the deformational pressures of fitting under normative guises. She becomes visible through the simultaneous impositions of desire and abjections that gratify the reader’s expectations. Beneath the generic pull of romance is the modern impulse for teleological history; Rena represents “a broken historical narrative to which we have not proposed an alternative.”136 Her signification within the here and now is held at the remove of yesterday or tomorrow. When Chesnutt would turn to a

133  Anon. Rev. of The House Behind the Cedars “Book Reviews,” Peoria Evening Star (November 27, 1900), 10. 134  Review of The House Behind the Cedars, “New Books,” The Wave [San Francisco] (December 22, 1900), 22. 135  Here I borrow a phrase from Modern Romance and the Transformations of the Novel, 5. 136  Wendy Brown, Politics out of History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 23.



form that demanded to be understood as unshiftably rooted in the present, critics turned away from it. It is not difficult to read this final problem Rena presents in the context of a writer seeking a generic form under which he could express the ironies of blackness. Chesnutt briefly alights on a grammar that can capture the dynamics of hypervisibility and invisibility, the stubborn fixity of historical presence and the obviation of historical meaning, the aspirations and denials of race. At the same time, the form seems to conspire against him. If romance is a grammar, what it expresses in the novel is always in the subjunctive mood, a wish or unfulfilled demand that Rena might be recognized as fully human or, as Tryon hopes, that love could be law. As was the case with A Connecticut Yankee, the attempt to visualize race through romance holds it at a distance. Twain and Chesnutt would abandon the genre to work with urgency and clarity on material drawn from present and undeniable violence. And while the political purchase of that shift is clear, one wonders about what might have been in the worlds that the two writers construct in which it is possible to see an escape from the dichotomies of American race and to inhabit the enchantments and cadences of romance.

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History, Genealogy, and Gerald of Wales: Medieval Theories of Ethnicity and Their Afterlives

Calling for more complex responses than the squeamishness evident in contemporary distaste for enlightened discussions of “race,” these discomforting writings communicate ways that the consolidation of modern raciology required enlightenment and myth to be intertwined. Indeed, they reveal theories of culture, “race” and nation as supplying the logic and mechanism of their dangerous interconnection. Paul Gilroy, Between Camps: Nations, Cultures and the Allure of Race, 2nd edition (New York: Routledge, 2004), 59.

Paul Gilroy writes the above in an argument that resituates lesser-read sections of Immanuel Kant within the broader context of the philosopher’s work on rationalism and empiricism. Gilroy’s evocation of Kant roots “raciology” in the heart of modernity. Read against this book’s broader scale, that is, between the medieval and the modern, Gilroy’s argument continues to have tremendous explanatory power, but needs to be recalibrated to encompass different zones of contact and cultural paradigms. This chapter differs from those preceding it in that it does not consider the reactions of African-Americans to medieval materials. Rather, it follows Gilroy’s prompt to deconstruct categories of difference created by the mix of myth-making and epistemic ordination that subtends the production of political theory and expressions of colonial power. What follows upends the temporal logic that motivates the reification of modern racial categories. Simultaneously, it constitutes a break within the temporal © The Author(s) 2018 M. X. Vernon, The Black Middle Ages, The New Middle Ages,




focus on the long nineteenth century that frames the previous chapters. This is a necessary intervention into the larger argument this book makes about alternatives to the solidity of racial origins. I propose that the intertwinement of myth and approaches to knowledge production—whether read as scientific, historical, or ethnographic—is already present in medieval texts; early instabilities in the narratives of origin or colonization represent themselves in the problematic forms Gilroy discusses as well as in the complex recuperative strategies discussed in Chap. 2. By turning our gaze to the medieval period we can see what might be called a pre-history to later patterns of desire and appropriation, as certain medieval writers struggled to contend with the shifting lines of political power that intersected with perceived regional, cultural, and ethnic differences. More broadly, this chapter will show that the fantasy of “raciology” is one that must be repeatedly reconsolidated with maneuvers that create the space for unexpected correspondences between identities. Gerald of Wales (1146–1223), the prodigious writer and archdeacon, provides a particularly attractive locus for this thread of inquiry because of the interaction between his writing and the critical tradition that has developed from it. Gerald is frequently evoked in discussions about the roots of racial formation in the West.1 This chapter will build upon this work, but will begin by contextualizing Gerald through his reception as a measure of the shifting politics around the terms used for Gerald’s identity category which have been fraught from the earliest stages of modern research into him and bespeak enduring questions about how he fits within them. J.S. Brewer, an early editor of Gerald’s work, described in his 1861 introduction to Gerald’s autobiography, De Rebus a Se Gestis, his wonder that a Welshman could find any instruction in “a country so indubitably barbarous and uncivilized” as Wales, before modifying his position to assert that he received the advantages of being merely half Welsh.2 The language of historical advancement through colonization implied by the description of Wales as well as genetic and cultural determinism has lingered through the development of Giraldian studies. Michael Richter and Robert Bartlett begin their ground-clearing studies of Gerald with discussions of whether 1  Indeed, Gerald is discussed extensively in a book bearing a similar title. See: Robert Bartlett, “Illustrating Ethnicity in the Middle Ages,” in The Origins of Racism in the West, eds. Miriam Eliav-Feldon, Benjamin Isaac, and Joseph Ziegler (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 132–156. 2  Giraldus Cambrensis, De Rebus A Se Gestis in Giraldi Cambrensis Opera, vol. 1 ed. J. S. Brewer (1867; Reprint, London: Rolls Series, 1964), xii, xvii.



to refer to him as Gerald of Wales or Gerald the Welshman.3 Richter cast his subject as “an outspoken protagonist for the Welsh cause” and thereby argued that Gerald helped give form to the Welsh natio, although Gerald held himself outside of it.4 After a discussion of the relative ease with which one can tell “a black man from a white one” except in “borderline cases,” such as might be found in Jamaica, Bartlett cautions that the complexities of twelfth-century British society render it necessary to consider him through the inter-relationship of genetics, language, class, and religion.5 (It should be noted that Bartlett perhaps unconsciously chooses an example that is fraught with Jamaica’s history with colonization.) However, he ultimately gives precedence to the political and geographical category of Marcher, which itself is a protean term that loosely refers to prerogatives of lordship in contested borderlands in Wales.6 Subsequently, scholarship on Gerald took a post-colonial turn and with it followed sharper critiques of familiar questions. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Michael A.  Faletra both appeal to Homi Bhabha’s theories of the hybrid to convey Gerald’s “own vexed ethnic identity and allegiances.”7 Shirin Khanmohamadi in her study of medieval ethnographic writing provides the most far-reaching connection between Gerald’s writing and modern imperial projects of cataloging cultures: A close reading of the Descriptio Kambriae suggests that these processes of social and cultural accommodation, well under way in the period in which Gerald wrote, may have motivated his composition of the novel treatise. For just as in the nineteenth-century European incursion into Asia, Africa, and the Americas gave rise to the widespread appeal to anthropological 3  Michael Richter, Giraldus Cambrensis: The Growth of the Welsh Nation, 2nd edition (Abersteyth: The National Library of Wales, 1976). 4  Richter, 5. 5  Bartlett uses this example to illustrate the problems of seeking a singular criterion for describing difference across shifting social situations. Robert Bartlett, Gerald of Wales, 1146–1223 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), 13. 6  See: Max Lieberman, The Medieval March of Wales: The Creation and Perception of a Frontier, 1066–1283 (Cambridge University Press, 2010), 5–22. 7  Michael A. Faletra, Wales and the Medieval Colonial Imagination: The Matters of Britain in the Twelfth Century (New York: Palgrave, 2014), 135. See: Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “Hybrids, Monsters, Borderlands: The Bodies of Gerald of Wales,” in The Postcolonial Middle Ages, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (New York: Palgrave, 2000), 85–104. See also Shirin A.  Khanmohamadi, In Light of Another’s Word: European Ethnography in the Middle Ages (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), 37–56.



­salvage”—the call to preserve traditional cultures from the ravages of “ modernity and acculturation—so too in the medieval era’s greatest period of expansion, we find that same call in the work of the twelfth century’s most accomplished ethnographer of the Far West.8

Gerald’s “novel treatise,” as Khanmohamadi describes his study of the Welsh, demonstrates the peculiar intimacies of Gerald’s intellectual production, which sought to make absolute categories of difference despite his own constant self-fashioning. This loose history of Gerald criticism is not meant to detract from the scholarship by flattening its intellectual claims; much of what follows is built upon this foundational work. Instead, what becomes visible in this list is the attraction to seeing not just an analogy between Gerald’s identity and the history of race, but potentially a pivot between the construction of difference as integral to pre-modern European imperial projects and amplified expressions of racial difference fueling modern expressions of power over colonized and enslaved peoples. While many medievalists rightly hesitate to solidify these connections, there is a strain of black radical thought that firmly links modern racism with pre-modern constructions of difference. I have alluded to this in Chap. 2 in discussing how Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois turned their attention to the trans-Atlantic and the global in search of solidarities, and as a result began to seek out the origins of race. More recently, Cedric Robinson began his study of “racialism” and Marxism with an account of how “capitalism emerged within the feudal order.”9 Robinson’s use of the term “racialism,” which he defines as “the legitimation and corroboration of social organization as natural by reference to the ‘racial’ components of its elements” should recall the pointedly awkward word “raciology” Gilroy uses in the passage beginning this chapter.10 In deploying this word anachronistically onto medieval European society, Robinson seeks to denaturalize the reader’s assumptions about race as constituting necessary and fixed categories. Part of the potency of Robinson’s work is its initial emphasis on intellectual labor and myth-making, rather than on the development of economic systems, as one might expect in a text on Marxist theory:

 In Light of Another’s Word, 46.  Robin D. G. Kelley, “Foreword,” in Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, 2nd edition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), xiii. 10  Robinson, 2. 8 9



Thus the “Negro” was conceived. The Negro—whose precedents could be found in the racial fabrications concealing the Slavs (the slaves), the Irish and others—substantially eradicated in Western historical consciousness the necessity of remembering the significance of Nubia for Egypt’s formation, of Egypt in the development of Greek civilization, of Africa for imperial Rome, and more pointedly of Islam’s influence on Europe’s economic, political and intellectual history.11

That the West reorganized the historical meaning of blackness to make possible the conquest and subjugation that fueled the modern economy is one of the bedrock claims of Robinson’s work; he argues that fundamental to making slavery conceivable are the “genealogical legends” that gave rise to justifications of human subjugation.12 In turn, these narratives became refracted within regional contexts distinct from their origins, yet bearing the weight of self-evident fact. The provocations at the core of Robinson’s initial inquiry are the questions of how racial myths come into being and how they obtain meanings that are stable across historical and geographical contexts. Although racial myths depend upon the purity of origins, a close examination of medieval versions of these narratives that contribute to or anticipate modern racial formation reveals the difficulties of, and the contradictions that arise within, constructing identity even at this early point. I contend that these narratives, because they often emerge from conflict, are themselves ambiguous and must be read through their ambivalences. One of the goals of this line of inquiry will be to draw together the threads of argument sketched above that are intimately related, yet have not been put into conversation. Gerald of Wales’ writing provides the ideal bridge between medievalist attempts at excavating the origins of a British ethnographic tradition and modern African-American attempts to reassess the black/ white binary’s place in informing the creation of capitalist and colonial systems because of Gerald’s role in surveying bodily form and due to the sway he held over historical form into later periods. I follow Khanmohamadi’s argument that presents Gerald as reviving and innovating the genre of ethnography as well as the lineage outlined by early

 Black Marxism, 4.  Ibid., 22; Dale W. Tomich, Through the Prism of Slavery: Labor, Capital and the World Economy (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004), xi. 11 12



­ odernists that situates his writing on Ireland as influencing English writm ing on Ireland into the seventeenth century.13 The example of Edmund Burke’s attempts to write a history that contended with the notion of “Irishness” demonstrates the longevity of the forms Gerald erected. When Burke contracted with Robert Dodsley to write a compact history of England (The Abridgement of the History of England, 1757), he had a clear idea of how important the opportunity before him was. Having chafed under the force of narratives about his native Ireland—what he called “miserable performances which go about under the names of Histories of Ireland”—he understood the profound impact historical writing had on actual lives.14 Narratives of Ireland frequently presented the Irish as childish, inhuman, and in need of subjugation: “canonical visions of the ‘wild’ or ‘meere Irish’” advanced by Gerald of Wales then taken up by subsequent authors like Edmund Spenser.15 On the other hand, arguments about English superiority and the strength of English law depended upon the unbroken “‘Gothic’ legacy of the free Germanic tribes, including the Saxons.”16 Burke used his history to resist this framing of the English past while he also subtly recalled the slights of histories about the Irish. Among his careful translations and adaptations of source material, he noted the “barbarity” of the Anglo-Saxons and suggested that the “development” of the English people was a contingent historical development made possible by the Norman Conquest rather than a certainty that occurred despite the formative influence of continental powers.17 Burke solidified his argument about the discontinuity of “English” institutions with his description of the ancient Britons—the predecessors of the Anglo-Saxons—as having been reduced to slavery by the Romans and thus given to “stupid inconstancy” after being released from Roman rule.18 13  In Light of Another’s Word, 37–38; Andrew Hadfield, Edmund Spenser’s Irish Experience: Wild Fruit and Salvage Soyl (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 93. 14  Edmund Burke, Pre-Revolutionary Writing, ed. Ian Harris (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 99. 15  Seán Donlan, “The ‘Genuine Voice of Its Records and Monuments’?: Edmund Burke’s ‘Interior History of Ireland,’” in Edmund Burke’s Irish Identities, ed. Patrick Donlan (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2007), 76. 16  Ibid., 72. 17  Ibid. 18  This comment gains a curious layer of additional meaning when it is compared to his “Sketch of a Negro Code” in which he voices concern that slaves should not be given their immediate freedom, but gradually given rights because “the minds of men, being crippled



The broad context surrounding Burke’s The Abridgement of the History of England helps situate both the problems of identity within Gerald of Wales’s writing about Ireland that this chapter investigates and the larger issues this book studies about the contest over historical/mythical narratives as a site for constructing social consensus around the meaning of racialized bodies. Most narratives of the collaborations and eventual schism between African-Americans and the Irish begin in the early nineteenth century with the Irish independence leader and abolitionist, Daniel O’Connell (1775–1847). It was O’Connell who helped illuminate Frederick Douglass’ growing awareness of the global implications to the struggle for emancipation. The connection between the two men was such that Daniel O’Connell dubbed Douglass “the black O’Connell.” The story tends to end with the 1863 violent uprising in New York City over the draft laws that placed a disproportionate burden of military service on poor citizens who could not pay a commutation fee to evade service.19 Beyond functioning as a means of protest, the Draft Riots allowed groups of predominantly Irish workers to visit didactic violence upon African-­American laborers who were perceived to be undercutting wages.20 These riots helped stall the potential for class and racial solidarity between African-Americans and Irish immigrants that had been developing for decades. Although the contours of this narrative are valuable for understanding the dynamics of African-American and Irish political relationships, it is incomplete. Burke’s critical interventions into the writing of history remind us that the roots of racialization are sunk into English histories that mythologize British and Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism, later to be reproduced in the United States. Histories of Ireland would be used as the foundation for oppressive policies that shaped subsequent Irish responses on both sides of the Atlantic to the cause of African-American ­emancipation. These historical narratives are essential parts of the state’s with that restraint [of slavery], can do nothing for themselves.” Edmund Burke, The Writing and Speeches of Edmund Burke, eds. T.O.  McLoughlin and James T.  Boulton (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), 382; “Sketch of a Negro Code,” in The Portable Edmund Burke, ed. Isaac Kramnick (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), 185. 19  An example of a text that uses these rough historical boundaries is Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White (New York: Routledge, 1995). 20  For a discussion of labor conditions in New  York preceding the Draft Riots see Iver Bernstein’s chapter, “Workers and Consolidation,” in The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 74–124.



biopower, which depends upon the normalization of categories of difference: In the biopower system, in other words, killing or the imperative to kill is acceptable only if it results not in a victory over political adversaries, but in the elimination of the biological threat to and the improvement of the species or race. There is a direct connection between the two. In a normalizing society, race or racism is a precondition that makes killing acceptable.21

Foucault’s conception of biopower is consonant with Robinson’s and Gilroy’s in its emphasis on the intellectual structures that are necessary for subsequent power relations to build upon.22 Foucault presents the biological, narratival, and genealogical as interlocking components in systems of oppressive power. He reads the differentiation of bodies through pseudo-scientific means, the mythologization of those divisions—identifying some as superior to others—and the social construction of “pure lineages,” as the necessary groundwork for populations to undertake programs of violence and conquest. What the example of Burke reveals (and what Foucault perhaps ignores) is how the imposition of histories might be resisted and their power altered. Burke’s historical work “reject[ed] the claim that the roots of modern civilization could be traced back directly to the genius of the ‘northern’ Germanic nations.”23 He stressed breaks in political systems and difficult cultural transitions where other writers argued for seamless progress. Moreover, he called attention to how texts that are used as the basis for arguments about racial purity and native superiority have within themselves sites of contestation and ambivalence to power. The medieval sources that British and American writers drew upon in the eighteenth and nineteenth century to construct mythologies of continuity from the “ancient Britons” to the contemporary English were themselves fraught with problems of cultural identity that opened them to radical rewritings.

21  Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France 1975–1976, eds. Mauro Bertani and Alessandreo Fontana (New York: Picador, 2003), 256. 22  Foucault identifies the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century as the period in which the institutions that mobilized this power developed. This would put Edmund Burke’s life squarely at the center of his argument. 23  Richard Bourke, “Edmund Burke and the Politics of Conquest,” Modern Intellectual History 4.3 (November 2007), 429.



One must temper the impulse to believe that racial categories became ever clearer throughout the nineteenth century with the countercurrent evidence that race was not a stable or easy to define identity.24 Rather, it was the product of competing political and economic interests; the history of which closely entwines the Irish and African-Americans who held similar jobs, were subject to similar cultural caricature, and lived cheek-by-jowl with each other through much of the nineteenth century.25 The intimacy of Irish and African-American lives created a duality within Irish-American identity that shows the haunting presence of a long history of oppression that generates a seemingly contradictory set of positions about how to move beyond that past. Frederick Douglass identifies this crux in a speech given to the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1853: The Irish, who, at home, readily sympathize with the oppressed everywhere, are instantly taught when they step upon our soil to hate and despise the Negro. They are taught to believe that he eats the bread that belongs to them. The cruel lie is told them [sic], that we deprive them of labor and receive the money which would otherwise make its way to their pockets. Sir, the Irish-American will one day find out his mistake. He will find that in assuming our avocation, he has also assumed our degradation.26

For Douglass, what was sympathy on one side of the Atlantic becomes transmuted in the cultural milieu of nineteenth-century America into the “degradation” of servitude. The burden of history and the lure of status to be gained through ethnic transformation together generate a paradoxical response that Douglass underscores. The work done to define Irish-­ American identity against that of African-Americans only drew the two closer within the nation’s dynamics of power. On December 9, 1876, decades after Douglass’s prediction, Harper’s Weekly put a political cartoon by the famous cartoonist Thomas Nast on the cover of its latest edition. It depicted an African-American southerner 24  See Matthew Pratt Guterl’s argument about the shifting alliances between and significations of race in The Color of Race in America: 1900–1940 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001). 25  Ignatiev discusses Irish and African-American neighborhoods and that the characters of Jim Crow, Jim Dandy, Pat, and Bridget (the latter two were Irish caricatures) shared the same stage in American theater: How the Irish Became White (New York: Routledge, 1995), 2: 178. 26  Frederick Douglass, “Speech at the American Anti-Slavery Society in New  York City (1853),” in The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Park Publishing: Hartford, 1881), 303.



and a northern Irish-American man sitting on scales: one slack-jawed and smiling in overalls, the other truculent and shouting. Both sport similar grotesque, animal-like faces and the image is captioned: “The Ignorant Vote—Honors Are Easy.” The cartoon, which was published a few weeks after the presidential election, lampoons how easily the two political blocks these caricatures represent could be mobilized to blindly vote for their parties without regard for the actual policies they would advance. While the image suggests the final breakdown of solidarities between Irish and African-Americans along political lines it also draws an equation between the two sides of the scale. Both the Irish and African-American man are shown as underdeveloped humans, unfit for the responsibility of governing themselves. They are reduced to mere counters—valuable only for their numbers—within the mechanics of national governance. Nast’s image gives evidence to the persistence of the gaze cast on the Irish, which sought to transform them into the tools of nation-building’s grand designs; it holds out the promise of being distinct from African-Americans, while it more firmly asserts the intimate implication of these identities. A critical part of the calculation behind the political choices made to link Irish and “white” identity was the desire to escape the lineage of histories that framed the Irish as “uncultivated” and “savage”—a conceit that lingered from the Middle Ages into the popular culture of the nineteenth century.27 The underlying issue that Burke, as well as other writers laboring in the wake of Gerald, raises is one of form in terms of genre and the body. Gerald’s ethnographic conceits became implicated in the production of historical narratives, which set the trajectory for resistance to the stubborn fixity of “canonical visions of the ‘wild’ or ‘meere Irish.’”28 Yet, Gerald of Wales’ The History and Topography of Ireland (ca. 1188) was itself produced in response to the problems of colonial imagination that put into contest Welsh and Irish alterity from Anglo-Norman elites. It is necessary to understand the reification of Irishness as inhering within historical difference in The History and Topography of Ireland to comprehend later attempts to overcome that difference. As this chapter will unfold, form will be shown to be more dynamic than has been allowed in the criticism because of the dialectical relationship between Gerald of Wales and

27  Joseph Lennon, Irish Orientalism: A Literary and Intellectual History (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2008), 135. 28  Donlan, 76.



his own major antecedent, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain (ca. 1136). Gerald used The History of the Kings of Britain—the story of the rise and fall of the Britons, later read as the Welsh—to lend authority to his arguments about the conquest of Ireland. What is significant about the influence that both of these writers would exert on later generations is that their works are marked by ambivalences about the histories they purport to tell. Ostensibly, both argue for the absolute right of the more “highly developed” people to rule over those deemed to be barbaric. However, the divisions between the colonizer and colonized are far more troubled than these texts seem to allow. The Britons’ desire for conquest in The History of the Kings of Britain, which results in an apocalyptic end to their rule, reads as a parable for the limitations of colonial ambitions. The Britons embark upon a campaign to conquer their parallel world power, the Roman Empire. As will be discussed below, Geoffrey frames this final opposition as a loss in the coherence of British identity and a failure of historical insight, signified by the identical claims both powers make to supremacy based on their genealogical descent from Troy and a shared lineage of military conflict. Gerald’s own histories, which present Anglo-­ Norman conquests, must engage the powerful legacy of Geoffrey’s work, the mythical history of the Welsh as the once and future rulers of Britain, and the contemporary realities of the Welsh and Irish as threatened with colonization. Ireland, for Gerald, was a cathected space; it represented the intersection of his literary ambitions, his political aspirations, and his ever-present knowledge of Welsh oppression. He could not help but tie Ireland’s political fate to his own success and the fortunes of the Welsh people. One can glimpse the connection between Gerald’s Ireland and Gerald himself from within his Autobiography when he discusses his goals for writing The Conquest of Ireland. This comes after Gerald refuses both Irish bishoprics offered to him by John, son of King Henry II. Although Gerald desired the authority a bishopric would afford, he believed that John did not intend to improve the status of the church in Ireland. Rather, he saw the writing of Ireland’s history as a project that would provide him a measure of gain he could not get through political or religious appointment: Videns ergo quod comes ibi nil proficeret, sed de die in diem deteriorem per ejus adventum terra statum haberet; considerans etiam multa ibidem nova et notabilia, aliis aliena regnis et prorsus incognita; ut vel ipse quaestum



aliquem vel conquaestum suo saltem labore faceret; primum Topographiae suae, deinde Expugnationis Hibernicae materiam ibi colligere studio grandi et diligentius inquisitone curavit. Seeing that the Earl made no advance toward that end, but that the state of Ireland was every day the worse for his coming, and considering the many strange and notable things that he observed in that country, things found nowhere else and utterly unknown, he [Gerald] set himself with great zeal and diligent inquiry to collect materials first for his Topography and then for his Conquest of Ireland, that he might at least by his own labor win some profit or conquest.29

Gerald here refuses the type of advancement for which he spends much of his life longing; that is, to move upwards in the Church hierarchy beyond archdeacon. Although those ambitions were frustrated, he still sought to direct his intellectual labor towards not only extracting some “profit” from Ireland, but also asserting dominance over the island through writing its history. Quaestum and conquaestum are pivotal words for Gerald in the context of Ireland. He positions his labor as a writer adjacent to military action, a comparison that reveals the precarity of his role within the project of colonization. Historiography—such as it is within Gerald’s writing—is his means of claiming authority for himself and intervening into the discourse around colonization as he derives it from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain. Authority of this sort would prove to be unstable for Gerald. Genre and genealogy conspired to usurp the position he hoped to consolidate; although Gerald depended on the precedent of Geoffrey’s popular work, The History of the Kings of Britain constructed a mythology around the Welsh as a dispossessed identity in which Gerald became implicated. Thus Gerald found himself in the contradictory position of being both the colonizer and the colonized at the nexus of language and power. The term that usefully explicates the difficulties of Gerald’s position is “colonized intellectual,” a term I borrow from Black Studies and the discourse of post-colonial theory. I do so advisedly because the term emerges from vastly different historical and political situations than Gerald’s. 29  All Latin versions of Gerald’s De Rebus A Se Gestis appear in Giraldus Cambrensis, Giraldi Cambrensis Opera, vol. 1 ed. J. F. Dimock, (1867; Reprint, London: Rolls, 1964). I use the Butler’s translations in Gerald of Wales, The Autobiography of Giraldus Cambrensis, 2nd edition, ed. and trans. H. E. Butler (London: Jonathan Cape, 2005). De Rebus A Se Gestis, 65; Autobiography, 90.



