“Try to refrain from that desire”: self-control and violent passion in Oscar Micheaux’s African American Western
Michael K. Johnson
Jean Baptiste, the protagonist of Oscar Micheaux’s novel The Homesteader (1917), first appears in the narrative struggling against a howling blizzard on the plains of frontier South Dakota. (1) Micheaux’s depiction of this storm, which transforms the plains into “one endless, unbroken sheet of white frost and ice,” is both a realistic winter landscape description and an allegorical representation of Baptiste’s social situation–a black individual who has left behind African American communities in the East to seek economic opportunity in a predominately white western frontier settlement (38). As Baptiste observes, there were “Germans from Germany” and “Swedes from Sweden” as well as Danes, Norwegians, “Poles, and Finns and Lithuanians and Russians,” all homesteading in the area surrounding Gregory, South Dakota, “but of his race he was the only one” (64). This opening sequence of a solitary heroic black man advancing “resolutely forward” through snow, sometimes “directly against” the “fine grainy missiles that cut the face,” effectively condenses into a single naturalistic image much of the action that follows as Baptiste struggles to succeed in an America dominated by white people (21).
This image may also figure Oscar Micheaux’s own situation as a black writer working with the Western, a genre associated with white writers. The Western, the story of life on the American frontier, with its “imperial plot of valorizing white men” (Ammons 216), seems a particularly alien genre for the African American writer. How then does Oscar Micheaux negotiate the difficult task he has set for himself-to tell a story of specifically African American experience through a genre associated with advancing an ideology of white superiority and imperialism? (2)
On the one hand, Micheaux writes a Western that is perfectly in keeping with the ideology of the genre. In West of Everything (1992), Jane Tompkins points out that in the Western, the “West functions as a symbol of freedom, and of the opportunity for conquest” (4). (3) The Homesteader is just such a story of conquest, of transforming wild and savage land into civilized productive farmland. “Jean Baptiste had come West,” Micheaux writes, “and staked his lot and future there, doing his part toward the building of that little empire out there in the hollow of God’s hand” (107). In American myth, the West is the place of transformation and self-making, or, as Micheaux renders it, “the place for young manhood,” where with “indefatigable will,” a “firm determination,” and a “great desire to make good,” the unknown man who “had no heritage” except for his “French name” could find a level playing field “of virgin soil and undeveloped resources” and the opportunity to “work out his own destiny” and build his own little empire (Micheaux 24). (4) As in many white-authored frontier adventures, Jean Baptiste’s story also justifies and celebrates the conquest and redistribution of Native American lands and territories–for such activities are necessary precursors to the building of empire and the bringing of civilization to a “savage” land. In The Homesteader, Micheaux neither condemns nor critiques the dominant culture myth of manifest destiny but rather claims a share of the spoils for the enterprising black man.
On the other hand, however, The Homesteader carefully revises the Western as Micheaux filters elements of the genre through his own experience as an African American, through his understanding and response to hegemonic cultural beliefs of his day, through his reading of African American literature generally, and through his specific knowledge of the writing and philosophies of W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. Micheaux dedicated his first book to Washington; the thinly-veiled autobiography entitled The Conquest provides a blueprint for The Homesteader. As Pearl Bowser and Louise Spence note, Micheaux believed in “Booker T. Washington’s ideal of pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps,” and he believed along with Washington that the majority of African Americans “needed models, heroes, to mold public opinion and for the elevation of public sentiment” (19-21). One such hero is Jean Baptiste, whose comments on racial uplift reveal that he shares his creator’s beliefs: “If I could actually succeed, it would mean so much to the credit of a multitude of others.–Others who need the example” (109). (5) Micheaux’s admiration for Washington and his belief in the goal of racial uplift inform and guide his revision of the Western.
The Homesteader is divided into four “epochs.” Epoch one follows one year in Baptiste’s life, from winter through spring planting to the fall harvest in which Baptiste reaps a successful crop and declares his love for Agnes Stewart, the (presumedly) white woman who saves him from freezing to death in the novel’s opening sequence. Epoch two begins with Baptiste’s decision to “sacrifice” his love for Agnes in the name of race loyalty. “Examples they needed,” ruminates Baptiste, “and such he was glad he had become; but if he married now the one he loved, the example was lost” (147). Already in possession of 320 acres, Baptiste purchases still more land to expand his holdings: “If he or any other man of the black race could acquire one thousand acres of such land it would stand out with more credit to the Negro race than all the protestations of a world of agitators in so far as the individual was concerned” (132). In order to reach that number, he needs an African American fiancee on whose behalf he can make a claim. The story of Baptiste’s courtship of and troubled marriage to Orlean McCarthy follows. This epoch ends with the death at birth of their first child, a coinciding drought that threatens to destroy Baptiste economically, and with Orlean’s returning to Chicago with her father (Rev. Newton Justine McCarthy) as Baptiste helplessly watches. (6)
Epoch three describes Baptiste’s fall from grace, his descent into bitterness, and his anger at his father-in-law’s manipulative efforts to destroy his marriage. Nearly ruined financially and emotionally, he pulls himself up by his bootstraps in epoch four, and writes the story of his life, which he publishes, sells, and distributes himself. (7) The autobiography’s return restores both his economic and his emotional health. He eventually triumphs over the McCarthy family, and the distraught Orlean murders her father and then kills herself, clearing the way for Baptiste to marry the woman he has loved from the beginning. When Agnes Stewart turns out to have African ancestry (as readers have long suspected), the barrier between the hero and his beloved is dissolved, and some 400 pages after his “sacrifice,” Baptiste triumphs. At the novel’s end, he brings in a successful harvest, pulls himself out of debt, and is able both to marry the woman he loves and to remain the “example” his race needs.
Baptiste’s difficulties in the central sections of the book reflect Micheaux’s troubles as a writer trying to create a fiction that adapts dominant culture mythology to African American experience. Baptiste’s racial uplift goals, in fact, undermine his efforts to become a successful homesteader. The promises of freedom, conquest, empire, and transformation offered by the Western seem available to a black man only if he thoroughly assimilates whiteness and abandons any sense of responsibility to other blacks. Dan Moos argues that Micheaux chooses a “pioneer over [a] racial identity” and “subordinates almost all issues of race to those of a progressive and civilizing frontier” (358, 360). I want to suggest, however, that The Homesteader registers a great deal of ambivalence about that choice; rather than subordinating racial issues, Micheaux foregrounds the conflict engendered by Baptiste’s efforts to be both an African American hero and a Western one.
In the pages that follow, I argue that The Homesteader is a generic hybrid, part Western, part racial uplift saga, that is filled with contradictions, doubles, and doppelgangers. I argue that Micheaux adapts the central structuring opposition of the Western–the essential difference between the civilized East and the wild West–to articulate Baptiste’s sense of double-consciousness, his conflicting desires to maintain and to erase his racial identity, to remain connected to the African American East and at the same time to strike out on his own into the white world of the western frontier. At times, the novel seems to pull itself apart as Micheaux tries to bring both plots–of frontier conquest, of racial uplift–to successful completion. Only the melodramatic concluding events (the murder-suicide, the “surprise” revelation of racial ancestry) enable Baptiste’s happy ending. This generic twoness is reflected by other incidents of doubling throughout the novel. For example, the virtues and behaviors that the book celebrates (practicality, determination, property ownership) and those it condemns (weakness, frivolity, vice) are personified through opposing characters. Micheaux uses contemporaneous notions of gender as a way of naturalizing positive and negative character qualities as manly or unmanly, womanly or unwomanly. The West is “the place for young manhood,” while the East is the home of Baptiste’s other and opposite, the Reverend McCarthy with his “womanish smile” (268).
