Jessie Redmon Fauset (1882-1961) had a career as a teacher, but she is best known for her writing and her contribution to the Harlem Renaissance as literary editor of the Crisis.
Fauset was born on April 27, 1882, in Camden, New Jersey. She was the seventh child born to Redmon Fauset, an African Methodist Episcopal minister, and Annie Seamon Fauset. After the death of Annie Fauset, Redmon Fauset married Bella Huff, a widow with three children. To this union three children were born, including writer Arthur Huff Fauset. Jessie Fauset grew up in cultured but economically poor circumstances in Philadelphia, graduating with honors from the High School for Girls in 1900 as the only black student. Officials at Bryn Mawr College, which Fauset sought to enter, obtained aid for her to go instead to Cornell University, from which she graduated in 1905 after a demanding course of study emphasizing languages (Latin, Greek, French, German, and English). She was the first black woman in the country elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and the only black graduate elected to that honor fraternity at Cornell before 1921.
After being denied a teaching job in Philadelphia because of her race, Fauset taught one year at the Douglass High School in Baltimore before moving to Washington, D.C., where she successfully taught French at the M Street High School (after 1916 called the Dunbar High School) for fourteen years. Highly intelligent, highly educated, and well-read, yet exceedingly modest and even shy in social circumstances, Fauset was an impressive and effective teacher, according to her students. One of them recalled 60 years later that she was the first person he heard use the word "ubiquitous" in ordinary conversation, and it sent him scurrying to the dictionary.
Fauset completed two graduate degrees, a master of arts in French at the University of Pennsylvania in 1929, after summer courses in 1901 and 1912 and a year's work in 1918-19; and a certificate at the Sorbonne, Paris, France, after six months of study there in 1925-26. She returned to teaching French at DeWitt Clinton High School in New York City after her tenure as literary editor of the NAACP's publication, the Crisis, from 1919 to 1926.
Fauset's amiability, intelligence, education, and interactive teaching skills made her an exceptional and highly influential literary editor during the height of the Harlem Renaissance period. Poet Langston Hughes called Fauset one of the three "mid-wives" who guided the artistic development into life.
In 1919 Fauset was brought from Washington, D.C., to New York City and the offices of the NAACP and the Crisis by W. E. B. Du Bois, editor of the magazine from its inception in 1911. By that time, Fauset had published numerous short stories, poems, articles, and book reviews in the journal and had been fleetingly involved with various NAACP legal cases. She had also been an admirer of Du Bois, fourteen years her senior, from her college days at Cornell, beginning a correspondence with him just when her own father died and obtaining Du Bois's aid in locating summer teaching jobs as a college student.
From 1919 to 1926 Fauset took over much of Du Bois's work connected with the Crisis and with his international Pan-African Movement meetings (her facility in French in fact made her indispensable to some of this activity). She did much work for which Du Bois has been given credit by himself and others, including the short-lived but delightful children's publication The Brownies' Book (1920-21). For the twenty-four issues of this publication, Fauset wrote hundreds of signed and unsigned stories, poems, dialogues, biographies, and articles, as well as handling all of the correspondence with contributors and all of the editing.
As literary editor of the Crisis, Fauset discovered or published very early in their careers Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, and Countee Cullen, as well as many lesser-known women writers with views ranging from radical to conservative on racial and sexual issues, and with widely-differing writing styles.
Fauset included in the magazine many articles dealing with literary movements of the day, putting the Crisis at the center of the 1920s debates on how "the Negro" should be portrayed in art. Explanatory articles on the nature and structure of short stories and plays were designed for the wide audience reached by the Crisis and were successful in encouraging new writers to enter competitions sponsored by the NAACP, such as the Amy Spingarn awards for black writers of poetry, drama, essays, and short stories.
Fauset's own writing for the Crisis before and during her tenure as literary editor includes a large number of poems and stories, one rather lengthy novelette, translations from French and West Indian and African writers, many essays, book reviews, and articles on topics ranging from Egyptian nationalism and Brazilian emancipation to reports on the Second Pan-African Congress in Europe in 1921, which she attended as a delegate of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, of which she was a member.