However, the idea of the “colonized intellectual” encapsulates the paradox of Gerald’s literary production and his political position within twelfth-century British society. Frantz Fanon deploys the term “colonized intellectual” in part to signify a hybrid subject that possesses a wealth of cultural tools within an intellectual system that limits and distorts the ways in which those skills can be deployed: The colonized intellectual, at the very moment when he undertakes a work of art, fails to realize he is using techniques and a language borrowed from the occupier. He is content to cloak these instruments in a style that is meant to be national but which is strangely reminiscent of exoticism.30

The framework of the colonized intellectual allows for a critique that can explore the intimate relationship between Gerald as a thinker and Gerald’s lived experience of the structures of meaning erected around his shifting identity. The vexed position of the colonized intellectual, one who is dependent upon and at odds with a dominant political regime and its self-­ mythologizing, brings into focus Gerald’s struggles with the influence of historical narratives that precede him, most significantly, Geoffrey’s. Gerald, writing in his Journey Through Wales, expresses his thoughts about the value of Geoffrey’s history when describing the unfortunate condition of a Welshman, Meilyr, who was haunted by demons: Contigit aliquando, spiritibus immundis nimis eidem insultantibus, ut Evangelium Johannis ejus in gremio poneretur: qui statim tanquam aves evolantes, omnes penitus evanuerunt. Quo sublato postmodum, et Historia Britonum a Galfrido Arthuro tractata, experiendi causa, loco ejusdem subrogata, non solum corpori ipsius toti, sed etiam libro superposito, onge solito crebrius et taediosius insederunt. If the evil spirits oppressed him too much, the Gospel of St. John was placed on his bosom, when, like birds, they immediately vanished. But when the book was removed, and The History of the Britons by Geoffrey of Monmouth was substituted in its place, they instantly reappeared in greater numbers, and remained a longer time than usual on his body and on the book.31 30  Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 2nd edition (New York: Grove Press, 2004), 160. 31  All Latin versions of Gerald’s Itinerarium Kambriae and Descripto Kambriae appear in Giraldi Cambrensis: Opera, vol. VI. ed. J. F. Dimock (1867; Reprint, London: Rolls, 1964). Translations appear in Gerald of Wales, The Journey through Wales and The Description of



Meilyr, because of the haunting, gained the ability to foretell the future and, despite being illiterate, could identify lies in books. This anecdote seems to be much in agreement with other later twelfth-century and early thirteenth century historians who accused Geoffrey of having an “inordinate love of lying.”32 This is a popular quote for scholars of medieval historiography because it suggests the vexed nature of the subject, even in the eyes of medieval readers.33 However, this passage read as more than a critique holds forth the tremendous potential for Geoffrey’s work to influence its reader. Meilyr is oppressed by the presence of demons around him, yet he is able to employ that malady to practice virtue and spot transgressions in the men of faith around him; that is, this story is a version of the Augustinian notion of recuperating useful material from unlikely sources. Like the unfortunate Welshman swarmed with demons, Gerald’s work is inumbrated by Geoffrey’s influence despite the former’s stated resistance to the “fabulous history.”34 It is hardly a coincidence that Gerald critiques Geoffrey’s fanciful inventions in the midst of his own colorful fictions; Gerald simultaneously tries to separate himself from and follows in the footsteps of Geoffrey. Gerald’s history, not unlike Geoffrey’s, attracted the attention of critics eager to point out the falsehoods contained in his work. Indeed, he incorporated the words of one critic in the preface to his The Conquest of Ireland: Sed quoniam difficile est fictam diu ferre personam, ad plenum a natura degenerare non prevalens, ut vel in aliquo noceat, ut vel citra crepitum tumor ille detumescat, in mediam distinccionem insolenter invehitur, parte mendacii nitens summan universam decolorare. Obicit enim in hunc modum: ‘Lupum introducit cum sacerdote loquentem, bovina humano corpori depingit extrema, mulierem barbatam, hircum amatorem et leonem.’

Wales, trans. Lewis Thorpe (New York: Penguin, 1978). See: Itinerarium Kambriae et Descripto Kambriae, 58, The Journey through Wales and The Description of Wales, 117–118. 32  William uses the phrase “effrenata mentiendi libidne.” William of Newburgh, The History of English Affairs: Book 1, eds. and trans. P.G.  Walsh and M.J.  Kennedy (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2015), 32. 33  See, for example, Gabrielle M.  Spiegel’s essay “Genealogy: Form and Function in Medieval Historical Narrative,” History and Theory 22.1 (1983): 43–53. Although she stages an important intervention into the nature of medieval historiography, she uses this quotation merely as an aside. 34  The Journey through Wales and the Description of Wales, 232.



But [his critic] cannot altogether avoid running true to its own nature, since it is hard to keep up an assumed character for any length of time. So that it may injure the book in some respect, or else that the swollen balloon of pride may subside without producing a rude explosion of wind, envy arrogantly assails the middle book, trying to besmirch the work as a whole by making it share in its false accusation of that book. It makes its accusation as follows: “He brings into his book a wolf talking with a priest; he describes a human body which has the extremities of an ox, a bearded woman, and a goat and lion copulating with women.”35

In both his choice of criticism and his framing of that critique, Gerald betrays conflicting notions about the stability of identity that redounds to an unsettled perspective on his writing in favor of colonization. Gerald defends his inclusion of prodigies with appeals to the Church fathers who include similar deviations from the common course of nature in their work. Particularly, he adopts the Augustinian argument that it is within God’s power to create changes contra naturam, thus his work should not be impeached for seeming to cultivate the incredible; that is to say, he puts distance between himself and his attempts to strategically depict Ireland as a “land of monsters.”36 Although Gerald’s early work on Ireland might be described as ethnographic, the idea of ethnicity implies mutability of cultural practices that are subject to change.37 Unlike the Welsh, the Irish are not constructed as malleable in his Topographia, he even finds the clergy lacking in their devotion to an ancient custom (“antiqua consuetudine”) that prevents them from conducting their pastoral duties.38

35  All Latin versions and translations of Gerald’s Expugnatio Hibernica appear in Giraldus Cambrensis, Expugnatio Hibernica: The Conquest of Ireland, eds. and trans. A.B. Scott and F.X. Martin (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 1978), 4–5. 36  Ibid.; Asa Simon Mittman, “The Other Close at Hand: Gerald of Wales and the ‘Marvels of the West,’” The Monstrous Middle Ages, eds. Bettina Bildhauer and Robert Mills (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2003), 101. 37  This is the argument that Bartlett makes about the terms of medieval categorization Gerald deploys. Robert Bartlett, The Making of Europe: Conquest Colonization, and Cultural Change, 950–1350 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 197. 38  All Latin versions of Gerald’s Topographia Hibernica appear in Giraldi Cambrensis: Opera, Vol V. ed. J. F. Dimock (1867; Reprint, London: Rolls, 1964). Translations appear in Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland, 2nd edition, trans. John O’Meara (New York: Penguin, 1982). Topographia Hibernica, 175.



Gerald’s construction of Ireland through monstrosity in his Topographia aligns with Franz Fanon’s meditations on how colonized subjects are transmogrified in the narratives of the colonizer: In plain talk, [the colonized] is reduced to the state of an animal. And consequently, when the colonist speaks of the colonized he uses zoological terms.…This explosive population growth, those hysterical masses, those blank faces, those shapeless, obese bodies, this headless, tailless cohort, these children who seem not to belong to anyone, this indolence sprawling under the sun, this vegetating existence, all this is part of the colonial vocabulary.39

Given how large and varied the world of imagined creatures is, there is a striking consonance between Gerald’s descriptions of the Irish living under English rule in the twelfth century and Fanon’s descriptions eight hundred years later of the colonized as seen through the eyes of the European colonist. Both writers center their attention on the subjects as incomplete humans, incapable of normative humanity’s achievements. When Fanon writes about the colonized subject as seen by the colonizer, he uses a term that could well be applied by both writers: he refers to him as an “underdeveloped man.” This suggestive phrase ties genealogy and historiography as inter-related narratives used to generate distance between the colonizers and the subjected. For Fanon, the idea of the “underdeveloped man” can refer to the perception of an oppressed subject’s lack of physical development—that they have not progressed to the state of normal humanity; it can refer to their stage in history—that they have not achieved some final status which would render them as fully realized in the progress of civilization as the colonizer;40 and finally, it can refer to people who seem to live outside of history—that they are incapable of coherent seminal progress, as implied by the suggestion that children do not know their parents or that women have sex with animals. Fanon illuminates a potential strategy behind Gerald’s imaginative construction of Ireland; however, the hybrid bodies of his Topography overlap with the hybrid form of his writing on Ireland, revealing intimacies between writer and subject. Gerald produced at least five versions of his Topography over the course of his life, which suggests the significance of  The Wretched of the Earth, 7.  Fanon’s anti-colonial critique pre-dated the emergence of World Systems Theory and the Dependency School’s critiques of Modernization Theory. 39 40



the work to both author and audience—its popularity is attested to by the forty-five surviving manuscripts of the work.41 At the same time, the frequency of revisions perhaps indicates more than a writer perpetually honing his literary masterpiece. The form of the writing is itself unsettled, as Gerald continued to change the emphasis of the examples of phenomena contra naturam.42 But even the bridge between his two Irish works, his first preface to The Conquest of Ireland, indicates a writer contending with the significance of shifts in form: Nam si dies antiquos cum eorum gestis, que secula nostra longe prevenerant, satis evidenter explicuimus, quanto magis ea que vidimus quoroumque maiori ex parte testes sumus, et quorum de fide memoria tam recens hesitare non permittit, luculento relatu depromentur. For if I have unfolded clearly and truthfully the story of the days of old with their deeds—deeds which have already happened long before our time—then how much more trustworthy will be my account of those events which I have seen happen, the greater part of which I have actually witnessed, and which have happened too recently to admit any doubt as to their really having happened.43

This passage impresses upon the reader the importance of “eyewitness veracity,” which itself begins to concede to criticism leveled at the Topography.44 The discrepancy over the presentation of temporality between these two texts—the latter allowing for historical action and progress that the Topography’s litany of curiosities frozen in time does not permit—demonstrates a conflict over the construction of historical narratives read from the gaze of the colonizer that continues to develop as he expands upon the nature of his literary production: Ad hec autem obiciunt multi, et hi presertim qui dicuntur amici, ob studii vehemenciam me rebus secularibus negociisque familiaribus minus intentem, et ob hoc segnius in mundane dignitatis gradibus provehendum; auctorum olim, tam historicorum quam poeticorum, auctoritatem in desuetudinem 41  Amelia Borrego Sargent, “Gerald of Wales’s Topographia Hibernica: Dates, Versions, Readers,” Viator 43.1 (2012), 241. 42  See Robert Bartlett’s discussion of the developments in Gerald’s approach to the Topographia in Gerald of Wales 1146–1223, 104–116. 43  Expugnatio Hibernica, 2, 3. 44  I borrow this phrase from: Matthew Kempshall, Rhetoric and the Writing of History: 400–1500 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011), 185.



abiisse; litterarum honorem cum litteratis principibus preteriisse; aliis hodie viis ad honorem preveniri. Fateor hec, equidem fateor; et facile veris acquiesco. Sequuntur enim principes improbi, curiam cupidi, codices et pixides ambiciosi. The further charge is made by many–and not least those who are alleged to be my friends–that I pay too little attention to worldly affairs and my own private interests, and for this reason I am bound to be slower in gaining worldly advancement. They say that authors, both historians and poets, have long since ceased to be respected; that respect for learning has vanished along with learned princes; that one achieves high rank nowadays by other routes. Indeed I admit all this is so. For reprobates follow in the train of princes; men who are eager for money follow the court; only the ambitious are interested in books and writing cases.45

Here Gerald casts himself as being out of time; he describes himself as distinct in his ambitions to write a history while many of his contemporaries courted wealth and esteem by seeking to operate in the ambit of the court. It is tempting to simply disavow his rhetoric as simply deploying the humility topos: however this is a marked change in tone from his “sycophancy” towards the court in his previous work.46 His ambivalence towards the court and its rewards—he would dedicate his history to Richard the Count of Poitou (later Richard I) seemingly after he had finished the bulk of the Expugnatio—suggests that Gerald perhaps read even himself as labile; his authorial persona morphs along with his approach to the texts he writes. This chapter will present Gerald as an intellectual whose writing in favor of colonization is subverted by his own uncertainties of identity. Here I hasten to underscore that this chapter does not seek to read Gerald as Welsh, although he considered that to be a determinative category against his political advancement. Rather, the stakes of this chapter are quite the opposite: I will highlight how the history of the Welsh defined by exile and disinheritance overlapped with Gerald’s imaginative production of Ireland. In writing his monstrous history of the Irish, he revisits the mythical history of the Welsh. Gerald’s works on Ireland are often treated as oddities, too single-mindedly disparaging to be worth critical inquiry. Jeffery Jerome Cohen considered them to be “reductive texts that unabashedly glorify the invasion of the land, demonstrating none of the

 Expugnatio Hibernica, 8–9.  Gerald of Wales 1146–1223, 61.

45 46



conflicted identifications characteristic of [Gerald’s] Welsh texts.”47 On the contrary, I argue that Gerald’s work performs a complicated negotiation among the political interests he serves. He deploys the history of the Britons to make the narrative available to both colonizing forces and to the Irish. For Gerald, fiction-writing, nation-building, and self-fashioning are inter-related projects not just in terms of the profit motive, but also as spaces of psychomachia to which he would return throughout his life. Such a reading might inform the turn in the criticism about Gerald towards manuscript analysis and the progress of Gerald’s revisions, which obliquely addresses the issue that undergirds the puzzle of Gerald’s multi-tiered identity: that he is a writer who, of necessity, kept changing his mind.48 Gerald’s writing on Ireland presents an ideal opportunity to engage in the project of reconceptualizing post-colonial temporality. His work emblematizes the place medieval narratives hold within critiques of colonial texts. When one reads Christopher Columbus’ diary or Spenser’s A View on the Present State of Ireland in relation to Mandeville’s Travels or Gerald’s The History and Topography of Ireland the debt these early colonial texts have to the Middle Ages is quite clear. To read the medieval within the post-colonial “undermines the edifice of colonial modernity,” that is, the Middle Ages trouble the identification of the post-colonial with the modern and suggest a critical revision of the structures that undergirded colonizing forces.49 Gerald’s The Conquest of Ireland and The History and Topography of Ireland provide several nuances to this reorientation of the relationship between the post-colonial and the pre-modern. By associating his histories of Ireland with Geoffrey’s History, Gerald makes a set of historiographical and narratological claims. Gerald wields The History of the Kings of Britain’s movement towards salvation and the promise of a future social domination for the Britons as a narrative framework for his own personal and familial conquests. At the same time he keeps in view the contrasting perspective of the Irish as having the ability 47  Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “Hybrids, Monsters, Borderlands: The Bodies of Gerald of Wales,” in The Postcolonial Middle Ages, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (New York: Palgrave, 2000), 87. 48  See in particular: C. Rooney, “The Manuscripts of the Works of Gerald of Wales” (Ph.D. diss., University of Cambridge University, 2005); Amelia Borrego Sargent’s “Gerald of Wales’s Topographia Hibernica: Dates, Versions, Readers”. 49  Patricia Clare Ingham and Michelle R. Warren, “Postcolonial Modernity and the Rest of History,” in Postcolonial Moves: Medieval through Modern, eds. Patricia Clare Ingham and Michelle R. Warren (New York: Palgrave, 2003), 3.



to mobilize those self-same narratives. Such choices about narrative frame matter in colonial and post-colonial contexts.50 Gerald employs these strategies to keep dominant and subordinate perspectives in suspension. The plasticity of this work demonstrates that the Middle Ages were not simply an antecedent to early modern theories of nation. Rather, the Middle Ages contain within themselves a set of competing and shifting temporalities with pasts that were continually being recreated to mediate desires for origins, for futures, and for conquest.

Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Conquest of Descent [Genealogy] operates on a field of entangled and confused parchments, on documents that have been scratched over and recopied many times…the world of speech and desires has known invasions, struggles, plundering, disguises and ploys. From these elements however, genealogy retrieves an indispensible restraint: it must record the singularity of events outside of any monotonous finality. It must seek them in the most unpromising places, in what we tend to feel is without history—in sentiments, love, conscience, instincts; it must be sensitive to their recurrence, not in order to trace the gradual curve of their evolution but to isolate the different scenes where they are engaged in different roles.51

Genealogy, in the many senses that Foucault evokes, is a critical subcurrent to The History of the Kings of Britain and the works that are inflected by it.52 This section will discuss the role of genealogy within The History of the Kings of Britain that informs Gerald’s flexible mobilization of literary and cultural inheritance in his Irish texts. Not only is genealogy the operating logic of Geoffrey’s text, as it purports to tell the complete line of 50  David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 7. 51  Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 76. 52  Gerald was by no means the only writer during the twelfth and thirteenth century to struggle within the umbra of The History of the Kings of Britain. William of Newburgh, William of Malmesbury, Walter Map, Wace, and Layamon found themselves confronting the legacy of Geoffrey, either directly through disparagements of Geoffrey’s fidelity as a historian or obliquely through stylistic borrowings or adaptations of his work. These responses redound to Geoffrey’s place as a progenitor of twelfth and thirteenth century medieval “historical” writing.



succession of British kings, Geoffrey even constructs an intellectual heritage for his history: Talia michi et talibis multociens cogitanti optulit Walterus Oxinefordensis archidiaconus, uir in oratoria arte atque in exoticis historiis eruditus, quendam Britannici sermonis librum uetustissimum qui a Bruto primo rege Britonum usque ad Cadualadrum filium Caduallonis actus omnium continue et ex ordine perpulcris orationibus proponebat. Rogatu itaque illius ductus, tametsi infra alienos ortulos falerata uerba non collegerim, agresti tamen stilo propriisque calamis contentus codicem illum in Latinum sermonem transferre curaui. While I was preoccupied with these matters, Walter the Archdeacon of Oxford, a man most expert in the art of oratory and in arcane histories, presented me with a certain very ancient book in the British language, which narrated in the most refined style an orderly and unbroken relation of the acts of all the kings, from Brutus the first king of the Britons to Cadwallader the son of Cadwallo. So I began at Walter’s request to translate the book into Latin, content with my own lowly style and not seeking to gather gilded expressions from other writers’ gardens.53

Geoffrey claims to merely translate a “certain very ancient book in the British language,” which situates his text as the latest version in a chain of histories that have their origin in an oral tradition.54 But the genealogy that Geoffrey constructs is not at all the “orderly and unbroken” chain of events he purports to tell. Indeed, it is doubtful if there was even an “ancient book” from which he derived his text.55 This claim of a fictional source, while a common trope in medieval historiography, is an informing context for the numerous misdirections and subversions around which Geoffrey builds his vision of historiography.56 What appears to be translatio studii, 53  The Latin text for Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain is found in Neil Wright’s edition of the Bern manuscript: The Historia Regum Britannie of Geoffrey of Monmouth I: Bern, Burgerbibliothek, MS. 568, ed. Neil Wright (Cambridge: D.S.  Brewer, 1984). English translations are from Micheal Faletra’s edition of the text unless otherwise noted. Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, trans. Michael A. Faletra (Toronto: Broadview, 2008). The Historia Regum Britannie, 1; The History of the Kings of Britain, 41. 54  Faletra, 41. 55  Martin B. Shichtman and Laurie A. Finke. “Profiting from the Past: History as Symbolic Capital in the Historia Regum Britanniae,” Arthurian Literature XII (1994), 8. 56  Siân Echard, Arthurian Narrative in the Latin Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 34.



the work of a colonizing power being exercised over British history, is in fact a demonstration of Geoffrey’s abilities to invent his own authorities. Geoffrey radically interrupts an orderly chain of histories about Britain, particularly as he claims that he could not glean enough from the likes of Gildas and Bede. His suspicion of linearity is mirrored by the larger structure of the text itself. Discontinuities abound within the history’s movement towards religious salvation in the forms of “invasions, struggles, plundering, disguises and ploys.” Ruptures in the clarity of lineage and succession challenge the history’s logic as a fungible reading of the past. Rather, the text presents the pitfalls of overlooking the complications and breaks in historical material and the logic of genealogy. The paradoxes of genealogy and conquest are nowhere more apparent than in the Arthurian section of the History. Until this point of the narrative, Rome is a foil for Britain, a more advanced power against which the country measures itself. The rivalry with Rome that simmers throughout the text ensures that the memory of Troy, their mutual point of origin, is never far out of view. However, when Arthur reaches the height of his powers, having consolidated his rule over Britain and expanded his control over much of Western Europe, his empire begins to resemble Rome’s as a peer imperialist power. The ensuing war between the two represents a crux in lineage the text never resolves. As tensions between Britain and Rome simmer, one of Arthur’s vassals, Augusel, expresses his eagerness for the war against the Romans in cannibalistic terms, the irony of which he fails to grasp: At nunc, quoniam nobis licentia agrediendi promittitur, gaudens admodum gaudeo et desiderio diei quo conueniemus exestuans sicio cruorem illorum quemadmodum fontem si triduo prohiberer ne biberem. O si illam lucem uidebo quam dultia erunt uulnera que uel recipiam uel inferam quando dextras conseremus. Ipse etiam mors dulcis erit dum eam in uindicando patres nostros, in tuendo libertatem nostram, in exaltando regem nostrum perpessus . But now that we have the opportunity to fight with them, I rejoice indeed! I long for the day when we meet them in battle. I thirst for their blood as I would thirst for a fountain if I had been forbidden to drink for three days. O, let the light shine upon me, the light that will be the sweet wounds that I will either receive or mete out when we exchange blows in battle! Even death will be sweet when I endure it to avenge our fathers, to protect our liberty, and to exalt our king.57  The Historia Regum Britannie, 115; The History of the Kings of Britain, 180.




Geraldine Heng instructs readers of the History to take references to cannibalism seriously; in her study, she links them to the traumatic history of British attempts at conquest in the First Crusade.58 However, Augusel’s extreme response more proximally calls attention to the fact that the blood the knight thirsts for is the blood of his relations, and his desire for it suggests a profound misunderstanding of the historical rapport between the two sides. His imagery not only anticipates the apocalyptic end of Arthur’s rule, but also the monstrousness of its fratricidal nature. What precipitates Augusel’s response is the arrival of messengers from Rome who demand tribute, the monetary acknowledgement of subjection (Geoffrey uses the verb subiogare), from Arthur. The king refuses and gathers the members of his court to debate his course of action. Before deciding he traces the history of Britain’s political relations with Rome: Dicit enim ipsum sibi dari debere quia Iulio Cesari ceterisque successoribus suis redditum fuerit qui discidio ueterum nostorum inuitati cum armata manu applicuerunt atque patriam domesticis motibus uacillantem potestati sue ui et uiolenti summiserunt. Quia igitur eam hoc modo adepti fuerunt, uectigal ex illa iniuste ceperunt. Nichil enim quod ui et uiolentia adquiritur inuste ab illo possisetur. Qui violentiam intulit irrationabilem ergo causam pretendit qua nos iure sibi tributarios esse arbitratur. Quoniam autem id quod iniustem est a nobis presumpsit exigere, consimili ratione petamus ab illo tributum Rome et qui fortior superuenerit ferat quod habere exoptauit. He claims that it should be given to him because it had been paid to Julius Caesar and his successors, who came here in armed force because of our forefathers’ disputes, and who had once subdued our fickle and quarreling homeland to their power with force and violence. Since they had obtained the tribute in this manner, they took it unjustly indeed. Nothing that is acquired by force or violence can be justly possessed by anyone. Since he presumes to make these unjust demands upon us, let us use a similar tact and demand tribute from Rome. Let the side that is stronger carry off whatever it wishes!59

Arthur continues to enumerate the number of British kings who have conquered Rome in “ancient times.” Arthur here is doing the work of a historian; he reviews precedent and sees himself in line with the tradition of the other three kings who have overtaken Rome: Belin, Constantine, 58  Geraldine Heng, Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 35. 59  The Historia Regum Britannie, 114; The History of the Kings of Britain, 178.



and Maximilian. Through these kings he believes that Rome should offer him “vectigal”: tribute or profit.60 Even in what should be a crucial moment of self-definition that separates the two powers, Geoffrey presents their dispute to highlight how closely they mirror one another. Arthur acknowledges that the reasoning Lucius employs to demand tribute is a “flimsy pretext,” yet he chooses to apply the same thinking towards the Romans. Arthur constructs a linear narrative across these genetic and historical links. This version of the past strips away the joint ancestry of Rome and Britain via Troy and ignores the more immediate historical ties between Rome and Britain that demonstrate shared historical legacies: that the British king Constantine ruled over Rome or that the Britons wept when Roman soldiers abandoned the island because of constant British mismanagement.61 Arthur draws his lineage along a path of strife in British history. He locates moments of rupture during extraterritorial invasion when the Britons begin to lose the clarity of identity as defined by the island’s borders and identifies those periods as links in a lineage leading up to Arthur’s own time and situation. Arthur chooses his ancestors and sheds others to refine the idea of Britishness. Arthur “preach[es] the restoration of memory, he practices the science of forgetting.”62 The text suggests that Arthur’s version of history should be treated with some skepticism. Although Arthur does defeat the Romans in their initial engagement, the victory only demonstrates a misjudgment of the issues at stake. Whereas he argues that conquest will allow the Britons to recapture ancient claims, his foreign incursions fundamentally undermine the political foundations of Arthur’s rule. The British army sustains heavy losses and Arthur’s nephew fills the void in power by seizing the throne and marrying Arthur’s wife, Guinevere. These violations, particularly the latter which Geoffrey describes as Mordred’s “wicked pleasure,” are signs of genealogical and successional confusion.63 After what is meant to be a  Ibid.  In her book, Predatory Kinship and the Creation of Norman Power, 840–1066, Eleanor Searle describes the concept of fictional kinship during the Norman period, in which fictional connections—even fictional stories about ancestors—were created to strengthen one’s genealogical pedigree. Predatory Kinship and the Creation of Norman Power, 840–1066 (Berkley: University of California Press, 1988). 62  Here I borrow a phrase from Joseph Roach’s Cities of the Dead (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 109. 63  The History of the Kings of Britain, 196. 60 61



conclusive expression of British might against the Romans, Arthur’s progress towards Rome is halted by the need to address Mordred’s usurpation. This is to say, at the point of the greatest outward extension of British power, the lines of succession fracture in Britain and a civil war ensues. The Arthurian section of the History “witnesses [a] subtle negotiation of multiplicity that both supports and resists superior powers.”64 While Arthur’s efforts at consolidating power are treated with admiration, the slide into empire is read as unsustainable. The totalizing narrative that Arthur seeks to weave for the Britons about their own military supremacy is undone by the metanarrative of the History which is marked by disjunctures and unlikely political allegiances. As its long critical tradition attests, The History of the Kings of Britain provokes anxieties about the nature of the histories within it, and perhaps the project of writing about the past in general.65 Other writers have sought to reject Geoffrey’s work outright because it so thoroughly troubles the status of historical writing, most famously attested to by William of Newburgh’s complaint about Geoffrey quoted above. Curiously, William claims that Geoffrey’s “lies” are the result of wanting to please the British by consolidating their power within the pages of the book, which would seem to broadly misread Geoffrey’s text as I have framed it. William of Newburgh teases out “the complexity of the relationship between truth, verisimilitude and fable and the consequent fluidity of the boundary between history, argument and poetry.”66 Geoffrey’s approach to historiography, according to William, holds some danger for readers because he slides between historical truth (“historiae veritas”) and falsehoods (“falsitas”), that is to say, he sees precisely the issue I argue is at the center of Geoffrey’s narrative claim.67 While I would not venture as far as to contend that The History of the Kings of Britain might be read as a parody, the text does demonstrate a sophisticated c­ ommand of historical writing that relies upon putting stress upon the expectations of the form.68 As Patricia Clare Ingham counter-intuitively, but convincingly, 64  Michelle Warren, “Making Contact: Postcolonial Perspectives through Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britannie,” Arthuriana 8.4 (1998), 108. 65  See the review of the many and varied medieval and modern reactions to Geoffrey’s work in Valerie I. J. Flint’s “The Historia Regum Britanniae of Geoffrey of Monmouth and Its Purpose. A Suggestion,” Speculum 54.3 (July, 1979), 447–468. 66  Rhetoric and the Writing of History, 400–1500, 366. 67  The History of English Affairs, 32. 68  Valerie Flint lays out the history of this claim in: “The Historia Regum Britanniae of Geoffrey of Monmouth: Parody and its Purpose. A Suggestion”.



