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“A curiously intimate sort of audience”: Moviegoing and Public Life in Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bum

Why moviegoing?

Scholars assessing the imaginative contact between literature and early cinema have largely missed the moviegoer, who wanders off or risks getting lost in the dark. Image, close-up, montage, projection: these and other “technical” elements more quickly cohere, appear more self-evidently formal. As David Trotter put it in Cinema and Modernism, our understanding of literature’s relationship to cinema is all too often “committed . . . to argument by analogy.”[1] Within modernist studies, a film-centered formalism has defined many if not most approaches to charting cinema’s influence. Because film and text have such intriguing affinities—they represent through inscription and are experienced syntagmatically—the temptation is to (merely) conceive both as forms of writing, each with respective “techniques” that the other might imitate, annotate, or disavow. Colin MacCabe’s claim that “it is impossible to imagine the form of either Ulysses or The Waste Land without the developments of film editing” is exemplary of this tendency, but newer, more nuanced incarnations proliferate.[2]

Against film’s easily fetishized materiality and imitable techniques, moviegoing is harder to hold onto. It is modal rather than textual, performed rather than inscribed. In deploying moviegoing as a keyword, my intention is to foreground cinema’s peculiar sociality while moderating scholars’ over-reliance on medium specificity, turning from the hypostases of film form to the variegated practices of attendance. As streaming services proliferate, we can more clearly recognize moviegoing as a specific feature of cinema’s cultural and aesthetic history, rather than its only or purest form. Twenty-first-century viewing habits—at home, in our beds, on our laptops—expose moviegoing’s “givenness” to be anything but. Instead of the axiomatic, invisible, essentially unremarkable means through which cinema is/was accessed, moviegoing is better understood as a historically specific, expressive, and altogether strange modality through which cinema is/was performed. Moviegoing requires and produces a constitutive tension between individual and collective experience, promising both solitude and congregation, absorption within assembly. A moviegoing audience literalizes Michael Warner’s claim that a public “unites strangers through participation alone, at least in theory.”[3] Viewers are gathered in temporary, anonymous, but profound intimacy.

Moviegoing offers the most inclusive frame for assessing the interpenetration of literature and cinema in the early twentieth century, since those we call modernists were also the first generation of moviegoers. This is in itself an extraordinary historical fact: not everyone read, translated, or met Eisenstein (though many literary figures did). Everyone went to the movies.[4] Writers from immensely different regional, racial, and linguistic contexts were moviegoers, together and apart; this shared horizon of experience can open new methods of cross-canonical comparison. By no means, however, should this encourage us to flatten or overlook social difference. Rather, I argue that moviegoing’s conceptual energy stems from a striking contradiction: whereas the mass-distributed moving image held an ecumenical charge, the promise—even the premise—of shared experience, moviegoing was structured by difference. With its unprecedented reproducibility and global reach, film inspired dreams of a new universality, with figures as disparate as H. G. Wells, Germaine Dulac, and Dziga Vertov finding utopian, transnational potential in silent cinema. In a different register, film scholar Miriam Hansen considers cinema’s internationalism a kind of “Vernacular Modernism,” with cinema offering “the single most inclusive cultural horizon in which the traumatic effects of modernity were reflected, rejected or disavowed, transmuted or negotiated.”[5]

However, any pretense of a unitary image or a unifying address quickly crumbles from the vantage of a racially segregated balcony. Despite cinema’s unprecedented reach and formal homogeneity, Black folks’ experiences of moviegoing were radically unlike those of white viewers. To confront this problem, film historian Jacqueline Stewart coins the term “reconstructive spectatorship” to theorize “the range of ways in which Black viewers attempted to reconstitute and assert themselves in relation to the cinema’s racist social and textual operations.” Stewart “read[s] Black spectatorship as the creation of literal and symbolic spaces in which African Americans reconstructed . . . identities in response to the cinema’s moves toward classical narrative integration, and in the wake of migration’s fragmenting effects.”[6] Moving beyond the enthralled, subsumed, or in/credulous viewer, Stewart’s model of “reconstructive spectatorship” is partial and intermittent, situated and highly reflexive: a spectatorship that sees itself seeing. This situatedness is crucial to what Stewart calls the “public dimension” of moviegoing, one that “persisted for Black viewers, complicating the presumed pleasures (and limitations) of classical absorption and distraction for the “ideal” spectator” (94).

Focusing on this “public dimension” allows us to chart Black contact with cinema even and especially when reference to specific films are absent. To make this point concrete, it is instructive to turn to the Crisis during the first years of its publication. Arguably the most important site of Black intellectual life in the early twentieth century, the Crisis engaged cinema obliquely and idiosyncratically. There are no film reviews in the Crisis until the early 1930s, no exposés of noted independent Black filmmakers Oscar Micheaux or Noble Johnson. What is there is moviegoing, set always in relation to other forms of public Black being in the journal’s ongoing feature “Along the Color Line.” In the very first issue, movies appear under the subheading Art: “Denver is planning a theatre for colored people. One is in operation in Washington, D. C. There are scores of moving-picture shows opened recently for colored patronage in the border states.”[7] In the sixth issue, under Crime: “About 1,000 men and boys, mostly boys, mobbed the Negroes who were abroad in the business districts of Fort Worth the other night. . . . The riot was precipitated by efforts of white men to operate a moving-picture show exclusively for Negroes  . . .  the Negro ticket taker remained at his post until half a brick was sent flying through the window. Other missiles followed the first, and in a minute the interior of the movie-picture show house was in darkness.”[8] January 1912, this time under Courts: “Dr. W. Ross, of Denver, Col., brought suit against a theatre for refusing to sell him orchestra seats. . . . his wife was ordered to the rear in a moving-picture theatre.”[9] Months later, April 1912, under The Ghetto: “In Montgomery, Ala., a white man was about to open a moving-picture show for colored people, but was forbidden to by the city authorities on the ground that it was on one of the main streets.”[10] October 1913, now under Uplift: “The Afro-American Film Company has been incorporated under the laws of New York State and financed by the Negro Business Men's League of Philadelphia. The purpose of this company will be to give educational films especially applicable to Negroes.”[11]

Art, crime, courts, uplift, the ghetto. Cinema emerges within various institutional and ideological contexts, but exhibition and access are paramount. Questions of finance and equity take priority. While the representational politics of film do not feature prominently in the Crisis until the bombshell release of Birth of a Nation in 1915, moviegoing is part of the Crisis’ depiction of national Black public life from the periodical’s inception. Cinema’s categorical itinerancy—its emergence in Art and Courts, both Uplift and The Ghetto—suggests its imbrication within public life. Within the Crisis, moviegoing means more than just cinema: it signifies political victory and defeat, legal and extralegal resistance, bodily peril, and strategies of the everyday. In these early snippets of the Crisis, cinema is characterized first and foremost as a social practice, conceived in relation to spaces of collective Black flourishing and struggle.

To return to Hansen’s “inclusive cultural horizon,” then, we should understand it to be a contested and complex zone of engagement, dis/identification, and dialogue; its inclusivity is forever negotiated, never arriving, and always at stake. Moviegoing, in naming the mode rather than the medium of cinema, is conceptually powerful because it can (indeed, it must) hold these tensions between inclusion and exclusion, collection and dispersal, homogeneity and difference. To think through moviegoing is to acknowledge the possibilities inhering within a group of intimately assembled strangers while attending to the structures of power that organize and constrain their assembly. This practice—its temporariness already agreed upon—can be a locus of profound contradiction, equally defined by tranquility and terror, identification and repulsion.

Reliance on medium specificity has obscured moviegoing’s complexity, causing us to overlook writers whose cinematic engagements were never “filmic.” Jessie Redmon Fauset is an excellent case in point as a writer who gravitated towards the social dimensions of moviegoing rather than the formal dimensions of film. In Plum Bun: A Novel without a Moral (1928), Fauset’s vision of cinema hardly includes the screen. Instead, she notes the drift into anonymous public being, the queer and short-lived fellowship between strangers, the crackle of possibility that gathers in a gathering. Fauset is an underappreciated theorist of Black American contact with cinema, but only by taking moviegoing seriously (as she did) can we see her as such.

