This is a seminal study and should be given the same attention and praise that Eric Sundquist’s To Wake the Nations has received. Indeed, Playing the Changes picks up where Sundquist leaves off, pursuing issues that Sundquist raises about nineteenth century American culture—the complex interplay between black and white thought, texts, and artistic expression—and applying them to the twentieth century. Yet despite the fact that Werner shares some of Sundquist’s concerns, he has [End Page 142] mapped a world of his own. What makes his book seminal is his ability to reshape not only our thinking about African-American culture at all levels but also about “modernism” in all its multi-faceted and protean forms.
No review as short as this can do justice to the ground Playing the Changes covers, theoretical and intertextual, or to the range of Werner’s erudition and the catholicity of his taste. All things high or low in African-American life fascinate him, for he seems to take Ralph Ellison’s notion of “another frequency” as the critic’s categorical imperative. At one moment Werner can provide a brilliant reassessment of the Black Arts movement of the 1960s, at another, a perceptive analysis of the Tar Baby story and its relationship to Toni Morrison’s novel of the same name. When he is at his best, he interweaves discussions of black folklore, black music, and critical theory with close readings of individual authors and literary periods—poets, playwrights, and novelists who range from Charles Chesnutt at the beginning of the century to August Wilson and Toni Morrison at its end.
The “jazz impulse” in his title is perhaps the key to his method; throughout his book he keeps circling back to themes and definitions, restating and reshaping them for each new context and in language that changes from the library to the street corner. There are three recurring motifs in Playing the Changes that I find particularly engaging: linguistic “deconstruction” within both elite and popular culture as a mode of political subversion (“Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke”); African-American “responses” to Euro-American texts as creative acts (William Faulkner not despised but revised, T. S. Eliot’s “mythical method” not rejected but reapplied to the “is-ness” of black life); and black music—especially the interconnection between blues, jazz, and gospel—as an on-going social dynamic within oral and print discourses. What unites these three motifs is the pattern of “call and response” that Werner sees as central to Afro-centric cultures, or as Werner would say, “calls and responses,” for Werner claims that “polyrhythmic discourse” is what gives Black American life and its “literatures” its strength and resiliency. That is, the subtle interplay between individual experience and communal concerns permits African-Americans to “play” off the hydra-headed “changes” that oppression often takes, allowing them not merely to endure oppression but to resist it with grace and power. [End Page 143]
One of Werner’s best chapters deals with Native Son, and, as he so often does in Playing the Changes, he asks a question no one else has thought to ask about Richard Wright’s famous novel: why didn’t Wright employ the modernist form and techniques for Native Son that he had previously used for Lawd Today? His answer is provocative: although allusions to Eliot’s The Waste Land dot this so-called “naturalistic” novel, Wright understood that the resources of High Modernism could not explain the unique sense of Bigger’s exclusion from American life. An authentic modernism had to come from within, not from without; Native Son’s true modernism does not lie in the allusions to The Waste Land but in the blues “which encodes the possibility of communal-individual contact . . . and emphasizes an intensely alienated experience of reality.” Thus Bigger’s “inability to sound a call is his call; his despair of envisioning a response is his response to the alienation of the Afro-American community in the modernist wasteland.”
This last sentence...