- The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White
George Hutchinson has written an ambitious book, one which sets out to revise our understanding of the Harlem Renaissance from its origins to its demise. It is easily the most detailed treatment yet given to the Renaissance and its backgrounds, and it provides a synthesis of previous scholars’ work as well as a critique of many of the opinions and theories which that work has established.
Hutchinson is especially concerned to trace the multiple influences [End Page 459] which moved the Harlem Renaissance, rightly insisting that it emerged from a particular convergence of modern ideas and conditions: (1) metropolitan New York as a new intellectual center (replacing Boston), producing a new kind of publisher (predominately Jewish) who was interested in a new kind of literature; (2) the presence of new city immigrants, including African-Americans, who helped provoke the vexed controversies concerning American nationalism and American identity; (3) the stimulating intellectual climate: the radical ideas of Franz Boas in anthropology and John Dewey in philosophy, the exciting sociological theories of Robert Park and Charles Johnson, the iconoclastic perspectives of a new brand of literary magazine and critic. This vortex of varied perspectives upon the American scene would find expression in Alain Locke’s New Negro.
Hutchinson’s most effective and also most problematic sections deal with the crucial matter of intellectual background and influence. He is especially acute in his treatment of Boas’s lone, sane voice, speaking against the tide of racist thought and bravely exploring the idea of race as a social construct; Boas helped Locke and others to imagine themselves not as pariahs but as citizens in their literary projects. Racism, Locke would argue, created “conditions” that shaped the Negro mind, but those conditions did not finally separate the Negro from the American polis. Part of this book’s convincing case for the mixture of influences, the “black and white” of the Renaissance, is its extensive description of the rich body of intellectual opinion that appeared in various magazines of the 1920s. These forums, most of them edited by whites, were of tremendous importance to the black writers of the period, a fact which calls into question the critical view that it was white intellectuals (and white patrons) who stifled the Renaissance.
Less convincing, however, are some of Hutchinson’s historical generalizations, which overlook the complexity of the period of WWI and the post-war decade in order to attack what he regards as critical clichés. He is anxious, for instance, to free the Renaissance from its association with “primitivism,” understood as the depiction of black people as exotics or savages, and this leads him to oversimplify a subject whose implications are greater than he imagines. If WWI had seen the emergence of the “security state” and war as an industrial process, the 1920s saw Fordism and “normality” as new forms of social organization, [End Page 460] and the reaction against these developments led artists, and others, to flee to Paris as well as Harlem. The valorization of traditional high culture as well as folk culture in the 1920s was in part a resistance to the growing corporatism of daily life. The interest in primitivism is often, though not always, tied to that idea; it should thus be seen as part of a larger effort to recover the lost ideal of a past organic culture or to reshape such an ideal within the context of the modern city.
There is a similar problem in the exaggerated importance Hutchinson gives to the gospel of pragmatism, especially as it was defined and espoused by John Dewey. There is no doubt Dewey was important for American intellectuals during the heyday of Progressivism, but his support of American participation in WWI caused a significant group of them, led by Randolph Bourne, to break with Dewey and pragmatism. Echoing Bourne, Lewis Mumford in The Golden Day satirized the “pragmatic acquiescence” of the American intellectual who swam with the tide of post-Civil War materialism, a clear reference to Dewey’s capitulation to the war hysteria...