There is Confusion by Jessie Redmon Fauset (1924)
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There is Confusion by Jessie Redmon Fauset (1882 – 1961) was the first novel by this American editor, poet, essayist, educator, and author associated closely with the Harlem Renaissance movement.
In addition to her own pursuits, Cornell-educated Fauset was known as one of the “literary midwives” of the movement, as someone who encouraged and supported other talents.
Fauset’s poetic bent is reflected in the novel’s title, which comes from lines in “The Lotos-Eaters” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson:
There is confusion worse than death,
Trouble on trouble, pain on pain,
Long labour unto aged breath …
Ann Allen Shockley, in Afro-American Women Writers 1746 – 1933, observed that the writing of this book “at the age of forty-two was prompted by reading an unrealistic novel, Birthright (1922) by white writer T.S. Stribling. To her, the story was not indicative of actual Negro life. There is Confusion was the first novel to depict black middle-class people.”
A new edition in 2020
After being out of print for many years, Modern Library Torchbearers has reissued There is Confusion in a new edition with an introduction by bestselling author Morgan Jerkins. Here is the publisher’s synopsis of the book:
“A rediscovered classic about how racism and sexism tests the spirit, ambition, and character of three children growing up in Hell’s Kitchen and Harlem, from Jessie Redmon Fauset, the literary editor of The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP.
Set in early-twentieth-century New York City, There Is Confusion tells the story of three Black children: Joanna Marshall, a talented dancer willing to sacrifice everything for success; Maggie Ellersley, an extraordinarily beautiful girl determined to leave her working-class background behind; and Peter Bye, a clever would-be surgeon who is driven by his love for Joanna.
As children, Maggie, Joanna, and Peter support one another’s dreams, but as young adults, romance threatens to upset the balance of their friendship. One afternoon, Joanna makes two irrevocable decisions — and sets off a chain of events that wreaks havoc with all of their lives.
Written with a Jane Austen-like eye for social dynamics, There Is Confusion is an unjustly forgotten classic that celebrates Black ambition, love, and the struggle for equality.”
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More about Jessie Redmon Fauset
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Initial critical response
Reviews in white newspapers made an enormous to-do about the fact that There is Confusion featured middle-class Black people doing ordinary things, and grappling with the universal quandaries and challenges of life and love.
Though no reviewers objected to this portrayal, they nevertheless marveled at it — at the time, it was quite revolutionary to depict Black people in a way that didn’t involve demeaning stereotypes.
A review in an Illinois newspaper pointed out that that the book featured no Southern mammy saying “sho’ ‘nuff,” no happy-go-lucky plantation Negro (if ever there were such thing). Others pointed out that there was no slapstick comedy or tragic roles.
In some of the reviews, it was pointed out the achievement of this book is all the more significant due to having been written by an educated “negress.” Rather, observed this review, the book presented “a picture of a new society which is rapidly growing up among the educated Negro of the north.”
A review in the May 31, 1924 Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that the book’s characters “do not carry on a continuous burlesque … They are encouraged and thwarted in their endeavors precisely as the blondest Nordics are encouraged or thwarted. In short, they live in a perfectly natural fashion …The result is an unprejudiced study of modern negro psychology written with profound knowledge and understanding.”
Fauset was celebrated with receptions and book launch parties by her Black colleagues when There is Confusion was published, but they held her to a high standard and not all were enamored of this and her subsequent work. Her novels occasionally received mixed reviews from African-American critics. Some praised her for portraying an aspect of Black life that often didn’t see the light of print; others criticized her for an overly bourgeoise point of view.
Yet the majority of Black critics were delighted with Fauset’s images of African-American life. Critic and anthropologist William Stanley Braithwaite praised her as “the potential Jane Austen of Negro literature.”
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See also: Plum Bun by Jessie Redmon Fauset (1928)
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A 1924 review of There is Confusion
This original review in The Chicago Tribune, July 26, 1924 is typical of the mixture of admiration and amazement the novel received upon first publication. Please note that some of the language here reflects the parlance of the time:
There is Confusion, a novel by Jessie Redmon Fauset, is of more than the usual interest a first novel inspires in a reader. Miss Fauset is a Negro and the story is a serious record of the lives of a group of the educated, ambitious members of her race.
As a first novel it is as good as the average. The construction is not as good as it could be, the motivations seem a little strained, and the heroine’s rise to fame, like that of most fictional heroines, is more flighty than convincing.
But the faults of There is Confusion are no greater than the faults of most first novels, and Miss Fauset tells an interesting story.
That her characters are always shadowed by the fact of their color is the most memorable impression one gains from the book — that, and the fact that they have a rounded, full life of their own. That life, aside from the mechanical devices of restaurants where they may not eat, parallels the life of white family that occupy similar social positions of their own.
There is none of the poignant terror and power that one finds in W.E.B. Du Bois’s Dark Water, for instance, or in The Souls of Black Folk.
There is bitterness in the story, but not despair. Its hero discovers that, instead of being the direct descendant of a pure stock of slaves (and therefore the cream of Negro society), as he believed himself to be, he is the grandson of a white man. That provides an explanation, to him, of why he as suffered shiftlessness of mind and inability to amount to something due to that taint of white blood.
“My ingratitude, my inability to adopt responsibility, my very irresoluteness came from that strain of white Bye blood. But I understand it now. I can fight against it …”
If you expect to find any of the rich color and flavor of Negro humor in There is Confusion, you will be entirely disappointed, for there isn’t a moment of it. The story might as well have been of middle class Lithuanians or Bosnians, or French, or English, or Americans, so far as any actual local flavor is concerned.
