Himes and the refusal of “ethnic realist” narration

I find these excerpts from The Program Era helpful for their schematic mapping-out of the contemporary literary field, but I also question McGurl’s account of the strategies available to racialized and otherwise minoritized writers. McGurl seems to imagine a literary field whose alternatives lie on a spectrum from ethnic realism to technomodernism, both of which are necessarily mediated by the university. This seems to suggest that all (“literary”/non-genre?) literary production by people of color ultimately serves the university, becoming part of its (raced, classed) project of social reproduction. While this is pretty undeniably one of the functions literature performs in society, I’d like to believe that some intervention is possible for writers of color beyond endlessly reproducing their (our?????) difference from whiteness in service of the reproduction of both whiteness and capital. I’m also troubled by the “strategic triumphalism” of McGurl’s conclusion. If “systematic investments of capital over time have produced a continual elevation of performance” in literature, how can we even begin to think of the potential “excellence” (whatever that means) of working-class writers, writers of color, or anyone else belonging to a group that has been systematically excluded from the university and denied the “investment of capital” McGurl points to (409)?

I don’t really have the tools to deal with either the social reproduction questions or the aesthetic evaluation questions I’m raising here. So I’d like to set those aside for a moment and think about how the formal features of Cotton Comes to Harlem might challenge the logic of cultural pluralism that the literary establishment as described by McGurl relies upon. I imagine that McGurl would classify Himes’ work as genre fiction rather than either ethnic realism or technomodernism, but I do think Cotton might provide a model for “genre” techniques that could be absorbed by either of those modes in order to challenge the logic McGurl sees as foundational to them.

How does “ethnic realism” stake its claim to knowledge of a culture or experience? McGurl doesn’t say much about its formal properties in the excerpt we read, but I imagine it involves a sort of reversal of 19th century realism’s equation of knowledge with social distance. First-person or highly focalized third-person narration from the perspective of one or two primary characters replaces a more omniscient, wide-ranging, and detached view, suggesting that the narration, like all knowledge, stems from a specific social location—likely one close, if not identical to, the author’s.

By contrast, Himes seems to refuse both these modes of narration. As Eburne puts it, Himes dramatizes the “collapse” of the “fixed point in intellectual space” from which one might understand a culture or a political struggle (807). Neither an “objective”/omniscient perspective nor an individual/personal one seems possible here. And yet, the narrator does seem to display a sort of omniscience in their (its?) ability to move across character perspectives and social strata—like a multiplot Victorian novel, without either the chatty narrator or the free indirect discourse that allows characters to briefly take over the telling of the story. Ultimately, I’m not sure how to characterizes Himes’ narrator other than by what the narrator isn’t. But I’m interested in that narrator’s ability to refuse either detachment or personalization, and how this seems to complicate easy equivalences between the author’s social position and the work.