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Home » Annotated Bibliography » Annotated Bibliographical Overview of the Use of the “Tragic Mulatta” in Early American Literature

Annotated Bibliographical Overview of the Use of the “Tragic Mulatta” in Early American Literature


Abstract: The “Tragic Mulatto/a,” as a literary stock character served a particular rhetorical purpose of eliciting compassion for a character with whom white audiences could ethnically identify. However, the character’s inherent “blackness,” repeatedly emphasized in even the most sentimental accounts, gave rise to a number of racial distinctions based on one’s percentage of white heritage. I am ultimately interested in the early use and origins of these racial distinctions.

Bernard, Karl (Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach). Travels through North America, During the Years 1825 and 1826. Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Carey, Sold in New York by G. & C. Carvill, 1828. Google Books. Google. Web. 29 July 2013.

        Bernard’s travel diary, like many of the 18th and 19th centuries, engages in the work of ethnography, albeit in a limited, frequently offensive way. However, in terms of working definitions of race and the specific criteria involved in racial classification that came into routine use during the 19th century, Bernard’s descriptions are useful. Similar travelogues exist elsewhere, and, as time permits, will be incorporated in to my research of the etymology of some of the now-obsolete terms Bernard details. Bernard ‘s explanation of the categories “mestize,” “mulatto,” and “quadroon,” operate as a noteworthy example of white emphasis on the mixed-race woman’s whiteness, while consistently emphasizing her blackness. Bernard’s text references quadroon balls on several occasion, and these balls operate as a space for his narrator to allude to the mulatta’s position on the peripheries of a society privileging their whiteness while simultaneously othering them by restricting their mobility. Pointing out “their situation is always very humiliating. They cannot drive through the streets in a carriage. […] They dare not sit in the presence of white ladies…” (62), Bernard’s travelogue is one of several to note the interconnected issues of social standing and the specific racial background of Quadroon women. Bernard’s text predates many of the tragic mulatta novels, and generates quesations as to what extent these travelogues may have influenced fictional portrayals of mixed- race women.

Child, Lydia Maria, and Robert S. Levine. “The Quadroons.” 1842. Clotel, Or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000. 319-29. Print.

        This reprinting of Child’s short story, originally published in 1842 in the abolitionist periodical, The Liberty Bell (Levine 319), is contextualized in this critical edition as a sentimental, historical predecessor of William Wells Brown’s Clotel. In utilizing the expected sentimentalities of the genre, Child’s shirt story operates as an early example of the tragic mulatto/a motif written by a well-known American author. The short story is included in this critical edition of Brown’s Clotel because Brown’s novel “lifted large swatches of text vebatim for his novel” (Levine 319). Levine goes on to note “an important motivation for his appropriation of Child’s story was his admiration for her brave antislavery writings” (319). Child’s quadroon character, Rosalie, consistent with the conventional function of this stock character, dies after her white husband abandons her in favor of a white wife. After Rosalie’s death, the cycle of tragic blackness is repeated when their daughter, Xarifa, is sold into slavery and later becomes “a raving maniac” (329) in response to her white suitor’s murder. While these stories were viewed as beneficial to the abolitionist cause in their portrayal of a whitened form of palatable blackness, one wonders to what extent the consistently harsh consequences of inter-racial relationships reinforced hostile reactions.

Fabi, M. Giulia. “The ‘Unguarded Expressions of the Feelings of the Negroes’: Gender, Slave Resistance, and William Wells Brown’s Revisions of Clotel.” African American Review 27.4 (1993): 639. Literature Resource Center. Web. 31 July 2013.

       Fabi’s work, while ultimately concerned with Brown’s revisions and his use of shifting forms in his novel, Clotel, analyzes passing as an act of resistance. The comforts of Jefferson’s mixed-race daughters’ early lives, the “all-but-white female figures whose very existence constitutes a challenge to rigid racial definitions and whose ability to pass for white represents a genteel form of covert resistance expedient in eluding racial oppression” (Web n.p.), juxtaposed against their eventual sale as slaves examines Brown’s use of Clotel’s whiteness as a means of making the story more palatable to a white audience. In terms of my examination of Early American Literature’s history of engagement with the “Tragic Mulatto/a” stock character, Fabi’s piece emphasizes the sentimentality of Clotel’s whiteness and its sudden transformation into genetic “blackness,” which culminates in her sale into slavery. Fabi’s discussion of how “… the figure of the exceptional, often isolated female passer enables Brown to problematize the racial and cultural rationale for slavery by appropriating Western notions of beauty and chastity…” (Web n.p.) is an outstanding resource for a deeper understanding of the connection between beauty and its use in literature as a feminine attribute that further manipulates the audience’s sympathy for the character.

Ingraham, Joseph Holt. The American Lounger; or Tales, Sketches, And Legends Gathered in Sundry Journeyings. Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1839. 255-73. Google Books. Google. Web. 29 July 2013.

        The biographical section of the Literature Resource Center database describes Ingraham’s “The Quadroone” as “an early treatment of the evils of miscegenation. The Quadroone boasts a fascinating Byronic hero-villain, but its other characters are one-dimensional, and the plot is too fantastic to take seriously. Poe wrote that he was ashamed of it, but other reviewers were not so astringent.” (Weathersby Web). Despite these negative critical reactions, Ingraham’s chapter on Quadroons, while rife with the stereotypical descriptions present in most travelogues and literature of the day, utilizes the conventions of the tragic mulatta’s fate that came to dominate the abolitonist and literary fiction of the next decade. Of particular note is Ingraham’s discussion of veiling as a way of marking the mixed-race woman as non-white.  The quadroon woman’s “dark eyes, arched brows like satin, olive complexion, slightly tainted with the rose, and a veil thrown over her head” (260) immediately signify her blackness to Beranger’s companion who reacts with horror to the possibilities of the mixed-race union. In my research into the etymological, literary and social history of the stock character, this was the first reference I found to veiling as a means of identification.

Renny, Robert. “People of Color, and Free Negroes.” An History of Jamaica, With Observations on the Climate, Scenery, Trade, Productions, Negroes, Slave Trade, Diseases of Europeans, Customs, Manners, and Dispositions of the Inhabitants : To Which Is Added, an Illustration of the Advantages Which Are Likely to Result from the Abolition of the Slave Trade. London: J. CAWTHORN, No. 5, 1807. 188-92. Google Books. Google. Web. 26 July 2013.

        While Quadroons are referenced in Peter Marsden’s earlier 1788, An Account of the Island of Jamaica: With Reflections on the Treatment, Occupation, and Provisions of the Slaves, this chapter of Renny’s 1807 abolitionist text provides additional information relating to the early 19th century understanding of people of mixed racial heritage. Renny’s naïve, but relevant observation of the quadroon’s or mulatta’s social standing and legal rights, points out “that they are placed in a worse situation than slaves, who have masters interested in their protection, and who, if their slaves are maltreated, have a right to recover damages, by bringing an action against the aggressor” (188). While these descriptions relate to enslaved people of Jamaica and the “West Indies,” Renny’s observations and anecdotes are a useful tool for examining the function and understanding of mixed-race people in Early American History and Literature. Frequently reliant on the stereotypical language and assumptions of the period, Renny’s text operates as an early example of the creation of the tragic mulatto/a form. His observation that “The females of this class are still more objects of compassion than the males” (189) points to the routine sexualization of these women and the dichotomies of their position as the party favors and “fancy girls” of a white world who ultimately shunned them.


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