1. The East and the West
To me it was like living back in ages gone, this way of meeting my friend, this choice of a stream so far and lonely that its very course upon the maps was wrongly traced. And to leave behind all noise and mechanisms, and set out at ease, slowly, with one packhorse, into the wilderness, made me feel that the ancient earth was indeed my mother and that I had found her again after being lost among houses, customs, and restraints. (Wister 323)
In the Western, Tompkins writes, the West is the symbolic place of freedom that offers “escape from the conditions of life in modern industrial society: from a mechanized existence, economic dead ends, social entanglements, unhappy personal relations, political injustice” (4). In the myth of the West, freed from the constraints of civilization, the individual returns to an Edenic state of existence–to natural ways of being and behaving. For the black pioneer, the West symbolizes escape from those “conditions of life” specific to African American existence in the East and the South (segregation, anti-black violence, Jim Crow laws). Baptiste’s western freedom involves being a “man like any other man” unencumbered by race restrictions or class distinctions. The West offers the African American man the possibility of full participation in a social system where individual qualities will be recognized and rewarded.
The developing romance between Agnes Stewart and Jean Baptiste symbolizes the possibilities of freedom on the frontier once individuals have escaped from the arbitrary restrictions of civilization. Epoch one concludes as we expect a Western should-with the savage land conquered and transformed into productive farmland that yields a successful crop, and with hero and heroine declaring love for each other amid the Edenic beauty of an “enchanted garden” where “harvest birds twittered” and where Baptiste’s “lips found hers, and all else was forgotten” (139). In the West where nature rules over custom, “He was as a man toward the maid now” (138). A new Eden, however, is not easily attained by the African American pioneer. Agnes’s “half-witted brothers” return from the fields and recall the two lovers to social reality: “It was only then that they seemed to realize what had transpired and upon realization they silently disembraced. What had passed was the most natural thing in the world, true; and to them it had come because it was in them to assert themselves, but now before him rose the Custom of the Country, and its law” (145). Although the “custom” and “law” that govern interracial romantic relations may indeed be as “halfwitted” as the two brothers who personify them, they strongly influence behavior-even in the wild West. The primary deterrent, however, is not the pressure of custom and law (which can be defied) but Baptiste’s sense of ethnosocial responsibility–the fact that “he liked his people” (147). The black Western hero has concerns that his white counterparts do not, and thus Micheaux adapts the genre’s conventions to address those concerns.
The blizzard that begins the novel is a variation on the classic Western scene of the heroic individual struggling against a savage environment, but Baptiste’s immersion in the whiteness of the storm also represents his social situation as the lone African American “in this land where others than those of the race to which he belonged were the sole inhabitants” (68). This sequence, which involves Baptiste driving two wagons loaded with symbolic coal through the storm, concisely establishes several points. We learn much about Baptiste’s character. He is “just passed twenty-two–and vigorous, strong, healthy and courageous,” possessed of “indefatigable will” and “firm determination” (22-24). The story is also a Washingtonian parable of gaining the acceptance and respect of one’s white neighbors through “useful work.” For delivering the coal, Baptiste earns not only a profit for himself but also accolades from his white neighbors: “That coal to everybody was a godsend, yet think of the risk you took” (65). As another townsman observes, “That Baptiste is some fellow” (52). (8)
The Homesteader makes an argument generally in line with early 20th-century racial uplift ideology. Rather than protesting against or attempting to change the social environment, racial uplift advocates believed that African Americans should change themselves–should imitate the mythical manners, values, and civilized behaviors of white middle-class America. As Kevin Gaines remarks, “black elites hoped their support for the spread of civilization and the interests of the American nation would topple racial barriers and bolster their claims to citizenship and respectability” (345). For Micheaux, Baptiste’s actions prove that blacks can contribute to civilization and thereby can accomplish more to the credit of “the Negro race than all the protestations of a world of agitators” (132). His character, his strong will and self-control, his practicality and work ethic, mark his civilized status according to the middle-class mores of the era. Although Micheaux inscribes the occasional racist incident on the frontier, for the most part Baptiste’s neighbors willingly accept him into the American family once he has proven that he is worthy–that he is indeed “some fellow.”
The quality of Baptiste’s character functions to counter white stereotypes of black behavior. However, The Homesteader (like much of Micheaux’s work) also employs those same stereotypes in the representation of African American characters other than Baptiste. As Pearl Bowser and Louise Spence observe, “Part of the means by which [Micheaux] built the appearance of success included singling out those of the Race whom he characterized as immoral, or without ambition and perseverance, and censuring them for impeding the progress of the Race, and therefore holding him back” (25). Baptiste observes that his race seemed “to progress rather slowly. He had not yet come fully to appreciate and understand why they remained always so poor” (107). As a race, “their standard of morals were not so high as it should be” and they were “possessed with certain weaknesses” and “were given still to lustful, undependable habits” (160-61). (9) The hard-working Baptiste observes “that the most difficult task he had ever encountered was” not transforming the wild prairie into farmland but rather “convinc[ing] the average colored man that the Negro race could ever be anything” (107). For Baptiste, other African Americans are like his homestead–full of potential but wild, savage, primitive, in need of development and civilization. “His race needed examples,” Baptiste, in a contemplative mood, thinks to himself, “they needed instances of successes to overcome the effect of ignorance and an animal viciousness that was prevalent among them” (109). The drama, or melodrama, of the novel involves in part the tug of war between Baptiste and “the average colored man,” as his efforts to increase the speed at which the race progresses are stymied by recalcitrant refusals to be uplifted. Rather than lifting up the race, Baptiste by the middle of the novel finds himself in danger of succumbing to the weaknesses, vices, and “undependable habits” he otherwise condemns.
Typical of the Western, Micheaux uses two primary settings to create an opposition between the West and the East that reflects the values and qualities the novel celebrates or condemns: South Dakota-Chicago; white people-black people; freedom and opportunity-vice and poverty; integration-segregation; practicality-frivolity; Jean Baptiste-the McCarthy family; Agnes Stewart-Orlean McCarthy; manly and womanly virtue-unmanliness and unwomanliness. The key difference between East and West is not so much geography as race. For Baptiste, the West symbolizes escape not only from race prejudice in the East but also from the qualities of “animal viciousness” he associates with “the average colored man.” Micheaux writes that Baptiste “had virtually run away from those parts wherein he had first seen the light of day, to escape the effect of dull indolence; the penurious evil that seemed to have gripped the populace, especially a great portion of his race. In the years Jean Baptiste had spent in the West, he had been able to follow, unhampered, his convictions” (269).
However assimilated and successful, though, Baptiste is unwilling to sever his connection to black America. If we return to the opening scene of the novel, to the image of Baptiste struggling through the white storm with two wagons “loaded with coal, which towered above his head and shoulders,” we might argue that the coal symbolizes the burden of blackness–the “towering” weight of racist attitudes that he must struggle against (21). The coal also tropes the burden of racial uplift–the collective weight of those African Americans whose “ignorance” and “animal viciousness” prevent Baptiste’s full integration into American society. The struggle of dragging these twin burdens through the surrounding world nearly kills him.