argues about the anxiety around the text’s popularity and its generic status, Geoffrey’s History “is, in fact, the very place where the definition of ‘history’ gets made.”69 Geoffrey uses his fictions of the Britons to destabilize the authority conferred onto historical narratives used to generate myths of identity. The Britons are cast as given to war and eternally waiting for the return of Arthur to lead future campaigns: between memory and expectation. History becomes a binding force for the Britons in the multiple senses of the phrase; while it lends coherence to the idea of British—later Welsh— identity, it also functions as a limitation in what meanings can accrue to that designation. The Britons become imbricated within the fantasy of Arthur. Geoffrey’s imaginative history met with such success that the subversive critiques it made gained a vitality that fixed his depictions of the Britons—and the attendant ambivalences—within the popular imaginary. The History of the Kings of Britain and its presentation of the Britons’ certainty of history’s teleological arc become an informing text and context for Gerald of Wales. Although Geoffrey’s work lacks the paternity it assumes in its “Dedicatory Epistle” it still bequeaths literary and cultural frameworks Gerald must transume when he tries to write his own narratives of conquest.70

Gerald’s Ambivalence Colonialism is not satisfied with snaring the people in its net or of draining the colonized brain of any form or substance. With a kind of perverted loci, it turns its attention to the past of the colonized people and distorts it, disfigures it, and destroys it.71

The most prominent example of how heavily being a descendant of the Britons weighs on Gerald comes in his De Invectionibus. During an audience with Pope Innocent III, the pontiff has a letter from one of Gerald’s adversaries, the Archbishop of Canterbury, read aloud. Its text is a bitter invective against Gerald, based largely on his connection to Wales:

 Sovereign Fantasies, 33.  See Bloom’s argument about clinamen, or poetic misprision: Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 14. 71  Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 149. 69 70



[E]t inter Anglicos et Wallenses de caetero pro posse suo perpetuae dissensionis jaceret seminarium. Wallenses enim a prima Britonum prosapia, continua sanguinis successione deducti, totius Britanniae dominium sibi de jure deberi jactitant; unde si non efferae gentis et effrenae barbariem districtionis ecclesiasticae censura coercuisset, facta per Cantuariensem, cui gens illa lege provinciali hactenus subjecta fuisse dignoscitur, a rege suo vel continua vel crebra rebellione discessisset, sequente necessario totius Anglicanae regionis inquietudine. [Gerald] would thus to the best of his power sow the seeds of perpetual dissension between the Welsh and the English for all time to come. For the Welsh stock of the Britons, boast that all Britain is theirs by right. Wherefore, if the barbarity of that wild and unbridled nation had not been restrained by the censure of the Church, wielded by the Archbishop of Canterbury, to whom it is known that this race has thus far been subject as being within this province, this people would by continual or at least by frequent rebellion have broken from their allegiance to the King, whereby the whole England must have suffered disquietude.72

For Gerald, genealogy is not a thing of the past, or something that may be overcome through his learning. His place of birth and his heritage are living with him and are never far from informing his present. Others’ perception of his heritage was not sufficient to map the course of Gerald’s life, nor was it the sole angle of refraction through which Gerald understood his identity. His intervention and conception of his position with respect to his heritage were, as Foucault describes, multi-layered—a collocation of myth-making, family history, and Gerald’s own historical circumstances. This dynamic motivates much of Gerald’s intellectual work and generates the “competing allegiances” and ambivalences to his own actions. The “distortions” of Welsh history as derived from The History of the Kings of Britain came to hold a central place in Gerald’s self-presentation within his writing. The text operates as part of the subjugating forces around Gerald which render him “known” in the sense that he cannot break completely free from the narrative structures in place around him. However, he in turn recognizes the power of this framing narrative and applies its force against the Irish to renegotiate his place within the hierarchy of Anglo-Norman society; Gerald uses his writing as a literary conquest while he keeps in perspective his own position as a colonized subject. 72  Gerald of Wales, De Invectionibus, Lib. IV, ed. J.S. Brewer (Rolls Series, 1863, 1966), 15; The Autobiography of Giraldus Cambrensis, 169.



To be a colonized intellectual is to be “the living focus of contradictions” for whom one’s education and set of values learned under a colonizing force chafe against one’s own lived experience. When theorizing the close relationship between the colonist and the colonized Fanon writes: The colonist and the colonized are old acquaintances. And consequently, the colonist is right when he says he “knows” them.73

What Gerald has to offer King Henry II is his intimate knowledge of Ireland. However, this knowledge creates an intellectual quandary for him from which he never quite emerges. This section will present how the monstrous tones with which Gerald paints the Irish redounds to an exoticism that he seems to apply to himself. Critics of Gerald are right to see him as depicting Ireland as available for conquest. However, it is necessary to complicate this perspective by understanding that conquest for Gerald was not an unalloyed good. Rather, conquest had the potential to erase both the coherence of the invading force and the nation being colonized. It is difficult to underestimate the lengths to which Gerald goes to depict the Irish as monstrous, particularly in terms of their relationship to genealogy. In The History and Topography of Ireland, he organizes his topography in three sections. Roughly, the first section describes Ireland’s flora and topography, the second its fauna, and the third its people. However, there is substantial overlap between each of these sections and between the categories that Gerald sets up. The hybrids that his critics found so detestable particularly create problems with these divisions. The monstrosities related by Gerald, the half-human creatures or the Irish who have a penchant for having sexual relations with animals, frame the Irish as an underdeveloped people held outside of time by their regressive sexual habits. Gerald underscores this with a long invective against the Irish ending with the accusation of sexual deviance: Quinimmo, quod detestabile valde est, et non tantum fidei sed et cuilibet honestati valde contrarium, fraters, pluribus per Hiberniam locis, fratrum defunctorum uxores non dico ducunt, sed traducunt; immo verius seducunt, dum turpiter eas et tam incestuose cognoscunt; veteris in hoc testamenti no medullae sed cortici adhaerentes, vetesque libentius in vitiis quam virtutibus imitari volentes.  The Wretched of the Earth, 2.




Moreover, and this is surely a detestable thing, and contrary not only to the Faith but to any feeling of honour—men in many places in Ireland, I shall not say marry, but rather debauch, the wives of their dead brothers. They abuse them in having such evil and incestuous relations with them. In this (wishing to imitate the ancients more eagerly in vice than in virtue) they follow the apparent teaching, and not the true doctrine, of the Old Testament.74

His accusations of Irish incest imply that the clear progress of generations and of faith is stunted on the island.75 What is yet more remarkable about this passage is that Gerald claims to have delivered these remarks during a sermon before Irish clergymen as well as clergy from Wales and England.76 The sermon’s topics encompassed the “vices and excesses” of the Irish prelates, namely: “drunkenness,” “carelessness,” and “negligence of pastoral duties.”77 Gerald is sure to note that his stinging critique is a decisive victory for “our clergy”: “the Irish clergy were covered with much confusion, while ours lifted up their heads, insulting their foes and exulting in their own victory” (“grandi clero Hibernico confusione perfuso, multa in adversarios insultatione pariter et exultatione capita nostrates erexerunt”).78 Gerald envisions the Irish clergy as a degraded version of the Welsh and the Anglo-Normans, a rhetorical strategy that allows him to elide the differences between the latter two groups and offer himself as a proxy for both. This depiction becomes more complicated in that he presents the Welsh as similarly given to incest, although he claims this is due to an ­outsized estimation of their descent and their heritage (“sanguine et origine”) rather than the observation of an incomplete brand of faith.79 Again, Gerald tries to parse the Welsh as further along in a spectrum of historical progress, meticulous about the clarity of their origins to a fault.

74  Topographica Hibernica, 165; The History and Topography of Ireland, 106. It is important to note that Gerald includes the entire sermon, of which he only extracts an excerpt, in his Autobiography. This heightens the connection between his comments about the Irish and his evaluation of himself. The Autobiography of Gerald of Wales, 94. 75  Gerald anticipates Mandeville’s depiction of the East as a place outside of secular and religious history. On Mandeville’s curious intolerance, see: Stephen Greenblatt, Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1991), 50. 76  Autobiography, 91 77  Ibid., 92. 78  De Rebus A Se Gestis, 72; Ibid., 96. 79  Descriptio Kambriae, 213; The Description of Wales, 262.



His description of the Irish as having no clear genealogy bears comparison with the way that Gerald presents his own suitability to lend King Henry II’s son, John, advice on how to bring about Ireland’s full subjugation. Gerald humbly describes his own qualifications: […]quia de primis expugnatoribus gentis illius magnum in Hibernia genus habebat, et quia probus ipse as prudens extiterat, cum ipso transmittens. […]he had a great host of kinsmen there, sprung from the first conquers of that nation and because he himself had shown himself to be an honest and prudent man.80

The clarity of his familial connections and his own personal virtue stand in contrast to his presentation of the Irish. This quotation brings into focus the careful negotiation that Gerald engages in to present himself as distinct from the Irish—with even some hereditary claim to rule—while also the ideal servant to the crown because of his intimate knowledge of them. His attempts to work between these two positions fail. John listened to “the counsel of young men he took with him” instead of Gerald and he “rebuffed the honest and discreet men of the country, treating them as though they had been foreigners and of little worth.”81 These critiques chime with the role that Gerald assumes for himself as a mediator between Irish and Anglo-Norman forces. The locution “as though they had been foreigners” in particular draws into focus that Gerald neither fits as a close confidant of John nor as a “native informant” despite familial connections within Ireland and political connections to the king. John, unable to make any inroads into consolidating British power over Ireland, departs. Gerald, on the other hand, “remained in the Island to the following Easter, that he might pursue his studies more fully, not merely gathering materials, but setting them in order.”82 Gerald’s claim that he would set the information he gathered “in order” distantly echoes Geoffrey of Monmouth’s promise of an “orderly and unbroken” (“continue et ex ordine”) history.83 The project of physical conquest is replaced by intellectual conquest. Although the circumstances changed because of John’s departure, Gerald’s calculus remained the same. He offered his innate 80  Gerald of Wales, The Autobiography of Gerald of Wales, ed. and trans. H.E.  Butler (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2005), 86. 81  Ibid., 87. 82  Ibid., 91. 83  The Historia Regum Britannie, 1; The History of the Kings of Britain, 41.



knowledge as a descendant of the Britons and his learning gained from traveling through Ireland to a wide audience with the same aim of securing advancement. At this intersection of Gerald’s genealogy and learning, Gerald betrays a more complicated set of ties between the Welsh and the Irish. For example, Gerald argues that the Normans were ill-equipped for a campaign in Ireland because of their reliance on armor—a strategic weakness against the lightly armed Irish who would be more nimble—and more impressively, due to the Norman dependence on being near reliable sources of wine, as the Normans “could not do without wine on which they had been brought up.”84 On the other hand, Gerald suggests, the Welsh were well adapted to what it would take to properly execute a campaign in Ireland: In omni igitur expedicione sive Hibernica sive Kambrica, gens in Kambrie marchia nutrita. gens hostilibus parcium illarum conflictibus exercitata, competentissima; puta formatis a convictu moribus, audax ex expedita; cum alea martis exegerit, nunc equis habilis, nunc pedibus agilis inventa, cibo potuque non delicata, tam Cerere quam Bacco, causis urgentibus, abstinere parata. Talibus Hibernia viris inicium habuit expugnacionis, talibus quoque consummabilis finem habitura conquisicionis. So in every expedition, whether in Ireland or Wales, that breed of men which has been brought up in the Welsh borders and trained in the warfare that goes on in those parts, is the most capable, being resolute and quick to act because their character has been formed by their environment. When the changing conditions of war demand it, they are skilled horsemen at one moment, at another quick moving infantry. They are not fastidious in matters of food and drink, and are prepared to do without either in an emergency. Such were the men who were in at the beginning of the conquest of Ireland. Only with the help of such men will Ireland ever see the conquest completed.85

This description of Welsh strengths is curious because it exoticizes along the same lines as how Gerald categorizes the Irish. The Welsh need to eat less, are physically capable of negotiating Ireland’s terrain, and of executing sustained military campaigns because of the distorting effects of continual war. He positions the Welsh as like the Irish, molded similarly  The Conquest of Ireland, 244–245.  Ibid., 246, 247.

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through their interaction with the land around themselves and the violence tracked across it. The work of conquest and colonization becomes the common ground between them. Gerald connects the Welsh with the Irish on the basis of conquest itself, that the history of being subjugated is part of a shared past and is a parallel motivation for them. Gerald records a dispute he had with Rhys ap Gruddydd, Prince of South Wales that demonstrates the slippage between the meaning of the Welsh and Irish struggles against subjugating powers. Gerald sets the scene carefully. He mentions that when he met Rhys in Hereford, he was seated between William De Vere, the Bishop of Hereford, and the Baron Walter FitzRobert, both of whom, Gerald mentions, were of the house of Clare, that is, from Norman families. Gerald gently goads all three men by mentioning that Rhys had just “recovered” possession of Cardigan from Roger, the Earl of Clare, an understated description of a revolt against King Henry’s forces.86 None of the men rise to this barb. They choose instead to compliment each other on having won and lost land “not at the hands of sluggards of obscure birth, but to men of such high fame and renown.”87 Some time later, Gerald tries again, wondering aloud why Rhys’s family had not sought to extend their conquest beyond the South of Wales. This provokes a sharp retort from Rhys about the involvement of Gerald’s family (the descendants of Nest) in the conquest of Ireland before the important men assembled but also before the king’s messengers: Resus autem quoniam in magna audientia haec dicta fuerant; quia coram archiepiscopo et justiciario, necnon et episcopis atque baronibus qui jam supervenerant non paucis, verecundia parumper et rubore perfusus, quia  The Chronicles of the Princes of Wales explains the matter more explicitly:


1163. The ensuing year, when Rhys, son of Gruffudd, saw that the king fulfilled nothing of what he had promised, and that he could thus not submit honorably, he manfully entered the territory of Roger, earl of Clare, the man on whose account his nephew Einon, son of Anarawd, had been slain; and dismantled and burned the castle of Aber Rheidiol, and the castle of the son of Gwynion, and reconquered a second time the whole of Ceredigion, iterating slaughters and conflagrations among the Flemings, and taking from them man spoils. And after that, all the Welsh combined to expel the garrison of French altogether. Rev. John Williams Ab Ithel, ed. The Chronicles of the Princes of Wales (London: Kraus, 1860), 198. 87  De Rebus A Se Gestis, 58; The Autobiography of Gerald of Wales, 84.



tamen vir sapiens erat at discretus, satis modeste respondit in hunc modum dicens: “Quia revera viri probi et strenui fuerunt et sunt qui de Nesta provenerunt; et quia conquestum magnum in Hibernia fecerant, si tamen eis remanere posset.” Propter hoc autem istud adjecit, quia nationes hae duae, Walensica sc et Hibernica, terras omnes ad Anglicis sibi ablates semper recuperandi spe pascuntur. Now since these things were said before a large audience, in the presence of the Archbishop and Justicar and the Bishops also and Barons who by now had joined them in considerable numbers, for a brief space Rhys blushed for shame, but being a wise and discreet man, he answered in the same fashion, saying that in truth the descendants of Nest were, both then and now, good men and courageous, and that they had made a great conquest in Ireland, if they could only be sure of keeping what they had got. Now he added this last sally, because these two nations, the Welsh and the Irish, fed continually on the hope of recovering all the lands which the English have taken from them.88

Gerald stages this spat to force Rhys to reveal his own desire to continue his campaign against the British king. He hopes that word of this will get back to Henry II and remind the king of Gerald’s loyal service when he “turned aside not a few of Rhys’s great armies from the king’s land.”89 In the end, although Gerald believes that the king hears of this news, Gerald’s advancement is still thwarted because of his “nation and his kinship.”90 This exchange between Gerald and Rhys, and Gerald’s own meditation on the king’s non-response shows, writ small, the competing interests that Gerald contains within himself. Gerald is slow to realize what Rhys already seems to know. Gerald is at pains to establish the distance between himself and the Welsh, particularly the rebels. He uses this opportunity to underscore that his family’s assistance in the conquest of Ireland was firmly in the favor of the king’s forces. Rhys’s response, which is teased out by Gerald, is an unexpected one. It ties the fate of the Welsh, and their ­mythological connection with British rule, to the current situation of the Irish; the Irish and Welsh struggles are similar in their unending concern for the restoration of lands. Moreover, Rhys exposes the inherent contradiction in Gerald’s pride about his own achievements, which rests heavily on his family’s nobility and the deeper Welsh connection to the august  Ibid.  Ibid. 90  Ibid., 85. 88 89



lineage of Trojans. In working to aid the king’s conquests, Gerald is betraying the things that he claims make him so well-suited for that mission. He is submitting to the king, rather than resisting which, as Rhys argues, is a reaction as incumbent upon the Welsh as it is upon the Irish. Gerald of Wales seems to have become aware of the contradiction of his position over the course of his literary career, as he bitterly expresses regret for dedicating his early work on Ireland to royalty.91 Repeatedly passed over for advancement by the king as well as the Church hierarchy, he wondered why his ploy to remind the king of his family’s service generated no tangible results. He received “empty praise and flattery and great promises of future reward” (“nihil tamen a Rege praeter laudes hujusmodi vanas et adulationes cum promissis magnis accepit”) as his only payment for his loyalty.92 Throughout his Autobiography he records requests for favor without ever seeming to directly address the dissonance between his actions and his reward. The language of the competing drives for whatever power can be afforded to him and his resentment at being in such a submissive position elude Gerald when he directly confronts them. Rather, it is within the realm of his intellectual pursuit, his own literary “conquest” of Ireland that he unpacks this problem. Through the work of history writing he is able to elucidate the contradictions of his family’s position under the colonial power of the British. Gerald’s understanding of conquest mythology, so readily on display throughout his writing on Ireland, undergirds his historical analysis of both the Irish and the Welsh. Gerald is able to fluently read the story of the Brut derived from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain into the conquest of Ireland; he goes so far as to justify the British right to rule over Ireland in part by making recourse to Geoffrey’s History (which he simply calls “the British history”). Gerald recounts the story of King Gurguntius’s conquest of Ireland and Arthur’s later recapturing of the land: Quippe Gurguincium Belini filium et Britannie regum, a Dacia cum triumpho redeuntem, Basclensium classem apud Orcades inventam, vie ducibus eis adhibitus, primo in Hiberniam transmisisse Britannica testatur Historia. Testatur quoque famosum illum Britannie regum Arturum

 The Journey through Wales, 67.  De Rebus A Se Gestis, 60; Autobiography, 84.

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Hibernie reges tributarios habuisse et magne Urbis Legionum curie Gillomarum Hibernie regem cum aliis regibus insulanis interfuisse For the British History bears witness to the fact that when Gurguintius, son of Belinus and king of Britain, was returning in triumph from Dacia, he found the Basque fleet in Orkney, and having provided them with guides, sent them for the first time to Ireland, It also recalls the fact that the kings of Ireland were among the rulers who paid tribute to Arthur, that famous king of Britain, and that Gillomar King of Ireland was present at his court at Caerleon aong with other kings.93

One editor of The Conquest of Ireland found this line of reasoning a way to “gloss over the injustice of King Henry’s pretentions to the domination of Ireland” and “too puerile to merit a single comment.”94 And indeed, here Gerald acts as a historical interpreter and advisor to the king. However, to dismiss the use of British history throughout the text is to miss the richness Gerald draws out of the narrative. The Brut narrative proves to be versatile enough to be used by both the conquering Welsh and the resistant Irish. Roderic O’Conner, the Irish prince of Connaught, makes use of Geoffrey’s history to rally his forces against the king’s army, particularly those led by Gerald’s uncle FitzStephen: [U]t civium sanguine iram satiaret inexorabilem, nec sibi, nec patrie, nec sexui parcere duxit, nec etati. Hic ille est, ille qui olim in cunctos communiter armatis exterorum viribus iam crudescit. Cunctorum itaque meretur odium, qui ominum in commune se approbat inimicum. Attendite, cives, attendite, animisque profundis altius infigite quod huiuscemodi occasione, civili scilicet discordia, cuncta fere regna sunt expugnata. Iulium Cesarem, qui bis terga Britannis ostenderat, in suam patrieque subaccionem offensus Androgeus, et doloris augmento dolorem vindicans, tercio revocavit…Et ut familiaribus quibusdam utamur exemplis nostroque tempori longe propioribus, Gurmundum, insularam malleum, ad expugnandos Britones in propriam perniciem et subieccionem Saxonum populus invitavit. That he might sate his unquenchable rage with the blood of his fellow-­ countrymen, he has thought fit to spare neither himself nor his country, nor to show mercy on grounds of sex or age. This is the man who formerly persecuted his subjects with an unrestrained tyranny. This is the man who is now taking his barbarous action against all of us with the aid of foreign  The Conquest of Ireland, 149.  Ibid., 263.

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forces. So he who shows himself hostile to the common interests of all deserves universal hatred. Pay heed, my fellow countrymen, pay heed and let the fact that almost all kingdoms have been conquered under circumstances of this kind, namely civil strife, be deeply imprinted on your minds. Because he felt himself wronged, Androgeus brought back for a third time Julius Caesar, who had twice turned his back on Britain, to enslave himself and his country, thus taking satisfaction for his feelings of resentment by causing even greater suffering…If I may use more familiar examples, which are closer to our own time, it was the Saxons who called in Gurmundus, “the hammer of the isles,” to conquer the Britons.95

It should be underscored how readily Gerald casts Roderic in the position of the British in The History of the Kings of Britain; the Irish are poised to be overcome by foreign invaders who will end a tyrannical reign. Moreover, the myth can be extended to encompass the Welsh themselves. Those who should be the inheritors of Britain are cast as the great traitors of the nation. Perhaps most damningly of all, Roderic’s language about FitzStephen’s desire to “sate his unquenchable rage with the blood of his own people” recalls the language of blood thirst in The History of the Kings of Britain. Roderic offers a sophisticated reading of the “British history” that frames the Welsh as trapped within this narrative that they hold so dear, unable to evade its pitfalls. Particularly, Roderic highlights Arthur’s desire to conquer Rome, which fundamentally alters the integrity of the British state. Roderic emphasizes that the Welsh are betraying more than just the Irish. In following FitzStephen the Welsh may be on the same path to becoming unrecognizable to themselves. Gerald does not stop at adding this one wrinkle or inversion to the use of the Brut narrative. He contrasts Roderic’s speech with that of FitzStephen to set up a dueling interpretation of the mythical past. FitzStephen begins by discussing the blood of the Trojans, using language similar to that which Gerald deploys to discuss the Welsh superiority in arms. However, FitzStephen then broadens the discussion from genealogical inheritance to Welsh land claims: Troiano partim ex sanguine linea descendimus originali. Ex Gallis quoque propaginem ex parte trahimus et naturam. Hinc nobis animositas, illinc armorum usus accedit. Cum itaque duplici natura nobilique hinc inde prosapia, tam animosi simus quam armis instructi, populum inermem turbamque plebiam nobis resistere non posse quis diffidet? Preterea dolo domestico intestinaque malicia natali cum solo ampla perdidimus patrimonia.  The Conquest of Ireland, 44, 45.




Unde et in has partes non stipediorum ambicio, non auri ceca fames, sed terrarum ut urbium nobis et nostris perpetua largicio nos advexit. In part we come of Trojan stock by direct line of descent. But we are partly descended from the men of Gaul, and take our character in part from them. From the former we get our courage, from the latter our skill in the use of arms. So we are equally brave and versed in arms because of our twofold character and noble ancestry on both sides. Is there then anyone who is not confident that this unarmed populace, this rabble of the common people, cannot resist us? Besides, the broad acres of our inheritance and our native soil are lost to us through treachery at home and malice among our own people. It is not, then, greed for monetary rewards or the “blind craving for gold” that has brought us to these parts, but a gift of lands and cities in perpetuity to us and to our children.96

Although FitzStephen, like Roderic, evokes the significance of recalling the history of the island’s possession, his inflection is different. FitzStephen takes on the mantle of the colonist, picking up the desire for movement and conquest that is in keeping with the actions of Geoffrey’s Britons. This speech echoes that of Arthur talking about Rome as Britain’s inheritance and rightful territory. And just as was the case in Arthur’s rhetorical push to war, FitzStephen is adept at combining the logic of conquest with the manipulation of dubious historical claims. Between Roderic and FitzStephen pass a dense set of competing uses of myth, layered between one another in Gerald’s history. These uses defy the argument that Gerald focused his work on Ireland solely to dehumanize the Irish and trumpet war. Rather, his work makes more sense within the theory of the colonized intellectual, Fanon’s idea of the man whose conflicting senses of belonging expose themselves within work that has another apparent aim. Gerald’s histories are a nest of contradictions. He wants his writing to reach a wide and popular audience, in the sense of being able to be understood by as many people as possible. Yet, Gerald is at odds with the language he uses to write The Conquest of Ireland. In the second preface to the work, he requests that “some man of learning” translate it into French.97 He even expresses jealousy that his friend, Walter Map, gained fame through his great eloquence of speech. However, Gerald consoles himself with the knowledge that his works will be recovered in posterity.98 He paints a strange portrait of the Welsh, as both the  Ibid., 48–49.  Ibid., 177. 98  Ibid., 177–178. 96 97



willing hands of the Irish conquest, and as a people worthy of independence. Tied to this sense of Welsh duty is his own indignation at how poorly the Welsh, particularly his own family, have been rewarded for their services to the crown, which bubbles over at times in The Conquest of Ireland: Hoc etenim gentis huius omen et hec condicio: semper in armata milicia cari, semper primi; semper rebus in marciis ausu nobili famosissimi. Cessante vero necessitatis articulo, statim exosi, statim ultimi, statim ad ima livore depressi. Verumtamen tante generositatis silvam livor ad plenum extirpare non potuit. Unde et usque in hodiernum diem gens hec novic plantularum succrementis vires in insula non modicas habent. Qui sunt, qui penetrant hostis penetralia? Geraldide. Qui sunt, qui patriam conservant? Geraldide. Qui sunt, quos hostes formidant? Geraldide. Qui sunt, quos livor detrectat? Geraldide. O si principem tante strenuitatis merita digne pensantem reperissent, quam tranquillum, quam pacificum olim Hibernie statum reddidissent. For this was the destiny of that family, this was the position in which it found itself. In time of war they were always prized and given the first place. In all the activities of war their noble courage always won for them renown of the highest order. But when the crisis was over, immediately they became the object of hatred, they were immediately pushed to the back and relegated to the lowest position through the envy of others. But envy could not completely succeed in rooting out a veritable forest of such outstanding nobility. So to this day, thanks to the grafting on to it of new stock, this family exerts no mean influence on that island. Who are the men who penetrate the enemy’s innermost strongholds? The FitzGeralds. Who are the men who protect their native land? The FitzGeralds. Who are the men the enemy fear? The FitzGeralds. Who are the men whom envy denigrates? The FitzGeralds. If only they had found a prince who valued such outstanding valour at its real worth, what a peaceful and tranquil country they would long since have made of Ireland!99

Gerald is unable to resist putting the Geraldines at the center of his vision of the conquest. Simultaneously, there are slight overtones of the Welsh  Ibid., 170, 171.




longing for a great leader, just as Geoffrey of Monmouth writes about the longing for Arthur’s return. The narrative of the nation and Gerald’s own self-fashioning are interlocked in Gerald’s mind; he uses one to shape and redefine the other. The betrayals of the English fit into the larger pattern of intrigues and political mistrust that has plagued the Welsh since the end height of their power. As he draws The Conquest of Ireland to a close, he uses a quotation he attributes to Evodius, but which would well function as an epigram for his whole work: “Posterity learns from the ruin of those who have gone before, and a mistake made in former times serves as a perpetual caution.”100 He quotes this as part of a list of suggestions for how the English can best govern the Irish. His ideas vary from erecting additional fortresses in Ireland, to banning the Irish from carrying axes, to nominating fair-­ minded judges to preserve the rule of law. He ends the list with the suggestion that the Irish pay tribute to the British crown, either in the form of money or birds: [U]t sic in posterum cuncta gravaminis atque discordie submoveatur occasio; et quoniam tempora transcurrunt, et ultra gradus omnes linea sanguinis in evum extenditur, anno tributo, tamquam perpetuo cirographo, in Britannici perennem tam regni quam regis honorem expugnacionis huius memoria retineatur. Besides, since the years roll by, and the line of our descendants stretches beyond all our divisions of time far into eternity, this annual tribute, like a kind of perpetual document, may have the effect of perpetuating the ­memory of this conquest to the eternal honour of the kingdom of Britain and of its king.101

This is a curious note for Gerald to sound at the end of a text about his own ancestors’ work of conquest. In a final set of contradictions, Gerald shows deep skepticism about the ability of a written record, particularly his own, to properly attest to the events of the past, while he simultaneously entertains considerable faith in the prospect of lineal descent. And perhaps most strangely he seems to withdraw his call for the Irish to be completely submissive to the Welsh. The divisions of people he outlines in the text— the English (Angli), the Normans (Normanni), or the Welsh (nostri, as 100  “Ruina precedencium posteros docet, et causio est semper in reliquum lapsus anterior.” Ibid., 250–251. 101  Ibid., 252–253.



