The oldest non-racist book in American literature

This is my blatant attempt to start a conversation in the blog’s comments.  I figured I should be up-front about that!  I was re-reading some things I posted last year at this time, and I saw a question I had raised that I’d hoped at the time would provoke a response.  It didn’t, so I’m taking another shot.

The thing I wonder is, how early does a book actually get race “right” in America’s history?  What is the first book you’ve read that seems to you to handle race appropriately—avoiding stereotype, considering characters as people in their own right, etc.?  (It doesn’t have to totally avoid the depiction of unpleasantness, obviously: it just needs to be a book that here in 2012 we don’t have to apologize for with “oh, but if you remember the times in which it was written” every time we recommend it to someone.)

In this situation, I think what I’m looking for is a novel (that’s our genre of choice) and ideally a novel that deals with more races than just the author’s own race.  My baseline nominee is To Kill A Mockingbird (1960), which happens to be a Pulitzer winner—but your nominees can definitely come from anywhere!  Is there an earlier book that does this well?  Am I, in fact, being too kind to Mockingbird, and the first novel to meet my criteria came later?  I’m hoping not to just hear the title and author of a book you’re suggesting, but to hear a little about what works about it for you.

Why ask this?  One of the central issues in America in the 20th century (in seemingly every century until we get it right) is race, and I’ve made no secret of my sadness/anger that so many of the novels I’m reading use race very cheaply and with real callousness.  I’m wondering when the “it was the times” excuse should fairly run out on these authors….and of course I’m also very curious who did it first, since I’m going to want to think about that person and their book.  Please don’t be shy (and comment even if you didn’t see this right as I posted it).  I look forward to hearing from you.

13 comments on “The oldest non-racist book in American literature

  1. Cherl Petso says:

    Very interesting question, Mr. R. I just finished Lonesome Dove, as of, an hour ago. Maybe McMurtry didn’t get it perfectly, but I thought he did a pretty good job of depicting African Americans. Those characters were given equal weight, but there was “unpleasantness” from the outsiders. Native Americans, on the other hand, were a little hit and miss. I believe he showed a few sides of how the cowboys experienced Native Americans, but didn’t really give them their own voice. What do you think?

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Cherl! Thanks for the comment—this is the part of my reply where I admit I’ve never read Lonesome Dove. 🙂 Though I will: it’s the Pulitzer winner for 1986. From what you’re saying (and what I’ve heard), McMurtry’s definitely doing something hugely ambitious with the novel, and it sounds like it works out pretty well. If the Native American characters seem 3-dimensional, in particular, then I think that definitely deserves high marks given that the Western genre isn’t known for being particularly good at this.

      My two questions: one, can you maybe think of a particular character or passage that’s a good illustration of it working, so I can look it up? Two, since LD is a work of the mid-1980s, would you suggest that this is really the earliest I can expect this kind of fairness about race from a white author? That, in other words, I’m being a bit too kind to TKAM’s messages about, and depiction of, race? I think that’s completely possible—I haven’t re-read that book in a decade, almost. But I figured I’d ask. 🙂

      • Cherl Petso says:

        Oh yes, I didn’t address your question of which book got it “right” the earliest. I think TKAMB is a solid front-runner.

        Sadly, I returned Lonesome Dove, so I can’t put a passage here, though I don’t know if there was one passage that got everything in.

        Is Mark Twain totally out of the running here? Did he even win any Pulizters?

        • jwrosenzweig says:

          Twain is totally in the running, and is one of the names I thought would be interesting to ask about. He wrote before the Pulitzers were awarded (first one was in 1918, by which time he was dead), and anyway I’m not limiting my question just to novels that won the award. 🙂 The obvious potential candidate, I think, is Huck Finn. I don’t agree with people who think it’s “racist” because he uses the racial slurs that people used at the time. But is it racially progressive enough to be put in a list with Mockingbird? Is “Jem” a real character, who Twain portrays in a really sensitive way, or is Huck Finn an example of a good novel whose treatment of race just doesn’t make it to the standard I’m asking for—handling race appropriately, giving characters of all races real dimension and respect (at least, from the author’s p.o.v.—other characters may obviously disrespect them)? Worth asking….what do you think?

  2. Jeff says:

    I read it back in (I think) 4th grade, so my perception might not be super-accurate, but I feel like _Rifles_for_Watie_ might have done a pretty good job… it was written in 1957.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Thanks, Jeff—I’ll admit to being a little unsure how far to trust your 4th grade perceptions (I was a bit dim about depictions of race in the books I read at that age), but I’m also intrigued, since you’re pushing back past TKAM. I’m guessing from the name that this is maybe a novel about the Cherokee? Can you dredge up any other details about it to help me understand why it seems like a good candidate for you? I am intrigued. 🙂

      • Jeff says:

        I was admittedly dim about such perceptions at that time as well, but it should be a relatively quick read since it was aimed roughly at tweens and early teens. It’s a historical fiction novel following the protagonist’s life through the US civil war, and though I don’t remember a lot of the details, I think I remember that slaves (and ex-slaves?) were more prominent as characters in the book than Native Americans were… but that might have been reader bias at the time.

        • jwrosenzweig says:

          To my surprise/pleasure the book is on my library’s children’s literature shelves. I’ll wander up and at least skim it in the next few days, and we’ll see what I make of it. 🙂

  3. Mr. Hamann says:

    Re: Twain: -Huck Finn- would be my front runner were it not for the end of chapter 8, when Jim enacts a painful racist comedy skit about how he lost his money. Get rid of those two pages and it’s a winner. It’s certainly not a “racist” novel–in fact, I think it’s quite the opposite–but I can’t overlook those pages while bestowing your progressive blue ribbon.

    I did read -Pudd’nhead Wilson- back in 1990. It shares many of the anti-racist sentiments of -Huck-. Now, has 22 years caused me to forget similar Amos ‘n’ Andy style humor in -Pudd’nhead-? If not–if it’s free of the equivalent of those pages–it might merit a nomination.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Paul, I’ve never read (or even heard a synopsis of) Pudd’nhead Wilson. I can obviously seek out summaries online, but I thought I’d rather hear how you sum it up in a few sentences, if you don’t mind? Why did you think of it?

  4. graham says:

    I’m pretty sure it’ll come out any day now. . .

  5. PHutch says:

    Hi Mr. R.,
    I was just wondering if you would consider books written by African American authors in this topic? I feel like the very nature of the question requires that the author not be a minority, but I’m curious as to your perspective. The book I’m thinking of is “Black Boy” by Richard Wright which was published in 1945. Even if it can’t be considered the first non-racist book in US history I think it merits consideration as one of the first to define a black character by the whole of his/her being rather than by his/her race.

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