In perhaps his most significant revision, Micheaux adapts the central trope of the Western and of frontier literature–the essential difference between the East and West–in order to represent geographically what W. E. B. Du Bois describes as “double-consciousness.” The African American, writes Du Bois, “ever feels his twoness,–an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings” (5). (10) At the same time that Micheaux sees and advocates the opportunities afforded by migration and assimilation, his hero also maintains a sense of “race loyalty,” an unwillingness to submerge himself completely in the white world that nearly drags him under in the novel’s opening scene. Thus, he condemns the example of a black man who “had taken a white wife” and “decided to claim himself as otherwise than he was,” as someone of “Mexican” rather than African descent (146). “Even to merely claim being something else,” Micheaux writes, “was a sort of compromise” that Baptiste will not make (146). Baptiste would not (to quote Du Bois) “Africanize America,” nor would he “bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism” (5). He simply wishes, as Du Bois writes, “to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American” (5). For Baptiste, though, merging these identities becomes increasingly difficult.
Gerald Early comments that Du Bois “saw blacks as being caught, Hamlet-like, between the issue of” living as “an assimilated American” or “an unassimilated Negro” (xx). Micheaux uses the novel’s two primary settings, South Dakota and Chicago, to symbolize these two states of being. South Dakota is the place of the assimilated American, Chicago of the unassimilated Negro–of “Darktown proper,” the very “center of the Negro life” (147-48). The physical movements in The Homesteader illustrate Baptiste’s efforts to overcome his sense of twoness, as he travels back and forth between South Dakota and Chicago, between a sense of racial isolation in the West and a contrasting sense of racial belonging in the East. His marriage to a Chicago-born African American woman, Orlean McCarthy, represents both a joining of West and East and a resolution to double-consciousness. Baptiste’s desire is not to abandon his race but to bring them with him–morally and (if necessary) physically. His transportation of Orlean to South Dakota represents his effort to remake the race–as Orlean’s frontier transformation signifies that a beneficial change in geography can improve the character of even the least likely of candidates. Torn between a need to succeed in terms of the white narrative of frontier conquest and empire building, on the one hand, and a sense of racial solidarity and responsibility, on the other hand, Baptiste finds the effort he expends in pursuit of both goals spreads him too thin. Bowser and Spence observe that Micheaux “challenged white definitions of race without actually changing the terms … [or] demanding new definitions of Race from within Black America” (26). For Baptiste, resolving double-consciousness means remaking those others who represent his sense of identity as an unassimilated black man. Perhaps the difficulties Baptiste must face result from his inability or unwillingness to see his fellows from a perspective that does not cast them as “others” who must be changed.
2. Manliness and Womanliness
So it came that you sacrificed the real love to be loyal to the race we belong to? … It was manly. … I admire your strength. (Micheaux, The Homesteader, 433)
In Manliness and Civilization (1995), Gail Bederman notes the connection in late 19th and early 20th century America between theories of white superiority and beliefs about gender roles–notions of true manhood and true womanhood that developed from the Victorian concept of separate spheres (domestic and private for women, public and workplace-oriented for men). True womanhood emphasized the qualities of piety, purity, maternity, submissiveness, virtue, and domesticity. True manhood involved having a strong manly character exemplified by self-control and self-restraint. All men, turn-of-the-century Americans believed, were possessed of passionate and potentially violent natures that had to be kept in check. The strength of character–or, manliness–capable of controlling those urges was a racial trait specific to white men. Black men and women (according to this racist turn-of-the-century discourse) lacked the civilized qualities of self-restraint, virtue, and chastity that constituted true manliness and womanliness. (11) Claudia Tate points out that early 20th-century African American writers felt that repudiating accusations of unmanly and unwomanly sexual behavior “was crucial to black people’s changing their subjugated social status” (10). Thus, black writers of the period often use dominant conceptualizations of masculinity and femininity as evidence that African Americans were indeed men and women deserving of the same political and civil rights as white men and women. Baptiste’s sacrifice of his love for Agnes Stewart is just one example of his civilized self-control, his ability to contain and transcend his own passionate impulses.
Elsewhere I argue that in The Conquest Micheaux highlights the exceptional qualities of autobiographical protagonist Oscar Devereaux (a precursor to Jean Baptiste) by “creating a contrast between his hero’s ‘manly’ behavior and the ‘unmanly’ behavior of other black men” (Johnson 238). In both The Conquest and The Homesteader, the character who exemplifies the unmanliness that impedes the progress of the Race is the protagonist’s father-in-law, named McCraline in the earlier book and McCarthy in the later one. (12) The Rev. N. J. McCarthy is described as “the rock of unreason,” as a man who was “by disposition, environment and cultivation, narrow, impractical, hypocritical, envious and spiteful” (209, 228). A domineering figure, a despot in his own household, he requires that those around him reinforce his own sense of self-importance: “If you would get along with papa, then praise him–you understand, flatter him a little. Make him think he’s a king” (210). (13) “Not only was he the father of two illegitimate children,” Baptiste discovers, “but he had taken another man’s wife to become so–and all this while he was one of the most influential men in the church” (311). McCarthy’s inability to control his passions–his temper, his sexual desires, his need for dominance–denotes his unmanliness.
The women in the McCarthy family also allegorically represent undesirable feminine traits. Ethel, the older sister, is a “disagreeable person, ostentatious, pompous, and hard to get along with” (175). Like her father, Ethel has an “evil temper” (176). She dominates her husband and refuses to perform such true womanly tasks as preparing his dinner. She is condemned among women, not because she is a woman with masculine traits but rather because the excessiveness of those qualities indicates her lack of self-control. As Ethel is too masculine, Orlean, like her mother, is too feminine–timid, obedient, and subservient. “Orlean isn’t a woman,” laments Baptiste, “and that is what I’ve been trying to make her. She has never been a woman–wasn’t reared so to be” (297). She lacks “the force of will that he desired,” but at least “she was not wicked” (182). Like Baptiste’s land, Orlean is undeveloped but not without potential. Removed from the deforming influences of Chicago and her father, Orlean indeed begins to flourish: “Since her marriage her health on the whole had improved wonderfully. The petty aches and pains of which she complained formerly had gradually disappeared, and the western air had brought health and vigor to her” (259-60).
The difficult task Baptiste assumes of making a woman of Orlean is exacerbated “by a stream of letters from Chicago, giving volumes of advice” (227). Letters from her sister Ethel, filled with the unwomanly “condemnation of motherhood,” encourage Orlean to try (but fail) to abort her unborn child (229). Rev. McCarthy arrives in person to throw her into a quandary over “subservience to her father, who insisted upon it, and obedience and loyalty to her husband who had a right and naturally expected it” (242). This polluting stream of advice leaves her “perceptibly weak” (248). Via the bond of matrimony, Baptiste has entered into a relationship with McCarthy as much as with Orlean. Rather than uplifting his fellow, Baptiste finds that his bond with the Reverend provides a means by which the deleterious qualities of eastern life flow westward to corrupt him: “dull indolence … penurious evil … the Reverend’s presence seemed to have brought all this back” (269). That corruption is symbolized by Baptiste’s increasing inability to curb his temper. The civilized virtue that proves the manliness of his character, his self-control, erodes when faced with McCarthy’s exacerbating presence.
