University students in recent days have been protesting to have the names of John C. Calhoun and Woodrow Wilson removed from certain buildings at Yale and Princeton, respectively. Many people have probably never heard of Calhoun, but for those who have, I think this one is easy. If you studied American history in the North, you learned that Calhoun was one of the bad guys. Wilson is more complicated. Obviously, he was president. He’s remembered as a pretty good president, not perfect, but better than most of the other presidents immediately before and after him. The League of Nations, which he championed, is remembered as a good thing, and its failure is often in part attributed to those who opposed his views. The Progressive movement of his time, which he championed, is also often remembered as a good thing that did good things like professionalize government and institutionalize the idea of government help for the poor—though also ambiguous in the way it pursued its ideals and in the way it treated those it intended to help—which is just the point where Wilson’s reputation gets hairy. Wilson is blamed in large part for the failure of the Treaty of Versailles that ended the First World War, because he insisted on heavy reparations to be paid by Germany for its loss. He was, in general, a moralistic prig, and this is how he’s remembered. He didn’t suffer fools gladly, and his opponents probably often realized that he viewed them as fools. He made enemies.
His opinions on race and the actions he took with regard to race are less well known. He opposed and ended Reconstruction, which had imposed the will of the federal government on the defeated South (the Civil War had ended fifty years earlier) permitting Southern elites to rejoin the national community on equal terms, and enabling Jim Crow. He was definitely a racist and not shy about expressing his racist views.
The Accursed, a 2013 novel by Joyce Carol Oates, begins with Wilson expelling a (presumably fictional) divinity student of mixed race, whom he’d previously championed as a prodigy. One major plotline in the book concerns Wilson’s refusal, along with the rest of the town of Princeton’s white elite, to countenance discussion, especially but not only in “mixed company” (that is, where women might hear), of lynchings that have occurred in the vicinity. Their strategy is to keep their community safe by making it safe-feeling, and to keep it safe-feeling by denying the existence of real evil. Oates shows that evil welling up from places so unexpected as to seem—and in the world of the novel, told from a distance of many decades by one of the participants, who repeatedly parades his or her unreliability and unwillingness to tell all—a matter of supernatural mystery rather than something caused by ordinary human beings. The elites’ strenuous efforts to deny any connection with the rest of the world comes back, literally, to haunt them. (A second plotline concerns the intersection of the progressive activism of Upton Sinclair, just become famous for The Jungle, and Jack London, whose reputation as a progressive figure has led Sinclair to idolize him; and Sinclair’s and a wealthy young man’s equal disillusionment; and that man’s female cousin’s career in Progressivism.)
Oates is described by Mark McGurl, in The Program Years, as a practitioner of a kind of lower-middle or working-class white fiction that is marked by a notable awareness of racism and the way this fiction is, itself, only possible because of racism. Of Oates’s first novel, With Shuddering Fall (1964), McGurl writes,
“If Oates’s literary maximalism [as opposed to Carver’s similarly lower-middle class and white minimalism] is one that says ‘shame’ [for class reasons] but doesn’t show it, here the urge to say everything serves to expose the white body as a racially marked body, amplifying the whisper of ‘white pride’ until it can be heard clearly for what it is. Perhaps more than any other postwar American writer, Joyce Carol Oates has systematically sought to deprive the privilege of whiteness of the further privilege of presenting itself as an unmarked universality, the form of ‘selfhood’ as such.”
A white protagonist (often a writer or a writing student) coming to awareness of racism and the writer’s complicity in racism, and responsibility for reporting racism, is present, as McGurl shows, in Oates’s earliest fiction, which often explores what it means for a young lower-middle or working-class student to be admitted as an applicant to the literary world and to the middle class when almost all black people are excluded from both those (even as it probes the painful distance between that student’s current position and her place of origin).
Although The Accursed almost entirely lacks white characters who are not wealthy—the only exceptions are the celebrities, Jack London and Upton Sinclair, and possibly a couple of olive-skinned men whose origins are put in doubt—“white pride” is precisely its theme. In the form of a merciless religious obsession that needs ever more sinners to condemn, it is the cause of the downfall of the victims of the novel’s “Princeton Curse” of 1905. Anyone who’s read any of Oates’ fiction knows that in her writing evil is always very close to the surface of life, and the same is the case in The Accursed, which otherwise reads as much more explicitly Gothic than anything else I can think of that she wrote.