What did this story mean for US readers of 1899?
May 17, 2020 3:55 PM   Subscribe

This allegedly true story (the one titled "Woe is her portion") was published in many regional US newspapers between November 1899 and January 1900. How should it be interpreted in the US context of that period?

The story: Yette, a mixed-race American woman living in Paris marries (at 16) an older Spanish diplomat, gets divorced, goes wild, becomes an actress. She is courted by a Virginian man, but as he cannot marry her (one-drop rule) she commits suicide twice. She also gives a "blasphemous" toast: "I drink to the God who gives happiness to some of his creatures and tortures the others; to Him who made some of us white and others negroes despised by the rest."

In fact, most of it is fictional and the true story is quite different: Yette was French-born of Haitian descent, not American, and the other characters are either fictional (the American dad, the Virginian) or very loosely inspired by real ones (mother, husband, stepdad). One of the newspapers (The St. Louis-Dispatch) claims that they got the story from Yette herself after her first suicide attempt. The article was actually a follow-up of a much shorter previous one, also partly fictional. Yette's suicide, if it happened at all, was probably a publicity stunt that fell flat: French courtesans/actresses did that on a regular basis. In her case nobody cared and she was back on stage the next day, kept on partying, and lived for several decades. However, the general timeline (wedding, divorce, becoming an actress, suicide etc.) is quite accurate, so the writer may have had access to some actual sources. Also, the real Yette had spent time in New York 2 years before, and she had a direct experience of US-style racial prejudice. She was reportedly fluent in English and the act she took part in was in the same show as American dancer Loie Fuller.

What interests me here is the meaning of such a story in the US context, since the "journalist" basically rewrote it for US audiences (a mixed-race American woman in Paris commits suicide because she's rejected by her American lover for racial reasons). Was this sort of narrative a common trope? How were readers supposed to react to this? This was published in several newspapers, all in rural states (Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Texas, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Minnesota) except one (The World, New York).
posted by elgilito to Society & Culture (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Key word: actress. Up until the mid-20th century, that was journo-speak for “loose woman”. This is an outrage piece, with a side order of racism and titillation.

If you look at other page images from different newspapers, you'll see the layout's identical. This is a stereotype: a syndicated article distributed as a papier maché mould from which the columns could be cast. The mass-produced stories were also known as clichés, from the sound of the hot metal hitting the dampened mould. Yep, it's where we get the words from.
posted by scruss at 4:47 PM on May 17, 2020 [30 favorites]

Madame Butterfly was published in 1898 and was an instant hit, so the trope of "racially marginalized sympathetic woman attempts suicide after being rejected by white lover" was definitely familiar to US audiences.
posted by basalganglia at 6:25 PM on May 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

I think it's no accident that it was set in New Orleans. The average reader in Iowa, Kansas, etc would definitely associate that locale with mixed-race marriages Placage and Quadroon-Plaçage would be terms I would search. Also, this reminds me of the British tradition of exciting stories set in exotic locales. Moby-Dick is an example of that genre with literary merit but there were also a ton of titillating tales told from a fairly gross colonial viewpoint. This one hits all the notes - she's sexy! exotic! a sinful actress! a blasphemer! and suicide is a sin too! I think the way rural American readers were supposed to respond to this was to say "tsk, tsk" and shake their heads at the tragic, thrilling immorality of it all.
posted by selfmedicating at 6:48 PM on May 17, 2020

Best answer: Look up “tragic mulatto/a” to read about this tripe, oops, I suppose I mean trope. I think it was a long game intended to discourage intermixing of races as it suggested a mixed-race person could never be happy.
(PS “mulatto” is a slur, as it compares mixed-race humans to mules, which are donkey-horse mixes. Sorry to use the word- nobody should).

The musical “Show Boat” and the novel “Queen” and many more works also make use of this trope.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 7:20 PM on May 17, 2020 [8 favorites]

Best answer: How were readers supposed to react to this?

If you are receptive to psychological as well as strictly historical interpretations, people in general love melodrama because they/we love to divide our minds between sadism and masochism more or less equally, and only melodrama set in a milieu other than our own --or featuring a heroine with certain features that differ comfortably from the audience's -- allows us to detach from our own empathy quite so easily, before a story becomes unbearable, and pass back and forth between pleasure and pain pretty much at will.

and in this case, with the pleasurable excruciation of the story and of this woman's maltreatment hinging on specific historical details and a specific historical identity, an imagined white American reader can sympathize with a fictionalized Yette to the point of tears, but without any subconscious fear that it might ever come to pass in just that way for her. or, even more especially, for him.

it would be a mistake to suppose that a reader couldn't or wouldn't feel for her while simultaneously nodding his head & thinking Yes, this is why segregation is for the best, etc. condemnation and pity go hand in hand when reading such literature; there is no internal conflict between "the poor creature, how unfair, and such gallantry she shows at the last" and "she deserves it & is bound for hell." I am sure some stories of this type could inspire some white readers to a zeal for justice and reform, but e.g. Madame Butterfly (cited above) certainly doesn't do that--the woman's pain is the point, the woman's pain is the pleasure.

I do not have handy citations but if I were writing a lit paper I'm positive I could find many.
posted by queenofbithynia at 12:46 AM on May 18, 2020 [3 favorites]

I've been researching an actress of the same period and her biography is also highly fictionalized in newspaper stories. She is often presented as an innocent maiden from a wealthy Delaware Quaker family seduced by the glamour of the theater world. Her family, while they were from Delaware, was neither Quaker nor wealthy.

Newspapers often covered actresses's life stories as if they were characters in the Victorian melodramas in which they appeared. And the actors do seem to have played along with the myth making stories as well.

One of the racist 19th century melodramas this story is similar to is "The Octoroon" by Dion Boucicault, which was very popular.
posted by interplanetjanet at 10:56 AM on May 18, 2020

Response by poster: Thanks! The "tragic mulatto" it is. There's even a "tragic octoroon" subgenre, which explains why Yette was deliberately "whitened" in the article (in real life her mom was famous for being black).
posted by elgilito at 1:41 AM on May 20, 2020

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