Cover image for A question of character : scientific racism and the genres of American fiction, 1892-1912
A question of character : scientific racism and the genres of American fiction, 1892-1912
Boeckmann, Cathy, 1968-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Tuscaloosa : University of Alabama Press, [2000]

Physical Description:
viii, 238 pages ; 24 cm.
Acknowledgments -- Introduction -- Scientific racism, character, and American fiction -- Thomas Dixon and the rhetorical mulatto -- Pudd'nhead Wilson's phrenological photograph -- Howells and Chesnutt: the racial uses of genre -- Character and black art in The autobiography of an ex-Coloured man -- Epilogue: race and representation -- Notes -- Works cited -- Index.
Reading Level:
1430 Lexile.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PS374.R34 B64 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Boeckmann links character, literary genre, and science, revealing how major literary works both contributed to and disrupted the construction of race in turn-of-the-century America.

In A Question of Character , Cathy Boeckmann establishes a strong link between racial questions and the development of literary traditions at the end of the 19th century in America. This period saw the rise of "scientific racism," which claimed that the races were distinguished not solely by exterior appearance but also by a set of inherited character traits. As Boeckmann explains, this emphasis on character meant that race was not only a thematic concern in the literature of the period but also a generic or formal one as well.

Boeckmann explores the intersections between race and literary history by tracing the language of character through both scientific and literary writing. Nineteenth-century pseudo-sciences such as phrenology and physiognomy had a vocabulary for discussing racial character that overlapped conceptually with the conventions for portraying race in literature. Through close readings of novels by Thomas Dixon, Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, Charles Chesnutt, and James Weldon Johnson--each of which deals with a black character "passing" as white--Boeckmann shows how this emphasis on character relates to the shift from romantic and sentimental fiction to realism. Because each of these genres had very specific conventions regarding the representation of character, genres often dictated how races could be depicted.

Author Notes

Cathy Boeckmann, an independent scholar, is Communication Specialist at McKinsey and Company in Atlanta.

Reviews 1

Choice Review

Boeckmann fills in significant gaps in the critical discourse about genre, race, and science at the turn of the century by focusing on the issue of character in novels by Dixon, Twain, Howells, Chesnutt, and James Weldon Johnson. She convincingly argues that when racial difference in a novel is visible and obvious, writers rely on physical description. However, when race is not visible--as in numerous works, especially novels of passing--then it must be described in terms of "character." In other words, a literary character's inherited "character" must be described. Therefore, "an emphasis on inherited race character brought racial theory into a close relationship with literary notions about characterization." Thus, Boeckmann points out, the quandary of racial representation meant that "race theorists could switch their focus from body to character and make character the operative term for race." Her introduction and first chapter are extremely useful for explicating how racial discourse in realism and sentimentalism helps determine genre. The first chapter, in particular, should be required reading for scholars interested in early theories about scientific racism; subsequent chapters provide strong analyses of novels, particularly Howells's An Imperative Duty and Chesnutt's The House Behind the Cedars. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty. D. J. Rosenthal; John Carroll University

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. vii
Introductionp. 1
1. Scientific Racism, Character, and American Fictionp. 11
2. Thomas Dixon and the Rhetorical Mulattop. 63
3. Pudd'nhead Wilson's Phrenological Photographp. 98
4. Howells and Chesnutt: The Racial Uses of Genrep. 138
5. Character and Black Art in The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Manp. 174
Epilogue: Race and Representationp. 205
Notesp. 213
Works Citedp. 227
Indexp. 235