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As has been noted in the pages of this journal and elsewhere recently, criticism of black literature has been engaged in its own Civil War, with contending armies of contemporary theorists and neo-black aestheticists. Although most scholars have avoided direct engagement, the evidence of these five books is that no one quite escapes the battle. Each author devotes considerable space to justifying his/her method; on occasion, the justification nearly overwhelms the analysis of the fiction.
The most troublesome book in this regard is Martin's Ishmael Reed and the New Black Aesthetic Critics. Only one chapter is devoted to the point of contact implied by the title. Another discusses the critics with only nominal reference to Reed, while a third exclusively treats Reed's Hoodoo aesthetic. In fact, the four chapters are essentially distinct essays without a common focus or thesis. All are concerned with the notion of a black aesthetic, but the meaning of that aesthetic keeps shifting.
The first chapter seeks to define an aesthetic through black literary history. Martin incorrectly assumes that it is possible to articulate a single tradition, despite the obvious conflicts that have run through black literature. Moreover, he claims to be defining aesthetic principles when in fact he concerns himself with a tradition of polemics. He consistently chooses texts in the early part of the chapter that are argumentative and propagandistic rather than literary. Thus, he ignores Frederick Douglass' Narrative, which displays the former slave's mastery of storytelling techniques, and instead comments on "American Slavery" and "What the Negro Wants." Having argued that certain elements of this body of political rhetoric constitute an aesthetic, he then proceeds by accumulation to add the contributions of more recent authors. The effect is incoherence: writers who have nothing in common or whose contributions are not part of any identifiable artistic structure are incorporated into a literary "tradition." The true complexity of black literature is ignored in the attempt, through cumulative juxtaposition, to construct a unified field theory of black art.
The three remaining chapters are flawed, not by their inconsistency, but rather by their lack of originality. Most of what is said has either been said before or is so obvious as not to need saying. The second chapter summarizes the principal Black Aesthetic critics, Addison Gayle, Amiri Baraka, and the early Houston Baker, with minimal analysis. The third chapter focuses on the conflict between Reed and these critics. But again we are given description rather than explanation. The points of contention are listed, and passages are cited that demonstrate the accuracy of the list, but there is no investigation of the underlying values and motives that created such a conflict. [End Page 634]
The final chapter defines Reed's own Hoodoo aesthetic. Here we see a basic flaw of the book. Martin writes as though no one else had ever considered this aspect of the fiction, when in fact it is one of the most common subjects of Reed criticism. There is no indication in either the body of the text or in the bibliography that Martin is aware of this critical context. The result is that, despite his rendering of detailed information about voodoo, the discussion of Reed's fiction seems commonplace.
The two books by Karla Holloway are much more successful on all grounds. Her study of Zora Neale Hurston combines her interests in sociolinguistics and feminism. She argues that the place of the word in the writing is linked to...