Why Fauset?

Though peripheral to the established modernist canon, Fauset was one of the most important figures within the Harlem Renaissance. As literary editor of the Crisis from 1919–1926, she published poems by Claude McKay and Langston Hughes, earning the dubious moniker of “midwife” to the Harlem Renaissance.[12] Despite her central role in forming a literary community in and through the Crisis, Fauset still suffers from neglect. McKay, whose poems Fauset enthusiastically published, thought her “prim and dainty as a primrose” and found her novels “quite as fastidious and precious. Primroses are pretty.”[13] Cheryl Wall’s characterization of Fauset in Women of the Harlem Renaissance tempers this “prim” public image by narrating moments of incredible audacity, editorial and otherwise. Pointing out that Fauset was one of very few Black American women to visit Algiers and to venture into the casbah, Wall writes, “Frequently drawn to new territory, in art as in life, [Fauset] was occasionally brave enough to enter it. But she was unlikely to remain once she realized where she was. The potential risk was too great, as much to the image she reflected as a proper Negro woman as to herself.”[14] I read Fauset’s treatment of moviegoing as one such venture into unexpected territory, a sojourn into the public world of anonymous intimacy.

Fauset’s interest in the movies begins at the Crisis. Fauset was actually the first to introduce the word “cinema” to the Crisis, in a 1922 review of René Maran’s novel Batouala, praising the novel’s “cinema-like sharpness.”[15] Her interest in cinema, however, predates the review; in 1920, Fauset published her “novelette” The Sleeper Wakes across two issues of the Crisis. It is in The Sleeper Wakes that Fauset first symbolically conjoins moviegoing and white-passing. Amy Boldin, the protagonist of The Sleeper Wakes, runs aways from home into a doomed passing plot after seeing a particularly thrilling melodrama. When Amy recounts the film in question to her adopted caretaker, Fauset’s technique is an out-of-breath prolepsis, since Amy’s recap is in miniature the very plot she will soon undergo: “oh, Mrs. Boldin, it was the most wonderful picture a girl such a pretty one and she was poor, awfully. And somehow she met the most wonderful people and they were so kind to her. And she married a man who was just tremendously rich and he gave her everything.”[16] Here, domestic ideology triumphs in an explicit cautionary tale, but this is not where Fauset’s thinking ends.

Fauset’s most extended and sophisticated engagement with cinema is Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral (1928).[17] Published after Fauset’s tenure as literary critic had ended, the novel follows Angela Murray as she leaves her constrictive middle class life in Philadelphia to pursue a painting career in New York City. I will briefly sketch out Plum Bun’s plot, before zooming in on the elements of moviegoing and public life with which this article is chiefly concerned. The novel follows the shifting relationships between Angela and her sister, Virginia; her lover, Roger Fielding; and her eventual husband, Anthony Cross. From childhood, the sisters double each other, with Virginia acting as “Angela’s moral mirror,” to use Cherene Sherrard-Johnson’s phrase.[18] Whereas Angela is light-skinned like the girls’ mother, Mattie, Virginia is dark-skinned like their father, Junius. Mattie teaches Angela to pass: together, they go shopping and to the cinema, pretending to be a white mother and daughter. When one day they run into Junius and Virginia, Mattie panics. Against her better judgment, she pretends not to recognize them. The moment mortifies Mattie, who tearfully apologizes to Junius later that evening for “cut[ting] him.” But the incident reverberates profoundly and ambiguously for Angela; she will later recapitulate the scene with Virginia at Penn Station. Though she was there to pick up her sister, Angela freezes, “stupid with fear” when Roger, her vitriolically racist boyfriend, bumps into her by chance (Fauset, Plum Bun, 157). Caught between welcoming her sister and appeasing her lover, Angela snubs Virginia.

Across Plum Bun, the sisters reflect and foil each other. As Angela continues her doomed romance with Roger, Virginia gets engaged to Anthony Cross, a white-passing but secretly Black artist whom Angela had earlier rejected. Ironically, it is Angela’s snub at Penn Station that leads Virginia to Anthony; the evening of Virginia’s arrival, she wanders into a stranger’s room, too distraught to realize her mistake. That stranger is Anthony. When Roger leaves Angela, she too falls for Anthony. All the while, Virginia has held a torch for Matthew Henson, an overeager suitor of Angela’s from Philadelphia. Cutting pithily through the convolution, Jacquelyn McLendon glosses: “Jinny really wants Matthew Henson, who she believes still wants Angela; Angela wants Roger, who just wants sex; and Anthony wants Angela.”[19] When Angela is ready to return Anthony’s love, the melodramatic deadlock—two sisters in love with the same man—is resolved with a flourish: in the novel’s last pages, Virginia writes that she had decided to marry Matthew after all, freeing Anthony and Angela to be married. The tangled crisscrossing of sisters and beaux is tidily, problematically resolved: Angela is matched with the man who can pass for white, Virginia with the man too dark to turn Angela’s head.

But before these many romantic maneuvers are set in motion, Angela—like Amy in The Sleeper Wakes—is a single woman stirred at the cinema. Shortly after arriving in New York, before making any new friends or taking any art classes, she spends an extended period of time simply going to the movies. For days on end, she sinks into a “sense of unrestraint” only recently made possible to her. In the flickering dark of the movie house—with all, or most, eyes on the screen—she mitigates the everyday hypervisibility of urban life (Fauset, Plum Bun, 92). The experience delights her not because the films are good but because they confirm that she is on “the thresh-hold of a career totally different from anything that a [film] scenario writer could envisage” (92). In Manhattan, where she knows no one and no one knows her, she can reinvent herself without fear of recognition.

As a white-passing Black woman in the late 1920s, Angela is a unique spectator. She can attend the “all-Negro” theaters along 135th street if she wishes, but she opts instead for the ones downtown. Fauset leaves ambiguous whether these specific theaters have balconies, where Black moviegoers would congregate in the de facto segregated cinemas of the Jim Crow northeast. Regardless, Angela sits with white viewers, inches from those who might oust her if they could. “Would these people, she wondered, glancing about her in the soft gloom of the beautiful theatre, begrudge her, if they knew, her cherished freedom and sense of unrestraint?” (92). The dangers of exposure, the ethics of assembly, and the possibilities of a new life swirl together in the dark.

While Fauset singles out moviegoing as a significant feature of Angela’s first weeks in New York City, she never names a single film, director, or star. Angela sees movie after movie, but Fauset does not gloss any specific plots, as she had in The Sleeper Wakes. This seeming indifference to film(s) per se sets Fauset apart from many modernist writers, including her more famous colleagues. Years before Langston Hughes published Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951), before he and Dorothy West traveled to Moscow to make a movie, Fauset was contemplating cinema, its imaginative resources, aesthetic qualities, and potential dangers.[20] Unlike Zora Neale Hurston, whose dazzlingly unconventional documentaries defy categorization, Fauset never turned to filmmaking. For her, cinema’s significance lay in practices of attendance rather than film form, milieu rather than medium. She gravitated towards the social dimensions of moviegoing rather than the formal dimensions of film, seemingly sidestepping that modernist shibboleth called medium. But Plum Bun is one of very few literary works that imagine the promises and dangers of cinema for Black moviegoers of the 1920s in relation to the promises and dangers of urban mobility and public life, particularly for Black women.[21]

Moviegoing allows Fauset to situate a character’s psyche along the jagged line where individual and collective experiences converge. Since Angela is white-passing, she can move between different spaces and modes of spectatorship, testing herself within and against different audiences. She could watch from the balcony or the ground floor, could attend the theaters along 135th but chooses the ones downtown; her spectatorship constitutes, then, a choice of public. Fauset sends Angela to the movies to dramatize this choice, depicting how her private desires are intimately connected to the publics she navigates:

There was a theatre . . . just at the edge of the Village, which she came to frequent, not so much for the sake of the plays, which were the same as elsewhere, as for the sake of the audience, a curiously intimate sort of audience made of numerous still more intimate groups. Their members seemed both purposeful and leisurely (Plum Bun, 93, emphasis mine).[22]

Here, Angela is chasing audiences rather than films, trading the specificities of film-text (the photoplays are “the same as elsewhere”) for the textures of collective practice. In viewing, her interiority touches on, weighs itself against the bodies and imagined minds of her fellow viewers. She yearns incorporation into this intimate assembly, but a distance remains; neither entirely alone nor entirely integrated at the West Village cinema, Angela vibrates at a threshold between inner knowledge and outer appearance. She briefly contemplates a rash disclosure:

Would these people, she wondered, glancing about her in the soft gloom of the beautiful theatre, begrudge her, if they knew, her cherished freedom and sense of unrestraint? If she were to say to this next woman for instance, “I’m coloured,” would she show the occasional dog-in-the-manger attitude of certain white Americans and refuse to sit by her or make a complaint to the usher? (92)

Fauset leaves the question unanswered, as Angela chooses anonymity and solitude. Within this congregation, intimately gathered, she is alone.

When she came here her loneliness palled on her, however. All unaware her face took on the wistfulness of the men gazing in the music store. She wished she knew some of these pleasant people. (92–93)

Several desires intersect in Angela’s wistful, roving gaze: the desire to go unnoticed, the countervailing desire to be found out, the desire to be one of these “pleasant people” or at least to know them; be known by them; to know them without being known by them.

“Curiously intimate,” the phrase Angela uses to describe the West Village audience, names more than the friendliness of small cliques within the crowd. It names Angela’s desire to find herself not just with an audience but of an audience. Further, it names a sociality peculiar to cinema, since weeping, laughing, and gasping with a group of strangers and near-strangers is undoubtedly intimate but curiously so: at once immersive and fleeting, finite and open-ended, intense and anonymous. Fauset uses these features of moviegoing to distill the complexity of Angela’s desire. Wanting both secrecy and intimacy, self-determination and social acceptance, Angela’s viewership is similarly ambivalent, sliding off the screen and landing on her neighbors. As Roland Barthes would have it, Fauset replaces a “relation” between viewing subject and image with a “situation,” an entangled encounter that incorporates the self, screen, and surround. Writing forty years later, on the other side of the Atlantic, Barthes describes quite accurately the phenomenology of Angela’s moviegoing:

as if I had two bodies at the same time: a narcissistic body which gazes, lost, into the engulfing mirror, and a perverse body, ready to fetishize not the image but precisely what exceeds it: the texture of the sound, the hall, the darkness, the obscure mass of the other bodies, the rays of light, entering the theater, leaving the hall; in short, in order to distance, in order to “take off,” I complicate a “relation” by a “situation.” What I use to distance myself from the image—that, ultimately, is what fascinates me: I am hypnotized by a distance; and this distance is not critical (intellectual); it is, one might say, an amorous distance.[23]

It is Angela’s proximity to strangers who might ignore, befriend, or betray her that renders her “situation” so fertile, fraught, and thrilling. Her double-bodiedness is sharper than Barthes’ is. She boldly but cautiously seeks social “situation”—to be incorporated rather than merely adjacent—but the stakes are high. What Barthes calls an “amorous distance” is, for Angela, terribly vexed. She must manage not only the distance between herself and the image, but that between herself and her neighbors. Remaining absorbed in the “engulfing mirror” of the screen would mean never knowing “these pleasant people” around her; but in getting too close to them, she risks discovering them dangerously unpleasant.

Through Angela’s reveries, Fauset provocatively and counterintuitively amplifies the resonances between moviegoing and white-passing, making moviegoing stand in for the slew of risks, ambitions, and desires that percolate the passing plot. Moviegoing becomes a narrative metonym: yes, it is a thing done in passing, while passing, but because Angela’s moviegoing organizes and intensifies a set of desires related to femininity, visibility, whiteness, and belonging, it also stands in for passing. Self-presentation and public being, anonymous assembly, fleeting or impossible intimacies: these are the “cinematic” phenomena Fauset singles out for consideration. These same phenomena are central to Plum Bun’s passing plot, as Angela leverages anonymity and self-presentation to foster relationships (maybe fleeting, even impossible) with new friends and lovers. Angela uses moviegoing as a primer, a textbook in the perils and pleasures of the as-of-yet-unknown.

For these reasons, Angela’s desire to belong to an audience is not trivial or incidental. Instead, it teaches us a new way to read Plum Bun beyond the individualistic, bourgeois frameworks that have accrued to Fauset. As Hazel Carby has argued in Reconstructing Womanhood, Fauset has an overriding narrative conservatism, a “middle-class code of morality and behavior that structured the existence of her characters and worked as a code of appropriate social behavior for her readers.”[24] Problematically, Angela’s passing is written as an extended mistake; it is not linked to survival or material exigency, coded instead as willful and selfish. Despite the novel’s titular moral-lessness, Angela undergoes an unmistakable moral development, reclaiming both her Blackness and the sister she had abandoned. But I argue that this reclamation is rather more nuanced than the mere “correction” of a wayward woman. When, in the novel’s final pages, Angela declares that “so far as sides are concerned, I am on the coloured side,” she is making a choice of public belonging more than one of individual identity (Fauset, Plum Bun, 373). Angela chooses not only between a white lover and a Black one, between artistic expression and filial devotion, herself and her sister, but between different forms of assembly and modes of public being. Angela’s desire to belong to an audience deepens the critical capacities of the passing plot, elaborating the segregated worlds she navigates and sharpening the ethical intelligence with which she comes to navigate those worlds. As Carby puts it, “the mulatto . . . is most usefully regarded as a convention of Afro-American literature which enables the exploration in fiction of relations which were socially prescribed” (171). In Plum Bun, Angela passes between different publics whose contiguity is highly policed; her achievement by novel’s end is learning to do so without guile.

Despite its narrative drives towards marriage and familial reconciliation, Plum Bun is obsessed with public, “curiously intimate” forms of assembly: audiences, coteries and crowds, colleagues and acquaintances, new and fragile friendships, the microsociology of passersby. There is a politics to these encounters distinct from respectability or individualism, a recurring curiosity about public formations and one’s place within them. Because Plum Bun’s primary plot navigates shifting relationships between sisters, suitors, and lovers, we might mistakenly assume Fauset’s depictions of public life are mere “thickness,” scenography, or reality-effect. But I think this is a misreading of Fauset, whose reputation as a portraitist of the Black bourgeoisie occludes her interest in minor forms of relation: our ethical obligations to people we do not know very well or like very much. We miss this political and ethical complexity if we look only at the level of narrative. Beyond the family and marriage plots, an entirely different drama unfolds, that of public entanglement and public belonging. Minor relations flourish between strangers, near-strangers, colleagues, and acquaintances. Angela’s moviegoing, though seemingly inconsequential, signals the importance of public belonging and minor relation throughout Plum Bun. The movie theater is an exemplary site of Angela’s ambivalence. On the one hand, her West Village moviegoing represents her rejection of a Black public defined by and within contested space; on the other, it dramatizes her keen desire for specifically public, “curiously intimate” forms of belonging. I argue that Plum Bun’s political spark catches in the resolution of this ambivalence, at the moment when Angela reclaims a Black public.

Moviegoing and Plum Bun’s Plot

To turn from film to moviegoing has implications for the analysis of plot, Plum Bun’s in particular. Choreographies of assembly modulate or interrupt narrative desire; practices of attendance—the coming and going, the sitting down, getting up, moving and looking around, buying tickets and finding good seats, involved in “going to the movies”—might supersede the unspooling story on the screen. It’s not that we entirely ignore the “feature presentation,” more that we are distracted or transfixed by that which surrounds it. Our minds wander, noticing more and less than we are meant to.

