Sunday, February 27, 2005

The first story Jorge Louis Borges published under his own name was "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote." The story focuses on the fictional early 20th century writer, Pierre Menard, who dedicates himself to writing Don Quixote - not a new translation, or a modern adoptation - but the same Don Quixote that was written by Cervantes, line for line, word for word, in 17th century Spanish. The story is a review of Menard's efforts, and in one of its most hilarious passages Borges writes:

It is a revelation to compare Menard's Don Quixote with Cervantes'. The latter, for example, wrote (part one, chapter nine):

". . . truth, whose mother is history, rival of time,
depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and
adviser to the present, and the future's counselor."

Written in the seventeeth century, written by the "lay genius" Cervantes, this enumeration is a mere rhetorical praise of history. Menard, on the other hand, writes:

". . . truth, whose mother is history, rival of time,
depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and
adviser to the present, and the future's counselor."

History, the mother of truth: the idea is astounding. Menard, a contemporary of William James, does not define history as an inquiry into reality but as its origin. Historical truth, for him, is not what has happened; it is what we judge to have happened. The final phrases--exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future's counselor --are brazenly pragmatic.

The contrast in style is also vivid. The archaic style of Menard--quite foreign, after all--suffers from a certain affectation. Not so that of his forerunner, who handles with ease the current Spanish of his time.
Today's Boston Globe has a piece on Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkings, a late 19th century black novelist whose novels were the subject of some attention in academia. Apparently, some historical research revealed that Kelley-Hawkings was not black after all:

...despite continual scholarly interest in Kelley-Hawkins as an important voice of the period, [she] has never fit comfortably within the African-American canon. Most puzzling has been the apparent whiteness of her characters, who are repeatedly described with blue eyes and skin as white as ''pure'' or ''driven'' snow-a conundrum that critics have largely sidestepped by arguing that these women would have been understood as ''white mulattos,'' or very light-skinned women of color...

I have recently uncovered, Kelley-Hawkins does not appear to have been African-American at all... I found the record of her parents' 1859 marriage, which provided all four of her grandparents' names. I located them (along with a sizable extended family) in the censuses from 1840 to 1860. Moving forward, I followed Kelley-Hawkins in Rhode Island in the first three decades of the 20th century...With each new document, I was confronted with a startling fact: In four generations, over the course of 80 years, Kelley-Hawkins and every single member of her family are identified as white... does this discovery change our understanding of African-American literary history? The readings of Kelley-Hawkins's novels that have been offered over the past 20 years-as critics have labored to account for the overwhelming, almost aggressive whiteness of her characters-now seem notably strained.

Many noted black authors, including Frances E.W. Harper in ''Iola Leroy'' (1892), have depicted light-skinned ''mulattos'' with blue eyes as a way of pointedly exposing race as a social construction, instead of a biological fact. Kelley-Hawkins's novels, on the other hand, lack any such political thrust. Scholars have explained this away by arguing that the abundance of white signifiers is actually politically radical, with some even going so far as to argue that this extremely white world depicts a kind of post-racial utopia. For example, in an essay on Kelley-Hawkins collected in the 2003 volume ''Women's Experience of Modernity, 1875-1945'' (Johns Hopkins), critic Carla L. Peterson argues that Kelley-Hawkins ''sought to offer her readers-particularly African Americans-a vision of what it would be like to live in a modern world in which racial difference no longer existed.''

But a reconsideration of not only Kelley-Hawkins's racial identity but also the historical context of her novels suggests that a far different reading is in order. Suddenly, they look not at all like hopeful African-American novels but like reflections of white racial anxiety in one of the most violently racist decades in American history.


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