Writing the Gaze: Race and Visual Poetics in Postwar U.S. Fiction
“[O]ur eyes locked,” reflects Chester Himes’s black protagonist Bob Jones about his mutual gaze with the “peroxide blonde,” “then she deliberately put on a frightened, wide-eyed look . . . as if she was a naked virgin and I was King Kong.” Noting the power of this visual exchange to construct racial meaning, “Writing the Gaze” focuses on a prevalence of such narrative representations of the racialized gaze in a range of immediate post-World War II U.S. fiction. It examines Chester Himes’s If He Hollers Let Him Go, Ann Petry’s The Street, William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust, and James Baldwin’s Another Country to demonstrate that the ways in which these novels’ characters look at one another shape constructions of racial identity. This intertextual trope is attributed to four key elements of its historical and cultural contexts: the noir aesthetic, black enfranchisement, the advent of existentialist philosophy, and changing relationships between race and urban space. “Writing the Gaze” intervenes methodologically in studies of race, visual culture, and visual poetics—a term used to characterize literary gestures toward optics. Its methodology responds to its three foundational positions: (1) looking is often violent, (2) looking occurs in space which is rarely ideologically neutral, and (3) images can both represent and simulate acts of looking. Thus, it employs tools from the disciplines of art history, cultural geography, visual culture studies, and traditional literary criticism to examine postwar ideas of blackness and whiteness shaped by spatially-situated looking practices.