Gerald often writes)—do not mark his final vision for the rulers of Ireland. Instead, he uses “Britannicus,” a word that he employs rarely, but which suggests a vision of rule and of nation that supersedes those other divisions. While this is an understated concession from Gerald, it is significant insofar as it shows that, to the end of the text, Gerald is still searching for a coherent identity through the space of Ireland. While there are limits to trying to apply the thinking of a modern political thinker to the products of a far distinct age, the term “colonized intellectual” lends some reason to a text that threatens to be baldly inaccurate during its best moments and toxic at its worst. Fanon uses “colonized intellectual” to evoke a writer trying to find the idiom in which to describe the nation. He outlines the long, furtive, and often failed process of the colonized intellectual to situate him or herself within the new realities of a decolonized political situation. While attempting to understand Gerald’s inward gaze—his desire to rationalize the place of the Welsh and himself within the spheres of Henry II’s court and the church—does not undo Gerald’s complicity in the colonizing project, it does nuance Gerald’s writing. Gerald’s contradictions paint a portrait of a writer trapped in the ironies of his work. Beneath what Gerald would present as the biological and dispositional differences between the Irish and normative humanity— that the Irish are untrustworthy and monstrous—are the historical similarities that Gerald cannot suppress. Gerald is caught in the paradoxical role of being both colonizer and colonized, a situation that is embedded within the history that Gerald uses as his guide. The past is oracular for Gerald, and he believes it to be the key to validating his personal sacrifices for Britain. What seems to elude Gerald are the far-reaching consequences of his intellectual uncertainty, the ripples his work would cause beyond satisfying his personal ambitions. His writing on Ireland, and his quest for distinction, would create an intellectual template for imagining the Irish that would be repeated for hundreds of years, through ages and countries he could not possibly have envisioned.

Works Cited Primary Sources Burke, Edmund. Pre-Revolutionary Writing. Edited by Ian Harris. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. ———. The Writing and Speeches of Edmund Burke. Edited by T.O. McLoughlin and James T. Boulton. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.



———. “Sketch of a Negro Code.” In The Portable Edmund Burke, ed. Isaac Kramnick. New York: Penguin Books, 1999. Douglass, Frederick. “Speech at the American Anti-Slavery Society in New York City (1853).” In The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Park Publishing: Hartford, 1881, 303. Foucault, Michel.“Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France 1975–1976. Edited by Mauro Bertani and Alessandreo Fontana. New  York: Picador, 2003. Geoffrey of Monmouth. The Historia Regum Britannie of Geoffrey of Monmouth I: Bern, Burgerbibliothek, MS. 568. Edited by Neil Wright. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1984. ———. The History of the Kings of Britain. Translated by Michael A.  Faletra. Toronto: Broadview, 2008. Gerald of Wales. The Historical Works of Giraldus Cambriensis: The Conquest of Ireland, 2nd edition. Edited by Thomas Wright. London, H.G. Bohn, 1863, 1968. ———. Expugnatio Hibernica: The Conquest of Ireland. Edited and translated by A.B. Scott and F.X. Martin. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 1978a. ———. The Journey through Wales and The Description of Wales. Translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin, 1978b. ———. The History and Topography of Ireland, 2nd edition. Translated by John O’Meara. New York: Penguin, 1982. ———. The Autobiography of Giraldus Cambrensis, 2nd edition. Edited and translated by H.E. Butler. London: Jonathan Cape, 2005. Giraldus Cambrensis [Gerald of Wales]. De Rebus A Se Gestis in Giraldi Cambrensis Opera, vols. 1–8, eds. J.S.  Brewer and J.S.  Dimock. London: Longman, 1861–1891; Reprint, London: Rolls Series, 1964. William of Newburgh. The History of English Affairs: Book 1. Edited and translated by P.G. Walsh and M.J. Kennedy. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2015. Williams Ab Ithel, John, ed. The Chronicles of the Princes of Wales. London: Kraus, 1860.

Secondary Sources Bartlett, Robert. Gerald of Wales, 1146–1223. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982. ———. The Making of Europe: Conquest Colonization, and Cultural Change, 950–1350. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993. ———. “Illustrating Ethnicity in the Middle Ages.” In The Origins of Racism in the West, eds. Miriam Eliav-Feldon, Benjamin Isaac, and Joseph Ziegler. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009, 132–156 Bernstein, Iver. “Workers and Consolidation.” In The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990, 74–124.



Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence. New  York: Oxford University Press, 1973. Bourke, Richard. “Edmund Burke and the Politics of Conquest.” Modern Intellectual History 4.3 (November 2007), 403–432 Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Hybrids, Monsters, Borderlands: The Bodies of Gerald of Wales.” In The Postcolonial Middle Ages, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. New York: Palgrave, 2000, 85–104. Donlan, Seán. “The ‘Genuine Voice of Its Records and Monuments’?: Edmund Burke’s ‘Interior History of Ireland.’” In Edmund Burke’s Irish Identities, ed. Patrick Donlan. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2007. Echard, Siân. Arthurian Narrative in the Latin Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Faletra, Michael A. Wales and the Medieval Colonial Imagination: The Matters of Britain in the Twelfth Century. New York: Palgrave, 2014. Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth, 2nd edition. New York: Grove Press, 2004. Flint, Valerie I.J. “The Historia Regum Britanniae of Geoffrey of Monmouth and Its Purpose. A Suggestion.” Speculum 54.3 (July 1979), 447–468. Foucault, Michel. “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” In The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984, 76–101. Gilroy, Paul. Between Camps: Nations, Cultures and the Allure of Race, 2nd edition. New York: Routledge, 2004. Greenblatt, Stephen. Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1991. Guterl, Matthew Pratt. The Color of Race in America: 1900–1940. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001. Hadfield, Andrew. Edmund Spenser’s Irish Experience: Wild Fruit and Salvage Soyl. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. Heng, Geraldine. Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. Ignatiev, Noel. How the Irish Became White. New York: Routledge, 1995. Ingham, Patricia Clare, and Michelle R. Warren. “Postcolonial Modernity and the Rest of History.” In Postcolonial Moves: Medieval through Modern, eds. Patricia Clare Ingham and Michelle R. Warren. New York: Palgrave, 2003, 1–18. Kelley, Robin D.G. “Foreword.” In Cedric Robinson. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, 2nd edition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000, xii–xxiii. Kempshall, Matthew. Rhetoric and the Writing of History: 400–1500. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011. Khanmohamadi, Shirin A. In Light of Another’s Word: European Ethnography in the Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.



Lennon, Joseph. Irish Orientalism: A Literary and Intellectual History. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2008. Lieberman, Max. The Medieval March of Wales: The Creation and Perception of a Frontier, 1066–1283. Cambridge University Press, 2010. Mittman, Asa Simon. “The Other Close at Hand: Gerald of Wales and the ‘Marvels of the West.’” The Monstrous Middle Ages, eds. Bettina Bildhauer and Robert Mills. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2003. Richter, Michael. Giraldus Cambrensis: The Growth of the Welsh Nation, 2nd edition. Abersteyth: The National Library of Wales, 1976. Roach, Joseph. Cities of the Dead. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. Rooney, C. “The Manuscripts of the Works of Gerald of Wales.” Ph.D. diss., University of Cambridge University, 2005. Sargent, Amelia Borrego. “Gerald of Wales’s Topographia Hibernica: Dates, Versions, Readers.” Viator 43.1 (2012), 241–262. Scott, David. Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. Searle, Eleanor. Predatory Kinship and the Creation of Norman Power, 840–1066. Berkley: University of California Press, 1988. Shichtman, Martin B., and Laurie A. Finke. “Profiting from the Past: History as Symbolic Capital in the Historia Regum Britanniae.” Arthurian Literature XII (1994), 1–45. Spiegel, Gabrielle M. “Genealogy: Form and Function in Medieval Historical Narrative.” History and Theory 22.1 (1983), 43–53. Tomich, Dale W. Through the Prism of Slavery: Labor, Capital and the World Economy. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004. Warren, Michelle. “Making Contact: Postcolonial Perspectives through Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britannie.” Arthuriana 8.4 (1998), 115–134.


Other Families: Dryden’s Theory of Congeniality in Dante, Chaucer, and Naylor

The introduction presents the prevailing goal for this study as the construction of an “anti-genealogy”: a means to read medieval literature’s legacy that refuses the primacy of nation or race. The following chapter will press the boundaries of this argument by examining the vernacular as a mode that is mutable but also continually reimagined by successive generations of writers as a coherent chain of formal literary subversions and responses to power. Vernacularity, thus, is in constant motion. This chapter will shuttle between meanings of this term, but will be anchored in African-American reconstructions of medieval vernacularity. The dual states the vernacular occupies between signifying an adherence to and a break from established literary trajectories maps onto the development of African-American literature as conforming to the tradition of American letters and as an eclectic mix of forms that emerged in defiance of white oppression’s terms. Vernacularity’s function as a bridge between codified and unruly forms of literary production has broader implications for finding alternatives to the seemingly impossible relationship between older literary forms and the lived experience of race, as exampled in Charles Chesnutt’s pessimistic overlay of romance and the mulatta character Rena discussed in Chap. 3. Read as a connection to writers across time, the vernacular is an optimistic retort that accepts the authorization of previous writers on the terms that African-American writers themselves set out. More importantly, the appeal to the vernacular countenances future transformations of blackness expressed through novel literary approaches as a critical part of a broader global literary project. © The Author(s) 2018 M. X. Vernon, The Black Middle Ages, The New Middle Ages,




To frame this discussion, I appeal to Fables: Ancient and Modern (1700), John Dryden’s melancholy “farewell to writing,” in which he articulates a theory of congeniality that anticipates the argument about the vernacular this chapter makes. Dryden positions Geoffrey Chaucer as his literary predecessor and interlocutor: I had found a soul congenial to [Chaucer’s], and that I had been conversant in the same studies. Another poet in another age may take the same liberty with my writings; if at least they live long enough to deserve correction.1

Interspersed within the argument for his linking of Homer, Ovid, Chaucer, and Boccaccio are the reflections of a man who is nearing death and contemplating his own legacy. His suggestion that Chaucer’s soul is congenial to his is made with only a hint of playfulness, as is his discussion of the transfusion of souls among writers: Milton was the poetical son of Spenser, and Mr. Maller of Fairfax; for we have our lineal descents and clans, as well as other families: Spenser more than once insinuates that the soul of Chaucer was transfused into his body; and that he was begotten by him Two hundred years after his Decease.2

Dryden, whose mind had so long been fecund, looked to his literary predecessors to divine if his work would sprout any literary progeny. In doing so he casts his gaze towards the directions such literary inheritance could take, from the “lineal descent” that he suggests for Spenser and Milton, to more elusive connections he makes between Ovid and Chaucer. Most capaciously, he allows that it may take as long as the space between himself and Chaucer—three hundred years—for a congenial soul to follow in his footsteps. Dryden may not have received his wish with respect to his accomplishments in fiction; The Indian Emperor is not inspiring future generations of writers, nor would he be proud of progeny like Philip Larkin’s saucy “Annus Mirabilis.” His writing, while at times admired, was doomed to be “classic,” to use Matthew Arnold’s evaluation of Dryden’s work.3 Dryden’s fiction may not have found many other congenial souls, yet his thinking about forging “other families”—non-linear affiliations or 1  John Dryden, The Works of John Dryden, Vol. VII, ed. Vinton A.  Dearing (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 40. 2  Ibid., 24. 3  Matthew Arnold, The Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold: Vol. IX. Edited by Robert Henry Super (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1973) 178–180.



kinship networks—through the ties of language has produced progeny far distant from his own time. In writing about translation, Dryden certainly has some nationalistic truisms to observe—he leaves no doubt that Chaucer is unique and unparalleled by any writer in Italy, France, or England during his age. However, through is Fables, Dryden makes the unexpected maneuver of linking writers across countries and times who are joined by “resemblance of genius,” that is, a chain of connection established by the author, but put into the common currency of English for the reader to make “a certain Judgement” between them. His theory of translation was a generous one, which encompassed “metaphrase,” paraphrase, and something between paraphrase and imitation.4 In the conjunction of disparate authors in the Fables, particularly in naming Chaucer as Dryden’s forebearer, interlocutor, and early refiner of the language, Dryden presents vernacular translation, the movement of these fables into “modern English,” as a mode of writing that argues for an adherence to the spirit of the original work, achieved by an active manipulation of a text. Dryden navigates this apparent contradiction by presenting Philip Sidney’s argument that out of “veneration due to his old language” Chaucer should not be translated.5 Dryden refutes Sidney. He observes that few could claim to comprehend Chaucer’s language, thus the meaning of the medieval author’s writing was being obscured by his outmoded words: Words are not like land-marks, so sacred as never to be removed: customs are changed and even statutes are silently repealed when the reason ceases for which they were enacted. As for the other part of the argument, that his thoughts will lose their original beauty by the innovation of words; in the first place, not only their beauty, but their being is lost when they are no longer understood which is the present case…How few are there who can read Chaucer, so as to understand him perfectly? And if imperfectly, then with less profit, and no pleasure. ’Tis not for the use of some Saxon friends, that I have taken pains with him: let them neglect my version, because they have no need of it.6

 Dryden, 594.  Ibid., 41. 6  Ibid. 4 5



He argues for a demotic style of translation, one that takes aggressive control of the text, cutting passages and altering Chaucer “for the better.” He is sure to emphasize that his version should not lead the reader back to the original—although an earlier “untranslated” version accompanies his own. Rather, his rewriting of Chaucer attempts to move away from this earlier work and wrest it from the effects of time and the occlusion only penetrable by his “Saxon friends,” antiquarians, and scholars. Chaucer, for Dryden, had “cultivated his mother-tongue,” bringing English to a point of maturity.7 However, in his translation he displays ambivalence towards the fixity of language. Dryden suggests that vernacular translation, in fact, does not function primarily in the realm of linguistics. Language is merely the envelope for emergent meanings the audience discovers themselves, making possible “the communication of ancient culture to the present.”8 Vernacular translations exist in an uncertain space between acknowledging the importance of the original text and responding to the needs of the reader. It is a fluid process, continually seeking equilibrium between the authoritative, accessible to the few, and the vulgar, available to all. This dynamic system is productive; it is premised on a sympathetic relationship between past and present and thus allows for unexpected reformations in the terms by which both the writer and reader might be understood.9  Dryden, 43; 37.  Alison Cornish, Vernacular Translation in Dante’s England: Illiterate Literature (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 8; Larry Scanlon begins his argument with a definition which admits to how unruly the vernacular can be. He delimits the conversation only to show the plurality of participating voices: 7 8

[The v]ernacular seems to mark a place where disciplines allow themselves to become a bit less than systematic, less than disciplined, where they aspire to speak of what lies beyond them, the unlearned, the predisciplinary, or nondisciplinary, or interdisciplinary, where they desire not only to speak of it but to speak for it, to get beyond their own learned boundaries and speak from it and with it. Larry Scanlon, “News From Heaven: Vernacular Time in Langston Hughes’ Ask Your Mama,” in The Vulgar Tongue: Medieval and Postmedieval Vernacularity, ed. Fiona Somerset and Nicholas Watson (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2003), 221. 9  Cornish, 7. Cornish uses a wide array of words to describe the linguistic action that she studies, a list that dwarfs the one presented by Dryden: “translation,” “version,” “vulgarization,” “vernacular translation,” and “vernacularization.” This chapter will rely on vernacularization. See also, Larry Scanlon’s account of the dynamics of vernacularity and power in his “News From Heaven: Vernacular Time in Langston Hughes’ Ask Your Mama,” 221.



What Dryden sets up with his meditations on congenial souls is a theory of the vernacular that operates across the lines of geography, language, and authority. His vernacular is dialectical in the sense that its various oppositions enable it to engage what would seem to be foreign to itself without compromising its potential to express difference.10 For example, Dryden uses his translations as the basis for his conception of a national literature, but to do so he integrates writing from the classical period. Dryden alters the significations of Homer’s Iliad and Ovid’s Metamorphoses to subdue them within the teleology that leads to Chaucer’s “refinement” of English and Dryden’s own additions to the language. From this perspective, the vernacular cannot be solely identified through a single tongue. Rather, it operates within a matrix of meaning that can expand over time—Dryden likens the process to a nobleman who embarks upon building a dog kennel and dies with an unfinished palace. The vernacular takes on unexpected dimensions while preserving its essential ontological significations. As Stephanie Trigg notes in her study of Dryden’s preface, congeniality conceptually diverges from a Bloomian structure of Oedipal struggle and transumption because it is associative and allows writers to engage it even at a generational or societal remove. She writes, “[s]hould historical continuity fail…then the souls of older English poets might still be ‘transfusd’ into those of their spiritual descendants.”11 Dryden’s model of incorporation and expansion contravenes the underlying logic of a literary tradition that depends on metaphorical genealogical succession as witnessed in evocations of Anglo-Saxonism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and later in conservative interpretations of the literary canon. Here I follow the suggestion of Cedric D. Reverand II, who provocatively frames the genesis for Fables as Dryden’s cognizance that he had been reduced from a place of prominence to becoming an “outcast, minority voice.”12 Reverand II argues, Dryden’s attempt to resituate himself within a shifting literary landscape that threatened the survival of his poetic voice led him to construct this elusive text: 10  Robert Glenn Howard, “The Transformative Potential of Discourse in the Vernacular Mode,” in Public Modalities: Rhetoric, Culture, Media and the Shape of Public Life, eds. Daniel C. Brouwer and Robert Asen (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010), 256. 11  Stephanie Trigg, Congenial Souls: Reading Chaucer from Medieval to Postmodern (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 147, 148. 12   Cedric D.  Reverand II, Dryden’s Final Poetic Mode (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988), 5.



Fables is more than comprehensive and capacious; it is tantalizingly subversive. What it gives, it also takes away…Fables engages the reader, invites him to synthesize and connect, only to discover ultimately the limits of that whole enterprise.13

Dryden’s theory of his translations rejects the predetermined, the linear, and the fixed in favor of literary connections that are surprising, seemingly disjunctive, and not tied to one nation. This interpretation of Dryden complicates his place as the “father of English criticism,” as Samuel Johnson somewhat ironically dubs him in his own attempt to find a congenial soul.14 While Dryden rightly is understood to have inaugurated a standard of critique to which later critics adhere, it would be a misinterpretation of his argument to read it as a defense of continuity. His preface fundamentally intervenes into the history of English literature by laying out the potential within elective connections between writers who are separated by temporal period yet see something worthy of carrying over—translating—into another era. The vernacular works as the conduit for an uneasy act of claiming, in the sense of taking for one’s own, and also as a means of articulating a relationship with the past that informs one’s identity. Dryden’s preface is as much about Chaucer’s legacy as it is about his own. The vernacular translation’s impulses towards preserving some of the venerability of an older text while offering a space for the writer to claim his or her new voice as overtaking, or usurping, the freshness of language creates the possibility of unexpected ligatures between writers across time. This vision of translation and vernacularization has profound implications for explicating the meaning of African-American re-envisionings of medieval texts. As established in the first chapter of this book, the creation of an African-American literary tradition was intimately linked to critical engagement with foundational literary texts. Through the twentieth century, the concept of an African-American vernacular developed as both an aesthetic form and an ideological system that could reckon with the historical meaning of the “negro presence” in the United States, a history marked by forced migration and failed projects of integration.15 Choosing  Ibid.  Samuel Johnson, The Lives of the Poets. Edited by Roger Lonsdale (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006), 118. 15  In discussing the vernacular as an ideology I am borrowing from Houston Baker’s discussion of “blues ideology” and black migration in Blues, Ideology and Afro-American 13 14



one’s predecessors in distinction from the dominant literary tradition was both a necessity and a means to frame African-American interventions within the literary realm. Richard Wright, in his “Blueprint for Negro Writing,” (1937) argues that the model of assembling sources to create an aesthetic he called “complex simplicity” was an essential strategy to encompass the strangeness of black experiences: Eliot, Stein, Joyce, Proust, Hemingway, and Anderson; Gorky, Barbusse, Nexo, and Jack London no less than the folklore of the Negro himself should form the heritage of the Negro writer. Every iota of gain in human thought and sensibility should be ready grist for his mill, no matter how far-­ fetched they may seem in their immediate implications.16

Wright threads together two strands of vernacular translation in an African-­ American context. Heritage here is not determinative and backwards-­ looking, rather it is wide-open to the possibilities of incorporation of influences from the past. Moreover, the series of communist and socialist authors—Gorky, Barbusse, Nexo, and Jack London—highlights that African-American work should be sophisticated in terms of its literary merits and informed by the political commitments of their literary antecedents. The relationship between race and a heritage of cultural production more generally continues to provoke constellations of artists that share difficult-to-define bonds. For example, in his 2015 novel, The Sellout, Paul Beatty offers a definition of “unmitigated blackness” that advances Wright’s thinking to speculate about who and what compose the field of black art: I’m not sure what Unmitigated Blackness is, but whatever it is, it doesn’t sell. On the surface Unmitigated Blackness is a seeming unwillingness to succeed. It’s Donald Goines, Chester Himes, Abbey Lincoln, Marcus Garvey, Alfrie Woodard, and the serious black actor. […] It’s our beautiful hands and fucked up feet. Unmitigated blackness is not giving a fuck. Clarence Cooper, Charlie Parker, Richard Pryor, Maya Deren, Sun Ra, Mizoguchi, Frida Kahlo, black and white Godard, Celine, Gong Li, David Literature. See: Houston Baker Jr., Blues, Ideology and Afro-American Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 24. 16  Richard Wright, “Blueprint for Negro Writing,” in African American Literary Theory: A Reader, ed. Winston Napier (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 50.



