Eugenic Discourse and Naturalist Aesthetics in Early Twentieth-Century African American Literature
Florian Gabriel

Among others, Daylanne K. English regards eugenics as the “paradigmatic modern American discourse” of the early twentieth-century. She has also found eugenic ideas in some works of African American literature during this time period. Considering the connection between eugenics and literature, however, one might more readily think of another literary genre, one which usually excludes works of African American fiction: classical American literary naturalism. Therefore, my dissertation project aims to examine the connection between early twentieth-century African American literature, eugenics and classical American literary naturalism. I will historicize writings by Charles Chesnutt, Booker T. Washington, Pauline Hopkins, James Weldon Johnson, and Nella Larsen (whose works have at various times, by various critics, for various reasons been defined as works of literary naturalism). What versions of eugenics are advertised in these texts? (negative versus positive eugenics, eugenics as a means for integration or separation, the connection between eugenics and environmentalism, elitist versus egalitarian versions of eugenics, criticism on eugenics). How do these works influence each other and how do they influence or are influenced by works of classical American literary naturalism? Is there a eugenic aesthetic, perhaps one which draws on or has been influenced by classical American literary naturalism? To this day no book-length study focusing on early twentieth-century African American literature in connection with classical American literary naturalism exists. Despite few exceptions, recent attempts from scholars to integrate African American writers into the canon of American literary naturalism mostly resulted in short essays or single book chapters, mainly seeing these writers operating at the margin, but never actively being involved in shaping and reshaping the genre of American naturalism. This is indeed surprising since naturalism became a major genre among African American writers such as Ann Petry and Richard Wright, and it is hard to imagine that the impulses causing this development simply came out of nowhere.

 

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