Jessie Redmon Fauset, Influential Harlem Renaissance Writer & Editor
By Nava Atlas | On March 1, 2018 | Updated September 18, 2023 | Comments (0)
Jessie Redmon Fauset (April 27, 1882 – April 30, 1961) was an American editor, poet, essayist, and novelist who was deeply involved with the Harlem Renaissance literary movement.
Jessie Fauset was known as one of the “midwives” of the movement, as someone who encouraged and supported other talents. She was especially noted for her work as an editor of The Crisis, NAACP’s journal, in the Harlem Renaissance era. In that capacity, she discovered and nurtured several major Black literary figures.
She also wrote four well-regarded novels and numerous short stories and essays; she was a prolific poet as well.
Jessie Redmon Fauset biography highlights
- A stellar student, Jessie Redmon Fauset experienced racial bias in her education, yet she did her undergraduate work at Cornell University and earned a Master’s degree in French from the University of Pennsylvania.
- W.E.B. Du Bois convinced her to move to New York City in 1919 to serve as the literary editor of The Crisis, the NAACP’s highly influential magazine.
- She proved to have a key eye for talent and helped launch the careers of some of the most notable authors and poets of the Harlem Renaissance movement.
- Fauset was also a respected poet in her own right, and had four well-received novels published in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Her novels portrayed middle-class black professionals rather than stereotypical characters, which was quite revolutionary at the time.
- After her last novel was published, Fauset returned to teaching. She taught French at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, remaining there until her retirement in 1944.
A religious upbringing
Growing up in the North Philadelphia area, Jessie was reared in what she called “a very conservative, very religious household.”
Born in Camden County, New Jersey, and raised in Philadelphia, she was the daughter of Redmon Fauset, an African Methodist Episcopal minister, and Annie (Seamon) Fauset. When she was quite young, her mother died; her father was remarried to a white Jewish widow (who converted to Christianity), with three children of her own.
Jessie’s father and emphasized education for their children, but the family struggled with poverty, especially after her father died. Two of the half-siblings were still quite young.
Bright and studious, Fauset was the first African American to graduate from the Philadelphia High School for Girls. It wasn’t easy to endure the bias she encountered, especially the snubbing by white girls she had thought to be her friends from earlier grades. She remained, and proved to be a stellar student as she had always been.
A stellar college student
Jessie wanted to continue her studies at Bryn Mawr College in her home city, but the institution was reluctant to admit a Black student. They circumvented the dilemma by securing a scholarship for her at Cornell University. Entering in 1901, she was most likely the first Black woman to attend the Ivy League school in Ithaca NY, and perhaps among the first females of any background.
At Cornell she excelled, studying classical languages, and becoming the first Black student to be elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Later, she earned a Master’s degree in French from the University of Pennsylvania, with summer study at the Sorbonne.
After graduating in 1905, she wanted to stay in Philadelphia and teach, but found the schools once again unwelcoming to an African-American woman. She did, however, find opportunities to teach French and Latin in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. schools. Though she enjoyed teaching, she had a quiet desire to work in publishing and to write.
Literary editor of The Crisis
In 1912, Jessie began to submit poems, stories, and essays to the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis. The magazine’s chief editor, the eminent scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, must have been impressed with her work, since he wasn’t easy to please.
She was still teaching at the time, but Du Bois convinced her to move to New York City and work as the magazine’s literary editor. She accepted and began this new chapter in her life in 1919.
Fauset also oversaw the children’s magazine Brownies’ Book, which was also under the auspices of the NAACP and Du Bois. Published monthly from 1920 to 1921, it aimed to instill pride in African-American children about their history and heritage.
She also contributed her own writings — editorials, poetry, short stories, translations from the French of writings by black authors from Europe and Africa, as well as accounts of her worldwide travels. Such was her influence that she has long been considered one of the “midwives” of the Harlem Renaissance literary movement.
Jessie Fauset’s first novel, There is Confusion, was published in 1924, coming in the midst of her years as literary editor of The Crisis. In general, it was critically praised, even as white reviewers marveled at her depiction of middle-class American Black life, something that had yet to be done in a novel.
A middle class perspective
Jessie Fauset’s work was sometimes criticized by her contemporaries for not being confrontational or activist. Though she did touch on themes of passing in her work, the novels were rooted in the kind of middle-class upbringing she was familiar with. In a February, 1984 interview in the Philadelphia Inquirer her brother Arthur recalled:
“She was a conservative, but not a hidebound conservative. She wanted blacks to feel proud of themselves, and she also wanted to show a certain decorum that would clear them of the charge that they were not equal to the white man. That is one of the reasons that she is not better known among the blacks. She was not an angry black voice.