A surrealistic dreamlike sequence early in the novel foreshadows the relationship that will develop between hero and villain. At the first mention of the name of Orlean’s father, Baptiste’s head begins “throbbing” as his brain “struggl[es] with something that happened a long time before” (163). For the superbly controlled Baptiste, this symptomatic headache foreshadows the return of repressed memory as he drags back to consciousness an incident from childhood concerning himself and McCarthy. This incident, involving a conflict between an adult male and a boy-child over the attention of an adult woman, has clear Oedipal overtones and also foreshadows the nature of the relations that will develop between Baptiste, his wife, and his father-in-law. (14) The five-year-old Baptiste, “his mother’s baby boy,” first encounters McCarthy in his parents’ home in Illinois as they host a dinner for a group of male preachers and female teachers (163). Baptiste cannot recall “how many preachers there were, except that there were many,” and they “were all large and tall and stout” (165).
Forbidden from the dinner table until the adults have finished eating, the young Baptiste watches through a window as the preachers “eat, and eat, and eat. He saw the quail the boys shot disappear one after another into the mouths of the big preachers” (165). The big preachers have big uncontrolled appetites that symbolize their unmanliness. Miss Sell one of the teachers, is particularly kind and attentive to Baptiste, and he recalls “how beautiful and sweet he had thought she was” (165). The teacher lifts the boy onto her lap and treats him to half her quail, and Baptiste “fell to eating, feeding his mouth with both hands for he was never before so hungry” (166). Feeling the “angry eyes” of McCarthy upon him, the child realizes that “his crawling upon the teacher’s lap had spoiled” the Reverend’s flirtation with her (166-67). Responding to McCarthy’s remark that the boy is impudent and deserves to be spanked, the child “extended his little face forward, close to the preacher’s, as he poured” out an enraged diatribe: “Now you goin’ eat it all and leave me none when I’m hungry. You’re mean man and you make me mad” (167-68).
McCarthy’s victory over the child consists of making him lose control and become so “strangely angry” that his mother punishes him for the outburst (167). As she whips “him longer than she had ever done before,” he falls “into a slumber while the blows continued,” only to wake up later, his body “sore all over,” and to hear his teacher comment, “And to be punished so severely because he wanted to eat is a shame” (168). The child wants to satisfy his desire, his hunger, but is prevented from doing so by the overindulgence of the other men. We might argue that this incident, placed in the narrative almost immediately after Baptiste sacrifices his love for Agnes, comments as much on that frustrated desire as on the child’s hunger for dinner. His position on the teacher’s lap and McCarthy’s flirtation link eating and hunger with sexuality and heterosexual desire. The return of this memory may express Baptiste’s suppressed rage over the necessity of his sacrifice. As the child observes, “He had done nothing wrong, yet had been severely punished” (169).
Angry at this treatment, young Baptiste slips out of the house and ventures “deep into the forest” (169). As he walks, the “forest grew deeper, the trees larger, and the underbrush more tangled” (170). Confronted with a log bridge over “muddy waters whirling below,” the boy “closed his eyes, and thought of the whipping he had received and the preacher he hated, opened them, and with calm determination born of anger, crossed safely to the other side” (170). There is a deep, deep anger inside of the adult Baptiste–an anger perhaps at the restrictions placed upon him by the “halfwitted” customs and laws of white society but that he displaces onto the figure of the Reverend McCarthy, his African American other whose uncontrolled and unnatural appetite prevents him from satisfying his own natural hungers. Ironically, that repressed anger is part of what drives Baptiste, feeding his will, courage, and determination to succeed.
Deep in the woods, Baptiste remembers stories of “something evil in the forests,” a catamount that has been attacking and destroying livestock (171). Hearing a terrible cry, he “crouched in a hole he had found where only his shoulders and head were exposed” (171). From the hole, he can “see the eyes plainly” of the beast that stalks him, “red eyes” that “shone like coals of fire” (172). The beast springs and the boy strikes it with a large stick: “Again and again he struck until the head was like a bag of bones. When his strength was gone, and all was quiet, he became conscious of drowsiness. He sank down and laid his head upon the body of the dead animal, and fell into a deep sleep” (172). The description of the catamount’s eyes reminds us of the dinner table scene when “the eyes of the other were upon him, and they were angry eyes,” connecting the beast in the forest with the “animal viciousness” of McCarthy (166). Perhaps through the attack on the animal, Baptiste enacts the revenge against the Reverend that he otherwise can’t. Baptiste’s deep anger can only be safely released in the wilderness–against a savage beast that serves as a substitute for the object of his hatred. The threatening existence of this beast enables–in fact necessitates–the release of his suppressed anger and rage. In the context of the novel as a whole, we might argue that Baptiste’s relationship with McCarthy reveals his anger at the burden he must assume for the sake of racial uplift. Only in a wilderness space can he indulge the anger that he must otherwise suppress because of his sense of social responsibility.
Baptiste responds to his attack on the animal in the same way he responded to being beaten by his mother–by falling into a deep sleep. Once the anger that has propelled him through the forest has been released, the boy collapses. We might argue, rather than directly substituting for McCarthy, that perhaps the beast represents Baptiste’s own anger that he must subdue and control. Does the “something evil” encountered in the woods exist without or within? Is the attack in the wilderness a release of anger directed against another, or does it symbolize a method of regaining mastery over an anger that has been dangerously set loose? If so, that method is ironic and contradictory–controlling anger through a violent attack that unleashes rather than contains passion. Such a momentary passionate outburst of violence, while typical of the Western, is so contrary to the novel’s philosophy that Micheaux must return to and rewrite this scene later in the narrative. Although he repeats the scenario of stalking and being stalked by the beast (McCarthy) in the wilderness (the streets of Chicago), he must find a way of defeating the beast without the passionate outburst that for Micheaux signifies unmanly rather than manly behavior.
3. Between Man and Man
It had come to that point where there was no way out, save only the ancient, eternal way between man and man. It is only the great mediocrity that goes to law in these personal matters. (Wister 399)
The turning point in his life had come. At last his manhood had returned, and he was ready to fight. (Micheaux, The Homesteader, 438)
In Westerns: Making the Man in Fiction and Film (1996), Lee Clark Mitchell argues that as familiar to the Western as the climactic gunfight are scenes in which the male hero is severely beaten. Westerns reveal an “almost obsessive recurrence of scenes of men being beaten–or knifed and whipped, propped up, knocked down, kicked in the side, punched in the face, or otherwise lacerated, clubbed, battered, and tortured into unconsciousness” (Mitchell 169). As a spectacle, the Western employs scenes of men being beaten primarily “so that we can see men recover, regaining their strength and resources in the process of once again making themselves into men” (Mitchell 174). The hero’s recovery from a beating symbolizes his superior masculinity–his ability to rise up from the most severe punishments. In The Virginian, Wister introduces a scenario that eventually becomes as conventional to the Western as the shootout. Molly Wood discovers the Virginian, wounded during an Indian attack and unconscious in the wilderness. Following this discovery, the narrative focuses on the long process of the Virginian’s convalescence as Molly nurses him back to health. Mitchell argues that such a “feminine presence” is a necessary “catalyst” for the man’s recovery, for the “restorative female ‘gaze’ at the male body” acts as a civilizing influence that ensures that the hero will recover both physical health and manly self-control (Mitchell 178-79).