The characters talk like their white neighbors; act, in most cases, like them; love and live like them. There is Confusion comes nowhere near to being the Great Negro Novel. It’s merely a presentable novel written by an educated and obviously earnest person of that race. It’s as good as the general run of first novels, and, one account of its story, illuminating and interesting.
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How There is Confusion begins: A portion of Chapter One
Joanna’s first consciousness of the close understanding which existed between herself and her father dated back to a time when she was very young. Her mother, her brothers and her sister had gone to church, and Joanna, suffering from some slight childish complaint, had been left home. She had climbed upon her father’s knee demanding a story.
“What sort of story?” Joel Marshall asked, willing and anxious to please her, for she was his favorite child.
“Story ’bout somebody great, Daddy. Great like I’m going to be when I get to be a big girl.”
He stared at her amazed and adoring. She was like a little, living echo out of his own forgotten past. Joel Marshall, born a slave and the son of a slave in Richmond, Virginia, had felt as a little boy that same impulse to greatness.
“As a little tyke,” his mother used to tell her friends, “he was always pesterin’ me: ‘Mammy, I’ll be a great man some day, won’t I? Mammy, you’re gonna help me to be great?’
“But that was a long time ago, just a year or so after the war,” said Mammy, rocking complacently in her comfortable chair. “How wuz I to know he’d be a great caterer, feedin’ bank presidents and everything? Once you know they had him fix a banquet fur President Grant. Sent all the way to Richmond fur ’im. That’s howcome he settled yere in New York; yassuh, my son is sure a great man.”
But alas for poor Joel! His idea of greatness and his Mammy’s were totally at variance. The kind of greatness he had envisaged had been that which gets one before the public eye, which makes one a leader of causes, a “man among men.”
He loved such phrases! At night the little boy in the tiny half-story room in that tiny house in Virginia picked out the stories of Napoleon, Lincoln and Garrison, all white men, it is true; but Lincoln had been poor and Napoleon unknown and yet they had risen to the highest possible state. At least he could rise to comparative fame.
And when he was older and came to know of Frederick Douglass and Toussaint L’Ouverture, he knew if he could but burst his bonds he, too, could write his name in glory.
This was no selfish wish. If he wanted to be great he also wanted to do honestly and faithfully the things that bring greatness. He was to that end dependable and thorough in all that he did, but even as a boy he used to feel a sick despair—he had so much against him.
His color, his poverty, meant nothing to his ardent heart; those were nature’s limitations, placed deliberately about one, he could see dimly, to try one’s strength on. But that he should have a father broken and sickened by slavery who lingered on and on! That after that father’s death the little house should burn down!
He was fifteen when that happened and he and his mother both went to work in the service of Harvey Carter, a wealthy Virginian, whose wife entertained on a large scale. It was here that Joel learned from an expert chef how to cook.
His wages were small even for those days, but still he contrived to save, for he had set his heart on attending a theological seminary. Some day he would be a minister, a man with a great name and a healing tongue. These were the dreams he dreamed as he basted Mrs. Carter’s chickens or methodically mixed salad dressing.
His mother knew his ideas and loved them with such a fine, albeit somewhat uncomprehending passion and belief, that in grateful return he made her the one other consideration of his life, weaving unconsciously about himself a web of such loyalty and regard for her that he could not have broken through it if he would.
Her very sympathy defeated his purpose. So that when she, too, fell ill on a day with what seemed for years an incurable affection, Joel shut his teeth and put his frustrated plans behind him.
He drew his small savings from the bank and rented a tiny two and a half room shack in the front room of which he opened a restaurant,—really a little lunch stand. He was patronized at first only,—and that sparingly—by his own people.
But gradually the fame of his wonderful sandwiches, his inimitable pastries, his pancakes, brought him first more Black customers, then white ones, then outside orders. In five years’ time Joel’s catering became known state wide. He conquered poverty and came to know the meaning of comfort. The Grant incident created a reputation for him in New York and he was shrewd enough to take advantage of it and move there.
Ten years too late old Mrs. Marshall was pronounced cured by the doctors. She never understood what her defection had cost her son. His material success, his position in the church, in the community at large and in the colored business world,—all these things meant “power.” To her, her son was already great. Joel did not undertake to explain to her that his lack of education would be a bar forever between him and the kind of greatness for which his heart had yearned.
It was after he moved to New York and after the death of his mother that Joel married. His wife had been a school teacher, and her precision of language and exactitude in small matters made Joel think again of the education and subsequent greatness which were to have been his. His wife was kind and sweet, but fundamentally unambitious, and for a time the pleasure of having a home and in contrasting these days of ease with the hardships of youth made Joel somewhat resigned to his fate.
“Besides, it’s too late now,” he used to tell himself. “What could I be?” So he contented himself with putting by his money, and attending church, where he was a steward and really the unacknowledged head.
His first child brought back the old keen longing. It was a boy and Joel, bending over the small, warm, brown bundle, felt a gleam of hope. He would name it Joel and would instill, or more likely, stimulate the ambition which he felt must be already in that tiny brain. But his wife wouldn’t hear of the name Joel.
“It’s hard enough for him to be colored,” she said jealously guarding her young, “and to call him a stiff old-fashioned name like that would finish his bad luck. I am going to name him Alexander.”
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