The Incomparable Jessie Redmon Fauset.


I’m fairly certain that I first encountered the work of Jessie Redmon Fauset in early high school. Someone had bought me an anthology called Revolutionary Tales: African American Women’s Short Stories, from the First Story to the Present. Her short story, “Emmy,” was nestled somewhere between the writings of Pauline E. Hopkins and Ann Petry and after a while, it became the only story I re-read. In fact, I read it again and again and again—as voraciously as I would’ve read a missive from a bygone love. It was almost novella-length, which appealed to me, because of my own tendency to write overlong short stories, and because of the subject matter (and all its attendant melodrama).

“Emmy” is about the titular character’s perfect, almost smug satisfaction with her deep brown skin color (a satisfaction  achieved after years of ostracism and ridicule) and the turmoil it causes when her childhood sweetheart, Archie, grows up and reluctantly decides to pass. Archie is described as olive-skinned and, even as a child, he laments his inability to be easily identified as one race or the other. Emmy’s mother is graceful, fashionable, intellectual, and proud and shapes her young daughter into a woman with the same qualities. Archie, before leaving home to seek his fortune in architecture, proposes to Emmy, who accepts in what seems a near-fit of ecstasy, and off he goes with promises to claim her in a year, when he’s certain he’ll have made a name for himself.

Archie does make a name for himself, of course, but he does so by allowing his employers to believe he’s white. On holiday, he tries to bring Emmy to his Philadelphian haunts but soon, they both realize that he’s trying to hide her. When they encounter his boss on one of their strolls, it becomes painfully clear to Emmy how Archie’s been spending his year. Emmy, devastated, ends their engagement and returns home, sick with disappointment and betrayal.

The story doesn’t end there, but it may as well. Themes of color complication emerge in most, if not all, of Fauset’s fiction and regardless of whether she decides to neatly resolve those complications with a happy ending or opts for the much more satisfying open-ended character-haunting, ultimately race is the thing. It’s what makes her work so singular and analytical. It’s what makes her characters so hateful or lovable.

I recently, finally, read her last novel, Comedy: American Style, the darkest of all her works (no pun intended, although… cool pun. lol). The novel seems erratic in focus, divided as it is into acts, one of which focuses on a tertiary character at a time when I really just wanted to stay with the main folks. But ultimately, it’s about a light-skinned family with one dark skinned son and a matriarch who can neither stand him nor claim him, simply because he’s unable to pass. The rest of the family hides from him the true reason for his mother’s coldness: her desperate, toxic quest for whiteness. But their attempt to shelter him backfires with devastating results.

Fauset fascinates me. All her work is about upper-middle-class Black families of varying skin colors, negotiating their places in society. There’s something Victorian about her writing, full as it is of gentlemen callers, unrequited loves, high-stakes misunderstandings, hidden or altered identities, and clandestine passion. She wrote very formally; her work seems quite prim compared to contemporaries like Zora, who of course, merrily peppered her stories with dialect and who wrote about characters who were far from upper-middle-class.

As we know, Zora emerges as the hero in black literary history: an anthropologist who captured and exposed our folklore, the novelist who gave us Janie and Tea Cake, the queen of Eatonville, Florida.

But Fauset’s no slouch. She was the first African American woman to graduate from Cornell University–and the first African American women to graduate in Phi Beta Kappa. She earned certification from the Sorbonne. She was the literary editor of The Crisis for seven years–and did all the magazine’s translation in French, which was vital to their coverage of the annual Pan-African Conferences. She retired as a schoolteacher in ‘44 and died of heart failure in ‘61.

Why don’t we hear more about her? I wonder, for instance, what she did during that post-retirement decade. I wonder what it was like for her to lose her mother as a little girl, then watch her father remarry (and to a white woman) and have additional children. Was her father passing when he met his second wife, Bella Huff? If so, what was her first reaction to young Jessie? If not, what was her lot in life that she willing took on a black man and his motherless child in the late 1800s? I’ve always wanted to do really extensive work on Jessie Fauset–particularly as part of a PhD dissertation, but I’m rethinking the PhD, so my Fauset-fascination must be temporarily shelved–or must it? Hmm.

Anyway, if you haven’t read anything by Jessie Fauset, you owe it to yourself to check her out. I haven’t even mentioned Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral, which is her best known work and, arguably, her best work. It’s also my favorite. Start there.


11 thoughts on “The Incomparable Jessie Redmon Fauset.

  1. Winslowalrob March 18, 2009 at 11:14 am Reply

    Dang, slb, you better get up on this and write a dissertation on her work. After I found Zora I felt that we are still only scratching the surface of authors we have foud and that there are so many people who are hiding in plain sight. I never even heard of Fauset, so I gotta step my game up.

  2. Ron March 18, 2009 at 1:51 pm Reply

    Thanks for posting this. I’d never heard of her before, but I’m glad I have now and plan to do some homework!

  3. Kia March 18, 2009 at 1:59 pm Reply

    I came across Fauset in a similar fashion, via an anthology. Unfortunately I never did read any of her other works. Thanks for highlighting her today, and if you do go the phD route she seems like an excellent companion on the journey!

    • slb March 19, 2009 at 8:22 am Reply

      kia, do you remember which of her works you read in the anthology? if you do decide to revisit her work, Plum Bun really is the most engaging place to start. her first novel, There is Confusion, was a bit more difficult to get into.

  4. ladyfresshh March 18, 2009 at 6:50 pm Reply

    This is wonderful. Thank you for the introduction.

  5. slb March 19, 2009 at 8:20 am Reply

    thanks for the comments, all. it’s heartening to know that you all are interested in learning more about jessie fauset. she really is one of my favorites. i own three of her four novels (only Plum Bun is currently in print) and i’ve read all four. now i’m on a mission to find her travel writing, as well as her essays and short stories in The Crisis. (if anyone has suggestions on how to go about finding those, holla.)

    • Winslowalrob March 20, 2009 at 2:05 pm Reply, and also try to contact the people that compiled the anthologies and ask them if they ever came across anything such as her lesser known works. Also, get your hands on back issues of the Crisis and just comb over it to see what stuff comes up. Finally, figure out who her relatives are and contact them to see if she donated her writings to her estate (personal letters, cards, notes, whatever) or, even better, to a library or something (which probably has her stuff cataloged and organized). That is all of what comes to mind, sorry I could not be more specific.

      • slb March 20, 2009 at 2:17 pm Reply

        that’s more than enough to get me started. thanks so much for the suggestions!

  6. Stella March 19, 2009 at 1:56 pm Reply

    Can’t wait to check her out… thanks for this!

  7. shani-o March 19, 2009 at 2:48 pm Reply

    Adding another thank you to the chorus. This is great. She reminds me of Nella Larsen (my favorite unknown).

  8. […] slb’s fantastic post on Jesse Redmon Fauset has inspired me to endorse a novella by my favorite writer from the Harlem Renaissance: Nella […]

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