Few characters in Westerns are beaten as often as Jean Baptiste. In epoch one, he is twice rendered unconscious, first by the storm and second by a kick in the head from a horse. In both cases, Agnes Stewart’s “feminine presence” ensures the return of his manly control. Baptiste also lapses into unconsciousness when severely beaten by his mother, as the flashback to his childhood depicts. Whenever he lacks a civilizing feminine presence (his mother, after all, is the one who beats him), he responds by delving deeper into savagery–into the wilderness where “something evil” lives. Although McCarthy’s removal of Orlean from South Dakota does physically assault him, Baptiste’s response indicates that he has been emotionally beaten in both his body and mind. With the bond of matrimony severed (and resolution to double-consciousness undone) by Orlean’s return to the East, Baptiste becomes consumed with the fear that he would “lose his mental balance unless he journey to Chicago and see his wife” (287). Micheaux writes that “in the days that followed the real Jean Baptiste died and another came to live in his place. And that one was a hollow-cheeked, unhappy, nervous, apprehensive creature” (316). In Chicago, unable to find a way through the barrier McCarthy has erected around Orlean, “all the manhood in him crept out” (347). He soon engages in male behaviors he earlier condemned: “stud[ying] the various forms of vice about,” listening to “ragtime music,” and drinking too much (348). In the absence of a civilizing feminine presence, Baptiste becomes unbalanced and his actions increasingly unmanly. If heterosexual marriage symbolizes a harmonious rather than conflicted sense of twoness, the dissolution of that marriage means that Baptiste must find another way to resolve the opposing demands of his “unreconciled strivings.” Narrative events create the expectation that he will resolve inner and outer conflict in time-honored Western fashion–through violent action.
Perhaps the defining characteristic of the Western is the climactic showdown, usually a gunfight. “The most salient fact about the Western,” Tompkins comments, is that “it is a narrative of male violence” (28). The Western often tells a story that not only justifies the hero’s violent actions but that also insists that such actions are necessary–that the only way for a man to remain a man is through an act of murder. Early Westerns address a growing turn-of-the-century fear that white American men had become too civilized, that too many years of manly restraint had atrophied male passion and feminized white manhood. Westerns from the early part of the twentieth century by white writers (such as Wister’s The Virginian) emphasize the importance of a “balanced” masculinity. “A man,” the Virginian comments, “any full-sized man, ought to own a big lot of temper. And like all his valuable possessions, he’d ought to keep it and not lose any” (188). If being a man means controlling one’s temper, Wister’s novel also asserts that manhood turns on knowing when to let one’s passions explode. In Wister’s world, unmanliness appears in two opposing figures, the man who cannot control his passions and the man whose life of civilized restraint has so buried those passions that he has become effeminate. The Virginian stands between these two extremes–filled with male passion that he can release when needed but otherwise always carefully in control of himself. At one point, a character named Balaam savagely beats a horse, provoking a strong, angry response from the Virginian: “Then vengeance like a blast struck Balaam. The Virginian hurled him to the ground, lifted and hurled him again, lifted him and beat his face and struck his jaw” (264). Certain circumstances (defending the defenseless from truly savage behavior) justify the exercise of male passion. Ultimately, justice–the defense of his manly honor against Trampas, the villain who has slandered his name–demands that the Virginian gun his enemy down.
In the Western, passionate masculinity erupts in the form of violent actions, gun battles, fistfights, and so on, but murder and manliness cannot be reconciled as easily for Micheaux as they are for Wister. As Baptiste reflects, for any man, “the sight of one who has wronged him might cause him for a moment to forget all his good intentions and manly resolutions,” and that loss of hard-earned manliness is the one thing that Baptiste cannot afford (312). To murder would be to enact black manhood as white society conceives it, would be to defeat the goal of racial uplift by becoming like a member of that class of blacks he supposedly has risen above. When the conventions of the Western conflict with the goals of the racial uplift saga, Micheaux departs from the formula. That departure is signaled by a change in place–as we shift away from South Dakota to Chicago, which becomes the dominant setting for the last half of the book. In the Western, the white hero must prove his manhood through a justifiable–indeed necessary–act of violence. For Micheaux, the black hero must prove his manhood through just the opposite action–by demonstrating his ability to refrain from a savage act of violence, no matter how tempting or justifiable that act might be.
Despite this change in the location, The Homesteader still evokes the expectation of a climactic showdown. In language that recalls the killing of the catamount, Baptiste wanders through the streets of Chicago thinking to himself that “the only justifiable action would be to follow the beast to his lair and kill him upon sight” (312). “I feel as if it would do me good,” Baptiste comments, “to get drunk tonight and kill somebody” (313). As he contemplates the wrongs done to him, “Wrath became his…. He wanted to go forth and slay the beast” (352). As Baptiste as a boy killed the catamount, we suspect that Baptiste the man will indeed “slay the beast” that is McCarthy. During his unmanly descent into the underworld of urban vice, he even visits a prostitute, who tells him, “I can just see that some one has done you a terrible wrong, and that when you rose now you would have gone forth and killed him…. But try to refrain from that desire” (352). On the verge of succumbing to the “animal viciousness” he has fought against, Baptiste finds in the most unlikely of places a womanly woman who helps restore his manly self-control just when he needs it.
The novel’s final (and most explicitly violent) beating scene counters the expectations otherwise evoked by the narrative. Baptiste does not face McCarthy in a man to man showdown that settles their conflict. Rather, the emotional climax of the novel occurs in a scene that repeats the key elements of Baptiste’s flashback to childhood. Baptiste loses his temper while speaking to McCarthy over the telephone, and Orlean (like his mother in the earlier scene) responds by furiously beating him. Baptiste grasps the telephone and pushes Orlean “roughly aside,” and we hear “his loud voice screaming over the phone” as he cries “savagely” at his enemy on the other end of the line (382). The equally enraged Orlean begins to strike him: “He made no effort to protect himself. He allowed her to strike him at will and with a strength, born of excitement, she struck him in his face, in his eyes, she scratched him, she abused him so furiously until gradually he began to sink. … As he lay with eyes closed and a slight groan escaping from his lips at her feet, she suddenly raised her foot and kicked him viciously full in the face. This seemed, then, to make her more vicious, and thereupon she started to jump upon him with her feet” (383). As in the childhood dinner table scene, Baptiste becomes “strangely angry” with McCarthy and is subsequently punished so severely for his outburst that he loses consciousness: “How long he lay there he did not know” (383).
