Novelist, poet, short story writer, biographer, essayist, and literary critic, Jessie Redmon Fauset played a pivotal role in the Renaissance. Although she was in her early forties at the height of the Renaissance, she played a dual role of creator of her own body of work and mentor to the younger group of writers. Fauset did not possess the characteristics generally associated with the Renaissance: she was older, reserved in demeanor, meaningfully employed, and her lifestyle was not bohemian in nature.
Miss Fauset is often referred to as an older sister figure to the younger writers, midwife of the Renaissance, and provider of yeomans work for the Negro Renaissance. In all respects, her services and contributions to the movement were appreciated and her novels endorsed by the established black critics of the day. Prior to her novels, the black middle class milieu was not a subject that was recreated in novels.
Jessie Redmon Fauset, the seventh child of Redmon and Annie Seamon Fauset, was born in Camden County, New Jersey, a suburb of Philadelphia. In her own personal statements, Fauset claims Philadelphia as her birthplace and the parsonage as her home. Her father was a Presbyterian minister. Her family was of a humble but cultured background. It is because of this background that her family has been referred to as one of those old-line or well-to-do Philadelphia families.
Fauset graduated, with honors, from the prestigious Philadelphia High School for Girls in 1900, and it has been suggested that she was probably the only black student in the school. Upon graduation from high school, she received a scholarship to Cornell University where she was the first black woman to attend. Fauset graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Cornell with a major in classical languages and from the University of Pennsylvania with an M.A. in French.
On October 5, 1906, Miss Fauset was appointed teacher of Latin and French at M Street High School in Washington, DC. There was a name change in 1916 and M Street became Dunbar High School. She eventually resigned from Washingtons public schools on June 30, 1919. Jessie Fauset spent thirteen years of her teaching career in the DC public school system. Later in 1919, she began her tenure with Crisis magazine as literary editor, a position she held until 1926 when she became contributing editor. Although she was not in Washington, DC at the height of the Renaissance, she continued her DC connection through mentoring and socializing with the Saturday Nighters Club in Washington. Miss Fauset married Herbert E. Harris in 1929.
In her position as literary editor, she provided immense support to a younger group of black authors. Fauset consistently promoted their work and encouraged their writing. Her role in these efforts was unsurpassed, as is evidenced in her promotion of the works of Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, George Schuyler, and Countee Cullen.
Fauset along with Charles Johnson, Alain Locke, Walter White, and James Weldon Johnson has been dubbed the primary artistic leaders of the Renaissance. Langston Hughes acknowledged her importance in his autobiography, The Big Sea:
Jessie Fauset at the Crisis, Charles Johnson at Opportunity, and Alain Locke in Washington were the people who midwifed the so-called New Negro Literature into being. Kind and critical but not too critical for the young they nursed us along until our books were born.
Finally, Claude McKay noted in A Long Way Home From Home, that
all the radicals liked her, although in her social viewpoint she was away over on the other side of the fence . Miss Fauset has written many novels about the people of her circle. Some white critics consider these people not interesting enough to write about. I think all people are interesting to write about.
As editor, she contributed a number of informative essays to enlighten her readership. She was particularly fond of biographical sketches of prominent blacks. Her main purpose for the biographies was to educate young blacks. She strongly felt that black biography was a neglected literary form and needed to be strengthened. In an interview in the Southern Workman (May 1932), she stated that it is urgent that ambitious Negro youth be able to read of the achievements of their race. Her dream was to create a sort of Plutarchs Lives of the black race, but she never got around to writing it.
Fauset was not a radical in any sense of the word, but she did help tremendously to raise black consciousness as a literary editor of Crisis. She chose unpopular topics for her fiction and challenged the preconceptions of the publishing industry at that time.
One of the possible catalysts for her career as a fiction writer came as a result of her reaction to the novel, Brightright, written by T. S. Stribling, who was white. In the June 1922 issue of Crisis, she criticized the attempts of whites who tried to write about blacks. She questioned whether or not white people will ever be able to write evenly on this racial situation in America. She strongly felt that it was the black writers responsibility to accurately portray black people.
She answered the challenge that more blacks should write their stories with the publication of her first novel, There Is Confusion (1924). Miss Fauset encountered strong opposition among publishers for this first novel. It did not contain the stereotypical characters and plots that they thought would sell a book dealing with the lives of Blacks. There were no descriptions of Harlem bars or cabarets, no fights or race riots, and no abject poverty. She was determined to feature another picture that of a black middle class of which she was a part. Langston Hughes aptly describes in the The Big Sea (p. 247) that:
[at Fauset's] parties there was always quite a different atmosphere from that at most other Harlem good-time gatherings. At Miss Fausets a good time was shared by talking literature and reading poetry aloud and perhaps enjoying some conversation in French.
It is difficult to write of the Harlem Renaissance and not make reference to the significant dinner on March 21, 1924, for the New York Writers Guild. Jessie Fauset, who was a member of the Guild, was present. The date of this dinner coincided with the release of her first novel, There Is Confusion. Consequently, she was given a place of prominence on the program.
Ms. Fausets novels received generally favorable reviews; however, she was not considered a first rate novelist. She was much stronger as an essayist and literary critic. In reference to Fausets writing, Carolyn Sylvander in the Dictionary of Literary Biography (p.85) states that:
[her] thematic concerns and formal experiments are worth critical investigation. Fausets essays reveal her curiosity and sympathy, but the novels, too, leave an impression of strength gained through difficulties overcome. Fausets strength may lie in her unobtrusive presentation of alternatives for defining the black American woman: more exploratory than dogmatic, more searching than protesting.
Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea: An Autobiography. New York: Knopf, 1940.
Sylvander, Carolyn Wedin, Jessie Fauset, in Dictionary of Literary Biography. vol.51, Afro-American Writers from the Harlem renaissance to 1940, edited by Trudier Harris (Detroit: Gale Research Inc, 1987).
Johnson, Abby Arthur. Literary Midwife: Jessie Redmon Fauset and the Harlem Renaissance. Phylon (June 1978): 143-153.
Starkey, Marion L. Jessie Fauset. The Southern Workman (May 1932): 217-220.
There is Confusion. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1924.
The Gift of Laughter, in The New Negro, edited by Alain Locke (New York: Boni, 1925).
Plum Bun. New York: Stokes, 1929.
The Chinaberry Tree; A Novel of American Life. New York: Stokes, 1931.
Comedy, American Style. New York: Stokes, 1933.
New Literature on the Negro, Crisis, 20 (June 1920): 78-83.
Impressions of the Second Pan-African Congress, Crisis, 22 (November 1921): 12-18.
La Vie Cest La Vie, Crisis, 24 (July 1922): 124.
Song for a Lost Comrade, Crisis, 25 (November 1922): 22.
Rencontre, Crisis, 27 (January
Stars in Alabama, Crisis, 35 (January 1928): 14.
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The Black Renaissance in Washington, D.C., 1920-1930s
http://www.dclibrary.org/blkren/ | last updated June 20, 2003