Hammons, Bjork, and the Wu-Tang Clan in any of their hooded permutations. Unmitigated Blackness is essays passing for fiction. It’s the realization that there are no absolutes, except where there are.17

What begins as a tally of familiar black intellectuals and artists veers into an eclectic mix of people who, as the definition says, “don’t give a fuck.” This list does not behave the way it should; it proposes temporary allegiances and inhabits contradictions, like the notion of raceless blackness, as a means of militating against simplistic notions of a black tradition. I would propose that what Beatty describes as “unmitigated blackness” is an iteration of congeniality as I have been outlining it in this chapter. The novelist Gloria Naylor provides the clearest example of the potential to read congeniality in an African-American context. Her writing garnered significant attention during the late twentieth-century debates about the canon in part because she wrote prose “translations” of Dante’s Inferno and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. As was the case with Dryden, she became “conversant” in the Western literary canon and she used her versions of both texts as critical interventions to augment the meanings of the vernacular that Dante and Chaucer came to signify. Before her, many prominent, mostly male, African-American writers—Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright, Jean Toomer, and Amiri Baraka—looked to Dante as a seminal figure for anticipating the vernacular as a literary and political mode that could challenge standard formulations of the literary canon. For these writers, Dante’s Inferno functioned as a paradigm for undermining the hegemony of that tradition; Dante was a kindred spirit whose structure of divine punishment could be translated to the systems of oppression within the United States.18 Naylor pushes the meaning of the vernacular as she receives it from these earlier writers. She contests the model of literary succession between men that Dante offers by presenting a black female vernacular that subtends black male vernacular writing. Her radical assertion of a vernacular voice that is present but unacknowledged led her to theorize a plurality of vernaculars, an international community that is elusive because it cannot be reduced to a set of literary influences. Rather, Naylor’s vernacular  Paul Beatty, The Sellout (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), 277.  See Jerry Gafio Watts’ illuminating discussion of Amiri Baraka’s relationship to Dante in Amiri Baraka: The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 88–89. 17 18



becomes a way of expressing a common lived experience. As she adopts it from Dante, the vernacular symbolizes a culture that “extends beyond the boundaries of dialect and idiom.”19 The scholar Joyce A.  Joyce argues more broadly that an African-American vernacular is just one channel for characterizing the shape of that larger community: Rather than being a “linguistic event” or a complex network of linguistic systems that embody the union of` the signified and the signifier independent of phenomenal reality, Black creative art is an act of love which attempts to destroy estrangement and elitism by demonstrating a strong fondness or enthusiasm for freedom and an affectionate concern for the lives of people, especially Black people.20

Henry Louis Gates Jr. lambasted this line from Joyce in his essay, “What’s Love Got to Do With It: Critical Theory, Integrity and the Black Idiom” for essentializing black literature and rejecting the important place of literary theory (read to be a representative for the Western literary tradition) as applied to Black Studies.21 In the light that this chapter casts upon it, the stakes of Joyce’s argument seem to be greater than a quibble about the style of criticism one can bring to bear on a text. Gates does not take the suggestion about affective communities that can be reached through black literature seriously; Naylor, on the other hand, does. In reading Joyce’s suggestion through Naylor, it becomes apparent that rather than being a refusal of a Western literary tradition, she reconfigures that tradition to selectively incorporate elements of it and remobilizes them to rethink whose voices deserve to be heard. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales provides Naylor with the structure for thinking about connections between people who are linked as much by voice as they are by proximity. However, it is Dryden’s notion of congeniality as the constant renewal of the vernacular that anticipates the breadth of Naylor’s ambitions to link communities across the globe and across time. Dryden writes “nothing is lost out of nature, though everything is 19  Robert R. Edwards, “The Metropol and the Mayster-Toun: Cosmopolitanism in Late Medieval Literature,” in Cosmopolitan Geographies: New Locations in Literature and Culture, ed. Vinay Dharwader (New York: Routledge, 2001), 33–63. 20  Joyce A. Joyce, “The Black Canon: Reconstructing Black American Literary Criticism,” New Literary History 18.2 (Winter 1987), 343. 21  Henry Louis Gates Jr., “What’s Love Got to Do with It: Critical Theory, Integrity and the Black Idiom,” New Literary History, 18.2 (Winter 1987), 345–362.



altered” to present his vernacular translation as an act of conservation.22 Dryden draws the analogy between an ever-present yet evolving natural world and the characters who populate Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales not just to valorize his own writing, but to insist that the types of voices Chaucer evokes remain in society and are worthy of recording. Naylor’s translations similarly bind up African-American vernaculars within a conversation about vernacularity that has been ongoing since the Middle Ages. The vernacular allows Naylor to make a radical assertion of African-­ American voices in a literary tradition that subtends the Western literary canon. In Naylor’s conception, African-American vernaculars translate, in the literal sense of “carrying over,” fundamental meanings from these earlier texts. Just as importantly, she uses her translations to feed back African-­ American voices into those texts; that is, to insist that African-American vernaculars and the lives they represent reflect the plenitudinous variety of emotion and experience that characterizes Chaucer’s pilgrims. I use “translation” as a term that has become freighted by scholarly arguments about rewriting and reinterpreting texts as an act of “cultural reclamation” that was as relevant to the work of medieval scribes as it is for contemporary novelists and poets thinking through the political problems of writing in English.23 Naylor takes extreme liberty with her source texts. She relies on them for the fundamental structure of her novels and for allusions, but places them at a distant linguistic and temporal remove. This method of approaching texts, through vernacular translation, advances Dryden’s most fundamental assumption about the vernacular: its ability to work as a literary mode that can bridge gaps in time, backwards and forwards. In Dryden’s case, his translations anchored his own legacy by tying it to that of Chaucer. Dryden positions his work in conversation with other long-lived writers, which recalls Chaucer’s own preoccupation with literary lineage, language, and the human body in his House of Fame.24 Naylor, as this chapter will argue, works in a similar fashion. Although her writing is not suffused with the immediate concern for the author’s own literary survival that marks Dryden’s work, her novels are no less ­interested 22  John Dryden, “Preface to the Fables,” in Essays of Dryden, vol. 2, ed. W.P. Ker (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1900), 203. 23  Cornish presents these arguments concisely in her Vernacular Translation in Dante’s Italy, 3. 24  Paul Fry compares the assemblage of writers in Dryden’s introduction to the congregation of souls in Dante’s Limbo. See: The Reach of Criticism: Method and Perception in Literary Theory (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), 122.



in the questions of literary survival writ large. Within Linden Hills (1985) and Bailey’s Cafe (1992) is an overriding anxiety about a crisis of voice in black letters.25 The evocation of a Western European literary tradition prompts questions about African-American literary ancestry, particularly whether in the absence of a clear lineage there can be a future of what can rightly be called African-American literature. The underlying fear is one of whiteness: that African-American literature could be subsumed within discourses that would deny the subjectivities of African-American characters as inflected by their racialization or would simply bracket African-American voices as “minority literature,” somehow uninflected by other literary currents.26 The vernacular conceived as a cross-temporal and counter-hegemonic literary mode allows Naylor to theorize a space for African-American letters that evades race as a confine. Counterintuitively, the historical and political implications of race keys Naylor’s access to these other voices. Because of and not despite textual instabilities and the tremendous loss of literary voices that mark African-American literature—poets and singers, whose voices only survive as anecdotes or through fragmentary evidence— it is a tradition that should be read as in conversation with centuries of vernacular writing that take their root in the pre-­modern period. This argument works in tandem with ones raised in Chaps. 2 and 4 regarding how nineteenth-century African-Americans wielded medieval tropes and texts to render legible the political projects of abolition and the full protection of the law. Those readings subverted the expected set of social relations that medieval romance often affirmed, thereby ennobling African-American causes while calling into question uses of those same tropes to articulate white supremacist ideologies. The vernacular, as received from Dante and Chaucer, calls upon a more unstable set of power relations to augment the valences of those African-American works. When Chaucer writes in his Parliament of Fowls “And out of olde bokes, in good feyth,/ cometh al this newe science that men lere,” he hints at some of the difficulties and possibilities contained within mobilizing the vernacular.27 At issue is supersession, of the old by the new, and the question of value: the transfer of cultural capital that is implied by making 25  This chapter will use the following editions of these novels: Linden Hills (New York: Penguin Books, 1986); Bailey’s Café (New York: Vintage Books, 1993). 26  Tim Engles, “African American Whiteness in Gloria Naylor’s Linden Hills,” African American Review 43.4 (Winter, 2009), 661–679. 27  Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Parliament of Fowls,” The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry Benson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987), 24–25.



use of the old. The vernacular depends on this renewal. Chaucer likens it to the annual growth of crops from “old fields,” which serves to heighten the implication of old texts as fecund grounds for producing knowledge to be consumed.28 Moreover, the move from “bokes” to “men” suggests that the seemingly inert text is a valuable substrate for the living. There is tremendous demotic potential within using what is established as the means to achieve a level of legitimacy within the literary sphere.29 However, the dynamic action of the vernacular depends upon maintaining the balance between the esteem in which work is held—its value—and its ability to be “new.” John Guillory notes this tension in his Cultural Capital when discussing the “transformative” potential of vernacular literacy for enabling upward social mobility and for consolidating established, upper-­ class sensibilities.30 This line of interrogation has the potential to lead down a well-trodden path of the so-called “culture wars” that have been in a state of détente since the mid-1990s. Those debates led to many urgent-sounding, but circular arguments about control of the literary canon. While my present argument is informed by those conversations, its stakes are quite different. This context of Naylor’s literary career certainly situates her within debates about the canon as inflected by an African-American writer’s experiences working with and against the weight of a Western literary tradition. Naylor’s first introduction to Dante and Chaucer came within a “great books” class at Brooklyn College and she did indeed use those authors to reflect on the struggle between aspiring to literary celebrity and simply writing novels representative of black experiences.31 Moreover, after a decade of attention that put her into the same conversation with Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, Naylor has since quietly vanished from the 28  For a discussion of Chaucer’s later enlargement of the idea of books used for “commune profit,” see: Alastair Minnis, Valuing the Vernacular (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 1. 29  Chaucer’s use of the word “science” here is provocative. Many scholars have interpreted this word to mean just what it says, that Chaucer is making an argument about technical innovation. In my argument, I am using the more general sense of the Middle English to build an argument about knowledge gained from books more generally. See Patricia Claire Ingham, The Medieval New: Ambivalence in the Age of Innovation (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 151. 30  John Guillory, Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 118. 31  Margaret Early Whitt, Understanding Gloria Naylor (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999), 2.



gaze of literary critics and the canon of twentieth-century female authors. However, the case of the disappearing author is, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. instructs, an irresolvable one with too many possible explanations to be satisfactorily unraveled.32 A more fruitful line of inquiry is to trace how “olde bokes” become “newe science,” in this case, the points of contact between and types of translation that lead from medieval to African-­ American texts. That Naylor engages works that precede her is not at all surprising. What is more revealing is the degree to which she adopts them as a mode of resistance to dominant forms of literary expression. Although the culture wars of the late twentieth century—culminating in the nineties—did little to settle debates about the canon, they laid bare the unspoken, yet widely accepted, cultural solidarities that served to naturalize the privileged position of white authors. The coherence of this genealogy of literary achievement came at the expense of the diversity of voices. These debates are often read as having been sparked by the liberal movements of the sixties. I, however, argue that they replay the deeper history of cultural contestation that this book charts.33 Chapter 2 presents the efforts white Americans made to achieve reconciliation through the construction of a shared medieval heritage. More importantly, late nineteenth and early twentieth-century African-American writers and scholars resisted those efforts by mobilizing the same texts and narratives to upend assumptions about the progression from the medieval past to the present. I read Naylor as deploying a similar strategy as a response to a problem that never went away. She enlists Dante and Chaucer, unquestionably canonical authors, as literary antecedents to her own work and to the lineage of female authors who were “awaiting their place in the sun.”34 Out of these “olde bokes” comes “newe science”—the theorization of the vernacular to express the ongoing, lived experience of African-Americans as a subject worthy of literary attention. Naylor deploys the vernacular mode, as derived from Dante and Chaucer, to refute the dominant narrative of literary genealogy and to make the larger political argument about the existence of a pluralistic, polyvocal community. 32  Henry Louis Gates Jr., “Canon Confidential: A Sam Slade Caper,” in Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 3–16. 33  See Andrew Hartman, A War for the Soul of America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015). 34  “Black Women Novelists: New Generation Raises Provocative Issues,” Ebony, 40.1 (November 1984), 64.



The System of Naylor’s Inferno Benedict Anderson’s term “reverberation,” which describes individuals separated by geography who may not be aware of one another’s existence yet whose lives affect each other’s, complements the argument this chapter makes about congeniality and the value of the vernacular. Anderson contends that there are imagined connections that create a shared culture, even if the individual symptoms of that culture are evanescent or difficult to quantify.35 The idea of reverberation is a helpful adjunct to congeniality as it characterizes a set of relationships that work without the awareness of parties deeply implicated with one another. The tension that underlies Gloria Naylor’s novel Linden Hills results from complications with reverberation. The novel’s main characters, Lester and Willie, are poets who spend much of the novel enumerating and struggling with literary influences while looking for work in the wealthy black neighborhood of Linden Hills. The lowly poets believe that Linden Hills, because of the wealth and education of its residents, contains answers to problems literary and pecuniary. While they work, they refine their notion of vernacular poetry by discussing the roster of authors that inspire them from the poet-slave Jupiter Hammond to T.S. Eliot. However, as is the case with the denizens of Dante’s Hell, the residents in this neighborhood represent a cloud of associations that reveals the contours and the flaws in the poets’ conception of the multiple, intersecting communities that inform their aspirations. In her thinking about these hidden connections, Naylor restages one of the most significant borrowings from Dante in an African-American context. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is framed around a Dantean pilgrimage and descent; by the novel’s conclusion, it situates the Invisible Man in a deep hole.36 The context of the Inferno complicates the narrator’s struggles with race by linking him to an eternal system of punishment whose contours are barely comprehensible to the person observing them. The novel departs from realism and enters into the territory of allegory, hence Invisible Man’s haunting final line: “Who knows but that, on lower frequencies, I speak for you.”37 All readers are implicated within the ­ 35  Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 2006), 79. 36  See: Robert Butler, “Dante’s Inferno and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: A Study in Literary Continuity,” in The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2000), 95–105. 37  Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (New York: Vintage International, 1995), 581.



allegorical system that Ellison constructs. The community invoked by Ellison, is, as Anderson would have it, connected “by reverberation.” The narrator’s invisibility is wholly premised on those around him not understanding the intimacy of their connection and its effects. It is this failure of recognition that keeps the Invisible Man within the basement in which he begins and ends the novel. Anderson, when writing about reverberation, lingers on language as an organizing structure that is vital to the construction of national identity.38 The creation of national identity comes with the threat of flattening the diversity of vernaculars and differences among communities. Ellison’s thinking derives from Dante’s reflections on a cross-temporal community of the vernacular, but is leavened with Ellison comprehending the dangers of being engulfed within nation-making’s sweep. Dante asserts that a union with writers of the past is possible through grammar, the codification of speech as exemplified in the regularization of Latin: This was the point from which the inventors of the art of grammar began; for their grammatica is nothing less than a certain immutable identity of language in different times and places. Its rules having been formulated with the common consent of many peoples, it can be subject to no individual will; and as a result, it cannot change. So those who devised this language did so lest, through changes in language dependent on the arbitrary judgment of individuals, we should become unable, or, at best, only partially able, to enter into contact with the deeds and authoritative writings of the ancients, or of those whose difference of location makes them different from us.39

The linguistic community broadens indefinitely from the local and the temporary because of “the art of grammar.” Latin affords a seamless connection between one’s literary predecessors and oneself. Dante ventures a step further to suggest that ennobling the vernacular might achieve similar ends despite differences in language. Dante’s pilgrimage through sin and into paradise charts a parallel itinerary of literary inheritance, seen most clearly in the pilgrim’s Latin guide, Virgil, but also in Statius, Homer, Horace, Ovid, Lucan Bibagiunta da Lucca, Guittone d’Arezzo, and Frese Donati. This list of influences demonstrates that Dante sees the vernacular community as unified by more than the parameters of language or time.  Anderson, 56.  Dante Alighieri, De Vulgari Eloquentia, ed. and trans. Steven Botterill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 23. 38 39



He marks classical and contemporary authors as his influences and reserves his deepest respect for the authors of antiquity who do not fit neatly into either the category of the vernacular or that of the standard.40 For Dante, standardizing the vernacular would be a step towards making it akin to Latin, a linguistic stance that would ennoble and codify it. For authors, this systematization would sacrifice the flexibility of the vernacular as a wandering tongue, one endowed with the evanescent authority afforded to the arbitrium: artistic liberty that breaks from regulated expression.41 The ennobling of the vernacular mode is at once alluring and potentially destructive because of the diversity of dialects and idiolects that might be suppressed in the name of creating a coherent vernacular tradition. Dante himself seemed undecided about advocating for the totalizing potential of the vernacular as he does in Book One of De Vulgari Eloquentia or writing that bespeaks the individual or operates within the well-worn grooves of communal affiliation, as he does in Book Two. What is significant about this tension is that it reveals the vernacular to be an expression of the dynamics of power, indeed that the vernacular must be read as implicated within structures of cultural power and evolving in response to political projects.42 Ellison, writing about the subject of the vernacular in an American context, describes the constant struggle between the potential unities the vernacular might engender across social divisions and the anxieties about losing the “psychic security from within our inherited divisions”: So perhaps we shy from confronting our cultural wholeness because it offers no easily recognizable points of rest, no facile certainties as to who, what, or where (culturally or historically) we are. Instead, the whole is always in cacophonic motion.43

Contestation and disruption, the messy work of expanding the contours of belonging, are the functions of the vernacular, yet it is always under the 40  Dante Alighieri, Inferno, trans. Allen Mandelbaum (New York: Bantam Classics, 1982), xxiv. 41  Justin Steinberg offers rich discussion of the legal language Dante deploys to explain the relationship between Latin and vernacular languages. See: Dante and the Limits of the Law (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 66–68. 42  Scanlon, 226. 43  Ralph Ellison, “The Little Man at the Chehaw Station: The American Artist and his Audience,” The American Scholar (Winter 1977), 36.



threat of being misidentified for the calcified discourse of long-established hierarchies. Invisible Man theorizes race as the informing matrix that unifies everyone in the nation and which can be articulated by the common language—the “lower frequencies”—used by the Invisible Man. And these lower frequencies run across the length of the country and its history: through the narrator’s journey from the South to New  York and from the eighteenth-century slave mutiny alluded to in the novel’s epigram through the uncertain future suggested by the novel’s end. At the same time, the text is self-consciously idiomatic in its assemblage of informing materials and insists on its ability to tell an African-American story. The novel restlessly vacillates between offering “cultural wholeness” and productive division. When Gloria Naylor appeals to Dante to explore the vernacular as a literary mode, she likewise lays claim to the heft the concept held for Ellison with respect to race and nation. However, she seeks to expand the limits of who can be included within that mode. The dynamic relationship between speaking for the disempowered and creating a “common language”—in the sense that Guillory deploys the phrase to suggest the feeling of belonging within a larger social body that common possession of language can evoke—undergirds Linden Hills.44 While the vernacular is a linguistic mode, more potently, it should “be recognized as encompassing a vast array of acts of cultural transmission, and negotiation, deviation and/or synthesis, confrontation and/or reconciliation.”45 Naylor makes demands on the vernacular to be more than expressive of nation or race; she seeks a fundamental renegotiation of the terms of power and inclusion implied by vernacularity. Given her ambitions in conceiving the vernacular, Dante is an essential model for Gloria Naylor. Linden Hills is part of the long history of African-­ American writers who mapped Dante’s political and linguistic commitments onto contemporary issues: In Dante [African-American writers] find not only a politically engaged poet who speaks truth to power in a way that resonates with their strange experience; they also find a master craftsman of poetic language who forges a new vernacular out of the linguistic diversity around him, not unlike what authors of color have had to do in this country.46  Cultural Capital, 93.  Valuing the Vernacular, 16. 46  Freedom Readers, 3. See also the discussion of Cordelia Ray’s “Dante” in Chap. 2. 44 45



Dante provides a model that contests a normative version of the English literary tradition and that makes clear the political stakes of language. The line of critique Naylor offers is complex; while a theory of the vernacular emerges from the poets as they wander through Linden Hills, it is one that the characters themselves profoundly misunderstand. Willie looks around the wealthy neighborhood of Linden Hills and asks, “why black folks ain’t produced a Shakespeare…You’d think of all the places in the world, this neighborhood had a chance of giving us at least one black Shakespeare.”47 The poet’s aspiration is disquieting, particularly in its collocation of literary achievement and black status in this hellscape. Shakespeare frequently appears in Naylor’s work as representative of the height of the English vernacular tradition. However, this novel treats Shakespeare with suspicion because his work threatens to function like Linden Hills itself; that is, become an ever-receding target of aspiration that can never be fulfilled. Shakespeare’s writing can be read as a type of vernacular achievement; Naylor here frames it as threatening to the diversity of vernacular voices. While contemplating the idea of the “black Shakespeare” and their own literary careers, Willie and Lester are attracted to the notion despite its implications.48 Fittingly, the names Willie and Lester make sly reference to a ventriloquist and dummy duo, which heightens the notion that what the two offer is the repetition of old speech.49 Naylor inserts a wholly subversive voice, that of a black woman, as a counter to the failures in how Willie and Lester conceive of the literary tradition to which they belong. Naylor presents the black female author as paradigmatic of the vernacular because, in the logic of the text, she represents fundamental problems in voice and presence: “how to negotiate a relationship to an Anglo-European language and tradition that double defines them as absence and lack—as black and as women.”50 This intersection is important to underscore as the politics of race are read as  Linden Hills, 283.  In the novel most closely tied by critics to Shakespeare, Mama Day, Naylor goes to tremendous lengths to undo or frustrate expected points in the plot as derived from Shakespeare. See: James R.  Andreas, “Signifyin’ on The Tempest in Mama Day,” in Shakespeare and Appropriation, eds. Christy Desmet and Robert Sawyer (New York: Routledge, 1999), 110. 49  Peter Erickson, Rewriting Shakespeare, Rewriting Ourselves (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 132. 50  Valerie Traub, “Rainbows of Darkness: Deconstructing Shakespeare in the Works of Zora Neale Hurston and Gloria Naylor,” in Cross-Cultural Performances: Differences in 47 48



inadequate—the African-American literary tradition had itself marginalized the voices of women. To many of the novel’s characters, the female voice is perceived as little more than a noise carried on the wind and yet it is profoundly felt by all: The cold wind blew into the kitchen, and they didn’t know if it was the freezing air or the long, thin howl it carried with it into the kitchen that made the hair stand up on their arms.51

The sounds are the inarticulate screams of Willa Nedeed, Luther Nedeed’s wife and the only female character whose voice is present throughout the entire narrative, although she speaks directly to just one other character before the novel’s final pages. She spends the entirety of the text imprisoned by her husband in the basement of the Nedeed home. She suffers in the deepest level of Naylor’s hell: the final stop in the pilgrim’s journey. The punishment is in keeping with the system of Dante’s Inferno. In Canto 34, Lucifer grinds Judas, Cassius, and Brutus in his mouth at the bottom of Hell, an image which combines muted speech with physical torture. While Dante offers a rationale for the punishment of those on hell’s lowest level, Naylor does not. The novel never adequately explains her husband’s cruelty, why she has been rendered infans, incapable of speech. Rather than being a commentary on justice, Willa offers a final twist on the notion of the vernacular as offered by Dante. Willa Nedeed “speaks” in the interstices of the novel, between the long chapters centered on Willie. Her chapters change the valence of the vernacular to mean the unofficial channels of communication, what is left unrecorded; Willa’s voice carries on the wind, but is also a figurative undercurrent of the narrative, put on display in intermezzo sections between chapters. These sections are in a different font than the rest of the book and operate in a concurrent but separate plotline. The narrative of Willa slowly dying in the basement functions like a gloss to the surrounding chapters, filling in the gaps of what is ignored in the main text and offering a commentary on the events on the surface. As Willie reflects on the literary influences around himself and marshals the canon of vernacular authors in African-American, white American, and British traditions to Women’s Re-Visions of Shakespeare, ed. Marianne Novy (University of Illinois Press, 1993), 151. 51  Linden Hills, 42.



guide him through the perils of Linden Hills, his homophonic double, Willa, toils in her confinement; she searches through the forgotten belongings of previous generations of Nedeed wives and finds a set of documents that function like Willie’s vernacular: a Bible, books of recipes, and old photographs. Significantly, this vernacular functions in distinction from the assemblage Willie and Lester create. This suggests that the eclectic mix of genres and forms constitutes a wholly different corpus of vernacular writing, or, that what the vernacular is must be broadened to include texts that perform differently than what can be readily reproduced on the page or recited. Willa Nedeed is locked in the basement with her son, who dies while confined. She finds the Bible in the folds of a moldering wedding dress as she looks for cloth to use for her son’s funeral shroud: LUWANA PACKERVILLE 1837 was etched in fading gold on the bottom border. She held the book stoically in her hand—There can be no God—and she pressed her lips together. Then opening the cover, there in a delicate, curled scroll were those very words…Yes, whoever you were, Luwana Packerville, you were right about that.52

Luwana Packerville, Willa discovers, is a former wife of Luther Nedeed. The symmetry between the women is apparent from the thought they share while facing the Bible. What happens between the two women through Willa’s reading of Luwana’s Bible displays, in miniature, the type of affinity across time made possible through the vernacular as a response to authority. The handwritten epigram for the Bible is the first of many annotations Luwana has made. In the books of Genesis and Exodus, she writes about being bought by Luther Nedeed (the ancestor of the novel’s Luther), her trip North, and the first inklings that life with her new husband will not be joyous. Amidst the laws of Leviticus, she catalogues her attempts to maintain the Nedeed household according to her husband’s stifling rules. Between First and Second Kings she writes of her son’s manumission, a step taken to allow him to be the heir of the Nedeed line. By the Acts of the Apostles, she has begun to write letters to herself in the margins of the Bible. When justifying the change in content she takes inspiration from the writing of the apostles themselves:  Linden Hills, 93.




