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Reviewed by:
Dickson D. Bruce, Jr. Black American Writing from the Nadir: The Evolution of a Literary Tradition, 1877-1915. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1989. 272 pp. $29.95.
Horace A. Porter. Stealing the Fire: The Art and Protest of James Baldwin. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1989. 220 pp. $19.95.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988. 290 pp. $29.95.

If the works under consideration here indicate a trend, then W. E. B. Du Bois is becoming the presiding spirit of black literary criticism. Despite differences in subject matter and theoretical assumptions, all three authors concern themselves with the complex dialectical relationship between blackness and Western culture that Du Bois, in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), identified as central to the meaning of black life and culture. The issue for both literature and criticism is the effect of this tension on literary production. Are black writers essentially American writers who happen to be black? Or is there a black expressive tradition that can serve as a resource for a truly distinctive literature?

Dickson Bruce, in Black American Writing from the Nadir, argues that precisely such questions shape black writing from 1877 to 1915. He notes that in that era of oppression, exploitation, and violence, Afro-American authors oscillated between positions of assimilation and "positive black identity." He examines several minor writers, most of them members of the black middle class who shared the Victorian [End Page 768] sensibilities of the dominant culture. The literary results were conservative thematically and formally. Their work ignored Afro-American folk culture and worked within the genteel tradition. Such writing appealed to a white audience to believe that black authors (and blacks in general) were "civilized" in the terms of that audience. The protest embodied in this literature emphasized the inconsistency of racism with American political and moral ideals. The mulatto theme, so popular at the time, fit into this pattern by showing how artificial racial distinctions were.

Much of what Bruce does here is not particularly new, although his detailing of the work of hitherto obscure authors is helpful. His analysis becomes more interesting when he turns to better-known figures, especially Paul Laurence Dunbar, whom he views as key to his interpretation. He gives Dunbar's dialect writing, which has generally been dismissed, a positive reading by distinguishing between the dialect itself, which follows literary conventions, and the folk represented through it, which are positive images. Unfortunately, Bruce does not spell out how he arrives at these conclusions. More important, he explores Dunbar's deep ambivalence about black culture and his own role in popularizing a version of it. Similar ambivalence is shown in the work of Charles Chesnutt and James Weldon Johnson.

Du Bois himself is seen as the one who most thoroughly articulates the duality. Bruce reads The Souls of Black Folk as a text deeply immersed in black culture and yet insistent on the full inclusion of blacks in American society. As a result, Du Bois asserted that only through identification with their blackness could the race find a role in America. Termed by Bruce a romantic racialist, Du Bois saw blackness as a spiritual quality that could contribute to a multicultural American world. The only disappointment in this discussion is Bruce's failure to develop the implications of this analysis. Despite its weaknesses, Black American Writing from the Nadir is valuable in providing a cultural and historical framework for reading the literature of this crucial period. By emphasizing the dilemmas that racial difference produced, Bruce makes it easier to understand why writers made the literary choices they did.

In Stealing the Fire Horace Porter sees the same problematic at work in the career of James Baldwin. Focusing on Baldwin's early years as a writer, Porter shows him defining himself as "writer" rather than "black writer." He feared being typecast as another Richard Wright. Porter uses concepts borrowed from Harold Bloom to show Baldwin responding to his "anxiety of influence" by attacking Wright and the tradition of protest writing in the name of literary freedom. The central irony developed in Porter's...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-658X
Print ISSN
0026-7724
Pages
pp. 768-771
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-01
Open Access
No
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