This range of writing reveals a woman thoroughly aware of the American social and literary scene, as well as of the relationships of American life to what was being lived and written in other countries. Her reviews cover a wide range of material appearing in periodicals as well as books, and include evaluations of English and French works of fiction, drama, poetry, folklore, journalism, biography, criticism, and literary history, many of them dealing with Africa and African literature. Fauset's standards of form are invariably high even when she is strongly moved by content. Her negative criticism is kind and polite while nevertheless clearly stated. She attempts to find something to praise even when the sum of a review is negative. Her assessments of works that have since become well-known do not differ significantly from those of subsequent critics, as, for example, in her praising James Weldon Johnson's anonymously-published The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man in 1912.
Fauset is a very good—and heretofore unrecognized— essayist, with her intelligence, precise language skill, wide-ranging interests, and sensitivity suited more to this form than to that for which she is usually recognized, her fiction. Five travel essays from France and Algeria in 1925-26, published in the Crisis demonstrate her skill. Fauset reveals deep interest in the lives and strengths of the poor in "Yarrow Revisited," contrasting the Paris she knew as a student in 1913 and the Paris of the Second Pan-African Congress in 1922 with the "workaday season" she knows in a cheap pension in 1925. "This Way to The Flea Market" describes in detail the lives of the extreme poor of all nationalities clinging to the fringes of the fortifications of Paris. Here and in "Dark Algiers and White" she concentrates on the women, looking beneath the "voluminous garments" of the Arabians, for example, to see "the misshapen bodies, broken and distorted by neglect, abuse and much beating of children."
Fauset's essays reveal a strong and gentle woman with happy childhood memories, an intense intellectual life, and wide social contacts as well as a deep awareness of the lives of the poor and of women. Her imagery and figurative language is suitably sparse and effective; she makes her points subtly and entertainingly. The personal essay form was particularly suited to her thought and writing skills. Fauset explores opinions and experiences in her essays that are invariably ignored when her fiction is cursorily examined.
Fauset's poems, neither simplistic nor innovative, reveal personal delights and pains behind her more public concerns, many seeking consolation in nature after love is gone. Most frequently anthologized is a lighthearted exploration of love and pain and irony called "La Vie C'est La Vie," first published in the Crisis in July 1922 (124). The poem's narrator sits "quiescent" in the park beside a man who loves her, idly watching the squirrels while his voice breaks "with love and pain."
Also anthologized, for example, in the Langston Hughes and Area Bontemps anthology, The Poetry of the Negro: 1746-1949 (1949) and in James Weldon Johnson's The Book of American Negro Poetry (1931), are Fauset's very good translations of French West Indian poets. She was aware, writing about translating Haitian writers in 1920, that "French poetry does not lend itself easily to our harsher, less flexible mould," making it difficult to convey the "charm" of the original, charm which nevertheless ranked, in her estimation, with the "charm of the poetry of France" (Sylvander, 129).
Fauset's short stories published in the Crisis lend some insight into themes of the fiction for which she is best known-she is, in fact, with her four novels, the most published novelist of the Harlem Renaissance period. "Emmy" shows her interest in the ironies of American discrimination based not only on skin color but on invisible "Black blood," and her more extensive concern with what characters do within the constraints of their heritage. "The Sleeper Wakes" presents some of the race and sex issues later developed in her novel Plum Bun in 1929. "Double Trouble" is an early version of the barely-avoided incest of her novel The Chinaberry Tree of 1931. In each case, the movement from the shorter to the longer exploitations of the themes shows conscious artistic development in Fauset's fiction.
In the early 1920s, Fauset was inspired to write her first novel by what she thought to be inaccurate or incomplete depictions of black life in fiction. There Is Confusion was published in 1924 by New York publishers Boni and Liveright (who also published Jean Toomer's Cane and Eric Walrond's Tropic Death, as well as white writers Theodore Dreiser, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Hilda Doolittle, H. L. Mencken, William Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson, and Hart Crane). Fauset's novel was well reviewed and sold well, even being issued in a second edition in 1928.
There is Confusion presents the story of two families through the marriage of Joanna Marshall from one family and Peter Bye from the other. Fauset traces the lives of the main characters from childhood and provides extensive information about their ancestry, leading to a plethora of characters, descriptions, and leaps in time that are often confusing. For its themes, however, the novel is a worthwhile read, depicting the kinds of racial discrimination faced by northern, urban blacks, and the kinds of responsive actions possible given American slave history, racially-mixed heritage, and various environments.