Here, preserved for all time, are the wonderful letters of our holy men trumpeting their joy and faith in our Savior for thirsty hearts throughout the ages. I should drink of them and rejoice. But sometimes I do indeed wonder what it is like to have someone to care about what you will say.53

Luwana struggles with the permanence of the Bible as having a lasting authority for future generations and the impermanence of her own written word. Interlarded into those doubts are her concerns that the Bible may in fact not hold any meaning for her at all because of the disparity in the communities that the biblical text and Luwana’s marginalia have around them. She cannot “drink of” the Bible because she cannot imagine herself as implicated in the imagined community of the text. For this reason, Willa reading Luwana’s letters radically alters the valences of her Bible as an artifact. Three levels of discourse are imbricated around the book—the biblical text, Luwana’s interpolations, and Willa Nedeed’s reflections.54 Although the responses of the two women seem to derive from the central authority of the Bible, each has its own degree of autonomy that renders it distinct from its source. Luwana’s writing, a figure for a vernacular response to an authoritative text, becomes prophetic; it reveals the fullness of its meanings in the proper circumstances to the right person. And while Willa can find no solace in the Bible, she does find a congenial soul in Luwana. Willa’s interaction with Luwana’s Bible examples the creation of a vernacular genealogy that circumvents the systems of power that severed them from the rest of society. These women are linked because of their marginal status; Luwana’s writing gains significance to Willa because it is in the margins. Writing in margins carries a host of metaphorical meanings which proliferate as Willa reads the letters from her predecessor: women as having marginalized voices, conversations carried on in the margins of manuscripts, schools of thought formed by glossing shared texts, and writing outside the bounds of an authoritative work. Luwana unknowingly writes for a woman in the future she cannot have imagined, a woman as voiceless and subjected as herself. An essential component of this message is its medium, the carrier of their communication being an orthodox text. Luwana’s voice has room only insofar as its vehicle is a permissible object.  Naylor, 120.  Here, the glossed Bible is imbued with rich implications akin to a medieval manuscript, particularly the Glossa Ordinaria. 53 54



Yet, what is at the margins becomes more important for Willa than what is at the center of the page. After the Bible, Willa finds recipe books from the wife of Luwana’s son, Eveleyn Creyton. The two represent the next generation to live in the Nedeed house. Once again, within the form of an object permissible in the narrow ambit of early twentieth-century women’s society, Willa finds Creyton’s life detailed in the form of recipes that change in volume and in purpose. The measurements of the recipes move from gigantic batches of food meant to satisfy a deficiency in her life, to small concoctions of a love potion to win her husband’s affection, and finally to a lethal dose of ice cream and prussic acid to end her grief. Later, Willa finds photo albums of the wife of Luther Nedeed who directly precedes her, their images telling a similarly tragic story. Taken together, the Bible, recipe books, and photos add up to a vernacular archive. In it, all members share a vocabulary of sentiment and a channel of communication via words that occupy the edges of texts or the humble mediums for their difficult messages. Willa’s antiphonal narrative and the archive she uncovers press on the meaning of the vernacular as conceived of by Willie and Lester. Her vernacular tradition does not have the neat form of the poetry Willie uses to sustain himself, but rather exists as it can, in irregular and odd forms, like the glossed Bible, or the recipe books, which irrupt and disappear at odd intervals to testify to an existence and its loss. This vernacular is ragged, but resilient. Willa survives weeks in the basement, escaping in the final pages of the book in soiled and torn clothes. She emerges in part because she has been buoyed by the words of her predecessors, whose work propels her through the period of her incarceration. However, it is not just the voices of the previous women in the house to which she responds. This vernacular language system is dynamic. Willa’s determination to move upwards is not only powered by the words of “her sisters” but also by the perpetual downward force of generations of Luther Nedeeds, which have caused the voices of their wives to become volatile under the pressures of time and endured violence, to form a compound so dangerous that it threatens to obliterate all that is around it. On Christmas Eve, Willa escapes from the basement and in a daze walks into the room where Willie, Lester, and Luther are busy trimming a Christmas tree. The sight of her emaciated body renders the three mute. Luther rushes Lester and Willie from the house. They stand on the porch bereft of even the certainty of comprehension language should provide:



Even if they could now trust their voices, there would have been nothing to say. Where were the guidelines with which to judge what they had left behind that door? They stood there frozen in a space of time without a formula that lost innocence or future wisdom could have given them.55

Although this is the climactic scene for Willa, who burns down Luther’s house, killing herself and her husband, it is also a turning point for Willie. Willie had been building a concept of the vernacular that wholly operates as a proxy for his aspirations for social status. When confronted with the sight of Willa, he realizes how limited his thinking has been. His perspective has the virtue of a deep chronology, yet suffers from being unable to recognize anything beyond itself. Willie, like nearly all the other characters, fails to recognize the human cry beneath the howl on the wind when the book begins and is at a loss for how to make sense of the madwoman in the basement at its close. As he walks, he speaks to the wind, as though speaking the refrain of a poem: “they let it burn.” Willie repeats it three times and then the line appears in italics, which offsets it from the rest of the novel, as though it is unspoken: They let it burn. The sense of incompleteness as represented by Willie’s struggles to understand what he has witnessed is a fitting coda to Naylor’s thinking about Dante’s vernacularity, as it insists on the vernacular as ever in process. Its subversive potential depends on its incompleteness.56

From Chaucer to Naylor: Finding a Voice Although Naylor seeks to echo the conclusion of Dante’s Inferno with her ending to Linden Hills, she makes a telling emendation to one of her source’s most poignant literary choices. After Virgil and the pilgrim have descended to the lowest point of Hell, they hasten to leave: My guide and I came on that hidden road to make our way back into the bright world; and with no care for any rest, we climbed– he first, I following—until I saw, through a round opening, some of those things of beauty that Heaven bears.57  Linden Hills, 299.  Scanlon, 222. 57  Inferno, XXXIV, 133–139. 55 56



Dante pays close attention to the relative positions of these characters because it models the vision of literary supersession that informs the entirety of the Divine Comedy. Virgil’s walking before Dante correlates to the author’s sense of his own poetic advancement: he literally and figuratively follows in the footsteps of Virgil. However, at the threshold of Paradise, Dante passes beyond where Virgil could go and thus overtakes his predecessor’s poetic position. Naylor is conscious of the potential within this literary positioning, as she chooses to leave ambiguous her response to the question of literary primacy: Each with his own thoughts, they approached the chain fence, illuminated by a full moon just slipping toward the point over the horizon that signaled midnight. Hand anchored to hand, one helped the other to scale the open links. Then, they walked out of Tupelo Drive into the last days of the year.58

This is a suggestive critique of Dante’s conclusion to Inferno and Purgatorio as it relates to questions of literary tradition. The metacanon that Naylor constructs links herself and Dante but also pulls at the threads of a wide matrix of female authors who have sought to forge a literary lineage. Willa finding the work of other female writers in the basement echoes Alice Walker’s metaphorical search for Zora Neal Hurston’s grave and it anticipates attempts by writers and scholars to recover female writers from obscurity. The circle of reference which loops back to Dante betrays a problem in Naylor’s deployment of the vernacular. Naylor’s novel asserts the African-­ American female voice within the Western literary tradition, which has threatened to confine her writing to the political projects of her time. Naylor never inhabits the role of Dante striding off into a future in which she (or her characters) will be a new referent for vernacular writing. Linden Hills ends within the shadow of finality, “the last days of the year.” Naylor’s intervention into the literary world seems both timely and fixed in time. Willa, the writer whose work is most suggestive of the vernacular, dies at the end of the novel and there is no indication that Willie will advance her story. The conclusion pessimistically reads the longevity of connections made possible through this alternative voice. The female vernacular that she conjures is too contingent to survive outside of its narrow set of women  Linden Hills, 304.




who have experienced similar subjugations. In an interview in 2007, Hortense Spillers, the prominent scholar of African-American literature, voices a similar concern about a failure of voice while discussing women “searching for a vocabulary” at the time when both she and Naylor were making their first major interventions into the literary realm: I was looking for my generation of black women who were so active in other ways, to open a conversation with feminists. Because my idea about where we found ourselves in the late 1970s and the mid-1980s, was that we were really out of the conversation that we had, in some ways, historically initiated. In other words, the women’s movement and the black movement have always been in tandem, but what I saw happening was black people being treated as a kind of raw material. […] The available discourses all seemed to come out of experiences that somehow, when they got to me, did a detour. [Laughter.] Or the language broke down.59

Later in her interview she deploys martial language—she develops a vocabulary “to actually go to war” and she “became very good at being a marksman and ducking”—which again links language and anxiety about survival that transforms itself into modes of resistance.60 Spillers’ interview provides several important contextual points to the discussion of Naylor’s project of creating a vernacular. While the interviewers contend that Spillers has laid critical groundwork for subsequent African-American critics, Spillers herself cautions that without careful attention the work she initiated would need to be “rediscovered” because it is always at risk of being “reabsorbed” or reappropriated.61 At the same time, she tempers her language of survival by shifting the grounds upon which her work might be understood. She notes that the unexpected allegiances that her essays have produced not only clarify other realms of inquiry, such as Queer Studies, but also develop the vocabulary she labored to produce. This observation highlights the tension between the proprietary claims necessary to maintain a discourse’s political stakes as situated in time and the cross-pollination that occurs when that language is sufficiently rich to 59  Hortense Spillers, et al. “Whatcha Gonna Do?—Revisiting Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book: A Conversation with Hortense Spillers, Saidiya Hartman, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Shelly Eversley, and Jennifer L. Morgan,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 35 (Spring–Summer 2007), 300–301. 60  Ibid., 301. 61  Ibid.



propel other conversations. In the essay the interview commemorates, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Spillers moves from the captive body to language written on the body to an “insurgent”“ text for “female empowerment,”62 a progress that echoes Willa’s movement in Naylor’s Linden Hills from captivity through liberation after uncovering a set of female narratives. Spillers and Naylor open but leave unanswered in their respective works the issue of fugitivity, the problems that arise once the previously obscure grammar, to use Spiller’s word, takes flight. Does the basic grammar, transformed and put into novel formulations, testify to the persistence and success of the literary insurgency? Or does it mark a moment in time when the grammar brings into historical context what had been previously unspoken in “neither past nor future?”63 While the anniversary of Spiller’s article occasioned a major reassessment of the waves she caused through academia, Naylor’s death a few years later was met with little attention. The place of the vernacular in time, the sense that its intervention is somehow belated, is an abiding anxiety within attempts to claim the authority of the vernacular. To return again to Dryden’s preface, one can see the ironies that abound in how he justifies his attempts to update Chaucer. Dryden’s “modernization” of Chaucer put the translation firmly within the idiom of the seventeenth century even though Dryden hoped to position the text for posterity. He argues for the vitality and “purity” of Chaucer’s language, such that he sees in his mind’s eye “all the pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales, their humors, their features, and the very dress, as distinctly as if I had supp’d with them at the Tabard in Southwark.”64 Nonetheless, he reasons that Chaucer’s work represented only the “infancy” of poetry, full of “dead coloring,” and thus seventeenth-century readers found his work to be lacking: [T]ho’ he must always be thought a great poet, he is no longer esteem’d a good writer; and for ten impressions, which his works have had in so many successive years, yet at present a hundred books are scarcely purchas’d once a twelvemonth: for, as my last Lord Rochester said, tho’ somewhat profanely, “Not being of God, he could not stand.”65 62  Hortense J.  Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17.2 (Summer 1987), 80. 63  Ibid., 66. 64  John Dryden, The Poems and Fables of John Dryden, ed. James Kinsley (London: Oxford University Press, 1962), 526. 65  Ibid. 528.



The predicament that Dryden finds himself in is that he needs his “predecessor in the laurel” to be both significant and outdated, alive and dead, so that he could overtake the prestigious position that he himself had ascribed to Chaucer. Vernacular translation functions as a literary resurrection for the author translated, but it also reveals the desire for the translator herself to be the new voice of the vernacular for her age. Chaucer is the most significant author to consider in this discussion because his work has typically been defined as the point of origin for the vernacular English literary tradition and, as such, has been the subject of debates about linguistic transformation in relation to cultural authority since Chaucer’s own time. In the introduction to Thomas Speght’s 1603 edition of Chaucer’s works, Francis Beaumont argues that Chaucer’s English is one of the set of languages of “common practice” as opposed to a “learned tongue,” and that such languages “like unto leaves must of necessity have their buddings, their blossomings, their ripenings and their fallings.”66 Beaumont outdoes even Dryden in his insistence on the revivifying potential of updating Chaucer’s language, arguing that Speght’s translation manages to render Chaucer “both alive again and young again.”67 Here we see attempts to rejuvenate Chaucer that are premised on an early modern desire to construct Chaucer as a crucial precursor to contemporary literary production; Chaucer’s greatness redounds to those who have helped construct him as such.68 Beaumont, in turn, refers to Chaucer’s own awareness of the shifting nature of language within his work by quoting Troilus and Criseyde: Ye knowe that in forme of speech is chaunge Withinne a thousand yeer, and words tho That had prise, now wonder nice and straunge Us thinketh them and yet thei spake hem so…69

66  The Works of our Ancient and Learned English Poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. and trans. Thomas Speght (London: Adam Islip, 1601) ver=Z39.88-2003&res_id=xri:eebo&rft_id=xri:eebo:image:7609:5/ (Accessed January 26, 2017). 67  Speght, 6. 68  Tim William Machan, “Speght’s ‘Works’ and the Invention of Chaucer,” Text, 8 (1995), 148. 69  Troilus II.i., 22–25. All citations of Chaucer refer to: The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd edition, eds. Larry D. Benson, et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987).



Chaucer continues the passage to compare speech to love, both enduring realities susceptible to changing expressions. Writing—like the art of wooing—is mutable in form, although not in content. It bears noting that Chaucer suggests that Troilus might last long enough for people to marvel at its strangeness. Indeed, Chaucer was complicit in the invention of authorial persona as fit to endure through self-conscious claims about his poem’s importance, most notably when he ushers Troilus into the world: Go, litel bok, go, litel myn tragedye, Ther God thi makere yet, er that he dye, So sende might to make in som comedye! But litel book, no making thow n’envie, But subgit be to all poesye; And kis the steppes where as thow seest pace Virgile, Ovid, Omer, Lucan, and Stace. And for ther is so gret diversite In Englissh and in writing of oure tonge, So prey I God that non myswrite the…70

Here the poet refuses to see his work as temporary, and instead, as Dante does, places it in the company of the most enduring writers: Virgil, Ovid, Lucan, and Statius. He coyly counter-poises his own mortality against the immortality of his poetry, asking that he may live long enough to write more and enjoining those who copy his work to do so accurately, to protect against the “great diversity” of the language. Even at this early point, Chaucer voices the now familiar anxiety about seeking to control the afterlife of his work. He wishes to shift Troilus towards the realm of codified speech, or “learned language,” where the works of Homer and Virgil dwell. And yet Chaucer acknowledges the difference between ­himself and those writers due to the “gret diversite in Englissh.” The evolving landscape of the vernacular means that the major statement of artistic voice Troilus represents would be subject to continual revision and perhaps incomprehensibility. Given his concern with the instability of English and the company he hopes his work will keep, Chaucer makes the curious choice to pivot from the classical subject matter of Troilus to his “comedye,” the Canterbury Tales. This is not to say that Chaucer does not continue integrating classical  Troilus, V, 1785–1799.




material into his writing; however, the more significant intervention into the English literary tradition Chaucer makes is to offer, as Dryden puts it: “God’s plenty… for mankind is ever the same, and nothing lost out of nature, tho’ everything is alter’d.”71 The diversity of perspectives within the Tales works counter to the problem of literary ossification. In an everchanging literary environment, it invites a dialogic relationship between a Middle English Canterbury Tales and later revisions. As Thomas Prendergast rightly notes, there is no “original” Canterbury Tales.72 Nonetheless, the lure of authenticity that leads writers to revisit the Tales is enabled by Chaucer’s creation of a vernacular audience within his text that mirrors the one outside of it. Unlike Troilus, the Canterbury Tales embraces the possibility that his future readers would adopt and transform his material in new and unexpected ways as is modeled by the tale-telling game around which the text is structured. Chaucer offers a vision of vernacularity that differs from the solipsistic search for a pure, unchanging vernacular, and instead envisions a vernacular community that can encompass motion and creative interplay. These issues of supercession and the continuity of vernacular authority are crucial to understanding the significance behind Naylor’s decision to move from translating Dante into translating Chaucer. Although these questions take on a different valence in Naylor’s work, which introduces race, feminism, and the attendant problems of participating in nationalist discourse into the discussion, the challenge of reconciling individual voice and participating within a larger community of vernacular writers underpins the change in scope and focus between the novels. Linden Hills argues for the inclusion of African-American female voices into the English literary canon, and yet Willa occupies an oppositional position to the rest of the novel’s characters. She is not incorporated into the text’s main narrative and she does not have the same literary status as Willie. Moreover, the literary assemblage Willa relies upon militates against the vernacular canon outlined in the primary narrative. While the novel succeeds in its opposing traditional compositions of literary genealogy, it does not find an alternative within Dante for a pattern of vernacular writing that is not premised 71  John Dryden, The Works of John Dryden, Vol. VI, ed. Vinton A.  Dearing (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 42. 72  Thomas A. Prendergast, “Writing, Authenticity, and the Fabrication of the Chaucerian Text,” in Rewriting Chaucer: Culture, Authority, and the Idea of the Authentic Text, 1400–1602. Eds. Thomas A.  Prendergast and Barbara Kline (Columbus: Ohio University Press, 1999), 2.



on a struggle for literary priority, particularly one in which a singular male voice emerges at the end of the narrative. Such a model threatens to reproduce problems of inclusion within the canon that the text had outlined.73 The balance between literary prestige and demotic availability Naylor hopes to strike is a delicate one. Benedict Anderson suggests that the evolution of vernacular language might begin with a revolutionary democratization of language, but the cultural products of that change quickly become consolidated into the larger project of constructing national identity.74 Anderson’s primary concern is with the world after print cultures. However, scholars in later fields follow a similar line of thinking about vernacular language’s inherent narrowing of the receptive audience and the elevation of that language’s status. For example, Anderson’s view of the vernacular’s evolution is in accord with Sheldon Pollock’s discussion of the vernacular over a much longer stretch of time—stretching nearly two millennia—throughout which he sees vernacularization as “renouncing the larger world for a smaller place,” the change from the linguistic empires of Latin and Sanskrit to the regional efflorescence of vernaculars.75 The vernacular in these terms is bounded and only able to communicate to a community within regional and temporal borders. Rather than express difference on the part of a community with shared aspirations, it can homogenize and delimit the sorts of cultural expression that are considered worthy of the name. The path Naylor took to finding a stronger model for vernacular speech that transgresses these limitations follows a pattern among ­African-­American writers who were dissatisfied with received terms of literary participation for themselves within the nation. The most notable example of this is Langston Hughes with whom, ironically, Naylor has stated ideological differences about how to represent “the folk.” Naylor’s disagreement stemmed from her belief that Hughes, among other writers during the Harlem Renaissance, tried to “glorify the folk, to raise the folk up to art.” She believed that “the folk” needed no such efforts at representation,

73  See Micheal Awkward’s discussion of African-American literature reproducing the same patterns of “oedipal linguistic battles” that Harold Bloom identifies in his Anxiety of Influence: Inspiring Influences: Tradition, Revision and Afro-American Women’s Novels (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 6. 74  Anderson, 70. 75  Sheldon Pollock, “Cosmopolitan and Vernacular in History,” Public Culture 12.3 (2000), 592.



rather they simply needed accurate portrayal: folk “is pure poetry.”76 Naylor points to Zora Neale Hurston’s “militant” position on representing vernacular speech without betraying the sensibilities she found to be integral to it.77 Despite Naylor’s claims of disagreement between herself and Hughes, her protestations reveal significant similarities between them. Hughes sought a type of “intercultural positionality” that allowed him to escape the political and artistic boundaries he found within the United States where he constantly confronted his compromised citizenship and limitations on the sorts of literary movements in which he could participate.78 From this new position, Hughes could reimagine the meaning of the literature he produced and reject formulations of black identity that were reactive to white expressions of power. He traveled for months through Central Asia, Africa, and Latin America, translating and having his work translated (notably having his collection, The Weary Blues, translated into Uzbek) as part of the search for a vernacular identity that was broader than his American “folk.”79 Hughes sought a community of the vernacular internationally to work in tandem with the sources implicit within his early poetry—poets of “the folk and the fight.”80 Although English functioned 76  Gloria Naylor, Conversations with Gloria Naylor, ed. Maxine Lavon Montgomery (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2004), 62. 77  Her choice of a counterpoint to Hughes is a particularly pointed one because of the famous attempts at collaboration between the two authors to produce a play about AfricanAmerican life that fell apart for reasons that have never been recovered. See: Henry Louis Gates Jr. “A Tragedy of Negro Life,” in Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston’s Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life, eds. George Houston Bass and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York: Harper Perennial, 1991), 15. 78  See Paul Gilroy’s discussion of “intercultural positionality,” the urge to escape national boundaries to access new perspectives for cultural critique in The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), 6. See also the discussion of Langston Hughes and linguistic play during his trips through Eastern Europe in Vera M.  Kutzinski’s The Worlds of Langston Hughes: Modernism and Translation in the Americas (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012), 25–30. 79  For a discussion of the international significance of Hughes’ work see: David Chioni Moore, “Colored Dispatches from the Uzbek Border: Langston Hughes’ Relevance, 1933–2002,” Callallo, 25.4 (2002), 1115–1135; A.  Robert Lee, “‘Ask Your Mama’ Langston Hughes, the Blues and Recent Afro-American Literary Studies,” Journal of American Studies 24.2 (1990), 199–209; Anthony Dawahare, “Langston Hughes’s Radical Poetry and the ‘End of Race’,” Melus 23.3 (1998), 21–41. 80  Kevin Young, trans. “Poems Written in Soviet Uzbekistan, 1932–33: From the 1934 Uzbek Translation of S.[anjar] Siddiq,” Callaloo, 25.4 (2002), 1113.



as the reference language to which Hughes would ultimately return, he used his language as a form distinct from its expression of American “cultural power.”81 His transnational consciousness was vital to theorizing a poetic tradition that interrogated the meaning of blackness so as to elude the dichotomizing impulse around race within the United States.82 He strategically remapped the coordinates of race and politics to forge his particular brand of modernism that could then turn its gaze to those same issues within the United States. Where Naylor differs from the likes of Hughes is in the coordinates of this positionality. While Naylor has never engaged in the type of direct internationalism of Hughes, the movement between Linden Hills and Bailey’s Café shows a similar desire to seek out a community of voices over the axes of time and distance that would allow her to escape the horizon of expectations for her writing. The creative stakes for Hughes involved a search for a wider circle of communicants and a re-envisioning of the possibilities for literature as a connection between his literary heritage and a more inclusive literary future. The stakes for Naylor are similarly grand, however she, like Dryden, sought such advancement by looking to a literary community of the past and the reanimating powers of the vernacular. This does not overstate the context of the novel; all of the characters who find their way to the eponymous café are on the verge of suicide, but are held onto life by the café and its community, a type of limbo wherein all of Bailey’s Café’s tales are told.83 Bailey’s Café likewise is a place both universal and local. Bailey assumes ownership of the café after witnessing the large-scale annihilation caused by the bombing of Hiroshima. When he returns to the United States, he sits on the seashore in San Francisco and a fog envelops him so that he can no longer distinguish between land and sea. He seems to be on the edge  Kutzinski, 30.  Of course, Hughes himself was preceded by Frederick Douglass in making this type of strategic journey to reposition himself upon returning to the United States. See the discussion of this in Chap. 2. Moore notes that even while ensconced in Harlem, poets from around the world would make a “pilgrimage” to see Hughes. Moore, 51. Seth Moglen’s “Modernism in the Black Diaspora: Langston Hughes and the Broken Cubes of Picasso” presents Hughes’ “populist and revolutionary” version of modernism. “Modernism in the Black Diaspora: Langston Hughes and the Broken Cubes of Picasso,” Callaloo 25.4 (2002), 1189–1205. 83  The text refers to the peculiar logic of the café at several points, noting that all the café’s regulars “all boil down to only one type, or they wouldn’t be in here in the first place,” Naylor, 32; 222. 81 82



of a dire decision when the café—his salvation and the focal point of his existence—appears out of the fog. As Bailey explains, the café does not occupy a fixed location on a map, but seems to appear wherever there is need for it, although every place signifies the same psychological locus for those who enter it: I guess whoever Bailey was—if there was a Bailey—he knew this place had to be real mobile. Even though this planet is round, there are just too many spots where you can find yourself hanging on to the edge just like I was; and unless there’s some space, some place, to take a breather for a while, the edge of the world—frightening as it is—could be the end of the world, which would be quite a pity.84

The café appeals to the marginalized in terms of their psychological conditions, those enveloped in the solipsism of suicidal thoughts. It also gives access to other types of marginalities, accommodating characters from the ends of the earth: New  York, San Francisco, New Orleans, Russia, and Ethiopia. The global reach of the café means that it is a metaphorical space not a physical one; the characters never leave their own parts of the world to enter it. Rather, the café directly connects people on the extremes of the nation and across the globe. And, as Bailey’s description indicates, the café also creates linkages across time, to the point that the primary storyteller’s own identity has become entangled within that of the original Bailey, Chaucer’s Bailey, and presumably the other “Baileys” that have followed. The restaurant springs into being for the narrator Bailey because of a modern crisis, in a modern city, but it predates those problems and that space by centuries. Its oblique reference to Chaucer suggests that the origin of the café could be quite old indeed. Like the vernacular, the place morphs through time but maintains its essential character as a refuge for people living in ways that assert their individuality, a place to have a voice. The novel here resumes the argument of Linden Hills about the vernacular as a space to appeal one’s conditions, as well as a tradition that is at least as old as the Middle Ages. The logic of physical displacement as it inheres within the vernacular is evident. Bailey’s Café is a place for people who are at home nowhere, who have no place in the world, yet find comfort in this lack of fixity. In Bailey’s assurance that the reader can attain proficiency in the language of the café  Bailey’s Cafe, 28.




simply by remaining near it, one can see the concern with communication as an analogue to movement in space. The connection between language and movement recalls the dynamic of motion as it relates to the storytelling game in the Canterbury Tales. In the uncertain space of the pilgrimage trail, the rules of nobility are left by the wayside in favor of a fluid system of requiting through which each person’s individual nobility can be valued. This is a peculiarity inherent in the strange space the pilgrims inhabit. Although the characters in the Canterbury Tales and Bailey’s Café are explicitly in competition (the prostitutes in Naylor’s novel compete for men), their story-telling game implies a claim of mutual intelligibility, as each character must be understood for the contest to function. That each can comprehend the other is the paramount tenet of the novel, one introduced in the second chapter, “The Vamp.”85 Bailey compares the two most dissimilar characters of the novel, a nun and a procurer, by placing their voices in parallel several times. In each iteration he “takes ’em one key down,” to show that underneath their differences in expression is a harmony of sentiment. At their lowest level both see themselves as guardians of women who either “can’t be trusted” or “really need protecting,” which, for Bailey, demonstrates a tacit conversation or agreement between them: That’s just two of them, and they’re only minor voices. But I think you’ve got the drift. Anything worth hearing in this greasy spoon happens under the surface. You need to know that if you plan to stick around here and listen while we play it all out.86

The two voices are constructively resonant; each amplifies the other. This understood homology extends to all the customers in Bailey’s Café. This low level of understanding among the people in Bailey’s Café is possible despite  the forces of modern power, rather than because of  them. Like Chaucer’s pilgrims, the people assembled in the café are united for a common purpose. The language that is spoken in the café is a local speech, and its rules apply only within that marginal space. The nobility of Bailey’s

85  This section is called “The Vamp,” which is a term for an improvised section of a composition, particularly in a jazz context, but more generally for an object that has been made new. There can hardly be a more felicitous statement about how Naylor seeks to revisit Chaucer in a modern context. 86  Naylor, 35.



story abuts the impish interjections of the local pimp to make the riotous melody that underscores the cafe’s life.87 The problem with this communication is its fragility, its dependence on the continued survival of its participants to sustain it. In reading Bailey’s Café as a companion piece to Linden Hills, one courts a pessimistic reading of the vernacular’s fate. Naylor makes the curious decision to reverse the temporal order of these companion novels, such that Bailey’s Café is set before Linden Hills. By the time of Linden Hills, characters who are cognizant of the need for a global vernacular because of their sense of global solidarities forged by white oppression have largely disappeared. The novel explores the fate of such a person through the character Beckwourth Booker T.  Washington Carver, also known as Miss Maple because of his penchant for wearing dresses. This habit exteriorizes this sense of understanding one’s individual worth, but is unable to express it in a way that can be comprehended in the world at large. He adopts his habit of transvestitism after an ugly incident of racial violence during his youth. Miss Maple as a child is home schooled, or, in his father’s words, he is given a literary “legacy” through his reading.88 As a crowning gift to his education, his father orders a handsome set of Shakespeare’s plays which they need to pick up at the town freighting office. Local white rowdies corner, forcibly strip, and then lock them in a storage closet. Nude and humiliated, Beckwourth turns on his father and demands to know why he never fights back, to which he answers that he hoped language would be his son’s defense:

87  Naylor encourages the reader to think of the novel as part of one musical composition. She refers to musical terminology throughout the novel. Most significantly, the chapter introducing the characters is entitled “The Vamp”—an introductory cord progression—and the conclusion “The Wrap.” See Don Michael Randel, The Harvard Dictionary of Music (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003). These references to music as well as the interwoven nature of the serious and the joyful on the pilgrimage trail should also recall The Testimony of William Thorpe, an autobiographical account of heresy proceedings from the year 1407. The text is structured as a dialogue between William and Thomas Arundel, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Although the veracity of the account is unclear, the Archbishop argues that the music and singing of pilgrims is necessary to “solace þe traueile and werinesse of the pilgrims.” William Thorpe, “The Testimony of William Thorpe,” Two Wycliffite Texts, ed. Anne Hudson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 64–65. 88  Naylor, 174.



