Walter Benn Michaels

Race into Culture,” from a 1992 Critical Inquiry was an important article and still is. Here are some key sentences for me, now; they are not a summary of the piece. The United States was also creating a cultural identity that was racial but hid race behind a curtain (so to speak) in the 1920s. Black people were the other over and against whom whiteness and Americanness was constructed in this period, so they had to be an anti-nation, as it were.

The nation was to be mestizo but this mestizaje was among Europeans. There would be a cosmic white culture, the expression and communion of a race. (I have of course come to this conclusion before: white is mixed, and black is mixed, just as “Latin” is mixed even if Latin is still more mixed.)

For Progressives like Dixon, however, citizenship in the “new nation,” pro-
duced out of resistance to an “African” empire, became essentially racial;
the legitimacy of the state (its identity as nation rather than empire) was
guaranteed by its whiteness. (This is why in Red Rock, where whiteness
doesn’t yet have any real meaning, the state cannot be legitimated-the
choice there is between the illegitimate government and the “tribe.”)
Then in the 1920s, as whiteness becomes a culture, the Indian and the
family reappear, first as models for a nativist Americanism (Willa Cather)
and second as models for a pluralism of native cultures (Oliver La Farge,
Anzia Yezierska). It is through this pluralism that what I will describe as
the rescue of race by culture is made possible. Thus, I will argue first that
anti-imperialism promoted racial identity to an essential element of Amer-
ican citizenship; second, that this promotion made possible the emergence
of a new cultural and multicultural Americanism; and, third, that our cur-
rent notion of cultural identity both descends from and extends the ear-
lier notion of racial identity. (658)

“In a moment the white race had fused into a homogeneous mass of love, sympathy, hate and revenge. The rich and the poor, the learned and the ignorant, the banker and the blacksmith, the great and the small, they were all one now” (LS, p. 368). This “fusion” involves to some extent the blurring of lines that might in other contexts seem to divide whites racially among
themselves; thus the speech that wins Gaston the gubernatorial nomination characterizes his fellow North Carolinians as descended, “‘by the lineal heritage of blood,”‘” not only from the “Angle” and the “Saxon” but also from the “Roman,” the “Spartan,” and the “Celt” (LS, p. 442). Out of several possible races, “fusion” creates one “white race.” (660)

But if identification with the Indian could function at the turn of the
century as a refusal of American identity, it would come to function by the
early 1920s as an assertion of American identity. Perhaps the most power-
ful literary instance of this process is the production of Tom Outland as
the descendant of Colorado cliff dwellers in Willa Cather’s The Professor’s
House (1925), but Cather’s earlier novel A Lost Lady (1923) provides an
even clearer outline of how the old regionalist resistance to the American
state could begin to be transformed into the defence not of that state but,
instead, of what might provisionally be called an American culture.’1 The
Indian-identified “aristocratic” family that in Page resisted subsumption
by the Progressive American “nation,” in Cather provides the technology
enabling an Americanism that will go beyond the merely national Ameri-
can citizenship offered by the state. But to provide this technology the
family must itself be altered; it must in particular cease to be the site of a
certain indifference to racial difference (the family “black and white”) and
must be made instead into the unequivocal source of racial difference. (664)

Now that the difference between businessmen and scoundrels is dis-
appearing, the difference between white men and “niggers” must be pre-
served. The reason that Ivy Peters can’t properly succeed Captain
Forrester is that he’s more like a “nigger” than he is like an Indian. (665)

In The Great Gatsby, published two years after A Lost Lady, Gatsby’s
relation to Daisy seems, at least to Tom, a kind of miscegenation, a threat
to the difference between white men and “niggers.” (665)

But if, as I have argued, our culture can only function as a justification of our values insofar as it is transformed into something more than a description of them, then the question of which culture we belong to is relevant only if culture is anchored in race. Our sense of culture is characteristically meant to displace race, but part of the argument of this essay has been that culture has turned out to be a way of continuing rather than repudiating racial thought. (684)

This is a very smart article, with a good analysis and a great deal of amazing information.



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One response to “Walter Benn Michaels

  1. Hattie

    Excellent. Cather’s” nativism” has always bothered me. Because of my background in Germanistics I have related her ideas to notions of genius and the Nordic race, but I can see how the ideal of the noble indigenous folk could fit here.

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