Sanborn's essay seeks to demonstrate that The Headsman, an overlooked 1833 novel by James Fenimore Cooper, is an allegory of racial passing. After showing that the dominant aim of this melodrama about a Swiss executioner's family is to critique white American prejudice against African Americans, and that it does so by dramatizing the consequences of passing for three members of that family, Sanborn considers the implications of the fact that the end of the novel seems to reverse, or at least neutralize, that critique. Although Cooper is quite serious about the antiracist message of the novel, the involutions of its ending suggest that by impersonating characters whom he thinks of as light-skinned black people passing as white, Cooper seeks imaginative pleasures just as much as, if not more than, he advances political aims. It is worth considering, Sanborn concludes, whether the same may be said of other passing novels—whether the painful secret keeping of literary passers is, for writers and readers alike, more pleasurable than we have imagined.
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Geoffrey Sanborn; James Fenimore Cooper and the Invention of the Passing Novel. American Literature 1 March 2012; 84 (1): 1–29. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00029831-1540932
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