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  • Removing the Veil: Race, Modernism, and Cultural Pluralism in Four Recent Studies of Twenties U.S. Culture
  • Chip Rhodes (bio)
Walter Benn Michaels. Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism. Durham: Duke UP, 1995. 186 pp.
George Hutchinson. The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White. Cambridge: Belknap P of Harvard UP, 1995. 541 pp.
Michael North. The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language & Twentieth-Century Literature. New York: Oxford UP, 1994. 252 pp.
Ann Douglas. Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1995. 606 pp.

Four major studies of American modernism have appeared in the last two years that, taken together, clearly map the political and theoretical terrain of the current conjuncture in American Studies. All take their cues from the debate over cultural pluralism, granting “race” as both fact and fantasy a central role in the articulation of a modern U.S. national [End Page 432] culture that began in the interwar years. Where they part company is in their very different evaluations of the biracial culture from which this articulation arose. Is it an interdependent, hybrid culture that includes without erasing difference? Or is it a culture of linguistic co-optation in which the dominant race exploits the disempowered in its transnational struggle for an identity independent of Europe? Put another way, is the institutional move toward cultural pluralism of a piece with a long unrealized cultural nationalism that goes back to Emerson; or is it a patronizing gesture of an intellectual class that continues to exploit the underclasses in the service of its own self-fashioning?

Ann Douglas’s Terrible Honesty and George Hutchinson’s The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White champion a properly understood cultural pluralism that was realized, however briefly, in twenties U.S. culture. Michael North’s The Dialect of Modernism offers a thoroughgoing critique of the very exchanges and cross-identifications celebrated by Douglas and Hutchinson and the goals of American liberal ideology to which they are both committed. Evaluatively, Walter Benn Michaels’s Our America is closer to North in condemning cultural pluralism; but his condemnation challenges the very terms of the questions posed above, finding an unlikely consensus between nativism and modernism based on the unbridgeable, essential difference between cultures that makes pluralism comprehensible.

The contrasting projects of these four studies open onto the most divisive ideological disputes that continue to characterize the “new” American Studies. But there is one thing upon which all sides seem to agree. Whether one sees racial mixing and cultural borrowing as co-optation or interdependence, the terms of the debate seem to preclude revolutionary politics. Indeed, these studies demonstrate how much the new American Studies’s turn to cultural nationalism participates in a more general dismissal of Marxist approaches to culture. Whether Marxism is “nothing but common sense” (Douglas), “vulgar” and “reflectionist” (Hutchinson), or a vestige of the Progressive Era (Michaels), it is no longer seen to be useful to the task of investigating American culture. Either Marxism seems to disallow human agency (Douglas and Hutchinson) or it prioritizes class at the expense of race and nationalism (North and Michaels).

Much the same can be said about the turn away from black nationalist politics—at least within American Studies. Just as the Marxist [End Page 433] influence in much of the best American Studies work of the seventies was fairly explicit in its anticapitalism (take a look at the collection, Ideology and Classic American Literature), so too much of the best work on black minstrelsy and the Harlem Renaissance has begun with the political backdrop of a potentially revolutionary black nationalism. 1 In one way or another, all of these studies make an ideological break with the political radicalism that has occasionally been a part of American Studies.

Just so, all four studies can be aligned with the theory of American exceptionalism. Philosophically, aesthetically, linguistically, and personally, black and white Americans have shared in an ideological consensus that the nation is the untranscendable horizon for what can be thought in the U.S. context. The work of Hutchinson, Michaels, and (to a lesser extent) Douglas is indebted to Sacvan Bercovitch’s seminal work on the ways that Puritan hegemony became a...

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