Strangers in Their Work
"How curious a land is this," wrote
E. B. Du Bois of the Black Belt of
Georgia, "how full of untold story, of tragedy and laughter, and the rich
legacy of human life."l Du Bois, like the other four writers in this study,
identified and tried to tell untold stories. In so doing, these authors came
to understand why the stories they wanted to tell had remained so long
untold. They confronted the limits of storytelling. In their different ways,
these writers all discovered, as the modernist poet Laura Riding puts it,
that the storytelling "self is implicated in the totality as a speaking self of
it, owing it words that will put the seal of the Whole upon it."2 Riding
describes a debt: the conventions that enable the self to speak in turn
require reinforcement. The storyteller confirms the terms of the story. My
inquiries begin with the creative responses to that debt offered by Freder-
ick Douglass, Herman Melville, Harriet Wilson, W. E. B. Du Bois, and
Gertrude Stein, all of whom turned the limitations of their own stories into
analyses of the limitations and possibilities of storytelling.
Social unacceptability and political censorship, personal prohibitions
and cultural conventions, the literary market and language itself all con-
tribute to the shaping of stories. Yet untold stories press for a hearing. My
readings attend to disruptions in literary narratives caused by unexpected
words, awkward grammatical constructions, rhetorical or thematic disso-
nances that mark the pressure of untold stories. The authors I consider
arrived at their understanding of untold stories in response to the impera-
tives each experienced-in his or her way-to tell the story of the nation.
My study explores how inquiries into the limitations of their stories be-
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