In this section, I do two things in setting moviegoing and plot together. First, I demonstrate the unexpected narratological function of cinema in Fauset’s fiction, comparing Plum Bun with its predecessor The Sleeper Wakes (1920). In each, a trip to the movies precipitates the protagonist’s decision to leave home and pass for white; further, moviegoing serves as a narrative metonym, the passing plot in miniature. Second, and almost in contradiction, I suggest that Angela’s moviegoing in Plum Bun models a sidelong approach to the novel’s plot: her gaze drifts from the screen to savor the curious intimacies flourishing in the shadows. Angela’s spectatorship reorients us to minor forms of relation and social assembly adjacent (perhaps irrelevant) to the familial and romantic configurations that inevitably govern Plum Bun’s narrative resolution.

But one cannot deny that cinema has a specific and unique narratological function in Plum Bun and The Sleeper Wakes. I draw on both because, in story and shape, the two are companions, Amy Boldin a sketch for Angela Murray’s portrait eight years later.[25] Both are structured in five parts; both narrate disastrous courtships with rich and racist white men; both move inexorably towards the protagonist’s disclosure of her Blackness. Crucially, for each protagonist, a singularly impactful trip to the cinema precipitates her decision to leave home and move to a new city. In The Sleeper Wakes, Amy is captivated by a “pretty girl picture,” as her adopted father calls them. That evening, she turns on all the gas-jets in her room and gazes into the mirror, “apostrophiz[ing] the beautiful, glowing vision of herself” (93). Gas-lit and framed in the soft focus of her own regard, Amy creates a homemade facsimile of the close-up. All day, she has been learning “how to look,” at the cinema and elsewhere. While trying on a dress at Marshall’s after the picture, Amy overhears two men: “Jove, how I’d like to paint her!” and “My God! Can’t a girl be beautiful!” More than these words, it is the look in their eyes that gives Amy the most information: the same look “in the eyes of the men in the moving-pictures which she had seen that afternoon” (91). Amy does not so much realize as receive her (presumed white) beauty: “she was really good-looking then,” she thinks. “She could stir people—men!” In her room that night, she declares, “I’m like the girl in the picture,” intensifying the identification and confirming her foster parents’ worst fears. Amy muses, “She had nothing but her beautiful face—and she did so want to be happy” (93). A paragraph later she runs away to New York, with nothing but her own beautiful face and the instinct that her happiness must be found elsewhere.[26]

For Angela, a racist ticket-taker in Philadelphia proves the final straw in a series of indignities that sends her to Manhattan. The humiliations begin at the Academy of Fine Arts, where Angela has regularly attended class by passing as white. Soon after her parents’ deaths, however, she is outed by a vindictive childhood acquaintance who, serving as the studio’s model, refuses to pose for a Black painter. The following day, Angela’s painting instructor confronts her: “But, Miss Murray, you never told me you were coloured,” he “blurt[s] out miserably.” Angela responds with one of the novel’s major ethical questions: “Coloured! Of course I never told you that I was coloured. Why should I?” (Fauset, Plum Bun, 72–73).

That night, Angela decides to leave Philadelphia, but only after a second humiliation: a failed trip to the movies. Angela’s companion, Matthew Henson, tells her she will “like the surroundings almost as much as the picture” at the “little gem of a theatre” they are to attend. She understands the coded language, an “indirect method of telling her that they would meet with no difficulty in the matter of admission” (74). Notwithstanding these assurances, Matthew is denied entry: at the theater (which “was only one storey”—that is, lacking a segregated balcony) the ticket-taker tells him that “she can go in, but you can’t” (75). That night, “reviewing to herself the events of the day,” Angela says aloud, “This is the end” (76). The following morning, she begins planning her move to New York. This means that a failed trip to the movies is the very last thing Angela does before resolving to adopt a new city and a new name. Since extensive moviegoing is one of the first things she does upon arriving in New York, moviegoing structures a chiasmus across Parts I and II of the novel:

A         Angela’s art classes end

B         Angela attempts to go to the movies with Matthew, unsuccessfully

C         Angela leaves Philadelphia for NYC, changes her name to Angèle

B         Angèle goes to the movies alone, successfully and often

A         Angèle’s art classes begin

Positioned as if it were painting’s kid sister, cinema plays a pivotal role in Plum Bun’s early development despite its apparent innocuousness. Complexly embedded within the künstlerroman plot, moviegoing modulates the novel’s early rhythms, hastening Angela’s departure but delaying Angèle’s artistic arrival. And while Angela finds herself “on the thresh-hold of a career totally different from anything that a scenario writer could envisage,” moviegoing serves as this very thresh-hold, a passage-point between Part I (“Home”) and Part II (“The Market”).

Together, Amy and Angela bring one of Fauset’s narrative tactics into sharp focus: moviegoing serves as the passing plot’s catalyst and metonym. Narratologically, moviegoing precipitates each protagonist’s departure from home into the world of anonymous others. This movement (home → public) is, of course, a feature of most trips to the cinema. Fauset isolates and dilates a quotidian rhythm, turning it into a metastructure. Indeed, moviegoing’s ideal “final” shape (home → public → home) resonates with the nursery rhyme from which Plum Bun pulls its title and its structure: “To market, to market / To buy a Plum Bun;/ Home again, Home again,/ Market is done.” In the novel’s five corresponding sections—Home, Market, Plum Bun, Home Again, and Market is Done—Angela’s formatively sour trip to the movies occurs near the end of Home; the same is true in The Sleeper Wakes, where Amy’s gaslit self-admiration concludes part one of five. Cinema leads away from the familiar, into the misadventure of passing. In the self-reflexive nursery rhyme logic of both novel and novelette, cinema is the first dream from which the sleeper must wake, an advert for the plum bun; it precedes and prefigures the sweet but hollow thing Fauset’s protagonists must learn, through nausea, to resist.

But this is only half the story: while moviegoing’s narratological function in both texts betrays a latent domestic ideology—the fear that a young woman’s entry into public life might lead her astray—this is where Fauset’s thinking begins rather than where it ends. Cinema alternately quickens and dilates the narrative: whereas a formative trip to the movies hastens Angela’s departure to New York, her moviegoing post-arrival is leisurely and aimless. Moviegoing holds no narrative content of its own: Angela does nothing and meets no one, in fact neglects the artistic career that brought her to New York. Indeed, the sequence conspicuously omits whatever plots the movies themselves possess, such that Angela seems to briefly escape emplotment altogether. Here, I include the entire passage along with the sentences immediately preceding and succeeding it:

And she made notes in her sketch book to enable her some day to make a great picture of these “types” too.

Of course she was being unconscionably idle; but as her days were filled to overflowing with the impact of new impressions, this signified nothing. She could not guess what life would bring her. For the moment it seemed to her both wise and amusing to sit with idle hands and see what would happen. By a not inexplicable turn of mind she took to going very frequently to the cinema where most things did happen. She found herself studying the screen with a strained and ardent intensity, losing the slight patronizing scepticism which had once been hers with regard to the adventures of these shadowy heroes and heroines; so utterly unforeseen a turn had her own experiences taken. This time last year she had never dreamed of, had hardly dared to long for a life as free and as full as hers was now and was promising to be. Yet here she was on the thresh-hold of a career totally different from anything that a scenario writer could envisage. Oh yes, she knew that hundreds, indeed thousands of white coloured people “went over to the other side,” but that was just the point, she knew the fact without knowing hitherto any of the possibilities of the adventure. Already Philadelphia and her trials were receding into the distance. Would these people, she wondered, glancing about her in the soft gloom of the beautiful theatre, begrudge her, if they knew, her cherished freedom and sense of unrestraint? If she were to say to this next woman for instance, “I’m coloured,” would she show the occasional dog-in-the-manger attitude of certain white Americans and refuse to sit by her or make a complaint to the usher? But she had no intention of making such an announcement. So she spent many happy, irresponsible, amused hours in the marvellous houses on Broadway or in the dark commonplaceness of her beloved Fourteenth Street. There was a theatre, too, on Seventh Avenue just at the edge of the Village, which she came to frequent, not so much for the sake of the plays, which were the same as elsewhere, as for the sake of the audience, a curiously intimate sort of audience made of numerous still more intimate groups. Their members seemed both purposeful and leisurely. When she came here her loneliness palled on her, however. All unaware her face took on the wistfulness of the men gazing in the music store. She wished she knew some of these pleasant people.