From the day you were born I’ve been speaking to you in a language that I wanted you to master, knowing that once you did, there was nothing that could be done to make you feel less than what you are…And I wanted their words to be babble, whatever they printed, whatever they sent over the radio. Babble-as you learned your own language, set your own standards, began to identify yourself as a man.89

Despite this reasoned speech, Beckwourth’s father does indeed lose his temper when their attackers tear apart the plays and shove them under the door. The father and son clothe themselves with what is nearest at hand, unclaimed women’s clothing, and fight their attackers. The trauma that prompts Beckwourth to adopt the habit of wearing dresses is suggestive. Beckwourth is saddled with a superabundance of male names meant to recall famous African-Americans. The clear absence is his mother. She is briefly described as “the youngest child of a fugitive Texan slave and a Mexican ranchero” and we learn that she has been raped and murdered.90 His father’s aggression coupled with his aspirations for his son prove to be formative as the gate to Beckwourth’s self-recognition. This moment inverts the “outrageous caricature” of drag Hortense Spillers identifies as part of the “social pathology” of how black bodies are constructed.91 Instead of a black male’s body being read as both insufficiently capable and feminized because it follows “the condition of the mother,” this scene refuses the clarity of gender signification; the father and son lay claim to their masculinity through feminine signifiers. Naylor posits a familial orientation that defies easy categories and redounds to alternative modes of self-expression. It is certainly not a coincidence that Beckwourth’s father explains himself to his son after his copies of Shakespeare are destroyed. Unlike Linden Hills, there is no recourse to the solidity of established voices in the novel, its characters struggle to construct their “own language.” The father’s philosophy bears the disadvantage of being incomprehensible to those outside the father and son. In public interactions, Beckwourth is often at a loss. He attends Stanford and tries his hand at English literature and philosophy. After receiving low marks on his papers, he retreats to a language that is wholly unambiguous, that of mathematics.92 Although  Naylor, 182.  Bailey’s Café, 117. 91  “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” 66. 92  He cites Beowulf as his example of a text his professors find him unable to criticize. 89 90



he excels at it, he is unable to secure a job despite ninety-nine applications. On his ninety-ninth try he is accepted to an industrial research corporation in Pittsburgh. Naylor observes that at this moment the state is beginning to think about using nuclear energy to power its cities, as though to again raise the specter of a terrifying future. While he speaks to his would-be colleagues, particularly the lone black man who has quickly risen to the second-in-command of his division, his desire to do something that makes complete sense to himself, but outside the bounds of decorum, bubbles up. So in the stifling business meeting he begins to undress. His assertion of his individuality is an act of repulsion from the uniformity he perceives in the upcoming generation. In this meeting, and particularly in the black manager, he senses a danger fully realized in Linden Hills. He articulates his fear in an apostrophe to his father: There is no doubt—nor ever will there be—that I am a man. And it doesn’t bother me that practically no one in this country understands a single word I say…Change is hope; you’ve always told me that. I’m a young man; I will see a lot of change. And that is what worries me, Papa, because today I had lunch with the future.93

Beckwourth links sexual expression with unaccepted social behavior. However, that social behavior is simply asserting his own brand of masculinity as bequeathed to him by his father. In looking forward to the next generation of meek company men, he despairs. He seeks to commit suicide after this incident, but finds the café before he is able to do so. Within, he gains the name Miss Maple and habitually wears dresses. There the charge of this act is inverted. What was a marker of his incomprehensibility becomes a sign of his liberty to act as he feels. However, such freedom comes at the heavy cost of having to always be near the café, which is to always be on the outside looking in and to know that the world is advancing in a direction that does not include him. Here again, Naylor raises questions about the vernacular that are difficult to answer. What good is the vernacular if it is the speech of the marginalized while history seems to be tilting towards the elimination of the space for it and indeed the very people who seek to preserve it? Yet, perhaps the answers are within the shape of the novel itself. The crisis of voice  Bailey’s Cafe, 212.




that Naylor articulates here should not be seen as the province of the past, solely the issue for the black community before the Civil Rights era. What Naylor achieves by constellating the Middle Ages and the modern period, pre- and post-war America, is to insist that these problems—of vernacular, of communities that become marginalized according to gender, race or space—are problems that reproduce themselves over time. The anxiety of authorial mortality and the imminent disappearance of an audience fluent in the language of the vernacular, that which Naylor writes and that her characters speak to one another, is assuaged by the linguistics of addition that the novel inherently propounds. This novel does not represent the first iteration of a vernacular community, nor is it the last. Bailey begins the final chapter of the novel, “The Wrap,” by disavowing any sense that closure is possible or even desirable: My old man used to say, Always finish what you start. It’s a sound principle, but it can’t always work in this café. If life is truly a song, then what we’ve got here is just snatches of a few melodies. If this was like that sappy violin music on Make-Believe Ballroom, we could wrap it all up with a lot of happy endings to leave you feeling good that you took the time to listen. But I don’t believe that life is supposed to make you feel good, or make you feel miserable either. Life is just supposed to make you feel.94

If there is solace to be taken, it would be the presence of the book itself, or more precisely, the book’s attempt to catalogue its fictional voices and perpetuate the narratives of Chaucer and Dante. In Chaucer’s unfinished poem, “The House of Fame,” which in many ways seems to be the poet’s own take on Dante’s Inferno as well as Dante’s theories of language, the main character, Geoffrey, has a dream in which it is explained to him that there exists a House of Fame to which every utterance lingers in its rightful place, as a type of afterlife for words: Now have I told, yf thou have mynde, How speche or soun, of pure kynde, Enclyned ys upward to meve— This mayst thou fele wel I preve— And that same place, ywys, That every thing enclyned to ys Hath his kyndlyche stede:  Bailey’s Café, 219.




That sheweth hyt, withouten drede, That kyndeley speche, of every soun, Be hyt eyther foul or fair Hath hys kynde place in ayr.95

Chaucer’s notion of “kindly”—a word that has a field of meanings ranging from proper to noble to natural—substantially resonates with the underlying logic of Bailey’s Café. Chaucer uses the word to draw together the linguistic and the physical, “speech and sound” are “kindly;” they have their “kind” space to which they return. The idea that language, even the less reputable sort, can be preserved and that it will have its proper place with fitting dignity accorded to it is the fantasy made literal in Bailey’s Café. As the world outside changes, the café itself continues to receive visitors who add to the perpetual archive represented in the community of speech. The fictional location, but also Naylor’s actual novel, are repositories of voices, carrying and transmuting the works of Chaucer and Dante and a host of other writers within itself. Like many of Chaucer’s tales, Bailey’s Café ends inconclusively. The novel ends soon after a woman has given birth in the café. The mother dies and the baby temporarily becomes Bailey’s charge. The presence of the infant temporarily upsets the order of the café. Appliances stop working, anxiety is in the air and the final pages of the novel are backgrounded by the wailing of the newborn child. And indeed, the presence of the child calls attention to the conspicuous absence of generation throughout the novel.96 While the baby cries, Bailey offers an apology for the unsettled end: It’s the happiest ending I’ve got. Personally, I’m not too down about it. Life will go on. Still I do understand the point this little fella is making when he wakes up in the basket: When you have to face it with more questions than answers, it can be a crying shame.97

The novel ends with an explicit juxtaposition of the old and the new, the noise of the infant and the lyrical simplicity of Bailey. The baby is a child of a Jewish Ethiopian woman, as though Naylor wants to leave no doubt about the depth of tradition as suggested by the novel’s  The House of Fame, ll. 823–834.  There is perhaps a troubling subtext about African-American paternity that runs parallel to the argument this chapter makes about the vernacular as it relates to literary inheritance. 97  Bailey’s Café, 229. 95 96



discussions of Judaism, and the possibility of unexpected liaisons. This is the plasticity of the vernacular, its ability to emphasize both the individuality and multiplicity of voice. As Ellison suggests, the vernacular can be found in “mixture, the improvised form, the willful juxtaposition of modes”; it “play[s] irreverently upon the symbolism of status, property, and authority, and suggest[s] new possibilities of perfection.”98 Chaucer, Dryden, and Naylor argue that old books in the vernacular mode can be mobilized for new uses, to accommodate new voices. The reader finishes in much the same place as he or she did in Linden Hills, with more questions than answers. Yet as Chaucer, Dryden, and Naylor would argue, it is this inconclusiveness which gives the text a life that is unendingly evolving, a life cycle with buddings, blossomings, ripenings, fallings and, of course, rebirths.

Works Cited Primary Sources Alighieri, Dante. Inferno. Translated by Allen Mandelbaum. New York: Bantam Classics, 1982. ———. De Vulgari Eloquentia. Edited and translated by Steven Botterill. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Arnold, Matthew. The Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold: Vol. IX. Edited by Robert Henry Super. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1973. Beatty, Paul. The Sellout. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015. Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Works of Our Ancient and Learned English Poet, Geoffrey Chaucer. Edited and translated by Thomas Speght. London: Adam Islip, 1601. Accessed January 26, 2017. ver=Z39.88-2003&res_id=xri:eebo&rft_id=xri:eebo:image:7609:5/. ———. The Riverside Chaucer. 3rd edition. Edited by Larry Benson, et al. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987. Dryden, John. “Preface to the Fables.” In Essays of Dryden, vol. 2, ed. W.P. Ker. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1900. ———. The Poems and Fables of John Dryden. Edited by James Kinsley. London: Oxford University Press, 1962. ———. The Works of John Dryden, vol. VI–VII.  Edited by Vinton A.  Dearing. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. Hughes, Langston, and Zora Neale Hurston. Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life. Edited by George Houston Bass and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Harper Perennial, 1991.  Ellison, 39.




Johnson, Samuel. The Lives of the Poets. Edited by Roger Lonsdale. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006). Naylor, Gloria. Linden Hills. New York: Penguin Books, 1986. ———. Bailey’s Café. New York: Vintage Books, 1993a. ———. Mama Day. New York: Vintage Books, 1993b. ———. Conversations with Gloria Naylor. Edited by Maxine Lavon Montgomery. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2004. Randel, Don Michael. The Harvard Dictionary of Music. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Secondary Sources Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso, 2006. Andreas, James R. “Signifyin’ on The Tempest in Mama Day.” In Shakespeare and Appropriation, eds. Christy Desmet and Robert Sawyer. New York: Routledge, 1999, 103–118. Awkward, Micheal. Anxiety of Influence: Inspiring Influences: Tradition, Revision and Afro-American Women’s Novels. New  York: Columbia University Press, 1989. Baker, Houston, Jr. Blues, Ideology and Afro-American Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983. Butler, Robert. “Dante’s Inferno and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: A Study in Literary Continuity.” In The Critical Response to Ralph Ellison. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2000, 95–105. “Black Women Novelists: New Generation Raises Provocative Issues.” Ebony 40.1 (November 1984), 59–64. Cornish, Alison. Vernacular Translation in Dante’s England: Illiterate Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Dawahare, Anthony. “Langston Hughes’s Radical Poetry and the ‘End of Race’.” Melus 23.3 (1998), 21–41. Edwards, Robert R. “The Metropol and the Mayster-Toun: Cosmopolitanism in Late Medieval Literature.” In Cosmopolitan Geographies: New Locations in Literature and Culture, ed. Vinay Dharwadker. New York: Routledge, 2001, 33–63. Ellison, Ralph. “The Little Man at the Chehaw Station: The American Artist and his Audience.” The American Scholar (Winter 1977), 25–48. ———. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage International, 1995. Engles, Tim. “African American Whiteness in Gloria Naylor’s Linden Hills.” African American Review 43.4 (Winter 2009), 661–679. Erickson, Peter. Rewriting Shakespeare, Rewriting Ourselves. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.



Fry, Paul. The Reach of Criticism: Method and Perception in Literary Theory. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983. Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “What’s Love Got to Do with It: Critical Theory, Integrity and the Black Idiom.” New Literary History 18.2 (Winter 1987), 345–362. ———. “Canon Confidential: A Sam Slade Caper.” In Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992, 3–16. Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993. Guillory, John. Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Hartman, Andrew. A War for the Soul of America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. Howard, Robert Glenn. “The Transformative Potential of Discourse in the Vernacular Mode.” In Public Modalities: Rhetoric, Culture, Media and the Shape of Public Life, eds. Daniel C.  Brouwer and Robert Asen. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010, 256. Hughes, Langston. “Poems Written in Soviet Uzbekistan, 1932–33: From the 1934 Uzbek Translation of S.[anjar] Siddiq.” Edited by Davis Chioni Moore, translated by Kevin Young and Muhabbat Bakaeva. Callaloo 25.4 (2002), 1100–1113. Ingham, Patricia Claire. The Medieval New: Ambivalence in the Age of Innovation. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. Joyce, Joyce A. “The Black Canon: Reconstructing Black American Literary Criticism.” New Literary History 18.2 (Winter 1987), 335–344. Kutzinski, Vera M. The Worlds of Langston Hughes: Modernism and Translation in the Americas. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012. Lee, A. Robert. “‘Ask Your Mama’ Langston Hughes, the Blues and Recent Afro-­ American Literary Studies.” Journal of American Studies 24.2 (1990), 199–209. Machan, Tim William. “Speght’s ‘Works’ and the Invention of Chaucer.” Text 8 (1995), 145–170. Minnis, Alastair. Valuing the Vernacular. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Moglen, Seth. “Modernism in the Black Diaspora: Langston Hughes and the Broken Cubes of Picasso.” Callaloo 25.4 (2002), 1189–1205. Moore, David Chioni. “Colored Dispatches from the Uzbek Border: Langston Hughes’ Relevance, 1933–2002.” Callallo 25.4 (2002), 1115–1135. Pollock, Sheldon. “Cosmopolitan and Vernacular in History.” Public Culture 12.3 (2000), 591–625. Prendergast, Thomas A. “Writing, Authenticity, and the Fabrication of the Chaucerian Text.” In Rewriting Chaucer: Culture, Authority, and the Idea of



the Authentic Text, 1400–1602, eds. Thomas A. Prendergast and Barbara Kline. Columbus: Ohio University Press, 1999, 1–12. Reverand, Cedric D., II. Dryden’s Final Poetic Mode. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988). Scanlon, Larry. “News From Heaven: Vernacular Time in Langston Hughes’ Ask Your Mama.” In The Vulgar Tongue: Medieval and Postmedieval Vernacularity, eds. Fiona Somerset and Nicholas Watson. University Park: Penn State University Press, 2003. Spillers, Hortense J. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17.2 (Summer 1987), 65–81. Spillers, Hortense, et al. “Whatcha Gonna Do?—Revisiting Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book: A Conversation with Hortense Spillers, Saidiya Hartman, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Shelly Eversley, and Jennifer L. Morgan.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 35 (Spring–Summer 2007), 299–308. Steinberg, Justin. Dante and the Limits of the Law. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. Traub, Valerie. “Rainbows of Darkness: Deconstructing Shakespeare in the Works of Zora Neale Hurston and Gloria Naylor.” In Cross-Cultural Performances: Differences in Women’s Re-Visions of Shakespeare, ed. Marianne Novy. University of Illinois Press, 1993, 150–164. Trigg, Stephanie. Congenial Souls: Reading Chaucer from Medieval to Postmodern. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. Watts, Jerry Gafio. Amiri Baraka: The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual. New York: New York University Press, 2001. Whitt, Margaret Early. Understanding Gloria Naylor. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999. Wright, Richard. “Blueprint for Negro Writing.” In African American Literary Theory: A Reader, ed. Winston Napier. New York: New York University Press, 2000, 45–53.


Coda: True and Imaginary History in Django Unchained

In the conclusion of her field-changing study, Getting Medieval, Carolyn Dinshaw lingers over a line that had a peculiarly strong resonance with fans of Quentin Tarantino’s film, Pulp Fiction. After a rapist is castrated with the blast from a shotgun, his victim, an African-American crime boss named Marsellus Wallace, solemnly proclaims that he will “get medieval” on the “ass” of his rapist; he will be tortured before he dies. Dinshaw reads this catchy turn of phrase and its life beyond the film against the arguments she makes over the course of her study about medieval queerness. The virulent gay panic motivating the character’s peculiar formulation of his desire for revenge, she argues, drastically misattributes the solution to its anxieties: to “get medieval” would signify a wholly different approach to homosexual sociability evidenced in her excavation of medieval texts. What Dinshaw locates beyond the rhetorical convenience of this line for a particularly astute reader is the powerful shorthand these casual references to the Middle Ages have for informing questions of genre and temporality far beyond the expectations that Tarantino’s film can countenance. Dinshaw forcefully rejects Tarantino to leverage her primary claim: “getting medieval” should instead be read as a broader form of intimacy with the past “in our efforts to build selves and communities now and in the future.”1 1  Carolyn Dinshaw, Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), 206.

© The Author(s) 2018 M. X. Vernon, The Black Middle Ages, The New Middle Ages,




The scandal around Pulp Fiction has long since ebbed and the politics that propelled the problematic success of Tarantino’s “cool” aesthetic of the nineties have thankfully shifted. However, the director has retained a curious desire to mobilize the medieval, an interest that intersects with his turn to African-American narratives about slavery and nineteenth-century racial reconciliation. In light of the topic at hand and the changes within the director’s gaze, I believe that it is necessary to revisit the notion of “getting medieval” in the twenty-first century. In particular, I argue that a different set of possibilities emerge from considering the contact between medieval and African-American narratives that cut away from the intellectual foreclosure Dinshaw found so distasteful in Pulp Fiction. Specifically, Tarantino’s film Django Unchained presents a reparative narrative governed by the medieval myth upon which the film rests. To understand the turn Tarantino makes in his thinking about the past it is important to revisit briefly some of the issues and images in Pulp Fiction that reappear in Django Unchained. Tarantino signals the racial and political implications of the rape scene by setting the sex dungeon where it occurs beneath the “Mason-Dixon Pawn Shop” and by having the rapist, who is described as a “hillbilly,” freely use the n-word towards Wallace. Dinshaw astutely reads the tight white t-shirt, blue jeans, and motorcycle of Butch, the man who frees Wallace from the dungeon, as a wry quotation of a butch gay man. However, when he descends in the dungeon in his blood-stained white shirt, it is far simpler to read him as the American flag personified. This is all the more evident given that the viewer is told Butch’s father and grandfather both died as soldiers. Just as Dinshaw found the heteronormativity of the film’s violence intolerable, so too is the white savior narrative. Nonetheless, in the film’s logic the central act of what is meant to be retributive justice, the rapist’s castration, initiates several restorative acts. Butch and Wallace, characters who attempted to kill one another over the course of the movie, end their feud. Subsequently, the entire temporal logic of the film is reversed. Pulp Fiction recommences, repeating nearly word-for-word its first scene. A character who has been killed earlier in the diegetic timeline returns alive. The cold-­ blooded gangster Jules Winnfield, played by Samuel L. Jackson, renounces his life of crime for one of contemplation. In short, the film’s temporal structure allows for a set of new beginnings only possible by eschewing the demands of realism for the satisfactions of an imaginative speculation that runs slightly askew from what the audience already knows; Pulp Fiction offers the possibility of a return to the beginning with a difference.



The idea of righting the wrongs of the past has clear implications for cinema about the South that “fetishized [a] set of icons and memories culled from the messiness of history and consigned forever to a past irretrievable except through representation.”2 Although, this was prevalent in the early days of cinema, it is by no means solely a relic of the past.3 When Tarantino directed the Western-style revenge film situated in the South, he appropriated the valences accrued from the southern plantation romance and the southern imaginary: the “amorphous and sometimes conflicting collection of images, ideas, attitudes, practices, linguistic accents, histories and fantasies about a shifting geographic region and time.”4 To this he adds the lowly genre of the Western, a form that bears similar historical freight as cinematic representations of the post-Civil War South, albeit with greater flexibility in terms of its iconography. To begin her seminal essay on the Western, Marcia Landy quotes Nietzsche to anticipate her argument about the historical possibilities contained within the genre: A historiography could be imagined, which had in it not a drop of common empirical truth and yet could lay claim to the highest degree of objectivity… When the past speaks it always speaks as an oracle: only if you are an Architect of the future and know the present will you understand it.5

Landy’s essay intervenes in the scholarship of the Western which had largely focused on the genre as a meditation on America’s westward expansion; that is, a nearly literal mapping between the subject matter of the film and its referent. She expands her argument to posit that the Western has a long history of posing questions about how the nation imagines itself: that

2  Scott Romine, “Things Falling Apart: The Postcolonial Condition of Red Rock and The Leopard’s Spots,” in Look Away: The U.S. South in New World Studies, eds. Jon Smith and Deborah Cohn (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 176. 3  Sofia Coppola chose not to represent the sole slave character from the novel on which her film, The Beguiled, was based. She claimed, in part, that the character would detract from the clarity of her film’s exploration of “denial and repression.” Emma Stefansky, “Sofia Coppola Responds to The Beguiled Backlash,” Vanity Fair, July 15, 2017. https://www.vanityfair. com/hollywood/2017/07/sofia-coppola-beguiled-racism-backlash. 4  Deborah E.  Barker and Kathryn McKee, eds. American Cinema and the Southern Imaginary (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2011), 2. 5  Friedrich Nietzche,“On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life,” in Untimely Meditations quoted in Marcia Landy, “Which Way is West?” Cinematic Uses of the Past (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1996), 67.



the Western can be a fecund genre for planting questions that strike at the core of the idea of national identity. Django is well-schooled in the Western; it uses visual quotations from John Ford’s The Searchers and borrows wholesale the bounty hunter plot from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. Beyond being aesthetically akin to other Westerns, Tarantino’s film follows what Landy identifies as an essential part of the genre; it uses the Western as a form within which to ask questions that exceed the boundaries of the historical American West. And the film does not spare a moment in doing so. It begins with a series of both wide-angle and close-up shots of the mountainous and arid landscapes that are iconic of the mythic West. However, the film breaks one of the unwritten rules of imagining that land in that it features black characters—slaves—in the first scene and indeed throughout the movie, something that Westerns rarely do. Moreover, King Schultz, the bounty hunter who partners with the slave character Django, announces himself to be an immigrant in the film’s first scene. By upending the expected cast of characters who typically people this familiar landscape Django prompts the viewer to rethink the mythos of the foundation of America. The film even presses on the boundaries of the possible landscape itself, or, to paraphrase Landy, it asks, “Which way is west?” Django moves from the expected landscape of the West to the South; the characters travel from Texas to Mississippi. In the penultimate line of the film, Schultz gives Django the nickname “the fastest gun in the South” which plays on the cliché, by substituting “South” for “West.” This verbal play encapsulates the thought experiment in which the film engages. Django enters into the discussion of the Western not to reaffirm a familiar account of the American experiment in nation-building, but to explode that mythology. By featuring the nineteenth-century South as the background to the Western plot, Django calls attention to slavery’s typical absence in works about American myth-making, both in Westerns and in films more explicitly about the nation. The crucial component of this genre choice is that the fictional and the mythological are essential for the form’s success. The Western often takes place in a non-specific yet iconic past and place to construct narratives that focus on the moral dilemmas of the characters that traverse its landscape. In keeping with this, Django is set in 1858, a year that is accompanied in the film with the subtitle: “two years before the Civil War.” No reason for the year is ever articulated, and it would be safe to assume that this is simply a convenience to highlight the film’s events as occurring before ­freedom for



African-Americans was possible under the means afforded by the Emancipation Proclamation. The year could just as well have been 1857. However, that the film proposes a specific temporal framework but then depicts black heroism impermissible under history’s terms suggests the gap between a desire for a monumental black narrative and the conceptual and historical boundaries that militate against Django’s presence within such a story. Although the fundamental place of slaves in the history of literal nation-building and the heroism of slave uprisings and escapes are undeniable, the film’s move to depict the “objective truth” without any “common empirical truth” shocks as much as anything in Pulp Fiction. To the two overlapping fantasies of the past—the southern gothic and the Western—Tarantino adds medieval romance, which helps create an alternative set of expectations for how Django can operate within the narrative. Schultz tells Django a version of Siegfried the dragon slayer’s story, which is echoed throughout medieval literature. Moreover, he calls Django a “real-life Siegfried” because Django seeks to be reunited with his lover, who happens to be named Broomhilda. Schultz relates the basics of the narrative to Django: Schultz It’s a German legend, there’s always going to be a mountain in there somewhere. So, [Broomhilda’s father] puts [Broomhilda] on top of the mountain and he puts a fire-breathing dragon there to guard the mountain. And then he surrounds her in a circle of hellfire. And there Broomhilda shall remain, unless a hero arises brave enough to save her. Django Does a fella arise? Schultz Yes Django, as a matter of fact he does. A fellow named Siegfried. […] He walks through hellfire because Broomhilda’s worth it. Django I know how he feels.

