Monday, March 14, 2005

There's a bit of a kerfluffle over an obscure black novelist of the 1890s, who turns out to not have been black after all. Emma Durham Kelley-Hawkins was *not* an extraordinarily New Englandish African-American writer, but rather, was a very Caucasian, very undistinguished product of provincial Rhode Island.

The fuss made me wonder what the point of her initial inclusion into the black canon was, really? From all descriptions, her two novels were starchy, bleached affairs of propriety and decorum. I can't help but suspect that this was a sort of petty-aristocratic appropriation...

Much of the tenor of comment has been along the lines of "the only thing that made her interesting as an author was her biography", and complaints about the historicist imposition upon pure aesthetics. I suppose I'm somewhat sympathetic to this sort of outrage, but the counter-example of two authors weigh my hand and temper my enthusiasm.

Georgette Heyer was the most English of romance writers, a fabricator of a Regency England so detailed and expansive that it easily obscures and overshadows the brief historical period upon which it was nominally based upon. The irony of Heyer's reconstruction and appropriation of this lost England is that Heyer was actually the grand-daughter of converted Ukrainian Jews, that her own family spent the period in question in some nameless steppe shetl, before emigrating to the sceptered isle a generation later. You can enjoy Heyer's marvelous novels without ever knowing this fact; the knowledge does not, as far as I can perceive, seriously affect said enjoyment one way or the other. Her ethnicity is irrelevant to her feat of invention.

Joseph Conrad, on the other hand, was a Polish immigrant of the generation previous to Heyer, fleeing Russian oppression. He became an English subject, and spent his active life and career becoming as much of an Englishman as is possible for anyone not born to the land to be. His many novels are as much a part of the English literary tradition and the culture of the British Empire as any native-born Englishman or Scot. But Conrad's biography is inseparable from his literary product. How can you reasonably discuss his Heart of Darkness without reference to his operation of a riverboat on the Congo, or the Secret Sharer and Lord Jim without talking of his time as a tramp ship captain? Nostromo and the Secret Agent are comprehensively influenced and illuminated by Conrad's characteristic viewpoint as the imperial outsider.

If it were revealed that Conrad had not been the Polish immigrant that we thought him, but rather a well-traveled Welshman, then what would we make of his body of work? It would *utterly change them*. The author himself is assumed to occupy a particular viewpoint, a vantage. To change Conrad from a Pole to our hypothetical Welshman, or a lowland Scot, would be roughly akin to discovering that el Greco had perfect vision, and his distortions and elongations were artifacts of artistic intent entire.

Via the Instapundit, because I'm lazy that way.

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