- Portrait of an Expatriate: William Gardner Smith, Writer, and: The Afro-American Short Story: A Comprehensive, Annotated Index with Selected Commentaries, and: Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition
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In the concluding essay of Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition, co-editor Hortense Spillers observes that a tradition arises "not only because there are writers there to make it, but also because there is a strategic audience of heightened consciousness prepared to read and interpret the work." Over the past two decades, critics of Afro-American literature have been highly conscious of their role in shaping the audience Spillers decribes. Frequently, they have differed on the precise nature of that audience: Ralph Ellison envisions a multiracial democratic community; Larry Neal, an Afro-American audience with a complex awareness of its racial experience; Robert Stepto, an audience at home with both Afro- and Euro-American literacy; Barbara Christian, an audience comprised or at least sensitive to the concerns of black women. Although the clashes between "universalist" and "nationalist" sensibilities (resurrected in the sensationalist journalism pitting black male against black female writing) have sometimes obscured the connections, it seems increasingly clear that these approaches are in fact complementary. Each of the critics mentioned above enriches his or her own work by incorporating the insights of literary ancestors or relatives associated with other approaches. Paralleling the recent emphasis of journals such as Black American Literature Forum, Callaloo, and Studies in Black American Literature, Conjuring provides evidence that the critical in-fighting of the past is now giving way to a new synthetic sensibility.
The most visible element of Afro-American literary studies, this sensibility could not have developed without the contributions of scholars—working in a tradition that extends back to Sterling Brown—dedicated to the illumination of previously un- or underrecognized writers and texts. Both LeRoy S. Hodges' Portrait of an Expatriate: William Gardner Smith, Writer and Preston Yaney's The Afro-American Short Story contribute to the historical endeavor, though with widely differing degrees of success. Hodges' study of Smith is an excellent introduction to the work of a writer who is best known for his novels The Last of the Conquerors (1948) and The Stone Face (1963). One of the group of Afro-American expatriate writers who included Richard Wright and James Baldwin, Smith enacted a symbolic journey from Philadelphia through service in World War Two to voluntary exile in Paris. Before his death at age 47 in 1974, Smith worked for two years in Ghana and returned to the United States to explore the Civil Rights movement. Hodges provides a clear biographical sketch, paying particular attention to Smith's involvement in the "Gibson Affair," which created a distinct tension within the Afro-American expatriate community. Although Hodges—himself a black American educated at the Sorbonne—neither demonstrates nor denies CIA involvement in the affair, he rightly identifies it as a significant historical event that put an end to the "romantic period" of the Afro-American expatriation.
In treating Smith's five books, Hodges appropriately concentrates on providing the kind of overview that will encourage scholars to pursue the texts relevant to their own concerns; as a result Portrait of an Expatriate contains a substantial amount of quotation and plot summary. When Hodges does venture into more speculative critical modes, his comments are uniformly sensible and accurate. For [End Page 639] example, he recognizes South Street (1954) as Smith's most fully realized novel. Unread save by specialists, the novel may ultimately emerge as Smith's primary contribution to the Afro-American tradition. In general, Hodges seems content to advance Smith as a talented writer of the second rank who should not be overlooked by critics engaged in the reconstruction of Afro-American literary history.