It came to her that she was neglecting her Art. (91–93)

Angela is not wholly indifferent to plot; after all, she has replaced her “patronizing scepticism” with a “strained and ardent intensity.” But the “adventures of these shadowy heroes and heroines” go unspecified, less interesting to Angela than her own adventure, the astonishing fact of her presence in these theaters, in this city. Ultimately, the photoplays (“the same as elsewhere”) are important to Angela not because of the stories they themselves are telling, but because of the introspection and congregation—the strange mix of solitude and assembly—that they occasion. Here, the public quality of moviegoing takes precedence over the narrative quality of the movies themselves.

With this scene, I extrapolate an implicit method for reading Plum Bun’s plot. A dual approach is needed: a willingness to mitigate any “patronizing scepticism” and engage sincerely with the desires motoring an admittedly melodramatic story, combined with a roving gaze that can savor minor relations and public encounters, social configurations counterbalancing the novel’s overarching tendency towards marital and familial normalcy. Fauset’s recuperative plotting is a major reason she is not more widely respected. Barbara Christian in Black Women Novelists writes that Fauset’s “plots seldom rise above the level of melodrama.”[27] Hazel Carby has compellingly characterized the “conservatism . . . [which] dominates her texts,” a conservatism congealing in acrobatically happy endings that reinscribe single Black women into respectable Black heterosexuality (167). Contrasting Fauset’s endings with Nella Larsen’s, where the contradictions of Black womanhood remain snarled and irresolvable to the end, Carby criticizes Fauset’s over-reliance on “imaginary resolutions to . . . social contradictions”—a phrase repurposed from Frederic Jameson (168). For Carby, these “imaginary resolutions” lack the uncompromising honesty of Larsen’s disconsoling endings. Even the most sympathetic portraits of Fauset, such as Carolyn Sylvander’s Jessie Redmon Fauset, Black American Writer, struggle to reckon with Fauset’s seemingly apolitical narratology. Sylvander deems Fauset’s work “a literature of search more than a literature of protest,” advocating “descriptive analysis” as a preferable critical stance to “prescriptive judgment.”[28]

It is true that a synopsis of Plum Bun’s plot does little to defend Fauset from accusations of conservatism and (mere) melodrama. Where other scholars have engaged this plot head-on, arguing for a canny sophistication underlying its contrivances, I find a sidelong engagement more fruitful.[29] In the margins of the primary plot, Fauset explores the dynamics of public belonging, anonymous affinity, and mere acquaintanceship. If we emulate Angela’s distracted spectatorship, turning our head ever so slightly from the screen, we can glimpse another Plum Bun entirely.

Angela’s public relations

Read sidelong, Plum Bun is suddenly a public novel. Symbolic dramas articulate and resolve themselves in public space. Hesitant and guarded intimacies take root: relationships that may grow or wither, perhaps never reaching the intensity of friendship or sexual companionship. Through these minor relations, Fauset expresses political possibilities exceeding her timid narrative conclusions. Moving through various forms of assembly—artistic coteries, bustling street crowds, speech attendees, audiences of moviegoers—Angela comes to understand her own publicness as ethically freighted. Her decisions and dilemmas throughout the novel are not strictly individual: she chooses not only between a white lover and a Black one, between personal expression and filial devotion, herself and her sister, but between different forms of assembly and modes of public being. Moviegoing, as a constitutively but complexly public phenomenon promising both solitude and assembly, exemplifies the mutual entanglement of private desire and public space throughout the novel.

It is one of the more explicit, but hardly the last or most poignant, moments in which Angela asks herself to which public(s) she belongs. In fact, this question is sharpest late in the novel when Angela discloses her Blackness to a group of journalists, a moment of solidarity with a colleague, Miss Powell, whose scholarship was revoked after the committee found out Miss Powell was Black. The question Angela had asked her painting instructor in Philly—“Of course I never told you that I was coloured. Why should I?”—is transformed, suddenly a question of public solidarity rather than private disclosures. With this surprisingly carefree confession, spoken to journalists rather than intimates, Angela relocates herself in relation to a Black public.

Fauset’s decision to stage Angela’s confession in such a manner is best understood as the final twist in Plum Bun’s ongoing but ambivalent relationship to Black public life. Take for example Angela’s first glimpse of Harlem:

She had never seen coloured life so thick, so varied, so complete. Moreover, just as this city reproduced in microcosm all the important features of any metropolis, so undoubtedly life up here was just the same, she thought dimly, as life anywhere else. . . . A man’s sharp, high-bred face etched itself on her memory,—the face of a professional man perhaps,—it might be an artist. She doubted that; he might of course be a musician, but it was unlikely that he would be her kind of an artist, for how could he exist? (Plum Bun, 96–97)

Or Angela’s observations at a speech given by “Van Meier,” Fauset’s fictionalized Du Bois:

Here and there a sprinkling of white faces showed up plainly, startlingly distinct patterns against a back-ground of patient, softly stolid black faces; faces beaten and fashioned by life into a mold of steady, rock-like endurance, of unshakable, unconquered faith. Angela had seen such faces before in the churches in Philadelphia; they brought back old pictures to her mind (217).

Angela cannot decide how to place herself within or against the Black assemblies she describes, whether she belongs inside or outside of them. On the face of it, she approaches Black New York with the anthropological gaze of the white artist—at Van Meier’s speech she finds herself once more “revelling in types,” abstracting strangers’ faces into categories and trafficking in clichés of “rock-like endurance” and “unconquered faith” (216). But she hesitates just at the threshold of discovering herself amidst the crowd. Wondering whether a striking passerby is an artist, Angela decides that he cannot be “her kind” of artist, “for how could he exist?” As I argue in my final section, Angela’s unimaginative question—how could my kind of artist exist in Harlem?—obscures her more profound, implicit provocation: could I, an artist, exist among them?

Undoubtedly, Fauset is concerned with Angela’s psychological development, romantic fulfillment, and maturing sense of self; but she is concerned just as conspicuously with Angela’s growing awareness of her ethical obligations to people she does not know very well or like very much. Minor characters pull Angela into various milieux. There are her friends Martha Burden and Ladislas Starr, a freethinking married couple who prominently display the Crisis in their living room and host salons. There are Virginia’s friends, “a happy, intelligent, rather independent group of young coloured men and women” who introduce Virginia to the illustrious Van Meier (209). There is Rachel Salting, the upstairs neighbor with whom Angela shares the stairwell intimacies of co-tenancy. Angela sympathizes with Rachel because she is Jewish and her lover’s family is antisemitic, but her commiseration does not stop Rachel from declaring she “wouldn’t marry a nigger in any circumstances. Why, would you?” (313). Most important of all, there is Miss Rachel Powell, Angela’s colleague at Cooper Union, whom Angela initially describes as having an “ugly beauty.” Miss Powell—whom Angela never calls Rachel—has dark skin and does not have the luxury of passing; instead of befriending her classmates, she works industriously and alone.

Through Miss Powell, Fauset most clearly expresses the ethical prerogatives and political stakes of Angela’s public navigation. When both she and Angela win a scholarship to study in France, Miss Powell’s is revoked after the selection committee discovers she is Black. Outraged, Angela blurts out: “if Miss Powell isn’t wanted, I’m not wanted either. You imply that she’s not wanted because she’s coloured. Well, I’m coloured too” (347). What Angela has not yet been able to share privately with any of her classmates—what she could not even bring herself to tell Anthony the evening he told her of his father’s lynching—she admits freely to the press.

