Recognizing the Enduring Whiteness of Jane Austen
Marcos Gonsalez on Diversifying Our Readings of the Canon
After finding myself fatigued towards the end of the semester by all the British domestic drama of Austen’s oeuvre, I zone out during a class period and think, “These novels are some big-time white people problems.” I want to say this out loud in good fun, but then I take a good look around me. Everyone is white besides me.
Once a week I enter this room, and feel that whiteness, as professor and students run around the fact that Austen and her protagonists are women. As they rally around this shared understanding, I sit and ask myself: Does anyone else in this room know Jane Austen is… white? Do they even know they are all white?
They know what blackness is. They know what indigeneity is. They know Asianness. Unmarked, and universal, whiteness structures this classroom, this university, this world. It structures the topics they bring up, how they engage with one another, the ability for them to get along so well, and why I am on the outside of it all.
But they don’t know what whiteness is because they have never had to see it before. To them, white students and white professors discussing white literature feels like nothing out of the ordinary; it’s just the way things are, the way things are meant to be.
Informed by critic Edward Said’s reading of Austen’s novel in his book, Culture and Imperialism, I write one of my first seminar papers as a doctoral student in English Language and Literature on how Lady Bertram’s pug symbolizes a kind of indolence and excess the Bertram family can have due to Sir Tomas Bertram’s slave estates in Antigua. These are the only comments on the paper justifying why I receive a B letter grade: “The connection between Lady Bertram’s pug, the luxury of their home, and colonialism in your reading of Mansfield Park, isn’t a very strong one.” The conclusion of my first semester in graduate school, like in undergraduate and high school, is a tale as old as time.
I should have anticipated the professor’s comments given that during class, when I bring up the ties between the transatlantic slave trade and the Bertram’s wealth, she responds by telling me it’s “merely a passing detail.” My other classmates, all white, mainly women, say nothing to add onto the reading I am trying to bring into the classroom. All brush it aside to talk about topics they have deemed more pertinent like “feminist readings of Austen’s novels” and “women’s issues.”
“That’s bullshit,” a peer tells me I after I inquire about the grade I receive. “No one gets B’s in grad school unless you don’t do the work. We’re all colleagues here.”
After she tells me this, I rip the paper into little shreds and flush it down the toilet.
I don’t contest the grade with the professor. I don’t bring it up to anyone after I tell this person. I am too embarrassed to tell anyone I have a B because, apparently, no one is supposed to get B’s in grad school. I am too scared to bring it up to a higher up because I don’t want to be blacklisted as the disruptive queer person of color who causes problems.
I flush the toilet and tell myself I will forget about it and move on, forgetting and moving on like the plenty of times I have had to do before, hoping it will somehow get rid of this problem so many of us have encountered time and time again.
This whiteness is nothing new, for I have known it in undergrad Shakespeare courses and in high school literature when reading Hawthorne or Steinbeck or Defoe. I am naive to believe doctoral study is a space where white professors and students are welcoming to readings of race and colonialism. I am naive to believe having a doctorate or pursuing one magically makes you any more aware or cognizant of the world than those who don’t.
Literary critics of color have long taken to task the whiteness of literary study, examining how we have held certain canonical texts and authors on untouchable pedestals. In her essay, “The Question of Race in Beowulf,” Dorothy Kim outlines how J.R.R. Tolkien and Toni Morrison took two very different analytic approaches to the study of Beowulf. For Tolkien, Beowulf becomes a, “non-politicized, close reading of monsters, asking critics to read it as a poem, a work of linguistic art,” yet also somehow serves as a source of racial pride for the British. While Morrison sees how Grendel and his mother are figures of the marginalized, of the plights of people of color in a white supremacist world. Kim’s article articulates how the reading, interpretation, and pleasure one derives from literature involves a particular kind of framing, a way of reading.
Lavelle Porter in, “Should Walt Whitman Be #Cancelled,” addresses how to reconcile with the racism of Walt Whitman, and, in general, reconciling with a writer’s racism when you enjoy their work. Porter sees reading Whitman through Black intellectual critique as proving a necessary corrective, an anti-racist way of talking back to the poet. Patricia Matthew similarly points out, in a 2017 essay for The Atlantic, that she grew up reading and enjoying the work of Jane Austen, and still does, but teaching and discussing Austen in academic spaces elicits a particular kind of protective fangirling over her work and image. This builds a romanticized vision of her work and constructs an exclusionary canon, pushing other kinds of earlier texts, like those by women of color which more openly express social issues, into the margins. What these critics all show is that one can read, appreciate, and study canonical literature with different analytic frameworks in mind.
