• The Manner of Our Seeing, the Conditions of Our Love: A Reconsideration of Maxine Clair’s Rattlebone

    W. Ralph Eubanks

    Winter 2023

    The passage of time sometimes confines exceptional books to the literary shadows, while others continue to shine brightly through the years. James Joyce’s Ulysses and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, both published in 1922, are often hailed as preeminent masterpieces of modernist literature. Yet Virginia Woolf’s groundbreaking work of modernist fiction Jacob’s Room—which was published in the same year—is often overlooked as a work of literature of equal standing. I’ve always thought Woolf did as much in Jacob’s Room to pave the way for multiple points of view as Eliot did in The Waste Land, yet she is remembered more for To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway. Unlike Mrs. Ramsay and Clarissa Dalloway, the character of Jacob is more absent than present in Woolf’s novel, making Jacob’s Room stand out as a book that haunts the reader because of the pervading spiritual presence and looming absence of its central character. Yet the elegiac language in Jacob’s Room and the impressionistic writing style—right down to the spatial silence in the white gaps Woolf leaves on the page—has lingered in my mind since I first read it. And it is a book I have returned to countless times.

    In the case of African American literature, some writers fall in and out of favor because of changing tastes or politics, as has been the case with Richard Wright, whose reputation is now being reevaluated with the publication of The Man Who Lived Underground. In his essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” James Baldwin accused Wright of compromising his art for the sake of making a political statement. For decades, Baldwin’s words hung over Wright’s work like a dark cloud and placed his work on the margins of African American literature.  Now that Americans are confronted with the precarity of Black life on nearly a daily basis, we are beginning to see how Wright’s natural realism was more than a political statement. It reflects an American reality that we still live with.

    As the African American literary canon grows and is defined and refined, a few bright sparks of creativity continue that eternal pattern of being obscured, whether by evolving tastes or by brighter lights. Maxine Clair’s coming-of-age novel in stories, Rattlebone, is one of those books that deserves to be brought out of the shadows of African American literature and back into the spotlight it so rightly deserves. Released in 1994, Rattlebone was reviewed nationally and was enthusiastically received not only by critics but by writers as well, including Terry McMillan and Howard Norman. Ann Patchett remembers the book as one with “indelible characters and an enormity of heart.” The book that seems to be its corollary is Edward P. Jones’s Lost in the City, a book of stories rescued from obscurity by Jones being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Known World. But Rattlebone is also a book written in the same tradition as Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place and John Edgar Wideman’s Homewood trilogy, given its strong sense of time and place.

    Rattlebone take places in 1950s Kansas and tells the story of a young Black girl named Irene. In her New York Times review, Veronica Chambers said Clair’s collection had “magic dust sprinkled over each and every page”—words I wish I had written to describe this book. Like Jacob’s Room, this is a book I have never forgotten, even in the years that it has been out of print and excluded from the cultural conversation. Now that Rattlebone has been reissued by McNally Editions, readers get another chance to engage with Clair’s characters, who navigate a world as intently concerned with manners and appearances as if they reside in the shadows of Southern magnolias or live oaks. Despite the seemingly Southern sensibilities of Rattlebone, its setting and geography rest squarely on the flat midwestern prairie of Kansas, a setting that seems as if it is eternally in search of a vista. As the descendants of “exodusters” who left Mississippi and the Deep South looking for what historian Nell Irving Painter described as “real freedom,” Clair’s characters are caught between space and silence. They have brought the South with them but have chosen to suppress their link to a painful and violent past in places like Mississippi and Arkansas.

    As Clair recalled to me in a recent conversation, it was not until she read Painter’s Exodusters several years after Rattlebone was published that she realized she had internalized the culture of the South that was part of her community’s silent past. In the Black community of Kansas City, Kansas, where Clair grew up, creating a new life rooted in the present and focusing on the future was a core value. The present and the future mattered more than what might have happened in the distant past. “When I wrote Rattlebone, the driving idea was to tell the story of a Black girl coming of age—somewhat naïve in ways and wise in others—who was just a real person trying to become an adult.” Clair remembered that she “didn’t want a narrative about suffering and about slavery. I didn’t want the darkness of the past to intrude on this girl’s story,” since it had never intruded on her own. “I just wanted her to be a person trying to go to the corner market to get herself a popsicle, the way I did in my childhood.”

    W. Ralph Eubanks is faculty fellow and writer in residence at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of A Place Like Mississippi: a Journey Through a Real and Imagined Literary Landscape as well as two other works of nonfiction, Ever Is a Long Time and The House at the End of the Road. He is a 2007 Guggenheim fellow and a 2021-2022 Harvard Radcliffe Institute fellow.

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