The armchair press conference calls attention to itself as patently bizarre: why is this the moral climax of this novel without a moral? But the confession makes sense if we understand it as the logical conclusion of the novel’s public impulse; here Fauset can scramble norms of private and public communication, effecting a reflexive mode of self-disclosure that comments on its own “publicity.” Eschewing the sanctity or eroticism of the confessional mode, Fauset chooses scandal. The scene takes place in a home, but not Angela’s; indeed, it is her very first time calling upon Miss Powell. Angela behaves out of a sense of moral duty; but she does so on behalf of a colleague, not a lover or friend. A drawing room tea becomes a press conference, mere acquaintance transformed into political solidarity. And one of the newspapermen reveals, unintentionally, the precise ethical distinction of the scene in a patronizing speech given before Angela admits that she, too, is a woman of color. The reporter rudely reminds Miss Powell that Angela made no efforts to bunk with her on the transatlantic trip, or to befriend her in any way.

Why shouldn’t [Angela] have asked you to be her side-partner on this trip which I understand you’re taking together? There would have been an unanswerable refutation for the committee’s arguments. But no, she does nothing even though it means the thwarting of a life-time’s ambition. Mind, I’m not blaming you, Miss Mory. You are acting in accordance with a natural law. I’m just trying to show Miss Powell here how inevitable the workings of such a law are. (346)

The “law” the journalist here invokes is not merely racist but intimately racist, a prohibition not on public shows of solidarity but on interracial friendship. Implicitly, he makes the case that longterm intimacies are the principal form of meaningful relation. The “natural law” presumably dictating Angela’s behavior is one that proscribes the sphere of female friendship. The journalist’s tone is condescending, his ideas insipid and violent, but he articulates an assumption readers of Plum Bun risk emulating: the idea that what matters most is the private world of friendship, sorority, and fellow-feeling. In contrast, note Fauset’s description of Angela’s epiphany: “Some icy crust which had formed over Angela’s heart shifted, wavered, broke and melted. Suddenly it seemed as though nothing in the world were so important as to allay the poignancy of Miss Powell’s situation; for this, she determined quixotically, no price would be too dear” (346). Even at this moment of greatest intensity, Miss Powell is still Miss Powell; even as Angela opens herself “quixotically” to racial solidarity, in the moment when “the icy crust . . . shifted, wavered, broke, and melted,” to call Miss Powell Rachel is literally unthinkable.

Miss Murray and Miss Powell will remain “curiously intimate” from this moment on: they will always retain the slight coolness of acquaintanceship. And this confession, Angela’s atonement for a novel’s worth of passivity, is crucially a displacement. Through this scene, Fauset rhymes and resolves the scenes of “cutting”—of willful misrecognition—that have pained Virginia so deeply. As my friend and colleague Kristen Maye put it, Angela’s confession is “both a move to embrace Blackness publicly while shirking intimate responsibility.”[30] The heroic nature of the confession is undercut by its too-little-too-lateness: it is not Miss Powell but Virginia to whom such a sacrifice is owed. Fauset lays the groundwork for this reversal early on, in childhood, when Angela and Virginia establish an imaginary game:

some nonsense of their early childhood days when it had been their delight to dress up as ladies. Virginia would approach Angela: “Pardon me, is this Mrs. Henrietta Jones?” And Angela, drawing herself up haughtily would reply: “Er,—really you have the advantage of me.” Then Virginia: “Oh pardon! I thought you were Mrs. Jones and I had heard my friend Mrs. Smith speak of you so often and since you were in the neighbourhood and passing, I was going to ask you in to have some ice-cream.” The game of course being that Angela should immediately drop her haughtiness and proceed for the sake of the goodies to ingratiate herself into her neighbour’s esteem (35, emphasis mine).

The routine is intimate but premised on near-anonymity: a secret language rooted in the banality of small talk, sisterly closeness taking the guise of mere acquaintance. The game’s privacy (a play world belonging to Angela and Virginia alone) is derived from its mimicry of public life (the world of rumor and gossip, Smiths and Joneses). That Mrs. Jones happens to be “in the neighbourhood and passing” signals the poignancy the game will later gather.

For it is this game that saves Angela from exposure at Penn Station. When Virginia greets Angela, she chooses their favorite salutation: “I beg your pardon, but isn’t this Mrs. Henrietta Jones?” Relieved, Angela takes the out, exploiting the game’s pretense of unfamiliarity.

Oh, God was good! Here was one chance if only Jinny would understand! In his astonishment Roger had turned from her to face the speaker. Angela, her eyes beseeching her sister’s from under her close hat brim, could only stammer the old formula: “Really you have the advantage of me. No, I’m not Mrs. Jones.”

Roger said rudely, “Of course she isn’t Mrs. Jones. Come, Angèle” (159).

It is not an accident that this scene, by far the deepest of the novel’s “cuts,” takes place in a train station—nor that Virginia, “after a second’s bewildered but incredulous stare,” walks quickly away and “vanishe[s] into a telephone booth” (159). In this symbolically fraught encounter, Angela recapitulates Mattie’s castrative misrecognition of Junius, but the sheer publicness of the scene prevents it from being merely psychoanalytic. The arrival and departure of huge numbers of anonymous others, the specific semi-privacy of the telephone booth, the loophole provided by the sisters’ pretense of mere acquaintanceship: even in this most intimate of betrayals, the public throngs about. Train stations, movie theaters, and the living rooms of one’s colleagues attenuate the oedipal force of the family. Returning to Miss Powell with this public in mind, we can appreciate all the more Angela’s confession on her behalf. Whereas others have read her as a symbolic stand-in for Virginia, I find it more illustrative to understand her as Miss Powell: a colleague, not quite a friend, certainly not a sister. Angela’s disclosure does not heal the wounds she has inflicted on Virginia; rather, it represents her developing public ethos, the reclamation of public Black belonging. Her final lines to the reporters—“please leave. We’ll keep you out”—mirrors the moment, early in the novel, when a racist ticket-taker barred admission to her moviegoing companion. Angela’s confession is not to or for her family; it is for the public she has finally decided to join.

The crowd scene: moviegoing and painting

One final, conspicuous question remains: how does Angela’s moviegoing relate to her Art? In both Plum Bun (1928) and The Sleeper Wakes (1920), moviegoing is set quite explicitly in relation to painting; however, the comparison is centered on the social context of both practices rather than the aesthetic object produced. Through this juxtaposition, the movie theater and the painter’s studio are co-defined as spaces of simultaneous observation and display. The artistic object, whether film or painting, is less important than the encounter between bodies, the everyday but highly political experience of seeing and being seen. Fauset sets moviegoing against painting to highlight the vital importance of learning how to look: how to notice and discern, how to reconcile what you see with what others see, how to solicit the gaze without attracting too much scrutiny. Since Angela is a portraitist, whose career is predicated on passing, the cultivation of both ways of looking—noticing, appearing—has high stakes both personally and professionally.

Fauset brackets the full-page description of moviegoing with evocations of painting on either side (Plum Bun, 20). Immediately prior to Angela’s extended moviegoing in New York, she is making “notes in her sketch book to enable her some day to make a great picture” of passing types. By the end of her cinematic excursions, she realizes she has been “neglecting her Art.” On one end, Angela sketches; on the other, she admonishes her own inactivity. Incompletion “frames” moviegoing, positioning cinema as that which separates the sketch from its realization. Like Lily Briscoe’s more famous problem with an unfinished painting, Angela Murray has something blocking her view.