She was, at times, very emotional in her writing, but she was not very active along the lines of confrontation. She was not the sort of person, like Richard Wright, who would write to make people angry. That was not her way of doing things at all.”
Still, the Philadelphia Inquirer article observed, she was far from complacent:
“For all her advantages and academic opportunities, Fauset early on developed a burning social conscience, a passionate anger about the lives most Blacks had to lead, that was as much a part of her writing as the middle-class characters she used as vehicles to denounce the racism blacks struggled against. And behind the bourgeois conventions … was a personal experience that lent her writing an authenticity that few chose — or wanted — to acknowledge.”
A prolific poet
Some of the subject matter of her poetry was dark and rather grim. “Oblivion” tells of a desire to lie in a deserted, neglected grave far from everyone and everything.
Others, like “Dead Fires” and “La Vie C’est la Vie” seem rather fatalistic. It can be argued that the poems were an outlet for the frustration that this talented and capable woman had to endure because of race, but they allude to thwarted love and loneliness as well.
. . . . . . . . . .
See also: Jessie Redmon Fauset: Literary Midwife
. . . . . . . . . .
More novels and marriage
After leaving The Crisis in 1926, Jessie wanted to find work in publishing. Despite her experience and expertise, she was unable to find work due to racial bias. She even offered to work from home, to no avail.
Up until the early 1920s, African Americans were portrayed in stereotypical fashion by white authors in fiction. This inspired Jessie to write novels portraying black Americans in a middle-class setting, doing normal, everyday things, which was quite revolutionary at the time.
Even so, the educated middle-class characters in her novels experienced their share of prejudice, and like many works by Black authors of the period, her novels and stories dealt with themes of identity and passing.
Her novels received mixed reviews from Black critics and colleagues. Some praised her for depicting an aspect of black life that often didn’t see the light of print; others criticized her for an overly bourgeoise point of view. The Chinaberry Tree and Comedy: American Style were published in the depths of the Depression and weren’t as successful as her first two novels.
In 1929, Fauset married Herbert Harris, an insurance broker. She was forty-seven years old at the time of her marriage. The couple remained together until his death in 1958.
Leaving the literary life to resume teaching
After her last novel was published, Jessie’s writing output slowed considerably. And finally, she abandoned the literary life to return to teaching. Following her eight years at The Crisis, she taught French at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. She remained at the same school until her retirement in 1944.
. . . . . . . . . .
Quotes by Jessie Redmon Fauset
. . . . . . . . . .
The legacy of Jessie Redmon Fauset
A 2017 article in The New Yorker, The Forgotten Work of Jessie Redmon Fauset, quotes Cheryl A. Wall, author of Women of the Harlem Renaissance as saying, “I think we lose a bit of our literary history if we do not acknowledge the contributions of Jessie Fauset.”
Further, the article quotes David Levering Lewis in When Harlem Was in Vogue: “There is no telling what she would have done had she been a man, given her first-rate mind and formidable efficiency at any task.” There’s evidence suggesting that Fauset herself felt the lack of appreciation for her endeavors.
Though she dropped out of the literary scene in the early 1930s, her talent, as well as her eye for that of other Black writers, deserves appreciation. She nurtured emerging voices of the Harlem Renaissance era, many of whom are still read today.
Though she may not have become as well known as some of those she nurtured and supported, it’s indisputable that she was one of the era’s most important figures. In her later years, Jessie Redmon Fauset moved back to Philadelphia, where she died at age seventy-nine in 1961.
More about Jessie Redmon Fauset
On this site
- 7 Poems by Jessie Redmon Fauset
- Literary Midwife: Jessie Redmon Fauset
- Quotes by Jessie Redmon Fauset
Major works (novels)
- There Is Confusion (1924)
- Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral (1928)
- The Chinaberry Tree (1931)
- Comedy, American Style (1933)
Short stories, and essays (very selected; her output of short works was enormous)
- “Emmy” (1912)
- “My House and a Glimpse of My Life Therein,” (1914)
- “Double Trouble,” (1923)
- “Impressions of the Second Pan-African Congress” (1921)
- “What Europe Thought of the Pan-African Congress.” (1921)
- Reader discussion of Fauset’s works on Goodreads
- Academy of American Poets
- Meet the Woman Who Edited the Greatest Voices of the Harlem Renaissance