John Berryman's Blackface Jokes: The Insights of Literary Failure

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Blackface minstrelsy is a major presence in John Berryman's The Dream Songs. Critics have debated whether Berryman's use of blackface minstrel conventions undermines or reproduces the racist ideological work of this cultural form. However, in Dream Song 40 and Dream Song 68, Berryman embarks on a related yet distinct project: a purportedly authentic, and unsuccessful, representation of Black personhood rather than a rendering of minstrel tropes. These two poems' complex failures in speaking of and for Black subjectivity and experience position Blackness as a site of opacity, negation, and social death: a presence that can't be represented or made the material of literary figuration. In this manner, they stage a challenge to postwar liberal narratives of racial amelioration, revealing how American social and symbolic orders themselves are predicated on racial abjection.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)58-76
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Modern Literature
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jun 2022

Bibliographical note

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  • John Berryman
  • The Dream Songs
  • blackface minstrelsy
  • confessional poetry
  • race and representation


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