American Literature Jessie Fauset
by
Cherene Sherrard-Johnson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0178

Introduction

Jessie “Redmon” Fauset was born in Fredericksville, New Jersey, on 17 April 1882, the seventh child of Reverend Redmon and Annie Fauset. Her early education was marked by transition as the Philadelphia area negotiated the end of school segregation. As a result, Fauset attended integrated high schools and went on to graduate first from Cornell University (1905) and later with an MA in French (1919) from the University of Pennsylvania. She taught French and Latin at Dunbar High School in Washington DC for fourteen years before moving to New York City. At a time when the United States was plagued by race riots and heightening political turmoil, she assumed the role of literary editor of The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP. During her tenure, which lasted until May 1926, she would shepherd the periodical, and many emerging authors, through its most creative and aesthetically generative period. Shortly after assuming the editorship, she began writing the “What to Read” column, and her first publications—a poem, “Rondeau,” and a short story, “Emmy”—appeared in the magazine. In 1920, in collaboration with W. E. B. Du Bois, she was instrumental in publishing and contributing to The Brownies’ Book, a magazine for African American children. During her tenure as editor, she traveled to France, Belgium, and Algeria, and she attended the Second Pan-African Congress in Brussels, London, and Paris as a delegate of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. Many essays in The Crisis chronicled her international experiences, amplifying the magazine’s global perspective. In 1925 she earned a certificate from the Sorbonne and traveled to Africa. A dinner at the Civic Club, the inaugural party of the Harlem Renaissance, celebrated her debut novel There is Confusion (1924). Alain Locke published Fauset’s essay “The Gift of Laughter” in his movement-defining anthology The New Negro: An Interpretation (1925). Over the next decade, Fauset published four novels in succession, with the last, Comedy: American Style, appearing in 1933. During this time, she severed her relationship with The Crisis amid rumors regarding her involvement with Du Bois. Whatever the disagreement, the special focus of The Crisis on the literary arts waned after her departure. In 1929 she married Herbert Harris, an insurance broker. Though Harris was supportive of her career, she found it increasingly difficult to write creatively, especially after lack of employment forced her to return to teaching at DeWitt Clinton High School in New York. Fauset and her husband relocated from New York to New Jersey in 1940, where they lived until his death in 1958. She then returned to Philadelphia, where she lived until 1961, when she died of heart failure.

General Overviews

Although Jessie Fauset was one of the most prolific writers of the Harlem Renaissance, early critics marginalized and pigeonholed her novels and poetry as sentimental and/or mid-Victorian (Johnson 1978). Such assessments overlooked the subtlety of her exploration of intraracial colorism/class division and the array of artistic female protagonists struggling against white supremacy, while also fighting the triple bind of race, class, and gender (Sylvander 1981). Renewed interest in Fauset’s work, spurred by the explosion of black feminist criticism in the 1980s, resulted in the republication of her most popular and critically acclaimed novel, Plum Bun, which became a core text for courses on the Harlem Renaissance (Tomlinson 2008). Feminist scholarship and theory spearheaded revaluations of Fauset’s writing, illuminating her artistry alongside Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston, and other women writers of the period (Wall 1995). The new modernist studies understood her work as a reformation of the novel of manners, similar to Edith Wharton, Zona Gale, and Edna Ferber (Bothson and Goldsmith 2003). Transnational and African diaspora studies have highlighted Fauset’s cosmopolitanism (Fauset 2009) and positioned her intellectualism in relationship to the Negritude movement (Wilks 2013, Edwards 2003). Viewed through diverse lenses, Fauset’s multifaceted career as an artist and activist reached new levels of appreciation and awareness. Still, despite the recovery of Fauset’s diverse and multifaceted oeuvre, Jerkins 2017 demonstrates the persistent perception that her contributions remain obscure. Several decades of Harlem Renaissance scholarship have validated Fauset’s importance to the era, but have not be able to fully dispel the notion of her as a behind-the-scenes architect rather than an artist of singular renown.

  • Bothson, Lisa, and Meredith Goldsmith. Middlebrow Moderns: Popular America Women Writers of the 1920s. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    Makes a strong case for Fauset as a commercially appealing novelist after the style of Zona Gale, Edith Wharton, and other writers who bucked the conventional strains of modernist writing.

  • Edwards, Brent. The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

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    Spotlights Fauset’s transnationalism by examining how Plum Bun and Comedy: American Style critique the appeal of black expatriatism, and illustrates how gender both impacts and impedes mobility abroad.

  • Fauset, Jessie Redmon. “Introduction.” In Comedy: American Style. Edited by Cherene Sherrard-Johnson, xv–xl. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009.

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    Considers Fauset’s Afro-modernist cosmopolitanism alongside her critique of intraracial class division in this anti-passing novel.

  • Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea: An Autobiography. New York: Hill and Wang, 1940.

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    Memoir of the Harlem Renaissance and the salons held at Fauset’s home reify her central role as a Harlem Renaissance maven.

  • Jerkins, Morgan. “The Forgotten Work of Jessie Redmon Fauset.” The New Yorker, 18 February 2017.

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    Reflective, personal essay that considers why Fauset’s work remains marginalized or unknown to contemporary black woman fiction writers, despite its critical recovery in academic circles.

  • Johnson, Abby Arthur. “Literary Midwife: Jessie Redmon Fauset and the Harlem Renaissance.” Phylon: The Atlanta University Review of Race and Culture 39.2 (1978): 143–153.

    DOI: 10.2307/274509E-mail Citation »

    Demonstrates how Fauset’s impressive contributions were ignored primarily because of her focus on the middle class in her novels.

  • Sylvander, Carolyn. Jessie Redmon Fauset, Black American Writer. Troy, NY: Whitston, 1981.

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    This book-length study remains the most comprehensive treatment of Fauset’s life and work to date. Interweaving biography with critical assessment, each chapter attends to Fauset’s various roles as a novelist, essayist, editor, poet, critic, and mentor who fostered the careers of numerous luminaries such as Jean Toomer and Langston Hughes, while also producing her own art.

  • Tomlinson, Susan. “Teaching Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun.” In Teaching the Harlem Renaissance: Course Design and Classroom Strategies. Edited by Michael Soto, 115–121. New York: Peter Lang, 2008.

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    Pedagogical piece that explains Fauset’s enterprise by describing how the incorporation of archival and visual materials, especially the viewing of images from the Fourteenth Street School, grounds the protagonist’s experience in Greenwich Village.

  • Wall, Cheryl. Women of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.

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    Written as a corrective to David Lewis’s marginalization of women’s contributions to the Harlem Renaissance (see Lewis 1994, cited under Poetry). This is a crucial study that features a substantive chapter on Fauset that considers the full arc of her literary career.

  • Wilks, Jennifer M. “Black Modernist Women at the Parisian Crossroads.” In Escape from New York: The New Negro Renaissance beyond Harlem. Edited by Davarian L. Baldwin and Minkah Makalani, 227–246. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.5749/minnesota/9780816677382.003.0010E-mail Citation »

    Using Brent Edwards’s concept of decalage as a point of departure (see Edwards 2003), this chapter places Fauset’s exploration of Paris as a creative catalyst for discussions of gender, geography, and nation in dialogue with the writings of her Parisian counterpart, Paulette Nardal.

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