- A Genaealogy of Literary Multiculturalism
Zora Neale Hurston is the undisputed bellwether of American literary multiculturalism. Hurston’s resurgence on the literary scene, spearheaded by Alice Walker in the 1970s, should be pushed back by five to ten years, according to Christopher Douglas’s carefully reasoned schematic analysis of the intersection between minority writers of the twentieth century and prominent social science theorists in the emerging disciplines of anthropology and sociology. Douglas’s A Genealogy of Literary Multiculturalism achieves important aims in its effort to examine the development of literary multiculturalism through a close analysis of the ways in which writers from Hurston through Gloria Anzaldúa partake innovatively in concepts of culture early promulgated by anthropologist Franz Boas and sociologist Robert Ezra Park. Most informative is Douglas’s willingness to explore a circuit of relations between writers and the social sciences, an oft-scorned activity when misappropriated by teachers who use belles lettres to support sociological principles and by politicians who use literary texts for political purposes. In his chapter “Jade Snow Wong, Ralph Ellison and Desegregation,” Douglas in fact examines how the State Department used Wong’s autobiography, Fifth Chinese Daughter, and Brown v. Board of Education as interventionist texts strategically applied in the Cold War.
Throughout Douglas’s genealogical analysis of literary texts and social science discourse, he demonstrates such eminently persuasive and practical explanations, reinforcing textual connections between literature and social sciences and between aesthetic and cultural movements in America. Comprised of nine chapters and an introduction and conclusion, A Genealogy of Literature Multiculturalism examines the literature of four minority groups—African American, Asian American, Native American, and Mexican [End Page 411] American—applying what Douglas calls a three-phase development hypothesis in order to examine how these writers responded to and creatively misread social science literature focused on the status of minority groups. Of particular importance to Douglas’s analysis is Boas’s reconception of culture that replaced biologically determined understandings of race with a renovated interpretation of culture as “that which lay at the base of the group culture” (14), challenging American nativism by offering writers a model of minority culture grounded in historical particularism.
Douglas places writers in separate but sometimes overlapping phases, exploring Hurston and contemporary Native American writer D’Arcy McNickle as part of the first phase of multicultural minority writing (of the 1920s and 1930s). Both writers were empowered by the Boasian model of group identity as cultural rather than biological. Chapter 1 of Douglas’s genealogy examines the culture of anthropology as exemplified in both Hurston’s and McNickle’s literary and ethnographic roles, retaining folk histories through a form of salvage ethnography that valued “anthropology-mediated oral tradition” in their narratives (57). In situating Hurston at the center of this first phase of multiculturalism, Douglas persuasively reinforces her influence on third-phase writers such as Toni Morrison and Ishmael Reed, whom he examines more fully in subsequent chapters.
Concurrent with the development of Boasian cultural anthropology was the rival discipline of Parkian sociology, which influenced a generation of minority writers, especially Asian American, and formed the second phase of Douglas’s genealogy, which extends from 1940–65. In his analysis of Richard Wright (chapter 2), Douglas expands on the fulsome rivalry between Hurston and Wright, explaining that what was at stake between these two writers “was not just a difference in politics or aesthetics . . . but equally . . . a disciplinary argument between anthropology and sociology” (61). Parkian-inflected sociology offered Wright—who migrated from the Jim Crow South to Chicago—a means by which to articulate his experience and vision of black urban culture, reformulating Boas’s separation of culture from race though an analysis of “African American assimilation as a problem of social barriers to be overcome” (75). The impact of sociology on Asian American writers Jade Snow Wong and John Okada (chapters 3 and 4, respectively), allows Douglas to argue that Wong’s Chinese American autobiography (Fifth Chinese Daughter) and Okada’s Japanese American novel (No-No Boy) serve as paradigmatic examples of the probative impact of sociology on...