Jessie Redmon Fauset 

Jessie Redmon Fauset (born Jessie Redmona Fauset, married name Jessie Redmon Harris. April 27, 1882 – April 30, 1961) was an African-American writer.

Fauset was the seventh child of an impoverished African Methodist Episcopal minister, and her mother died soon after Fauset’s birth. Her father married a widow with three children, and the couple had three more children. The family was cultured but poor, and Jessie had a humble, conservative middle-class upbringing. She would later write that she wasn’t allowed to sing, or to write letters, and was allowed to read only the Bible and Dante’s Inferno.

Despite the conservative upbringing, she was encouraged by her father to become a teacher, and attended one of the best schools in Philadelphia, the Philadelphia High School for Girls, where she is reputed to have been the only black student in her class. Fauset graduated as the student with the highest ranking among her graduating class in 1900, and pursued admission to Bryn Mawr College, but wasn’t accepted on the basis of race. She was then admitted to Cornell University on scholarship, where Fauset became one of the first black women elected to Phi Beta Kappa. During the summer of 1904, she taught summer school at Fisk University. Fauset graduated from college, in 1905, with a degree in classical languages, French, and German.

After college, she sought a teaching position in Philadelphia, but was refused on the basis of race. She then taught at the Douglas High School for black staudents, in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1905-1906. Fauset moved to Washington, D.C., in 1906, where she taught French and Latin at the M Street High School for black students (later renamed the Dunbar High School), from 1906 to 1919. Fauset went to Paris for the summers to study at the Sorbonne, and earned a Master’s Degree in French from University of Pennsylvania in 1919.

In 1912, she began contributing to The Crisis, the official magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The periodical had been cofounded by W. E. B. Du Bois, in 1910, and he invited Fauset to become its literary editor, in 1919.

She then left her teaching position, in 1919, and moved to Harlem, where she began hosting literary salons. In his autobiography The Big Sea (1940), Langston Hughes wrote about her salons: “And at the Seventh Avenue apartment of Jessie Fauset, literary soirées with much poetry and but little to drink were the order of the day.”

During her time as literary editor, Fauset published several pieces in The Crisis, such as poems, essays, reviews, travel writings, translations of French-speaking black authors, and short stories. She also worked as Du Bois’ personal assistant, making travel arrangements, doing research, and editing his speeches. Du Bois’ biographer, David Levering Lewis, based on letters he found between Fauset and Du Bois, claims that they were lovers. As a correspondent for The Crisis, she travelled to France, Belgium, and Algeria, and attended the Second Pan-African Congress, in Paris, in 1921. While in Europe, she also lectured in London on the role of black women in the United States. From 1920 to 1921, Fauset was the contributing writer and co-editor of the African-American children’s magazine The Brownies’ Book. In 1925, she studied for six months at the Sorbonne.

As the literary editor of The Crisis, Fauset played a pivotal role in the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s. She discovered, mentored, and fostered the careers of many of its best-known authors, such as Claude McKay,  Nella Larsen, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Gwendolyn Bennett, Anne Spencer, Arna Bontemps, and Langston Hughes. In his autobiography The Big Sea (1940), Hughes declared: “Jessie Fauset at The Crisis, Charles Johnson at Opportunity (Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life), and Alain Locke in Washington (professor of philosophy at Howard University and editor of The New Negro) were the people who midwifed the so-called New Negro Literature into being. Kind and critical—but not too critical for the young—they nursed us along until our books were born.”

In the early 1920’s, wanting to debunk stereotypes about black people in fiction written by white authors, Fauset was inspired to write her first novel, There is Confusion (1924). One publisher turned down the novel, saying: “White readers just don’t expect Negroes to be like this.” The book was eventually published and was well-received. On the occasion, African American writer and publisher Stanley Braithwraite referred to Fauset as “the potential Jane Austen of Negro Literature.”

Fauset left The Crisis in 1926, hoping to secure a job at a publishing house. Her search was in vain, and she returned to teaching. From 1927 to 1944, she taught French at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, where it is said that she counted James Baldwin among her pupils.

She continued to write novels, and published her best-known work, Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral, in 1928. In the following year, 1929, she married Herbert Harris, an insurance broker. She would publish two more novels: The Chinaberry Tree: A Novel of American Life (1931) and Comedy: American Style (1933), but neither received as much recognition as her earlier two books. In 1934, she travelled to Paris, Gibraltar, Naples, Rome, Seville, and Morocco, and wrote travel essays for The Crisis.

In 1939, Fauset and her husband moved to New Jersey, where they lived until Harris’ death, in 1958. By then she was suffering from arteriosclerosis, and moved back to Philadelphia with her step-brother, Earl Huff.

Jessie Redmon Fauset died of hypertensive heart disease on April 30, 1961.

Books

Novels

Anthologies

  • The Book of American Negro Poetry, ed. James Weldon Johnson (1922)
  • The New Negro, edited by Alain Locke (1925)
    • “The Gift of Laughter” (essay)
  • Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Black Poets of the Twenties, edited by Countee Cullen (1927)
  • The Poetry of the Negro: 1746-1949, ed. Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps (1949)
  • Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, edited by Maureen Honey (1989)
    • Jessie Redmon Fauset: Oriflamme (1920); Dead fires (1922); Oblivion (1922); Rencontre (1924); Stars in Alabama (1928).

About her

  • Jessie Redmon Fauset, Black American Writer, by Carolyn Wedin Sylvander (1981)
  • Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition, ed. Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers (1985)
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography Volume 51: Afro-American Writers from the Harlem Renaissance to 1940, ed. Trudier Harris (1987)
  • Afro-American Women Writers, 1746-1933: An Anthology and Critical Guide, by Ann Allen Shockley (1988)
  • Women of the Harlem Renaissance, ed. Cheryl A. Wall, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar (1995)
  • Black Women Intellectuals: Strategies of Nation, Family, and Neighborhood in the Works of Pauline Hopkins, Jessie Fauset, and Marita Bonner, by Carol Allen (1998)
  • The Power of Pride: Style Makers and Rule Breakers of the Harlem Renaissance, by Carole Marks and Diana Edkins (1999)
  • American Women Writers, 1900–1945: A Bio-bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, ed. Laurie Champion (2000)
  • “The Limits of Identity in Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun”, by Kathleen Pfeiffer, Legacy1 (2001), pp. 79-93.
  • Harlem Renaissance: A Gale Critical Companion, ed. Janet Witalec and Trudier Harris-Lopez (2002)
  • Black Family (Dys)Function in Novels by Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen & Fannie Hurst, by Licia M. Calloway (2003)
  • Middlebrow Moderns: Popular American Women Writers of the 1920s, ed. Lisa Botshon and Meredith Goldsmith (2003)
  • Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, ed. Cary D. Wintz and Paul Finkelman (2004)
  • The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr and Nellie McKay (2004)
  • New Voices on the Harlem Renaissance: Essays on Race, Gender, and Literary Discourse, ed. Australia Tarver and Paula C. Barnes (2005)
  • Writing African American Women: An Encyclopedia of Literature by and about Women of Color, ed. Elizabeth Ann Beaulieu (2006)
  • America the Middlebrow: Women’s Novels, Progressivism, and Middlebrow Authorship between the Wars, by Jaime Harker (2007)
  • Playing Smart: New York Women Writers and Modern Magazine Culture, by Catherine Keyser (2010)
  • Black Women of the Harlem Renaissance Era, ed. Jessie Carney Smith, Lean’tin L. Bracks (2014)

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