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Race and the Modern Artist. Heather Hathaway, Josef Jařab, and Jeffrey Melnick, eds. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Pp. xii + 266. $55.00 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).

Readers of this collection should bear in mind three primary points: its memorializing intent, its institutional source, and its belated release. In 1989, when affiliates of Harvard University's W. E. B. Du Bois Institute were preparing to compile a collection of essays, they decided to dedicate the proposed collection to Nathan Huggins, who had suddenly passed away after years of distinguished service as the Institute's director. Understood as a memorial tribute, the collection adheres to a view of scholarship consistent with the mission of the Institute, the directorship of which passed from Huggins to Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Indeed, Gates and another officer from the Institute co-edit the series of books in which this collection of essays appears, a series whose editorial priorities are closely tied to the Institute's programs: "The Institute series provides a publishing forum for outstanding work deriving from colloquia, research groups, and conferences sponsored by the Institute" (ii). So although published by Oxford, this collection is distinct from Oxford's Race and American Culture Series, reflecting the publishing mission not of that series but of the Du Bois Institute itself: "the books appearing in this series work to foster a stronger sense of national and international community and a better understanding of diasporic history" (ii). The scholarly "work" to which this series aspires ultimately privileges diplomacy over disagreement: avoiding debates about diaspora as a concept, it treats diaspora as a given with a "history" yet to be told. This collection's model of scholarship, then, is more archival than it is conceptual—it is disclosing history rather than debating concepts—so its belated release (due to the "Velvet Revolution" recalling Jarab to Czechoslovakia) seems, on first glance, to matter very little: by avoiding timely debate, it avoids appearing behind the times. [End Page 853]

To be sure, some contributors do challenge existing scholarship, but the most compelling targets for debate are the terms in the collection's title—race, modern, and artist. Readers seeking discussion of these terms will, however, find this collection largely silent. While the introduction by Joseph Jarab embraces the general view of modernism as a response to modernity, it lists more specific debates about "modernist and postmodernist discourse" only to conclude that "there is reason to believe that such debates will go on for years and decades" (4). But if history will prevent consensus in the case of "modernism," Jarab is confident that, with respect to the "racial artist," history has enabled consensus: "Mobility, movement, journeys, uprooting, passing, becoming . . . all these manifestations of change brought about by modernity naturally became the subject matter of artistic works produced by minority artists who, however, were regularly, and also by the then-current definition of art and literature, considered parochial, provincial, and marginal. Or nonexistent. As a matter of fact, it took the country a good part of the century to fully realize and meaningfully interpret . . . its own history—that is, the history of all the people" (7). Having now been "fully realize[d]," this "history" provides a mandate to "the premise of this volume": "These essays intend to further open up and dispute the uneasy relationship of modernity and modernism with the reality of American cultural diversity and plural ethnicity" through "critical treatments of specific authors and specific texts" (9). Contemporary hindsight having provided a clear sense of this "reality," these essays can now convey that reality via analyses of "specific" authors and texts.

Yet given this collection's central concern—"American cultural diversity and plural ethnicity"—it would seem that a more accurate way to characterize the volume's focus is not in terms of its ability to see a "reality" unavailable to the early twentieth century but, instead, in terms of its acceptance of commitments that were just then gaining prominence, commitments that Walter Benn Michaels's Our America characterizes as "nativist modernism."1 This term gets no mention here, and its absence suggests, at first glance, that for the editors of the Du...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6601
Print ISSN
1071-6068
Pages
pp. 853-855
Launched on MUSE
2005-01-05
Open Access
N
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