At first glance, then, moviegoing is a waste of time for the artist. More than a mere distraction, the movies are the “neglect” of Art. Insofar as Angela does engage with any of the familiar formal categories of narrative art—namely, plot—she does so but briefly, as I’ve discussed above. Yet even as Fauset contrasts moviegoing’s languor with painting’s rigor—the former’s “unrestraint” interrupting, and at great length, the would-be discipline of the latter—Fauset undermines the division just as cannily. Moviegoing extends the “impact of new impressions,” adding to Angela’s reservoir of sensations and social “types.” Her idleness is ambivalently rendered, “unconscionably idle” in one sentence, “wise and amusing” in the next. Equivocation kinks the syntax: “by a not inexplicable turn of mind she took to going very frequently to the cinema where most things did happen.” The effect of this belaboring is that moviegoing takes a peculiarly central role in the unfolding of an aesthetic process.

Whether or not readers find Angela’s cinematic turn “unconscionably idle” or “wise and amusing,” one thing is certain: the account is never about the medium of film. Given the twofold references to Angela’s artistic practice, this choice is notable and self-reflexive. As an artist, Angela is provocatively indifferent to medium, opting instead for milieu: while she “stud[ies] the screen with a strained and ardent intensity,” she thinks not of composition, dimension, lighting, or focus—observations we might expect of an ambitious painter—and only fleetingly of plot. Searching and uncertain, the “ardent intensity” of Angela’s gaze falls from the screen, landing on her fellow-viewers. Far from an ideal, absorbed spectatorship, Angela’s is closer to the “distracted spectatorship” Shane Vogel describes as endemic to the American cabaret. For Vogel, it is the “interplay of closeness and distance, acceptance and refusal, connection and disconnection, concentration and distraction” that shapes and creates the cabaret, where “the performer competes with the audience itself for its attention.”[31] With Angela, there is no such competition, the movies having already lost; by passage’s end, the audience is the object of her curiosity and desire.

But why does Fauset encircle this otherwise self-contained scene with Angela’s sketching and neglected art? The juxtaposition cannot produce a formalist comparison between paint and projected celluloid, distinct visual media with respective affordances and limitations. Instead, the juxtaposition is social, taking moviegoing and painting as multilateral contact-zones wherein being able to see requires one’s being seen. Remember, it is the model who outs Angela at the Philadelphia Fine Arts Academy, upending our sense of the scopic power generally organizing the scene of painting. And recall, in The Sleeper Wakes, the stranger’s almost incongruous utterance upon seeing Amy: “Jove, how I’d like to paint her!” Finally, there is Angela’s ongoing fascination with social “types,” a distinctly public method predicated on inventing knowledge and insinuating depth from surface features one might glimpse, as if in passing. Across these different registers of everyday visibility, Fauset’s protagonists are concerned with how to look in two senses, self-presentation and scrutiny of others. They learn to notice and intuit, to see more than they show. Passing requires getting the edge on visibility, getting ahead of the gaze that would see too much.

Plum Bun charts a slow revision in Angela’s sense of how to look, a transformation that has everything to do with Angela’s reclamation of her Blackness and a Black public. Initially paranoid and protective, by novel’s end Angela reconciles seeing and being seen, learning to look more curiously and to be seen more vulnerably. This is not only an ethical and political development (though it is emphatically both) but an aesthetic one, too, since reconciling these two ways of looking is the condition for authentic self-portraiture. In her fantastic book Portraits of the New Negro Woman, Cherene Sherrard-Johnson argues that Angela undergoes a “transformation from a myopic materialist to a sincere artist,” a transformation indicated by her shifting perspectives on Black beauty, her ability to see Black women “with new eyes” (67). Sherrard-Johnson reads two passages in which Angela mentally appraises Miss Powell. In the first, Angela finds Miss Powell possessed of “a kind of ugly beauty” typified by her “unnaturally straight and unnaturally burnished hair.” In the second, there is nothing ugly in Miss Powell’s beauty: “To anyone whose ideals of beauty were not already set and sharply limited she must have made a breathtaking appeal” (93). As Sherrard-Johnsons sharply observes, Angela is commenting on an earlier version of herself—her first assessment warped by her “preconceived and destructive notions of beauty” rather than “her friend’s dark skin” (Sherrard-Johnson, Portraits, 67).

As she modifies her habits of perception, Angela’s seemingly inconsequential desire to belong to an audience gathers new profundity. Her artistic interest in strangers and types, paired with her wistful yearning for public belonging, suggests the face she is seeking in the crowd is her own. If, as Sherrard-Johnson argues, Fauset’s “genius resides in her referential engagement of the aesthetics and subjects of the Fourteenth Street School (the urban vein of American scene painting) and her development of her protagonist’s psyche within that locale,” I would add that Angela’s moviegoing sharpens another desire, one that her fascination with “types” belies but also betrays: the desire to be the subject of her own regard, to both see the “scene” and be situated within it (49). The question is seeded in Harlem, when she glimpses an especially striking “type.”

A man’s sharp, high-bred face etched itself on her memory,—the face of a professional man perhaps,—it might be an artist. She doubted that; he might of course be a musician, but it was unlikely that he would be her kind of an artist, for how could he exist? (Fauset, Plum Bun, 96–97)

The face etches itself on Angela’s memory, I think, not because it indexes a particularly undecidable “type” but because it signals her own conflicting impulses between artistic expression and public belonging. In this moment, it is herself that Angela stands on the verge of finding in the street scene. What if she were to find “her kind of an artist” not in the “sharp, high-bred face” of a stranger, but in her own? The question—“for how could he exist?”—insinuates another, more profound: “could I exist among them?” In reclaiming a Black public by novel’s end, Angela creates the conditions for a complex self-portrait: a crowd scene that includes her.

Conclusion: Assemblies of Inconsequence

Less fleeting than the street crowd, the moviegoing audience is nevertheless a temporary assembly. The audience gathers for the length of a feature, more or less. Once they leave, they are likely never to see each other again—at least, never again in this specific configuration. Anonymity, iterability, and transience are crucial features of the audience, a middle formation located somewhere between the extremes of movement and stillness, brevity and duration. Unlike a street crowd—or a protest, or a riot—the moviegoing audience is contained, but not for long. Like so many near-anonymous formations, the audience is defined as much by dispersal as by assembly. It therefore straddles another dichotomy, that of chaos and control.

The moviegoing practices familiar to us coalesced in the late 1910s and across the 1920s amid intensifying conceptions of totality; this coalescence must be understood, then, in relation to the interpellations of nationalism, internationalism, communism, fascism, and white supremacy, and the list goes on. While these ideologies sought to articulate, unify, and mobilize social bodies, moviegoing emerged as a practice through which strangers assembled inconsequentially. By naming this inconsequentiality, I do not mean to ignore the monumental ideological work of the cinema (to do so would be monumentally foolish). Rather, I am calling attention to the not-yet-activated politics of the gathering itself, the interval during which a group of strangers assembled in suspended intimacy, together and apart—of no immediate use or consequence. Judith Butler is not talking about moviegoers when they argue that “Popular assemblies form unexpectedly and dissolve under voluntary or involuntary conditions,” nor when she singles out this very “transience” as being “bound up with their [the assemblies’] ‘critical’ function.”[32] But Butler’s language, intended for contemporary mass-protest and acts of collective vulnerability, helps me express moviegoing’s inconsequentiality. The audience’s energy could dissipate as easily as it could explode; indeed, cinema’s ideological work is all about rerouting this energy, transforming inconsequentiality into consequence by turning strangers into fellow-citizens or heterosexuals or men or . . .

Early moviegoing audiences cannot and should not bear the weight of utopia, but they are a vital chapter in the history of public assembly. And in turning to figures like Fauset, we should see moviegoing as they did: full of troubling possibilities, risks, and pleasures, producing an intimacy that can only ever be called curious.


[1] David Trotter, Cinema and Modernism (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 1. Trotter further resists any recourse to analogy by insisting that “[l]iterature is a representational medium, film a recording medium. The freedom modernist literature sought was freedom from the ways in which the world had hitherto been represented in literature. The freedom film sought (initially, at any rate, if not for very long) was freedom from representation: the freedom merely to record” (3).

