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  • Race Literature, Modernism, and Normal Literature:James Weldon Johnson’s Groundwork for an African American Literary Renaissance, 1912–20
  • Michael Nowlin (bio)

I’ll recommend a book or two on form—etc.; however, you should not pay too much attention to conventional form; your forte is your unconventionality. Still, there must be form. There can be no real art without form. But form for you does not mean lines measured off into lengths of just so many feet in each, with an anticipated rhyme at the endings.

James Weldon Johnson to Anne Spencer

Among the congratulatory letters James Weldon Johnson received upon the New Year’s Day publication in the New York Times of “Fifty Years” (1913), his poem commemorating the anniversary of emancipation, none so uncannily hit on the ambition underlying it than that of novelist Charles Chesnutt, who had been one of black America’s great literary hopes a decade earlier.1 In Johnson he saw a worthy successor, someone to whom he could pass on a torch he had put down in disappointment in 1905 before descending into relative obscurity:

It is the finest thing I have ever read on the subject, which is saying a good deal, and the finest thing I have seen from the pen of a colored writer for a long time—which is not saying quite so much.

If you can find themes which will equally inspire you, why may you not become the poet for which the race is waiting?2 [End Page 503]

Johnson was working to become just that. He had also just published a work of fiction in the guise of an anonymous memoir, which might make him the race’s breakthrough novelist as well. Johnson was on the verge of launching a major literary career for himself, one that aimed to make the parochial connotations of the phrase “colored writer” a thing of the past. And yet by the end of the decade, Johnson was far from being the national literary figure he had dreamed of becoming. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) and the volume Fifty Years and Other Poems (1917), both published by small, genteel Boston firms, garnered some respectable reviews but sold modestly and were soon out of print. And most early readers of the novel did not know Johnson to be its author. By the end of the decade, Johnson was best known for his political leadership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

But Johnson had hardly abandoned his literary aspirations; they became subsumed, rather, under his worries about the collective literary situation of African Americans. Those worries can be summed up by Pascale Casanova’s phrase “literary destitution,” a condition Johnson described as forthrightly as anyone: “The American Negro has done very little so far in literature; that is, very little in pure literature,” he wrote in 1918. “Colored writers have written a great many pamphlets and books,” he acknowledged, “but the great majority of these writings have been entirely polemical…. [T]he truth is that one piece of pure literature is worth one hundred or one thousand pieces of that sort of writing.”3 It is precisely black America’s situation of literary destitution at the outset of the 1920s that makes recent efforts to read the Harlem Renaissance through “modernist” critical lenses often strained, since the main architects of a specifically “modernist” literature took various literary legacies as well as the option of ostensibly refusing to tailor their work for public approbation and commercial success more or less for granted.4 The Harlem Renaissance is thus more accurately understood as a movement on behalf of a “normal” African American literature, a term I appropriate from Franco Moretti in order to clarify what Johnson meant by “pure literature”: that regularly produced literature recognized as such by its aesthetic intent, its fictionality, its entertainment (and edification) value, its commercial viability, its potentially “universal” appeal.5 He looked to quantity as the best means of ensuring a general elevation of quality, whose ideal fruit would be a few African American writers “of the first magnitude” (on the internationally consecrated order, say, of Aeschylus and Shakespeare, Alexander Pushkin...


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pp. 503-518
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