Playing the Races

Henry B. Wonham

Published in print April 2004 | ISBN: 9780195161946
Published online September 2007 | e-ISBN: 9780199788101 | DOI:

Series: Imagining The Americas

Playing the Races

Show Summary Details


This book asks why so many of the writers who aligned themselves with the social and aesthetic aims of American literary realism apparently violated their most basic principles in relying on stock conventions of ethnic caricature in their treatment of immigrant and African American figures. As a self-described “tool of the democratic spirit”, designed to “prick the bubbles of abstract types” (William Dean Howells), literary realism would seem to have little in common with the aggressively dehumanizing comic imagery that began to proliferate in American magazines and newspapers after the Civil War. Indeed, Howells touted the democratic impulse of realist imagery, and Alain Locke hailed realism's potential to accomplish “the artistic emancipation of the Negro”. Yet in practice, Howells and his fellow realists regularly employed comic typification of ethnic subjects as a feature of their representational practice. Critics have generally dismissed such lapses in realist technique as vestiges of a genteel social consciousness that failed to keep pace with the movement's avowed democratic aspirations. Such explanations are useful to a point, but they overlook the fact that the age of realism in American art and letters was simultaneously the great age of ethnic caricature. This book argues that these two aesthetic programs, one committed to representation of the fully humanized individual, the other invested in broad ethnic abstractions, operate less as antithetical choices than as complementary impulses, both of which receive full play within the era's most demanding literary and graphic works.

Keywords: Alain Locke; literary realism; realist imagery; racism; representation; ethnic literature; stereotype

Book.  0 pages.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Literature

Full text: subscription required

How to subscribe Recommend to my Librarian

Buy this work at Oxford University Press »

Table of Contents

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.