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A Change in the Weather

Modernist Imagination, African American Imaginary

Geoffrey Jacques and Geoffrey Jacques

Publication Year: 2009

This book explores the impact of African American culture on modernist poetic language by placing black literature and culture at the center of an inquiry into the genealogy of avant-garde poetics. Geoffrey Jacques looks at how blackface minstrelsy, ragtime, vernacular languages, advertising copy, Freud’s idea of the Uncanny, vaudeville, the cliché, and Tin Pan Alley–style song all influenced modernist poetry. In a key insight, Jacques points out that the black urban community in the United States did not live in ghettos during the years before World War I, but in smaller enclaves spread out among the general population. This circumstance helped catalyze African American culture’s dramatic and surprising impact on the emergent avant-garde. By using a wide range of theoretical tools, Jacques poses new questions about literary, cultural, and social history, the history and structure of modernist poetic language, canon formation, and the history of criticism.This contribution to the ongoing debate over early twentieth-century culture presents modernism as an interracial, cross-cultural project, arguing for a new appreciation of the central role black culture played within it. Writers and artists whose works are discussed include Marianne Moore, Charles Chesnutt, Jean Toomer, Wallace Stevens, James A. Bland, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Gertrude Stein, Bert Williams, Zora Neale Hurston, Samuel Beckett, W. C. Handy, Hart Crane, and Clement Greenberg.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press


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pp. i-ii

Title Page

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pp. iii-iii

Copyright Page

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pp. iv-iv

Table of Contents

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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-xii

The thought experiment that animates the ideas and arguments explored in this book comes from a lifelong engagement with modernist literature and culture. Modernism is conventionally identified as a movement in art and thought that started in a few countries of Europe and the Americas, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The story goes that modernism in the arts meant, among other things, nonobjective painting; free verse and the rise of abstraction, the image, and the vernacular in poetry; the emergence of film, recorded sound, and commercial sound recordings; dissonant, syncopated, and atonal music; and the psychological novel and stream of consciousness narrative. The movement also has been portrayed...

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pp. 1-26

It may seem an unlikely gesture to start a discussion about the relationship of modernist literature to African American culture by invoking the American barbershop. Nevertheless, I want to offer the barbershop as a point of departure from which we can renew our understanding of the origins of modernism, and especially modernist poetic language. This book is about poetic language, and about the impact both African American culture and black artists had on the emergence of a particularly modernist poetic language. In order to see that impact more clearly, I...

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Chapter One: Haunted

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pp. 27-57

The idea that black culture haunts American literature was suggested by Toni Morrison, who identified what she calls an “Africanist presence” (6) in American literature. Whereas Morrison is primarily concerned with the means by which this haunting takes place as a function of fictional rhetoric and character development, I am concerned with this trope as a function of poetic language and style. In an attempt to expand the idea of this “presence” by examining its function at the semantic...

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Chapter Two: Lyric

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pp. 58-83

At least one overlooked point of departure for modernist poetry in English can be found in an old saloon in Sedalia, Missouri. It was at the Maple Leaf Club, on Main Street in that city, at the end of the nineteenth century, that one of the major revolutions in the English-language lyric began to stir. It was a revolution that would soon find its way into the body of twentiethcentury poetry. It is not quite a story of modernism popping, like a genie, out of a bottle of rye; rather, it is an attempt...

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Chapter Three: Minstrel

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pp. 84-109

It is useful at this stage to remind ourselves of the characteristics of laughter as understood by Mikhail Bakhtin: its universality, “its indissoluble and essential relation to freedom” and its “relation to the people’s unofficial truth” (Rabelais and His World 89, 90). The heyday of modernist culture in the 1920s was also the heyday of the silent film comedy, exemplified by the movies of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton. Walter Benjamin offers the comment...

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Chapter Four: Vaudeville

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pp. 110-148

The use of the term “vaudeville” as a metaphor for the modernist project is one that goes back to the beginnings of modernism itself. Music hall performers and dancers inspired the English Decadent and Symbolist poets, and Arthur Symons, in his collection London Nights (1895), is considered to have created a classic expression of the connection the precursors of modernism (who thought of themselves as...

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pp. 149-160

It continues to surprise me that the argument put forth in this book still has to be made at this rather late date in our cultural history. Yet daily immersion in contemporary cultural discourse continues to drive home the point that we do not yet really know the importance of African American culture to the history of our culture as a whole. This may seem an odd claim, since artifacts of black culture are...


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pp. 161-166

Works Cited

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pp. 167-178


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pp. 179-185

Back Cover

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p. 186

E-ISBN-13: 9781613761151
E-ISBN-10: 1613761155
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558496873
Print-ISBN-10: 1558496874

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2009

OCLC Number: 794701548
MUSE Marc Record: Download for A Change in the Weather

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • American poetry -- African American authors -- History and criticism.
  • Influence (Literary, artistic, etc.).
  • African American aesthetics.
  • American poetry -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • Modernism (Literature) -- United States.
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