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Fauset’s texts offer a repository of precisely what critic Alain Locke labeled retrograde: seemingly outdated plotlines and tropes that draw upon multiple literary, historical, and popular cultural sources. This essay aims to change the way we read Fauset by excavating this literary archive and exploring how the literary “past” informs the landscape of Fauset’s fiction. Rather than viewing Fauset’s novels as deviations from or subversive instantiations of modernity, I view them as part of a long nineteenth-century tradition of gendered representation. Instead of claiming a subversiveness that Fauset might have rejected or a conservatism that fails to account for the complexity of her writing, this essay takes the author’s apparent anachronisms seriously in order to explore the light they shed on her modern urban heroines. Finally, avoiding the temptation to dismiss what may look like minor details, I aim to illuminate the aesthetic politics embedded in Fauset’s at times baroque descriptiveness.

My analysis focuses on Plum Bun: A Novel without a Moral (1929) and Fauset’s final novel, Comedy: American Style (1933). Taking the novels at face value in terms of their apparent happy endings and oversimplifying their all-too-abundant complexities, Fauset’s first generation of critics found it too easy to support Locke’s damning characterization of her work, while the most recent generation argued equally forcefully against it. In contrast to both views, I suggest that Fauset’s fiction reveals just how “mid-Victorian” American culture in the early twentieth century still was.


This is the pre-print version of the article forthcoming in Legacy, Volume 32, No. 2. Copyright 2015, University of Nebraska Press.

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