How do you understand the relationship between the Harlem Renaissance, modernism, and/or modernity?
When I began working on the Harlem Renaissance in the late 1980s, the canon of American literature was divided along race and gender lines. With the recuperation of lost texts by women from the early twentieth century in the second wave of feminism came revisioning of that canon as narrowly conceived and reflective of inequalities in American life. The modernist canon was especially resistant to calls for widening its lens, but it too gradually opened the door to women writers under critical pressure from scholars like Shari Benstock, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Rita Felski, Lisa Rado, Bonnie Scott Kime, and Martha Vicinus, among others. Parallel with this challenge was the effort of African American Studies scholars to integrate the literary canon, and significant recovery work appeared from Henry Louis Gates Jr., Arnold Rampersad, Paul Lauter, Gloria Hull, Deborah McDowell, Barbara Christian, Cheryl Wall, and Hazel Carby. Today those recovery projects are moving forward in what to me is the most exciting aspect of modernist studies—the undermining of the elitist critical scaffolding on which the modernist canon has rested. I’m here thinking of radical critiques incorporating working-class, gay and lesbian, and Harlem Renaissance poets into the canon such as those by Cary Nelson, Walter Kalaidjian, Christa Schwartz, Mark Sanders, George Hutchinson, Heather Hathaway, and Seth Moglen, among many others.
As we have revised the canon to include these marginalized groups, it has become apparent that the five or six white male poets dominating American modernism shared deep political roots. A group of conservative southern intellectuals and poets in particular gained a foothold in academia during the 1930s. This group continued to consolidate its hold over how we defined modernism in the postwar years under the rubric of New Criticism, a model that privileged close reading of texts divorced from [End Page 441] their historical and biographical framework. It turned out that the modernist canon could not be diversified without overturning the critical lens on which it was formed. Scholarly investigations of the New American Poetry, or free verse, movement have uncovered the original roots of modernist poetry in Harriet Monroe’s Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, which came on the scene in 1912, and Alfred Kreymborg’s the Glebe, which appeared in 1913, followed by his influential Others: A Magazine of the New Verse in 1915, and Amy Lowell’s collaboration with Ezra Pound in promoting imagism during these years. These “little magazines,” along with anthologies of new imagist poets published by Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell at the beginning of World War I, encouraged a “new poetry,” as it came to be called, which emphasized plain diction, the ordinary, and the vernacular and was seen as quintessentially American—democratic, diverse, even revolutionary in its celebration of multiple individual visions infused with openness to a new way of being in tune with the melting pot of modern America.
Reconstituting the modernist poetic canon within its historical framework has revealed the central role of women, gay writers, and African Americans in the free verse revolution of the century’s second and third decades. As Mark Sanders says of the Harlem Renaissance and its relationship to the new poetry, “Rather than heightened fragmentation, this strand of American modernism stressed synthesis[,] … looking to indigenous sources for inspiration … for the reconception of American cultural identity” (132). Not only did Boston’s African American poet and editor William Stanley Braithwaite, as Suzanne Churchill and Ethan Jaffee say, supply a crucial link between New Negro and white poets with his yearly Anthology of Magazine Verse (1913–29) and his journal Poetry Review of America (1916–17), but modernist artistic circles from Harlem to Greenwich Village to Paris brought black and white poets together in mutually influential ways. Although the modernist poetic canon came later to be defined as the domain of a handful of white male “high modernists,” the original conception of New American Poetry was eclectic, multicultural, diverse and inclusive. We have only to look at Harriet Monroe and Alice Corbin Henderson’s various editions of their anthology The New Poetry from 1917 to 1946 to see...