It’s been a good year for African American studies’ institutional visibility. Prominent presses issued major anthologies and reference works, most particularly (but not limited to) the Norton Anthology of African American Literature and the Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Bearing name-brand familiarity and prodigious editorial cachet, these volumes stand ready for consumption by professors, students, libraries, and bookstores. Yet already available to complement these highly publicized volumes are three recent, significant, and clearly written works of scholarship that, in addition to making their own trenchant arguments, endeavor both explicitly and implicitly to remind students and teachers of African American literature and culture exactly how far the conversations in the field have come, and—most importantly—how far they can and must go in the future.
Through archival, textual, and biographical analysis, Women of the Harlem Renaissance explores how “women of words and music” from Marita O. Bonner to Josephine Baker wielded the trope of the journey in their works and days. The first chapter, “On Being Young—A Woman—and Colored,” provides much needed close reading of works by Georgia Douglas Johnson, Anne Spencer, and Gwendolyn Bennett, and also examines Bessie Smith, whose performances and lyrics navigated [End Page 993] complexly the problematic desires for the South abandoned both eagerly and reluctantly by recent rural émigrés. Significantly, building her argument toward Smith allows Wall to name early the woman in whom the book is most invested: Zora Neale Hurston.
Next, Wall examines Fauset’s work: poetry, four novels, and—an analysis of which is most welcome—the many essays, reviews, and articles she wrote for The Crisis. Repeatedly, Wall emphasizes that “Fauset’s spirit of adventure”—personal, artistic, and political—“was circumscribed by the demands of propriety” and that such tension between desire and its repression manifested itself at all levels of Fauset’s work. For example, examining “Impressions of the Second Pan-African Congress,” Wall reveals how Fauset divined the present and future complexities that the Congress faced. At the same time, Wall points out the imbrication of Fauset’s reportage with a Western-identified gaze, as well as how willingly she apparently subordinated “her own activities at the Congress” to a more distanced “masculinist perspective.” The “both/and” lens with which the book approaches the enormous range of Fauset’s activities and abilities is both appropriate and forthright.
Interrogating Nella Larsen’s personal and artistic complexities, Wall’s third chapter argues that, like Fauset, Larsen used fiction to explore the “psychic dilemmas confronting certain black women.” Yet Wall distinguishes significantly between the two writers; where Fauset proffered blue-vein women (and the genteel literary forms and tropes deemed appropriate to portray them) as “representative or worthy of emulation,” Larsen “consistently” subverted such social and formal assumptions. (Wall utilizes Josephine Baker’s career to exemplify vividly such subversion.) Yet, in nuanced readings of Quicksand and Passing, Wall argues that mere subversion of such tropes as the “tragic mulatta” could not free the artist from the “expectations [such tropes] engendered.” Nevertheless, Larsen’s work was “dangerous,” Wall asserts, for exploring “the intersection of race, class, and gender was a perilous business” from which could be gleaned “no safe or simple truths.” Wall concludes that in the face of such danger, Larsen “tried to ‘pass’ as a novelist and to an extent succeeded.”
The phrase “to an extent” crystallizes the most intriguing and troubling facet of this volume; although Wall focuses largely on [End Page 994] unearthing the ideological intricacies that the writers’ works and lives negotiated, she relies also on aesthetic judgments (e.g., “Larsen wrote only serviceable prose”) that, vaguely Arnoldian, remain largely unarticulated. In the final chapter, however, the reader apprehends Wall’s contention that Larsen and Fauset lack that which is eminently present in Zora Neale Hurston, “the...