[2] Colin MacCabe, “On Impurity: the Dialectics of Cinema and Literature,” in Literature and Visual Technologies: Writing after Cinema, ed. Julian Murphet and Lydia Rainford (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 15–28, 20. For a literary methodology explicitly drawing on montage and film form to explain modernist poetics, see Susan McCabe, Cinematic Modernism: Modernist Poetry and Film (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005). A more recent example, one that illustrates how difficult it is to pull away from film as an analytical model, is Lisa Stead’s Off to the Pictures: Cinema-going, Women’s Writing and Movie Culture in Interwar Britain (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016). Throughout, Stead adopts an intermedial framework, arguing that “Film . . . cannot be considered separately from its interrelationship with other cultural forms” (2). But this intermedial focus yields film-centered readings where, for example, Jean Rhys “uses cinematic techniques to represent and reflect back on the increasingly mediated and gendered notions of looking perpetuated by cinema” (107). Brilliantly, Stead appropriates “cinematic techniques” (she specifies “framing, cutting and gazing”) to comment on their own analytical insufficiency, their already-entangled status in a larger scopic regime. The subtlety of the argument hinges, nevertheless, on film form.

[3] Michael Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics,” Public Culture 14, no. 1 (January 1, 2002): 49–90, 56.

[4] Here I draw on Andrew Shail’s distinction between two forms of “influence” in literary history. The first is discrete, elective, and self-conscious, whereas the second “concerns changes in the everyday mental landscape of whole populations, changes in such basic conceptions as the substance of thought” (Andrew Shail, The Cinema and the Origins of Literary Modernism [New York: Routledge, 2012], 1). Shail goes on to characterize cinema as “an aspect of everyday life, an item on a citizen’s menu of pastimes, a social interaction and a form of knowledge” (9). Like Shail, I am interested in the metacultural shifts that cinema inaugurated; unlike Shail, my object is not a generalized definition of cinema, but specifically of moviegoing as a modality that we have insufficiently theorized and estranged.

[5] Hansen, Miriam. "The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism," Modernism/modernity 6, no. 2 (1999): 59–77, 69. In this watershed essay, Hansen argues that cinema provided a shared “horizon of experience” under which massive populations across the globe negotiated, tested, and understood modernity. Her sense of cinema’s unprecedented capacity for mass-address modifies and deromanticizes the utopian strain in early-twentieth-century thinking on silent cinema.

[6] Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 94. For this early histories of Black spectatorship outside of the urban North, see Cara Caddoo, Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life (Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: Harvard University Press, 2014). Caddoo makes the provocative claim that Black audiences achieved robust cinematic literacy prior to the arrival of “all-Negro” theaters in the 1920s and the “race films” that were screened there: “By the time colored theater districts had sprung up across the industrial North, African Americans had already spent more than a decade at the cinema,” viewing moving images “on Sunday afternoons at their churches, during fundraisers at the local Masonic lodge, and from the cramped balcony seats of the segregated venue” (98).

[7]  “Along the Color Line,” The Crisis 1, no. 1 (November 1910): 6.

[8] “Along the Color Line,” The Crisis 1, no. 6 (April 1911): 11.

[9] “Along the Color Line,” The Crisis 3, no. 3 (January 1912): 100.

[10] “Along the Color Line,” The Crisis 3, no. 6 (April 1912): 228.

[11] “Along the Color Line,” The Crisis 6, no. 6 (October 1913): 268.

[12] Langston Hughes retrospectively suggests that Fauset, along with Charles Johnson and Alain Locke, “midwifed the so-called New Negro literature into being.” The Big Sea: An Autobiography (London: Pluto, 1986), 218.

[13] Hiroko Sato, “Under the Harlem Shadow: A Study of Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen” in The Harlem Renaissance, 19201940, vol. 5, Remembering the Harlem Renaissance, ed. Cary D. Wintz (New York: Garland Pub, 1996), 266. It is worth noting that Claude McKay and Jessie Fauset share an idiosyncratic interest in moviegoing rather than movies; in both Home to Harlem and the “Blue Cinema” chapter of Banjo, McKay examines the particularities of attendance and spectatorship. This shared interest complicates received wisdom about McKay and Fauset, namely that McKay’s novels explore public, alternative, and international community whereas Fauset’s stay mired in bourgeois domesticity. The movie audience is a site of inquiry for both writers, a place of contestation and desire.

[14] Cheryl A. Wall, Women of the Harlem Renaissance (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 34. Wall continues: “how many other American women of her generation had even the desire to traverse the Kasbah? How many fewer still could have found the means to make the journey?” (35). Wall’s reassessment of Fauset focuses principally on her editing at the Crisis, admitting that “in [her] viewer Fauset achieved more distinction as a journalist and essayist” than as a novelist (48).

[15] Jessie Fauset, “No End of Books,” The Crisis 23, no. 5 (1922): 208. Fauset’s review of Batouala points to something more nuanced than literary midwifery: the forging of internationalist and comparative literary cultures. For an argument for Fauset’s internationalism, see Brent Hayes Edwards, The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).

[16] Jessie Fauset, “The Sleeper Wakes: a Novelette,” in “Girl, Colored” and Other Stories: A Complete Short Fiction Anthology of African American Women Writers in ‘The Crisis’ Magazine, 19102010, ed. Judith Musser (McFarland & Company, 2011), 91–107, 93.

[17] The edition referenced in this article is Jessie Redmon Fauset, Plum Bun: A Novel without a Moral (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1990).

[18] Cherene Sherrard-Johnson, Portraits of the New Negro Woman: Visual and Literary Culture in the Harlem Renaissance (New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 2007), 49.

[19] Jacquelyn Y. McLendon, The Politics of Color in the Fiction of Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995), 49.

[20] See especially Louise Thompson, "The Soviet Film," The Crisis, 40, no. 22 (1933): 37, 46; Langston Hughes “Going South in Russia,” The Crisis 41, no. 6 (1934): 162–63.

[21] Here, I find it instructive to compare Fauset with Nella Larsen, who reportedly idolized Greta Garbo but never describes moviegoing in her fiction. See George Hutchinson, In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006) 445.

[22] The reference here is to photo-plays; for the passage quoted in its entirety, look to paragraph 27 of this essay.

[23] Roland Barthes, The Rustle of Language (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1989), 349.

[24] Hazel Carby, Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 167.

[25] Fauset has a preoccupation with young heroines whose names begin with A: Amy in The Sleeper Wakes (1920), Angélique in Double Trouble (1923), and of course Angela herself in Plum Bun. Through each fictive iteration, Fauset deepens the problems that confound her light-skinned female protagonists. I think of each text (and each protagonist) less as a revision of its predecessor than an elaboration.

[26] Amy leaves Trenton for New York City, meeting a coterie of cosmopolitans through her benefactor, a woman auspiciously named Zora. Amy marries the wealthy, bigoted Stuart Wynne; when Wynne tries to have a Black man lynched for a perceived offense, Amy confesses that she too is Black, threatening to out her husband’s interracial marriage if he goes through with his plan. Unlike Passing’s Clare Kendry, whose abrupt but seemingly inevitable death cements Larsen’s titular conflation of passing with dying, Amy survives her marriage and opts for financial dispossession, mourning her past while facing her future.

[27] Barbara Christian, Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892–1976 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980), 43.

[28] Carolyn W. Sylvander, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Black American Writer (Troy, NY: Whitston, 1981), 19.

[29] For example, McLendon, building on Barbara Christian’s assertion that Fauset writes “‘bad’ fairy tales,” suggests “examining the fairy-tale motif as self-conscious design rather than dismissing it as artistic flaw. In Plum Bun there is evidence that a ‘bad’ fairy tale—in other words, a fairy tale’s ironic inversion—is precisely what Fauset wants to depict” (Politics of Color, 29).

[30] Kristen Maye, private conversation, May 28, 2020.

[31] Shane Vogel, The Scene of Harlem Cabaret: Race, Sexuality, Performance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 70.

[32] Judith Butler, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015), 7.