The primary threat represented by McCarthy is his ability to provoke in Baptiste (even over the telephone) an uncontrollable rage–and, by so doing, to unman him. The point of The Homesteader is not simply that good and bad behaviors exist but that the very existence of unmanliness threatens the achievements of civilized African Americans such as Baptiste, whose success derives from his strong will and self-control. The exemplary figure of racial uplift, Baptiste becomes his own double, slipping into the behaviors that place him among “the others who need the example,” his downfall brought about by the very others he has hoped to lift up. Even worse, as the boy Baptiste responds to his mother’s example by in turn savagely attacking the catamount, so does Orlean–the project he was supposed to develop into a woman–respond to his unmanly example with unusual and uncharacteristic viciousness of her own. Rather than lifting her up, he has provoked her to worse behavior. All Baptiste’s efforts for manly self-control, romance, homesteading, and racial uplift, collapse in conjunction with his passionate outburst and his subsequent beating at the hands of his estranged wife. As Mitchell notes, however, the Western employs beating scenes in order to indulge in the drama of the hero’s recovery–so that we can admire the superior masculinity that enables him to rise from the physical (as well as, in Baptiste’s case, moral) low to which he has fallen.
“I don’t think he wants Orlean any more, and I don’t blame him after what she has allowed to happen to him through her lack of womanhood. Nawsiree, Baptiste didn’t come into Chicago this time crying, he came here like a man, and it’s the man in him with which you’ll have to fight now.” (Micheaux, The Homesteader, 455)
For Micheaux, masculine and feminine represent complementary rather than opposing qualities. Adherence to traditional gender roles appears primarily in terms of work assignments, housekeeping, cooking, and raising children for women, working in fields for men. The qualities he most admires (self-control, strong will, practicality) exist equally in both sexes. Admired womanhood is adventurous as well as compassionate, as Agnes Stewart exemplifies when she rides out into a blizzard alone and discovers the fallen Baptiste. Agnes’s rescue of Baptiste from the ravages of the blizzard in the novel’s opening scenario illustrates what Micheaux sees as the proper relation of the sexes. When the forces outside of the individual’s control that are arrayed against him (the coal-black burden he must carry, the surrounding whiteness against which he must struggle, the forces of nature within and without) become too much, it’s woman who rescues him–who lifts him up and who through proper feminine behavior (tender care, nursing) restores his health and manhood. Agnes’s adventurous spirit places her so that she can save Baptiste, but her womanly care returns him to himself. In the other beating scenes, unwomanly behavior–both Orlean’s and his mother’s physical attacks against Baptiste–contributes to the hero’s loss of self-control.
Brought low in Chicago by his own unmanly behavior (and by Orlean’s response to it), Baptiste fortunately encounters a series of womanly women, beginning with Mrs. Merley (who had tried to reunite husband and wife), who “bathed his wounds … and bandaged his face carefully” in the wake of his beating (386). He visits a young woman named Jessie in southern Illinois and finds that “her kind sympathy” serves “to revive in a measure his usual composure, and when he left a few days later, he was much stronger emotionally … [and] determined to try to regain his fortunes” (396-97). He decides to publish and sell his autobiography himself: “He secured orders for fifteen hundred copies of his book in two weeks … and in sixty days … had deposited twenty-five hundred dollars to the credit of the book in the banks” (410). The money earned from the book enables Baptiste to stall his creditors and delay foreclosure proceedings. While traveling the country selling the book, he contacts Irene Grey, a marriage prospect earlier in the novel before circumstances led to his proposal to Orlean. Irene, he discovers, is “the kind of girl” and the Greys “the kind of family his race needed” (422). Unlike McCarthy who wants to be treated like a king, Irene’s father, Junius N. Grey, is one, the so-called (because of his vast and successful farm) “Negro Potato King” (426). Through the Greys, Baptiste comes into contact with uplifting examples who inspire him to renew his “great desire to make good” (24).
When news arrives that Orlean has sold her claim for pittance, Baptiste realizes that “the turning point in his life had come. At last his manhood had returned, and he was ready to fight” (438). Although in The Virginian Wister asserts that “It is only the great mediocrity that goes to law in these personal matters,” Micheaux relocates the Western showdown from the wild streets of the frontier town to a Chicago courtroom (399). His decision to seek justice in the court rather than on the street signals Baptiste’s victory over his own passionate impulses. The trial places Orlean in the position of saving her father by “falsifying to the court,” an action that frees McCarthy but that ultimately unhinges Orlean (486). Despite McCarthy’s success, “in the minds of every man and woman in the crowded court room, N. J. McCarthy stood a guilty man,” resulting in a public relations victory for Baptiste (488). When Baptiste is falsely accused of causing the violent deaths at the McCarthy household, Agnes Stewart re-enters the narrative to rescue Baptiste once again. She hires a Pinkerton detective who establishes his innocence in court. Coinciding with Baptiste’s release, Agnes discovers a letter from her mother written many years ago that reveals her African ancestry. The story ends with Jean and Agnes happily married on their own homestead and with the news that Baptiste had sold his crops “at a price so high that he had sufficient to redeem at last the land he was about to lose and money left for future development in the bargain” (529).
Although Baptiste triumphs, we might ask the cost of that victory. Gerald Early writes that for W. E. B. Du Bois, “To be an assimilated American and to be an unassimilated Negro were both real and, more importantly, equally or near equally appealing choices” (xx). In the Western, life in the West is always better than in the East. Unwilling or unable to overturn this opposition, Micheaux represents double-consciousness not as a choice between equally appealing options but as a choice of superior (assimilated western American) and inferior (unassimilated eastern Negro) ways of life. At the end of the court proceedings, Baptiste reflects: “It seemed that a great burden had been lifted from his mind, and he closed his eyes as if shutting out the past now forever. He was free. Never would the instance that had brought turmoil and strife into his life trouble him again. Always before there had seemed to be a peculiar bond between him and the woman he had taken as wife. Always he seemed to have a claim upon her in spite of all and she upon him” (490). Freed of the “peculiar bond,” Baptiste puts an end to the “turmoil and strife” of two-ness by declaring himself free from the mutual “claims” of husband and wife–and free as well from the bond between the individual and the larger collective that their marriage symbolized. As a resolution to the problem of double-consciousness posed by the novel, the conclusion seems unsatisfactory. Those characters who represent an unassimilated cultural identity conveniently kill themselves off, and although Baptiste keeps his vow to marry within the race, he chooses a woman of African ancestry who has lived her entire life as a member of the dominant culture. “One ever feels his twoness,” Du Bois writes, “two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” (5). The difficulty of joining West and East, assimilated and unassimilated, of reconciling “two warring ideals,” seems too much, and Baptiste abandons the effort.
McCarthy, Baptiste’s double, the inferior other who cannot remain part of his consciousness, must be defeated and driven out of the story before the hero can enjoy the happy ending promised by the Western. As Bowser and Spence observe concerning Micheaux’s work in general, “By setting himself up as a model of one who had risen above the prevalent notion of the Negro as ‘inferior,’ he was inadvertently reinforcing the very attitude he imagined he was overcoming–the idea that the morality, ambition, and abilities of the Negro was ‘the problem'” (25). Instead of explicitly addressing how racial bigotry (white “law” and “custom”) may have impacted Baptiste’s troubles or how racial prejudice has limited African American success in general, Micheaux redirects our attention to “behavioral problems” within the black community. What prevents Baptiste from succeeding is not white bigotry but the unjust actions of another black man–his father-in-law, the Reverend N. J. McCarthy, whose characterization repeats dominant culture stereotypes regarding “the morality, ambition, and abilities” of black people. Such problematic elements–the use of pejorative stereotypes, the absence of explicit black protest against white bigotry–have no doubt contributed to the relative lack of critical attention given Micheaux’s written work. (15) As I hope my discussion of The Homesteader has established, Micheaux is a writer capable of producing complex and intriguing texts. Even when he does not entirely satisfy the expectations of contemporary readers of African American literature, Micheaux creates compelling works worthy of more discussion, analysis, and debate.