Just as the film transposes the antebellum southern landscape over the shape of the Western, the viewer is being asked to see Django in relation to this older mythology.6 Django, who is a freed slave that seeks his lover 6  This latter type of overlay has an august heritage in the English literary tradition, most notably in Beowulf. After his victory over Grendel, Beowulf is treated to a rendition of the story of Sigemund, the dragon-slaying father of Siegfried. This is one of the great metafictional



Broomhilda and will exact revenge upon the people who enslaved her, cannot help but recall the Siegfried story once Schultz describes it. This use of a medieval narrative to recalibrate how one reads love and slavery echoes the Charles Chesnutt story, The Wife of His Youth, discussed in Chap. 3. Moreover, the unexpected connections between these African-­ American characters and the medieval recalls the argument made in Chap. 5 about congeniality and the potential for new critical perspectives to emerge from the affective identification with and revivification of earlier literary modes. The medieval narrative rescues Django Unchained from being a hollow simulacrum of a Blaxploitation film. Django lacks the political and social stakes of both the seventies film movement and subsequent attempts to produce “black cinema.”7 This suspicion certainly motivated Spike Lee’s sharp response to the idea of the film; he vowed never to see Django because it was “disrespectful to his ancestors.”8 Content and approach were certainly not the cause of his objection; its marketing framed the movie as homage to both strands of film-making. Read through the Siegfried myth, the film moves beyond the boundaries of Blaxploitation and raises broader questions about blackness in cinema. Django rejects a proprietary sense of history in terms of race. It questions who “our ancestors” are and what their lines of descent might be. In so doing it makes a complicated maneuver around the white savior narrative that was so troublesome in Pulp Fiction. As a “real-life Siegfried” Django mobilizes a heroic model akin to those discussed in this book’s introduction that were used to justify westward expansion and white supremacy under the aegis of the indomitable Anglo-Saxon spirit. Django’s subversion brings into focus the stakes of the film as a proposition about the possibility of black moments in English literary history as Beowulf’s achievements are put in relation to those of the mythical hero who precedes him. Within the fiction of the poem, Beowulf and Siegmund mirror one another as fellow monster slayers. However, the text transcends the fictional in that Beowulf presents its own literary inheritance in this scene while also acknowledging the poet’s own innovation within that tradition. See: Christine Rauer, Beowulf and the Dragon: Parallels and Analogues (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2000), 48. 7   See Laura Cook Kenna’s careful exploration of Blaxploitation’s origins: “Making Exploitation Black: How 1970s ‘Blaxploitation’ Discourse Marginalized Industry History and Constructed Black Viewers’ Tastes” in Beyond Blaxploitation, eds. Novotny Lawrence and Gerald R. Butters, Jr. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2016), 204–224. 8  Adelle Platon, “Spike Lee Slams Django Unchained: ‘I’m Not Gonna See It,’” Vibe, December 21, 2012.



heroism and black liberation that escapes the black-white binary. Django does not free himself—Schultz kills his captors—but the conditions and durability of his liberation indeed do rely on his individual heroism that follows the contours of the story Schultz tells. Django’s ancestors are not Broomhilda and Siegfried, but that does not matter in the imbricated generic space that already is motivated by the fantasies of creating origins and recuperating a “past irretrievable except through representation.”9 Unlike the flippancy with which Marsellus Wallace throws off the line about “getting medieval” in Pulp Fiction, Django stays within the role of Siegfried as told by Schultz. The myth remains active in the viewer’s mind because it is subtly but undeniably alluded to throughout the film: Calvin Candie is constantly smoking, Django walks through the fiery wreckage of Candie’s mansion after he blows it up, and of course, the film plays a “fella arising” against Django’s uprising. Thus, viewers must reconcile the seemingly disparate strands of the American West’s mythology, a medieval Germanic myth, and the history of slavery within the United States. This follows the arguments I make in Chap. 3 about the presence of medieval romance as interrupting the narrative structures of the nineteenth-century texts in which they appear. Django holds these narrative strands in tension, particularly the prevailing problem of how it will negotiate the relationship between what the viewer has been told about the Siegfried myth’s heroic individuality against her knowledge of slavery’s violence and social deprivations. These come to a head after the scheme to free Broomhilda is discovered by the house slave Stephen. Schultz is killed and Django is bound, nude and upside down in a barn awaiting some punishment to befall him. At first he is threatened with castration. Subsequently, Stephen enters and relates a plot for the rest of Django’s life that refuses the exceptionalism of the Siegfried myth. Rather, he will be worked until he dies an obscure death in a mine: When you get there they are going to take away your name and give you a number and a sledgehammer. […] They are going to work you all day, every day until your back gives out. And then they gonna hit you on the head with a hammer, throw your ass down the nigger hole and that will be the story of you, Django.


 Scott Romine, 176.



This set-up darkly echoes the castration scene in Pulp Fiction. Whereas in the earlier film castration was used as a cruel joke about a gangster’s notion of justice, here it is the closest brush the film has with presenting slavery’s perverse logics, which cannot countenance the generative ideology of romance that had begun to take hold in the narrative. Instead of the implied marriage bed of Scott’s Ivanhoe, discussed in Chap. 3, Django and Broomhilda briefly reunite before a literal bed. Afterwards she cannot contain her joy, which is the scrap of evidence used to tear apart the plan to rescue her and temporarily frustrate the quest narrative. Moreover, Stephen argues that sending Django to the mines will be worse than castration because it enacts another form of generative closure: the productive filiation with narrative. Stephen’s proposal inverts one of Orlando Patterson’s arguments about castration as a form of absolute dominion that produces the “ultimate slave.”10 Django’s exceptionalism, emerging from the self-fashioning he undertakes after hearing about the Siegfried myth, would be stripped away by the social death of his life in the mines, hence the suggestive line “that will be the story of you.” The heroic plot would be substituted with an anonymous burial plot. The threat resounds because it brings into focus the stunning determinative power of slavery over the lives of the enslaved through Django’s awareness of an alternative narrative that has motivated his actions. Just as the castration scene in Pulp Fiction marked a point of temporal departure in that film’s narrative structure, after the threat of castration, Django loses its linearity. Tarantino interchanges action and intent, the past and the present, in Django’s climactic moments. After Django escapes from the slavers taking him to the mining company, the film enters a montage that is just as ambitious as the sudden turn at the end of Pulp Fiction. Interposed into the shots of Django racing to exact revenge on the Candie estate are images of the plantation’s houses burning and its overseers being gunned down. The past and the present become compressed as the revenge narrative nears its conclusion. More broadly, through the proximal past of Django’s desire and the deep past of Django operating as the vengeance seeker in the mode of Siegfried, the film achieves the Nietzschean goal of identifying a historiography that is both imagined and true, medieval and modern.

10  Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), 314–331.



The shuttling between temporal and narrative frames creates a reparative fiction, a term I use to evoke the clear valences it has in African-­ American history. Here I understand reparative in the provocative way Ta-Nehisi Coates defines reparations in his essay “The Case for Reparations”: And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely.11

The political act of making reparation for slavery is a long-deferred fantasy at the base of which is the idea that African-Americans could fully enter into the terms of American citizenship. This change implies a radical reorganization of material wealth but equally importantly of the national imaginary. More than one hundred and fifty years after the end of the Civil War reparation in the political sense has dwindled into being little more than a short-hand for a lineage of racial oppression that has morphed from the slave ship to the state prison; from the failed Freedmen’s Bureau to urban redlining. Even the most ardent supporters of this form of reparation would concede the impossibility of ever finding a value for that scale of loss. The secondary meaning of reparation as an imaginative act is paradoxically more attainable, albeit infrequently mobilized. Django Unchained’s primary intervention is as a demotic representation of black bodies within foundational narratives, and thus it asks viewers to revise where and how they conceive of the nation’s origins. There is of course a danger in too flagrantly disregarding fact in favor of fiction, desire instead of reality. The film is one of many cultural and historical reassessments in the wake of Barack Obama’s election. The myth-making of Django is in the ambit of conversation with the Tea Party political movement, which strenuously argued for a return to the principles of the Founding Fathers, a return to a historical moment of revolution, so that they might remake the country as it was. They would set the country on the course “headed back to where we started.”12 This foray into speculative history, the idea that one time could model itself after 11  Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 2014. https://www. 12  Sean Hannity, The Sean Hannity Show, Fox News, New York, April 15, 2009. Quoted in Jill Lepore, The Whites of Their Eyes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 8.



another, did not produce a desire to critically analyze the reflections and ambivalences of the many stripes of people, slave and free, male and female, who lived through the period of the American revolution. Rather, the Tea Party movement seemed to produce a mythical set of Founding Fathers, a genealogical heritage (as seems to be indicated by the word “father”) that both stands at odds with and reaffirms the seminal connection between generations.13 That is to say, the modern inheritance of the Founding Fathers, from the perspective of the Tea Party, is an intellectual one; yet the set of ideas appear to be drawn from a smaller set of white males, and whittled so thin as to render the men nearly two dimensional. Historian Jill Lepore characterizes the modern Tea Party’s vision of the past as a cast of characters narrowly defined so that they could see the resemblance of themselves within it: There were very few black people in the Tea Party, but there were no black people at all in the Tea Party’s eighteenth century. Nor, for that matter, were there any women, aside from Abigail Adams, and no slavery, poverty, ignorance, insanity, sickness, or misery. Nor was there any art, literature, sex, pleasure or humor. There were only the Founding Fathers with their white wigs, wearing their three-cornered hats, in their Christian nation, revolting against taxes, and defending the right to bear arms.14

Lepore calls this kind of thinking “anti-history” because it does away with inconvenient facts about America’s past in favor of confabulations to fit the convenience of the present moment. This movement was both a denial of the past and of the present—the history of diversities in the country in the eighteenth century, and the demographic realities of the modern period as embodied by President Obama. The Tea Party was perhaps the most visible modern instantiation of this engagement in myth-making. Admittedly, Django Unchained similarly walks this dangerous ground. It is a movie that indulges in extremes of gore and racially-charged language, accompanied by a disregard for history’s particularities. Yet Django engages a vastly different timescale and demonstrates a commitment to inhabiting the realm of myth, as it draws from a source as deep as the Middle Ages. The medieval in Django refers to history that transcends the frame of American history. More importantly, it allows for surprising con13  For a discussion of genealogy as it relates to both engenderment and literary production, see Michael Warner, “Irving’s Posterity,” ELH 67.3 (2000): 773–799. 14  Lepore, 95.



nections among peoples and interpretive possibilities. It casts Django’s relationship to the Siegfried myth as an elective affinity, something that Django embraces to inform how he conducts himself. In a similar moment, when he has the opportunity to choose his own clothing, he outfits himself in a stunningly anachronistic way, with ruffs and knee breeches suitable to an eighteenth-century gentleman. On the level of the film, Django creates a delirious confluence of genre, voice, and race—Blaxploitation, the Western, the medieval romance, rap, classical music, synthesized sound—to imagine an integrative, vernacular film that demands recognition not of blackness per se, but of the essential pluralistic American identity from which blackness cannot be extracted. The backdrop of the medieval evokes the matrix of meaning that the Middle Ages has within American society as a constitutive force around which national identity has coalesced and extends that network of connections to encompass the multiple significations of Django. Tarantino pushes to the fore the strangeness of the film’s undertaking. For example, at one point, Django meets a gambler, played by Franco Nero, who also acted as the title character in the 1966 film Django about a gunslinger whose quest for revenge leads to brushes with the KKK. The brief exchange between the two men underscores how radically Tarantino’s Django alters the template of the Western—in moving from Nero to Foxx—but also demonstrates its debt to a film made over half a century earlier. The 2012 Django resumes the 1966 film’s explorations of race and violence. At the same time, it considers the complex legacy of the Western as a medium for making serious interventions into large-scale social questions. This is to say, what seems like yet another of Tarantino’s moments of self-reference, “the culture in and of this film,” reveals itself to be culture writ large. The two Djangos exemplify a larger set of interconnections across continents and time, between fiction and history: that Django, a nineteenth-century character, would see something of worth in a European myth; that there could be a collocation of the medieval, the nineteenth century, and the twenty-first century; and that the myth and history of America and Northern Europe could enable the bridging of racial divisiveness that Dinshaw indicted in Pulp Fiction. This chapter’s ambitions are more modest than those of Dinshaw. It argues that the “medieval” in Django Unchained is not something that is bandied about as an idea of the archaic and brutal but rather signifies access to meaning that defies the historical. The medieval allows the film to transgress the boundaries of “objective history.” This chapter’s title is



meant, in part, to recall Hayden White’s own ambivalence about the relationship between what he refers to as “the true” in contrast to the historical and the fictional. He presents narrative as a crucial complicating feature of history-writing that both makes the events of the past legible but also pushes them to the edge of fiction: What I have sought to suggest is that this value attached to narrativity in the representation of real events arises out of a desire to have real events display the coherence, integrity, fullness, and closure of an image of life that is and can only be imaginary. The notion that sequences of real events possess the formal attributes of the stories we tell about imaginary events could only have its origin in wishes, daydreams and reveries.15

White, of course, does not go so far as to say that we must dispense with narrative history, but calls for a re-examination of what we would consider the objectivity of history-writing; he argues that we must be mindful of the myth-making that imbues the move from a spare, disjointed outlining of a series of events to the creation of a historical narrative. As his counter-­ examples to modern historiography, White uses medieval annals and the medieval chronicle. The turn to medieval historiographical forms is particularly provocative because of the slippery relationship they have with the factual as exampled by the experimentation of Geoffrey of Monmouth and Gerald of Wales. Their “wishes, daydreams and reveries” reflect fractures in British imaginings of social order on insular and international levels and are subsequently used to mend those divisions.16 The imaginative confections of the Middle Ages hardened into realities of material consequence in terms of constructing the sovereign and rationalizing colonial ambitions. In modern usages of the medieval, the confluence of fantastical and real constructions of community should be read as an effect that derives from a number of medieval textual artifacts; the constellation of courts and courtly conduct, the evolution of languages, and the assertion of marginal identities feed back into constructions of communal identities. The project of utilizing this textual spolia to imagine society is aspirational in the 15  Hayden White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 24. 16  See Patricia Ingham’s argument about the need to read fantasy as part of the imaginative construction of medieval British communities: Sovereign Fantasies: Arthurian Romance and the Making of Britain (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), 21–50.



sense of seeking something out of reach. This search gains new significance when applied to an African-American context, as it proposes an alternative trajectory to the precarities and foreclosures of life within the nation, while simultaneously pulling on the “intricate network of connections” which bound African-Americans to the larger society.17 Fantasy is not escape, but a mode of reframing cultural discourse to serve the needs of writers seeking to expose how deeply enmeshed African- Americans have always been in American society as a whole, and a means to propose ways of realigning those relationships. As David Blight has argued in his study Race and Reunion, the memory of the Civil War’s causes and the means to “clasp hands over the bloody chasm” depended upon selective memory, the myth-making that could turn away from the Civil War’s origins and instead generate sentiments around the nobility of battle shared between the North and the South.18 Indeed, that phrase, “bloody chasm,” comes from a letter by Horace Greeley, the Democrat and Liberal Republican presidential candidate accepting his party’s nomination. He would continue in the same sentence to express his belief that “masses of our countrymen North and South” were eager to “forget […] that they have been enemies in the joyful consciousness that they are, and must henceforth be brethren.”19 The rhetoric of forgetting and brotherhood speaks to the affective ties that began to romanticize the meaning of the Civil War during Reconstruction, and, more importantly, continues to inflect the discourse around how the war is remembered from flags, to statues, to national politics.20 The ­post-­war period’s attempts at protecting racial equality all too quickly gave way to efforts to delimit and mythologize participation in the Civil War in terms that have never fully been uprooted:  Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act (New York: Vintage Books, 1972), 253.  Blight, 127. 19  Horace Greeley, “Letter of Acceptance,” in Lurton Dunham Ingersoll’s The Life of Horace Greeley: Founder of the New York Tribune (New York: Union Publishing, 1873), 550. 20  In 2015, there were heated debates and protests around the Confederate flag being flown over the South Carolina statehouse. The governor of the state for some time defended the flag as “a way to honor our ancestors.” Richard Fausset and Michael Barbaro, “Nikki Hayley, South Carolina Governor, Calls for Removal of Confederate Battle Flag,” The New York Times, 22 June 2015, A1. The complex after-effects of the Civil War on contemporary politics are discussed in Steve Estes’ Charleston in Black and White: Race and Power in the South after the Civil Rights Movement (Charleston: University of North Carolina Press: 2015), 125–135. 17 18



Appomattox, like the Civil War more broadly, retains its hold on the American imagination. More than 330,000 people visited the site in 2013. In Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” as in many other popular portrayals, the meeting between Lee and Grant suggests that, in the words of one United States general at the surrender, “We are all Americans.” Although those words were allegedly spoken by Ely Parker, a Tonawanda Seneca Indian, and although hundreds of thousands of African-Americans fought for the nation, the “we” in the Appomattox myth all too often is limited to white Americans.21

Eric Foner uses a memorable phrase to express the power of the “reminiscence industry” through the Reconstruction Era and beyond: “the Confederacy lost the war on the battlefield but won the war over memory.”22 Django Unchained as a participant in the debates about the enduring presence of the Civil War and Reconstruction in American society contests the victory over memory. It presents an alternative history that goes against dominant narratives of social division and asserts the vital place of African-Americans at the root of American culture.23 This film overcomes the absence of historical voices and pushes against a preponderance of countervailing material through conjecture and counter-factual history that colonizes the space occupied by narratives of white heroism. In doing so, the film moves nimbly through the thicket of issues of cultural appropriation, national mythologies, and cross-temporal influences to create something unruly, unexpected, and open to unstable readings. Django enters into a lineage of interventions that reassess racial and ethnic lines, finding their roots in affective connections and fictional ties to the past. Django fully comprehends the potency of cultural spolia, fragments from the Middle Ages and the nineteenth century, juxtaposed to create a fantastic lie or a riotous truth. It has gotten medieval.

21  Gregory Downs, “The Dangerous Myth of Appomattox,” The New York Times, April 12, 2015, SR 12. 22  Eric Foner, “Selective Memory,” New York Times Book Review, March 4, 2001, 28. 23  In terms of the unstable presence of the document as it relates to African-Americans, here one might consider the years of debate about Barack Obama’s citizenship and thus his eligibility to be the president of the United States as a vestigial example of displacing AfricanAmerican participation in the public sphere. The denial of proof functions as the gateway to a type of alternative history in which the nation has not had an African-American president.



Works Cited Primary Sources Django Unchained. Directed by Quentin Tarantino. The Weinstein Company, 2012.

Secondary Sources Barker, Deborah E., and Kathryn McKee, eds. American Cinema and the Southern Imaginary. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2011. Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Case for Reparations.” The Atlantic, June 2014. Accessed August 10, 2017. the-case-for-reparations/361631/. Dinshaw, Carolyn. Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999. Downs, Gregory. “The Dangerous Myth of Appomattox.” The New York Times, April 12, 2015, SR 12. Ellison, Ralph. Shadow and Act. New York: Vintage Books, 1972. Estes, Steve. Charleston in Black and White: Race and Power in the South after the Civil Rights Movement. Charleston: University of North Carolina Press, 2015. Fausset, Richard, and Michael Barbaro. “Nikki Hayley, South Carolina Governor, Calls for Removal of Confederate Battle Flag.” The New York Times, June 22, 2015, A1. Foner, Eric. “Selective Memory.” New York Times Book Review, March 4, 2001, 28. Ingersoll, Lurton Dunham. The Life of Horace Greeley: Founder of the New York Tribune. New York: Union Publishing, 1873. Ingham, Patricia. Sovereign Fantasies: Arthurian Romance and the Making of Britain. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. Kenna, Laura Cook. “Making Exploitation Black: How 1970s “Blaxploitation” Discourse Marginalized Industry History and Constructed Black Viewers’ Tastes.” In Beyond Blaxploitation, eds. Novotny Lawrence and Gerald R. Butters, Jr. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2016, 204–224. Landy, Marcia. “Which Way is West?” Cinematic Uses of the Pas. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1996, 67–106. Lepore, Jill. The Whites of Their Eyes. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010. Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982. Platon, Adelle. “Spike Lee Slams Django Unchained: ‘I’m Not Gonna See It.’” Vibe, December 21, 2012. Accessed October 20, 2017. https://www.vibe. com/2012/12/spike-lee-slams-django-unchained-im-not-gonna-see-it/.



Rauer, Christine. Beowulf and the Dragon: Parallels and Analogues. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2000. Romine, Scott. “Things Falling Apart: The Postcolonial Condition of Red Rock and The Leopard’s Spots.” In Look Away: The U.S. South in New World Studies, eds. Jon Smith and Deborah Cohn. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004, 175–200. Stefansky, Emma. “Sofia Coppola Responds to The Beguiled Backlash.” Vanity Fair, July 15, 2017. Accessed August 10, 2017. hollywood/2017/07/sofia-coppola-beguiled-racism-backlash. Warner, Michael. “Irving’s Posterity.” ELH 67.3 (2000), 773–799. White, Hayden. The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.


A The Abridgement of the History of England (1757), 164, 165 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 120, 135 The Anglo-African Magazine, 60, 63 African-American vernaculars, 212 African Methodist Episcopal Church Review (AME Church Review), 62–64, 66, 67, 70, 71, 74–76, 78 America Play, 38 Anderson, Benedict, 216, 217 Anglo-Saxon, 4 Anglo-Saxonism, 2, 6, 22 Anglo-Saxon principles, 1 Arthurian section, 183

Benito Cereno, 13, 14 “Black Douglass,” 47 “The black O’Connell,” 165 “The Black Saxons,” 58 Black Shakespeare, 220 Black temporality, 106 “Black to the Future,” 104 Blackshear, Edward L., 75, 76 Blaine, James G., 67 The Book of American Negro Poetry, 137 The Boy’s King Arthur, 123 Braithwaite, William Stanley, 86 Brawley, Benjamin, 90–92 Burke, Edmund, 164 Butler, Octavia, 110

B Bailey’s Café, 35, 110, 213, 234, 236, 237, 241 Beatty, Paul, 209 Beloved, 32, 110, 117

C Cable, George Washington, 115 Canterbury Tales, 210–212, 230, 231, 236 Cereno, Benito, 13

 Note: Page numbers followed by ‘n’ refer to notes.


© The Author(s) 2018 M. X. Vernon, The Black Middle Ages, The New Middle Ages,




Chaucer, Geoffrey, 35, 204–206, 210–215, 228–231, 235, 242 Chesnutt, Charles, 33, 34, 112, 114, 115, 132, 137, 138, 140, 141, 143, 147, 252 Child, Lydia Maria, 58 Cleveland, Grover, 67 Coates, Ta-Nehisi, 255 The Conjure Woman, 134, 136 A Connecticut Yankee, 123, 124, 126, 130–132, 152 A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, 33, 116, 117, 119, 120, 122, 124, 133 The Conquest of Ireland, 34, 172, 177, 193, 195–197 “Criteria of Negro Art,” 105 Critical fabulation, 113 D Dante Alighieri, 35, 70, 73, 210, 211, 213, 215, 217–221, 225, 226, 231, 240 Dark Princess, 107–110 Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil, 20 Day, William H., 59 De Invectionibus, 184 De Rebus a Se Gestis, 160 Dery, Mark, 104 De Vulgari Eloquentia, 218 Dinshaw, Carolyn, 35, 36, 247, 248, 257 Divine Comedy, 226 Django Unchained, 35, 36, 248, 250, 252–257, 260 Douglass, Frederick, 9, 18, 37, 47–50, 58, 67, 68, 106, 148, 165, 167 Dryden, John, 204–207, 211, 212, 228, 229, 234, 242 Du Bois, W.E.B., 19–22, 48, 49, 105–107, 109

E Ellison, Ralph, 15, 17, 21, 22, 106, 216–219, 242 “Essay on Romance,” 141 Expugnatio, 176 F Fables: Ancient and Modern (1700), 204, 205 Fanon, Frantz, 171, 174 Fitzgerald, F. Scott, 54 Fortune, T. Thomas, 67, 73 G Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., 211 Geoffrey of Monmouth, 34, 169, 170, 180–182, 184, 188, 192, 258 Gerald criticism, 162 Gerald of Wales, 34, 160, 164, 168–170, 173, 176, 177, 187–192, 196, 197, 258 Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern, 35, 247 Giraldian studies, 160 Grady, Henry W., 118, 119, 146 The Great Gatsby, 54 Guillory, John, 214, 219 H Harper, Frances E. W., 67, 68 Hartman, Saidiya, 32, 113 The History and Topography of Ireland, 34, 168, 177, 186 The History of the Kings of Britain, 34, 169, 170, 177, 178, 178n52, 180, 183–185, 192, 194 The House behind the Cedars, 33, 112, 113, 116, 117, 119, 132–134, 140–143, 147, 151


House of Fame, 212 Howells, William Dean, 131, 132, 134, 137 Hughes, Langston, 232–234 Hurston, Zora Neale, 226 I Inferno, 210, 216, 240 Invisible Man, 15, 216, 219 Israel Potter, 36, 37 Ivanhoe, 34, 113, 116, 117, 122, 124, 133, 134, 136, 141, 143 “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” 30 J Jameson, Frederic, 117 Jefferson, Thomas, 3, 4, 6, 8, 12, 16, 17, 65 Jerng, Mark, 104 Johnson, James Weldon, 137 Johnson, Samuel, 81, 208 Journey Through Wales, 171 Joyce, Joyce A., 211 K Kant, Immanuel, 159 Kincaid, Jamaica, 29–31 Kindred, 110 L The Lady of the Lake, 45, 56, 105, 106 The Lay of the Last Minstrel, 56 Lee, Spike, 252 Le Morte D’Arthur, 123, 124, 129, 136, 142 The Liberator, 46, 58


Linden Hills, 35, 213, 216, 219, 220, 226, 228, 231, 234, 237–239 London, Jack, 51, 52, 57 Lose Your Mother, 32 M “Making Contact: Postcolonial Perspectives through Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britannie,” 183n64 Malory, Thomas, 123, 125, 131, 132, 136, 142 “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” 228 Mandeville, John, 177 Map, Walter, 195 The Marrow of Tradition, 119, 132 Master narrative, 134 Melville, Herman, 13, 36, 37 Milton, John, 204 The Mis-education of the Negro, 83 Morrison, Toni, 14, 32, 110, 111, 115, 117, 214 Muller, Max, 77, 84 My Bondage and My Freedom, 18, 37 N Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, 45 Naylor, Gloria, 110, 210–212, 216, 219, 228, 232, 234, 242 Negro Builders and Heroes, 92 A New Survey of English Literature, 90 O Obama, Barack, 15, 255, 256 O’Connell, Daniel, 165 Ovid, 204



P Parks, Suzan-Lori, 32, 38 Parliament of Fowls, 213 Patterson, Orlando, 254 Pinchback, P.B.S., 69 Playing in the Dark, 112 Pollock, Sheldon, 232 Prendergast, Thomas A., 231 “The Princess Steel,” 107 Pudd’nhead Wilson, 119, 128 Pulp Fiction, 247, 248, 251–254, 257

Thomas, Rev. C.O.H., 74 Topographia, 173, 174 Topography, 175 Tragic mulatta, 148 Translation, 208, 212 Travels, 177 Troilus and Criseyde, 229–231 Trump, Donald, 2 Turner, Lorenzo Dow, 79–81 Twain, Mark, 33, 34, 117, 121, 122, 125, 129–132

R Ray, Henrietta Cordelia, 73 Rena Warwick, 113, 116 Reverand II, Cedric D., 207 Romance heroine, 148 Romney, Mitt, 1

U “The United States of Lyncherdom,” 129, 130

S Scarborough, W. S., 67, 68 Scholarship on Gerald, 161 Scott, Walter, 33, 45, 56, 105, 106, 113, 116–118, 122, 133, 141, 142, 147 Sears, W.G., 87 The Sellout, 209 Shakespeare, William, 220, 237 Siegfried, 252 Siegfried myth, 252–254 “Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere: A Fragment,” 136 Smith, James McCune, 50, 51 “Song of the Exposition,” 10, 11 Spenser, Edmund, 164, 177, 204 Spillers, Hortense J., 108, 227, 228 Strategic misreadings, 31 T Tarantino, Quentin, 35, 247, 257 Tea Party movement, 255, 256 Tennyson, Alfred, 136

V The Valley of the Moon, 51, 57 The Veiled Aristocrats, 116 Vernacular, 35, 77-95, 125, 207, 208, 210–213, 216, 218, 222, 229, 231, 232, 239, 240 Vernacularity, 203, 212, 225, 231 Vernacularization, 208, 232 Vernacular literature, 35 Vernacular translation, 208, 229 A View on the Present State of Ireland, 177 W Walker, Alice, 214, 226 Webster, Noah, 81, 84 Weinbaum, Alys Eve, 104 Western, 249–250 “What Is a White Man?,” 119 White, Hayden, 258 Whitman, Walt, 8–11 The Wife of His Youth, 136, 140, 252 William of Newburgh, 183 Woodson, Carter G., 83 Wordsworth, William, 30, 31