The otherness of blackness: Emergent ambiguities in early American prose literature

David Lawrence White, Marquette University

Abstract

The colonial writers' literary treatment of the black presence has been studied more by historians than literary scholars. Contemporary literary interest in African-American writings raise questions of how colonial writers perceived the growing black population. While literary scholars Toni Morrison, John Cooley, and Leslie Fiedler have examined literary attitudes towards black presence, they discuss major nineteenth and twentieth century fiction writers. I enlarge the discussion to include eighteenth century non-fiction writers and their using ambiguity to define the black presence. I use close reading, Bakhtinian concepts of polyphony and heteroglossia, with Toni Morrison's definition of presence to analyze six eighteenth century writers and their ambiguous representation of the African-American population. In using ambiguity, they transform black physical presence into an imaginative literary presence. Their literary depictions demonstrate that these writers reveal their ambivalence towards the black population through ambiguity, displaying this ambiguity through polyphony, heteroglossia, figurative and connotative language, and skepticism towards cultural authority. Their use of ambiguity allows these writers to adopt multiple perspectives to interpret the black population as a cultural text while portraying the literary tensions of these eighteenth century writers. In seminal form, these portrayals provide major literary stereotypes that influence later American writers. These stereotypes originated in the literary struggles of eighteenth century writers to explain the cultural meaning of the black presence. In chapter one, I define the parameters of the study and key terms in the dissertation. In chapters two through four, I analyze three Puritan writers: Samuel Sewall, John Saffin, and Cotton Mather, who establish the boundaries for later cultural debates of slavery in their diaries and tracts. Chapter five examines John Woolman's synthesis of biblical and rational proofs in his journal and essays. In chapter six, I explore Benjamin Franklin's shifting stance and irony and Jefferson's use of scientific analysis of the black presence. The conclusion assesses their influence on later American writers. Whether adopting a pro- or anti-slavery stance, I conclude that eighteenth century American writers struggled with the concept of the black presence, reflecting or challenging dominant cultural attitudes in the process.

Recommended Citation

David Lawrence White, "The otherness of blackness: Emergent ambiguities in early American prose literature" (January 1, 1998). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. Paper AAI9912736.
http://epublications.marquette.edu/dissertations/AAI9912736

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