(1.) Between 1913 and 1947 Oscar Micheaux published seven books, including The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer(1913), The Homesteader (1917), The Wind from Nowhere (1944), and The Masquerade: An Historical Novel (1947). Within approximately the same span of years, Micheaux produced and directed around 40 films, beginning with his first silent movie in 1919, The Homesteader (based on his novel). Micheaux’s film work has garnered more critical study than his books. For recent studies, see, for example, J. Ronald Green’s Straight Lick: The Cinema of Oscar Micheaux (2000); Pearl Bowser and Louise Spence’s Writing Himself into History: Oscar Micheaux, His Silent Films, and His Audiences (2000); Jane M. Gaines’s Fire and Desire: Mixed Race Movies in the Silent Era (2001); Pearl Bowser, Jane Gaines, and Charles Musser’s Oscar Micheaux and His Circle: African American Filmmaking and Race Cinema of the Silent Era (2001), an anthology of essays; Gerald R. Butters’s Black Manhood on the Silent Screen (2002). For a discussion of Micheaux’s novels, see Jayna Brown’s “Black Patriarch on the Prairie: National Identity and Black Manhood in the Early Novels of Oscar Micheaux.” For a thorough discussion of all Micheaux’s novels, see Dan Moos’s “Reclaiming the Frontier: Oscar Micheaux as Black Turnerian,” which is particularly useful for an extended discussion of one of Micheaux’s final novels, The Wind from Nowhere.
(2.) As an example of the white supremacist ideology of the Western, Barbara Will notes the “xenophobic and racist views put forth” in an 1895 essay “The Evolution of the Cow-Puncher,” by Owen Wister, author of the popular and influential Western, The Virginian (1902) (309). For Will, the essay explicitly states the racial philosophies that underlie the Western genre. Quoting from the essay, Will argues that Wister “glorifies the triumph of the racially pure, ‘untamed Saxon’ cowboy” over the “‘encroaching alien vermin, that turn our cities to Babels and our citizenship to a hybrid farce'” (Will 309). For Wister, the East is the place of hybridity, a racially mixed “Babel” that horrifies the pure Anglo Saxon who fantasizes an American West where the white cowboy naturally rises to the top and triumphs over all others.
(3.) Although I refer primarily to the general tendencies of the Western, I will occasionally refer to Owen Wister’s The Virginian as a specific example for comparison. I have chosen to use The Virginian for several reasons, including that it falls roughly within the same time period as Micheaux’s novel. Also, the popular The Virginian is widely regarded as a foundational text in establishing the genre’s conventions. Finally, Micheaux was apparently familiar enough with the book to make a comparison with The Homesteader potentially revelatory in examining the way he revised this source material (Bowser 9).
(4.) Minor characters in the novel make occasional jokes about our hero’s “French name,” referring to him as John the Baptist or as St. Jean Baptiste. The choice of name also points to the history of African American participation in westward expansion, to Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, the pioneer settler (originally from Haiti) who established the first permanent settlement in what is now Chicago.
(5.) Of the students (including himself) studying at Hampton Institute, Booker T. Washington comments, “The great and prevailing idea that seemed to take possession of every one was to prepare himself to lift up the people at his home. No one seemed to think of himself’ (36). Washington, while encouraging individual success in Up From Slavery, emphasizes (as does Micheaux) that individual actions contribute to the collective good of “lift[ing] up the people at his home.”
(6.) In his philosophical position on “the race question,” Micheaux is by no means an anomaly among African American writers of this period. In fact, Micheaux’s uplift plot has much in common with the black women writers (such as Frances Watkins Harper, Pauline Hopkins, and Amelia E. Johnson) of the post-Reconstruction period (1877-1915) whom Claudia Tate discusses in Domestic Allegories of Political Desire (1992). These women, Tate states, “repeatedly wrote novels about the moral development, spiritual maturation, professional aspirations, and economic advancement of … social justice for black Americans,” goals that were frequently inscribed “within the familiar marriage plot of nineteenth-century white women’s sentimental fiction” (11). As in The Homesteader, the “successful marriage” in these works symbolizes not only individual fulfillment but also the possibility of “society’s reform” (11).
(7.) According to Pearl Bowser and Louise Spence, Micheaux constantly recreated an image of self, a “biographical legend,” that “was neither sole nor unitary. Perhaps Micheaux himself was searching for a unifying vision of his life through narratives of achievement” (Bowser and Spence xix). Although The Conquest and The Homesteader are both based on events in Micheaux’s life, the two heroes of these books are clearly different characters created to achieve particular effects. Oscar Devereaux in The Conquest is a tenderfoot character unprepared for life on the frontier, and Micheaux traces his gradual development of the character and skills necessary to his success. The opening scene of The Homesteader reveals a key difference in the fictional hero Baptiste and the more autobiographical persona of Devereaux. Baptiste is no tenderfoot. He has already learned the ropes and is presented to us as a heroic rather than as a necessarily realistic or autobiographical figure.
(8.) A comparable example from Up From Slavery involves Washington’s decision to teach the trade of brick-making at Tuskegee Institute. Washington comments, “The individual who can do something that the world wants done will, in the end, make his way regardless of his race. One man may go into a community prepared to supply the people there with an analysis of Greek sentences. The community may not at that time be prepared for, or feel the need of, Greek analysis, but it may feel its need of bricks and houses and wagons” (91).
(9.) Such behaviors relate to environment and disposition and are not innate racial traits, according to Micheaux’s philosophies. He provides examples of white characters who also have “undependable habits” (161). He likewise includes African American characters who embody the qualities he admires. For the most part, these characters are peripheral to the central plot, which focuses on Baptiste’s efforts to reform “the average colored man [and woman]” (107).
(10.) For a discussion of twoness in Micheaux’s films, see J. Ronald Green’s Straight Lick: The Cinema of Oscar Micheaux. Green argues that Micheaux’s films have a “non-assimilative style” that reflects rather than glosses over “the turmoil of [the] struggle” of double-consciousness (49). Twoness in Micheaux’s films is symbolized by the tension created by the desire both to emulate Hollywood films (with their high production values) and to reject the “glossy illusionism” of those films in favor of what Green calls an “aesthetics of moderation,” a rougher but intentionally less spectacular style of film making (48, 29).
(11.) See Bederman, Manliness and Civilization, especially the discussions of African American prize fighter Jack Johnson (1-10, 20-23, 41-42) and of Ida B. Wells’s anti-lynching campaign (45-78).
(12.) Both McCarthy and McCraline are based on Micheaux’s actual father-in-law, an Elder in the African Methodist Church, N. J. McCracken. For a discussion of the relationship between events in Micheaux’s life and his recreation of those events in his artistic work, see Betti Carol VanEpps-Taylor, Oscar Micheaux, A Biography: Dakota Homesteader, Author, Pioneer Film Maker (1999). I should note as well that The Conquest and The Homesteader, while sharing numerous plot elements, are nonetheless quite different books. Although I follow the argument made in an earlier article about Micheaux’s first book concerning the relationship between Devereaux and McCraline in The Conquest, I emphasize here those elements of The Homesteader that differ substantially from The Conquest, such as the flashback to the incident in Baptiste’s childhood, the more careful development of Odean’s character, the scene where Orlean physically attacks Baptiste after he shouts down McCarthy on the telephone, and the events that follow that incident. (The Conquest ends with Devereaux losing his temper during a telephone conversation with McCraline.)