Many formal improvements by the time Fauset published her second novel, Plum Bun, in 1929, make it in many ways her best work. Time transitions are shorter and smoother than in her first novel, and the limitation of the point of view to one character, Angela Murray, gives the reader depth without confusion. The plot is structured by the nursery rhyme, "To Market, to Market, to buy a Plum Bun. Home again, Home again, Market is done." Angela is a young woman from a strong Philadelphia family of modest means. She and her mother can pass for white, her sister and her father cannot. In New York City as a struggling painter, Angela makes the choice to pass, becoming involved also with a rich white playboy (the "Plum Bun" section). "Home Again," the longest section of the novel, explores Angela's attempts to establish meaningful relationships with men and women she carefully evaluates. In the final "Market is Done" section, Angela sacrifices an award of a trip to France by revealing her racial identity in response to reporters' badgering of a black woman. In fitting nursery rhyme fashion, Angela is then rewarded not only by getting to France anyway but by a Paris reunion with her true love, Anthony Cross, who has lingered in the background throughout the novel in triple disguise—poor, black, looking white.
Fauset uses the plot freedom of the American romance while satirizing traditional romantic assumptions in Plum Bun. Black blood is customarily a "bar sinister" in American romance. Angela sees it just that way at the beginning of the book; her romantic ideal of adventure and love points directly toward being white and marrying white as well as rich. But it is only after Angela sees skin color, money, and marriage in a transformed light that Roger, the rich playboy, arrives at her door with a marriage proposal.
Unfortunately Fauset's final two novels, The Chinaberry Tree, 1931, and Comedy: American Style, 1933, return to some of the stylistic defects of her first. The Frederick A. Stokes Company, which had published Plum Bun, balked a bit at her third, deciding to do it only after writer Zona Gale agreed with Fauset to write an introduction. The readers at Stokes, Fauset said, "declare plainly that there ain't no such colored people as these, who speak decent English, are self-supporting and have a few ideals" (Jessie Fauset to Zona Gale, 20 October 1931). The Stokes Company went on to publish Fauset's fourth novel as well as her third.
Despite weaknesses in form, the two novels are nevertheless worth reading for their thematic relevance. In her foreword to the 1931 book, Fauset said she wanted to explore "the homelife of the colored American who is not being pressed too hard by the Furies of Prejudice, Ignorance, and Economic Injustice." This she does through a story set in a small New Jersey community named Red Brook, in which white townspeople appear only once, as onlookers to a skating party.
Both The Chinaberry Tree and Comedy: American Style use formal structures from analogues to drama, implicit in the former with its suggestions of classical Greek tragedy and Shakespearean festive comedy, explicit in the latter with its formal divisions using dramatic terms. Fauset had been extremely involved with drama in her New York City social life throughout the 1920s, naming theater-going as her favorite recreation. Her fourth and final published novel, in 1933, is divided into elements of a play: "the Plot," "The Characters," "Teresa's Act," "Oliver's Act," "Phebe's Act," and "Curtain," with each of the theatrical terms acting as double entendre.
At the age of forty-seven, in 1929, Fauset married Herbert Harris, an insurance broker somewhat incapacitated by World War I injuries, and they made their home with Fauset's sister Helen Lanning, an elementary school teacher, in a cooperative apartment on Seventh Avenue in Harlem until Lanning's death in 1936. Fauset and Harris were separated for a time in 1931 and 1932, during which time Herbert Harris was named corespondent in the divorce suit of Harold McDonald. In the early 1940s the Harrises moved to 247 Orange Road in Montclair, New Jersey, where they lived until Herbert Harris's death in 1958. Following his death, Fauset returned to Philadelphia, where she lived with her half-brother, Earl Huff, until her death on April 30, 1961.
Fauset's achievements in American literary history are significant and are particularly noteworthy when one recognizes the many ways in which she was a courageous and successful pioneer in education, in employment, in editing, in translating, and in writing. Her last two novels were published when the Harlem Renaissance she had helped spur was over, and the Great Depression was on. She attempted to write and publish more after her retirement from her second career in teaching in the 1930s, but by then it was too late. It often seems that great artists are less than admirable people. Jessie Fauset is an example of an extremely admirable person who made the most of her opportunities but whose modesty and selflessness prevented her from becoming a major American literary figure.
The Poetry of the Negro: 1746-1949. Edited by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps, Doubleday, 1970.
Sylvander, Carolyn Wedin. Jessie Redmon Fauset: Black American Writer. Whitson, 1981.
Baltimore Afro-American, December 17, 1932.
Southern Workman, May 1932, pp. 217-20. □