My reading of Mansfield Park, which is nothing new as many before me have articulated similar critiques, challenged the legitimacy of the ways of reading this professor only knows how to do and wants others to do.
Marginalized readers have a hard time enjoying the classics because our teachers and professors, beginning in primary school and ending in graduate school, have for so long dictated our ways of reading. The study of literature has had, since its inception, an open investment in maintaining de-politicized and art-for-art’s sake approaches to how we read these works. I learn a valuable lesson about pleasure from this Austen course and those comments on my paper, a lesson about cultivating ways of reading that is about pleasure, about my pleasure, a pleasure always and ever political, always and ever informed by the social and cultural worlds we live in.
When I first read Mansfield Park it is an experience of pleasure. I love the messy familial drama. I love to hate the annoyingly pious and therefore dreadfully boring Fanny Price. I love tracking the details of opulence and luxury the Bertrams are able to have, the spoils of imperialism and enslavement. I enjoy this experience of reading Mansfield Park by myself, in my small apartment or on the subway going uptown or in Central Park, not in class, because the dynamics of the classroom do not allow for it.An experiment: I try to retell the story of Mansfield Park with a cast of poor Puerto Rican and Mexican people that resemble my family.
We frequently hear teachers and professors complain that the younger generations don’t like to read the classics anymore. This is of no fault but their own. I want to read Austen. I want to read as many dead white writers as I can. I have a voracious appetite to read literature from every historical period and place on this planet. But I must read them from this body. This body built of colonization. This body built from the pillaging and massacring and dispossessing of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. This body hundreds of years in the making which I now read from. Those like, and unlike me, are there in those pages. Those details of Caribbean islands and the plantations housed there generating wealth from the labor of enslaved African people scattered about in a 19th-century British novel. Those details which, according to the Austen professor, aren’t strong enough to foster an argument.
What does it even mean to be a white author or to address whiteness in literature?
An experiment: I try to retell the story of Mansfield Park with a cast of poor Puerto Rican and Mexican people that resemble my family. I am poor like Fanny Price, but have no rich relatives in which to move to in order to increase my prospects. I need an uncle who is off away somewhere settling financial affairs based off exploitation, but I can’t seem to make up one. Technically, I do have an aunt who has a small dog she brings everywhere who could be a stand-in for Lady Bertram but the kind of luxury or opulence ascribed to Lady Bertram and her dog is one my aunt doesn’t have. More attempts happen to fit the narrative to some queer MexiRican retelling but I don’t know how to make the template of the story fit the world I would need to create. I probably can but I don’t know if I even want to. I don’t want to fit into Austen’s story—I want to fit into mine.
The remixing of white literature by writers of color has shown how these are stories can be ours, too, for our particular artistic and political goals. Ibi Zoboi’s young adult novel, Pride, is a retelling of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, with women of color at the helm as protagonists. Victor LaValle does a retelling of Lovecraft’s short story, “The Horror at Red Hook,” an important counterpoint to Lovecraft’s xenophobic rendering of the New York City immigrant neighborhood. Writers of color will continue to do compelling retellings of classic texts by writers like Austen and Lovecraft. Yet my suspicions linger over the politics of retellings because the dominating forces over our art and culture are notoriously guilty of telling those of us who are queer, disabled, trans, and of color, that our original stories are too particular and niche to reach a large enough audience. The stories these white writers craft are universal templates, apparently.
What does it look like to retell Lin Manuel-Miranda’s In the Heights? Nella Larsen’s Passing? Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior? The question becomes tricky because these works, like all works by any kind of writer, like Austen or Shakespeare, possess their specific social and cultural contexts, all of them their own beautiful specificity. Yet some of us are always more universal, always able to be just Art, just Literature, just Author, and never, lest we say it, lest we give up the ruse, white.
We must create our own relation to these texts, and our own ways of finding pleasure in reading them. I enjoy reading the dazzling lines of Beowulf, the flagrantly dandyish essays by Walter Pater, or the awkwardly delightful prose of Gertrude Stein. I read these writers with an awareness of their whiteness. Always. I attune my pleasure to this fact, attuning my appreciation of literature to the conditions of the world that has produced it, of the world operating within its pages. A pleasure of the text that is not willfully ignorant, or willfully ready to shut dissenting analyses down because they mar the prettied-up version of a writer or work we want to uphold. A pleasure ever apart of this world, responsive and attentive difference, and ever aiming for a world that doesn’t have to be this one.
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