(13.) As Bowser and Spence note, in the various incarnations of his biographical legend, “there are contradictory, even multiple, Micheauxes” (39). We might observe here that Baptiste’s refusal to flatter McCarthy and “make him think he’s a king” contrasts sharply with Micheaux’s own actions (210). Bowser and Spence note that “to survive in business, Micheaux drew upon all his considerable resourcefulness. He acted shrewdly, often with guile and not infrequently with subterfuge” (17). To “outwit his foes” (such as white-dominated censor boards), he used “calculated flattery and psychological trickery” (17). Baptiste’s condemnation of such tactics may reveal him as an idealized version of his author, or we might interpret Baptiste’s unwillingness to resort to “calculated flattery” as a character flaw. Orlean, distraught and emotionally fragile in wake of the death of their first-born child, is left alone with her father–who continually works to poison her opinion of her husband. The pressure of being pulled in opposite directions by husband and father causes her condition to worsen. Jean Baptiste, we’re told, “could have settled matters … by sacrificing principle” (261). Although “he could have sentimentally appeased his father-in-law,” Micheaux writes, “Jean Baptiste at no time sacrificed his manhood for any cause,” not even, we might add, for the sake of his wife’s emotional and physical health (262).
(14.) Although Micheaux writes the novel in third person and occasionally switches between different narrative perspectives, much of the book is filtered through Baptiste’s consciousness as we see events from his point of view. We might argue that Baptiste’s perspective presents to the reader a distorted view of the events surrounding his marriage. We might interpret those events in terms of a delayed working through of Baptiste’s own Oedipa! conflict–with Orlean substituting for the desired mother and McCarthy for the forbidding father. Baptlste’s unnatural desire for his mother is displaced onto the relationship between Orlean and the Reverend–which the novel clearly represents as emotionally incestuous. The submerged sexual nature of that relationship is implied by the murder-suicide–in which Orlean enters the Reverend’s bedroom and stabs him in his bed before killing herself. For further discussion of Micheaux and Oedipal conflict, see J. Ronald Green’s Straight Lick: The Cinema of Oscar Micheaux, especially pages 15-17.
(15.) The developing body of scholarship devoted primarily to Micheaux’s films is much more extensive than criticism devoted to his literary work. Although most book-length analyses of Micheaux’s movies include discussions of his writing, only Joseph Young’s Black Novelist as White Racist: The Myth of Black Inferiority in the Novels of Oscar Micheaux (1989) emphasizes Micheaux’s books over his films, and Young’s thesis that Micheaux is (as the title indicates) an African American version of a white racist needs to be updated and re-examined (see also Green’s critique of Young’s argument, pages 193-224, in Straight Lick: The Cinema of Oscar Micheaux). In the cinema, Micheaux is pioneer in a way that he is not in the field of literature, a fact that may explain to a large degree the critical attention his films have received. Also, his films demonstrate a greater willingness to address the problem of white racist attitudes and actions. For example, the controversial Within Our Gates (1920) is sharply critical in its depiction of a white lynch mob; in The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920), a story of the frontier that takes several plot points from The Homesteader, the role of the villain is filled primarily by the Ku Klux Klan. A poster advertising the film emphasizes the spectacle of the “MURDEROUS NIGHT RIDE” of the Klan as they try “to drive a BLACK BOY off of Valuable Oil Lands” (as printed in Bowser and Spence 158). We might regard The Homesteader, in some ways, as a transitional work in Micheaux’s development as an artist. The elements of racial protest that Micheaux will foreground in his films may be already present in The Homesteader but in submerged form–in, for example, the naturalistic image of the black hero struggling to survive in the cold, violent, white world of the blizzard. Not yet willing to indict directly white actions (such as vigilante violence) that impede African American success and survival, Micheaux displaces social critique into descriptions of the natural phenomena.
Ammons, Elizabeth. “Afterword: Winona, Bakhtin, and Hopkins in the Twenty-First Century.” The Unruly Voice. Ed. John Cullen Gruesser. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1996.211-19.
Bederman, Gail. Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995.
Bowser, Pearl, Jane Gaines, and Charles Musser, eds. Oscar Micheaux and His Circle: African-American Filmmaking and Race Cinema of the Silent Era. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2001.
Bowser, Pearl, and Louise Spence. Writing Himself into History: Oscar Micheaux, His Silent Films, and His Audiences. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2000.
Brown, Jayna. “Black Patriarch on the Prairie: National Identity and Black Manhood in the Early Novels of Micheaux.” Oscar Micheaux and His Circle. Bowser, Gaines, and Musser, eds. 132-46.
Butters, Jr., Gerald R. Black Manhood on the Silent Screen. Lawrence: UP of Kansas, 2002.
Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. New York: Penguin, 1989.
Early, Gerald. Introduction. Lure and Loathing: Essays on Race, Identity, and the Ambivalence of Assimilation. Ed. Gerald Early. New York: Penguin, 1993. xi-xxiv.
Gaines, Jane M. Fire and Desire: Mixed Races Movies in the Silent Era. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2001.
Gaines, Kevin. “Assimilationist Minstrelsy as Racial Uplift Ideology: James D. Corrothers’s Literary Quest for Black Leadership.” American Quarterly 45 (1993): 341-69.
Green, J. Ronald. Straight Lick: The Cinema of Oscar Micheaux. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2000.
Johnson, M. K. “‘Stranger in a Strange Land’: An African-American Response to the Frontier Tradition in Oscar Micheaux’s The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer.” Western American Literature 33.3 (1998): 228-52.
Micheaux, Oscar. The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer. 1913. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1994.
–. The Homesteader. 1917. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1994.
Mitchell, Lee Clark. Westerns: Making the Man in Fiction and Film. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996.
Moos, Dan. “Reclaiming the Frontier: Oscar Micheaux as Black Turnerian.” African American Review 36 (2002): 357-81.
Tate, Claudia. Domestic Allegories of Political Desire: The Black Heroine’s Text at the Turn of the Century. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.
Tompkins, Jane. West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.
VanEpps-Taylor, Betti Carol. Oscar Micheaux, A Biography: Dakota Homesteader, Author, Pioneer Film Maker. Rapid City, SD: Dakota West Books, 1999.
Washington, Booker T. Up From Slavery. 1901. Ed. William L. Andrews. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.
Will, Barbara. “The Nervous Origins of the American Western.” American Literature 70.2 (June 1998): 293-316.
Wister, Owen. The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains. 1902. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1992.
Young, Joseph A. Black Novelist as White Racist: The Myth of Black Inferiority in the Novels of Oscar Micheaux. Westport: Greenwood P, 1989.
Michael K. Johnson is Assistant Professor of American literature at the University of Maine at Farmington. His book Black Masculinity and the Frontier Myth in American Literature was recently published by the U of Oklahoma P.
COPYRIGHT 2004 African American Review
COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group