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Reviewed by:
John E. Bassett. Harlem in Review: Critical Reactions to Black American Writers, 1917-1939. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna UP, 1992. 232 pp. $36.50.

Bassett's checklist addresses the problem of "how black writers were read in their own day," and as his subtitle suggests he confines his discussion to the Harlem Renaissance and the revisionist decade that followed. The book ends with 1939, the year before the publication of Richard Wright's Native Son, because Bassett recognizes that this novel, a unique blend of modernism and proletarian fiction, ushered in a new generation of writers. Thus the criticism of the late 1930s allows us to see Zora Neale Hurston's star fading, as Wright's grew brighter, a process that the recent new black feminist criticism has in part reversed. Bassett documents Wright's importance by providing a generous selection of reviews of Uncle Tom's Children (1938), yet he only hints at the critical responses to Native Son, noting that Kinnamon's recently published checklist of criticism on Wright caused him to place limits on his own survey.

Bassett's intelligent introductory essay incisively describes how white and black reviewers responded to particular Afro-American texts. In general, whites wanted an exotic literature; whereas blacks wanted a literature that illustrated the race in a particular way. White Southerners like Donald Davidson often deflected issues involving racism into questions of aesthetics and craft, and after the publication and popularity of both Carl Van Vechten's Nigger Heaven (1926) and Claude McKay's Home to Harlem (1928), black critics divided along generational and class lines.

Yet Bassett's introduction might have stressed that even these divisions were not clear-cut, and he might have noted other anomalies as well. For instance, although most of the criticism of the period failed to escape its zeitgeist, both black and white critics made some brilliant observations that we are still trading on today. Scholars know Du Bois's critical gaffes at the decade's end, but consider his brilliant observation on Cane: Toomer is "the first of our writers to hurl his pen across the very face of our sex conventionality." Du Bois saw that eros and miscegenation were at the heart of Cane, and we can only lament that his hatred of Nigger Heaven blinded him to the many excellent works of Afro-American fiction that he thought followed in that novel's wake. [End Page 374]

One flaw in Bassett's book is that if the reader is looking for the contemporary criticism of a particular work, he or she will have to search for it in more than one section. Although Cane is officially treated under the category "Cane," this is misleading, because we have to turn to another page to find out what Paul Rosenfeld and Gorham Munson thought about Toomer and his book. Also, where is H. L. Mencken's long (and controversial) review in the American Mercury (February 1926) of Alain Locke's New Negro (1925)? In short, this is a useful book, but it is not the last word on "critical reactions" to the literature of the Harlem Renaissance.

Charles Scruggs
University of Arizona


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pp. 374-375
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