The three chapters in Hammers of Creation are extended versions of Eric Sundquist’s 1991 Lamar Memorial Lectures at Mercer University. Focusing respectively on James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, Zora Neale Hurston’s Jonah’s Gourd Vine, and Arna Bontemps’ Black Thunder, they expand the argument of Sundquist’s prize-winning To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature (Harvard, 1993). Taken together with his wonderful chapters on Charles Chesnutt and W. E. B. DuBois in To Wake the Nations, the discussions of Johnson, Hurston and Bontemps establish the key terms for the modern African-American literary tradition.
Sundquist argues that these modern African-American writers recognized clearly the dangers of forgetting both their African heritage and the repeated struggles that had forged African-American communities. Johnson’s protagonist’s ironic desire to “pass” and thus escape the suffering and terror of the “coloured man” results only in a schizophrenic narration split between dispassionate observation of such racist violence as lynching and the terror of identification with the victim that compels the narrator to flee his own history and identity. This enactment of “cultural forgetting” and thus “disintegration of racial consciousness” is not only made by Johnson to serve as one disturbing aspect of modern African-American history, but it also calls attention to the rich traditions of African-American music, humor, and writing that Johnson’s protagonist abandons.
Johnson advocated the “refinement” of African-American folk and vernacular materials that often meant translating the spiritual into high-art music and dialect into the sort of poetry Johnson wrote in [End Page 340] God’s Trombones. Johnson’s progressive theory of culture is, in fact, politically conservative, especially when contrasted with Zora Neale Hurston’s “indulgent celebration of folk culture as the only undiluted voice of black America.” Hurston foregrounds dialect in her writings as a “salvaged speech that pays tribute to those who have gone before and an index of what has been kept alive in the evolving cultural memory.” The “undeveloped” qualities of African-American dialect that troubled Johnson and many other writers of the Harlem Renaissance were recognized by Hurston as resources of the community, the means of showing that “the bondage of language could also be liberating.” Contrasting the sermon by the Reverend C. C. Lovelace, which Hurston used as a model for the tour-de-force sermon delivered by John Pearson in Jonah’s Gourd Vine, with Johnson’s formal poetry in God’s Trombones, Sundquist explains just how much the authority of the modern African-American voice depends on its ability to draw on modes of expression and thus understanding different from those central to the Euroamerican tradition.
Sundquist is at his best in explaining how African retentions inform the expressive modes of African-American culture and such institutions as the Afro-Christian church. Rather than simply asserting that this heritage adds a unique character to African-American culture, Sundquist provides discussions of Dogon beliefs of West Africa, African sources for African-American music, and the rhythmic iteration of sound as part of African rituals. As a consequence, we begin to “hear” what we read in Hurston and Bontemps in ways that are impossible for traditional literary criticism to communicate. Sundquist does not just offer us new readings of important modern African-American texts, which would in itself be valuable work given the relative neglect of Jonah’s Gourd Vine and Bontemps’ Black Thunder; he also offers us a new way of reading African-American writing that does greater justice to the alternative modes of knowing-hearing, feeling, singing, dancing-that African-American culture has brought to America.
Sundquist’s aim of developing a new, revolutionary mode of reading is marvelously realized in his final chapter on Bontemps’ Black Thunder, the novel about Gabriel’s slave revolt in Virginia in 1800. Sundquist reading Bontemps reading Gabriel’s interpretation of what rhetoric, dialect, and conjure are needed to make a revolution brings three historical moments...