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The Postwar African American Novel

Protest and Discontent, 1945-1950

Stephanie Brown

Publication Year: 2011

Americans in the World War II era bought the novels of African American writers in unprecedented numbers. But the names on the books lining shelves and filling barracks trunks were not the now-familiar Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, but Frank Yerby, Chester Himes, William Gardner Smith, and J. Saunders Redding.In this book, Stephanie Brown recovers the work of these innovative novelists, overturning conventional wisdom about the writers of the period and the trajectory of African American literary history. She also questions the assumptions about the relations between race and genre that have obscured the importance of these once-influential creators.Wright's Native Son (1940) is typically considered to have inaugurated an era of social realism in African-American literature. And Ellison's Invisible Man (1952) has been cast as both a high mark of American modernism and the only worthy stopover on the way to the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. But readers in the late 1940s purchased enough copies of Yerby's historical romances to make him the best-selling African American author of all time. Critics, meanwhile, were taking note of the generic experiments of Redding, Himes, and Smith, while the authors themselves questioned the obligation of black authors to write protest, instead penning campus novels, war novels, and, in Yerby's case, "costume dramas." Their status as "lesser lights" is the product of retrospective bias, Brown demonstrates, and their novels established the period immediately following World War II as a pivotal moment in the history of the African American novel.

Published by: University Press of Mississippi


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pp. vii

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pp. 3-6

A short article in a recent issue of the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education echoed what is likely to be common knowledge among English teachers: Of the many possible indicators of canonicity in African American literature, the roster of CliffsNotes titles is one of the most reliable (“Black Authors”). The author noted that of the 247 works available in 2001 from CliffsNotes, the 16 by black writers, ranging from Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass to Ernest Gaines’s A Lesson before Dying, undoubtedly make up the core of African American literary texts offered in college English classes. Of course, 16 books can give only the sketchiest representation of the literary output of a period of nearly 150 years. Perhaps it is inevitable, then, that only two novelists represent African American literature from 1940 until 1965 and that they are Richard Wright...

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CHAPTER ONE: Beyond Protest: Retracing the Margins of the Postwar African American Novel

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pp. 7-40

To re-create the conditions of the production of the African American novel between 1945 and 1950, we must not only recover the lost voices of the time, we must pry open a space in the critical models available for theorizing postwar African American culture. Critical reassessments of this era have proliferated in the past twenty years, with the end of the Cold War providing cultural historians with both a sense of closure for a long-standing global narrative and a rich source of archival materials from the former Soviet Union and its satellites. Early contributions to the field include Lary May’s pioneering collection...

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CHAPTER TWO: “If I Can Only Get It Funny!”: Chester Himes’s Parodic Protest Novels

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pp. 41-66

Of all of the African American writers working in the 1940s, possibly none had a more contentious relationship with the genre of the African American protest novel than Chester Himes, whose If He Hollers Let Him Godebuted in the autumn of 1945, just as Americans, black and white, were coming to terms with the fact that World War II had finally ended. If He...

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CHAPTER THREE: Frank Yerby and the “Costume Drama” of Southern Historiography

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pp. 76-107

While only a careful rereading of Chester Himes’s If He Hollers Let Him Go reveals its critique of the strictures of the protest novel form for black postwar writers, the briefest glance at The Foxes of Harrow, Frank Yerby’s 1946 debut novel, seems sufficient to judge its author’s lack of commitment to Wright’s blueprint. The cover, featuring illustrations of handsome white people in period costume and trumpeting the “fire and blood and white- hot passion” of the story of Stephen Fox, an Irish immigrant turned antebellum ...

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CHAPTER FOUR: William Gardner Smith and the Cosmopolitan War Novel

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pp. 99-131

William Gardner Smith’s aesthetic and philosophical approach to his first novel, Last of the Conquerors, was the obverse of Frank Yerby’s. Yerby’s decision to write popular historical costume novels set in the antebellum South followed his limited success with protest-oriented short stories and unsuccessful attempts to find a publisher for a social realist novel with a contemporary middle-class African American protagonist. Smith, however, was a decade younger than Yerby and never expected to write protest fiction at all. Although ...

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CHAPTER FIVE: J. Saunders Redding and the African American Campus Novel

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pp. 132-160

Like so many of his contemporaries, eminent African American literary historian and critic J. Saunders Redding is today largely unknown. Yet his long and complex career, in which he was excoriated for holding positions deemed too radical in the 1930s and insufficiently radical in the 1960s, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. observes, “reflects the irony and paradox of Afro-American thought” in the mid–twentieth century (“Introduction” xi). Redding, whose politics were sometimes inconsistent, has the distinction of having been roundly criticized as ...

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pp. 161-164

A representation of the immediate postwar period in African American literature as little more than a series of repetitive protest novels does a disservice to an era that was in fact marked by experimentation and debate. Nevertheless, all of the authors presented here used their post- war debut novels to respond to the protest genre—some defiantly, others obliquely. And the experience of writing these early books and their subsequent reception also clearly marked the remainder of these authors’ careers. Chester Himes and Frank Yerby became ...


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pp. 165-172

Works Cited

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pp. 173-186


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pp. 187-194

E-ISBN-13: 9781604739749
E-ISBN-10: 1604739746
Print-ISBN-13: 9781604739732
Print-ISBN-10: 1604739738

Page Count: 176
Publication Year: 2011