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James Weldon Johnson's Modern Soundscapes

Noelle Morrissette

Publication Year: 2013

James Weldon Johnson’s Modern Soundscapes provides an evocative and meticulously researched study of one of the best known and yet least understood authors of the New Negro Renaissance era. Johnson, familiar to many as an early civil rights leader active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and an intentionally controversial writer on the subject of the significance of race in America, was one of the most prolific, wide-ranging, and yet elusive authors of twentieth-century African American literature.

Johnson realized early in his writing career that he could draw attention to the struggles of African Americans by using unconventional literary methods such as the incorporation of sound into his texts. In this groundbreaking work, literary critic Noelle Morrissette examines how his literary representation of the extremes of sonic experience—functioning as either cultural violence or creative force—draws attention to the mutual contingencies and the interdependence of American and African American cultures. Moreover, Morrissette argues, Johnson represented these “American sounds” as a source of multiplicity and diversity, often developing a framework for the interracial transfer of sound. The lyricist and civil rights leader used sound as a formal aesthetic practice in and between his works, presenting it as an unbounded cultural practice that is as much an interracial as it is a racially distinct cultural history.

Drawing on archival materials such as early manuscript notes and drafts of Johnson’s unpublished and published work, Morrissette explores the author’s complex aesthetic of sound, based on black expressive culture and cosmopolitan interracial experiences. This aesthetic evolved over the course of his writing life, beginning with his early Broadway musical comedy smash hits and the composition of Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), and developing through his “real” autobiography, Along This Way (1933). The result is an innovative new interpretation of the works of one of the early twentieth century’s most important and controversial writers and civil rights leaders. 

Published by: University of Iowa Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Quote

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pp. 2-9


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pp. ix-x


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pp. xi-xvi

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Introduction: The Ragtime Reinventions of James Weldon (William) Johnson

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pp. 1-32

When he died in a tragic train- and- automobile accident in 1938, James Weldon Johnson, an American modern and a racial forerunner whose life and achievements were the embodiment of possibility, was widely viewed as one of the most influential people in American literary and political life. The...

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Chapter 1: Biography of the Race: Musical Comedy and the Modern Soundscape of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

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pp. 33-64

Jacksonville, Florida, 1901. It was a sunny May day, the kind with a playful breeze that shifts direction north, east, south, and west. Midday found most laborers at the Cleaveland Fiber Factory returning to work from their lunch break, only to discover the entire city block, including the factory, aflame. By the time the playful breeze had turned into gusts and gales, the fire had spread through the neighborhood, ...

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Chapter 2: Cultures of Talk: Diplomacy, Nation, and Race in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

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pp. 65-82

The much-neglected work The Evolution of Rag-time was a precursor to Johnson’s sound- based experimentation in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. This early piece demonstrates more clearly the emerging aesthetic—based on black expressive practices at the margins of the nation—that Johnson’s novel initiates, developed...

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Chapter 3: The Interpolated Body: Passing, Same-Sex Talk, and Discursive Formations in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

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pp. 83-95

Grace Neil and James Weldon Johnson's active civic participation demonstrated their commitment to local culture and politics as well as their value of “talk” in such forums as the Civic Club, the New York Society for Ethical Culture, and the James Weldon Johnson Literary Guild. In spaces such as the male- oriented Venezuelan pool hall and the feminist club of New York’s “white” Bohemia—Greenwich...

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Chapter 4: Cosmopolitan travels: Diplomacy, Translation, and Performance in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (Der weisse Neger, 1928) and God's Trombones

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pp. 96-132115

In Along This Way, Johnson describes his composition of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” a commemoration of Emancipation that began modestly, on the Johnson family home’s front porch in Jacksonville, and grew to national prominence through its rehearsal by the voices of Jacksonville children emanating outward, as a process...

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Chapter 5: Framing Black Expressive Culture: Prefaces to The Book of American Negro Poetry, The Book of American Negro Spirituals, and God's Trombones

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pp. 116-137

In the period of Johnson's most vigorous poetic composition, 1917–27, the author, with the support of the black editor and anthologist William Stanley Braithwaite, took on the project of editing and anthologizing black poetry from the modern era, situating its beginning with Paul Laurence Dunbar. Johnson’s editorial vision produced the trailblazing...

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Chapter 6: “The Creation” : God's Trombones and Johnson's Formation of a Black Modernist Poetics

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pp. 138-149

In the eleven or so years between 1919 and 1930, poetry became a major platform for advancing broader arguments about a distinctively American form of literature. Within this conversation about culture, art, and nation, black authors created innovative forms of modernism that sometimes went unrecognized by white editors at the “little magazines.” Such was Johnson’s experience as he sought the...

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Chapter 7: From Noun to Verb: Black Phonographic Voice in Black Manhattan

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pp. 150-166

Black Manhattan (1930), Johnson's social history of black New York and the black theater and arts, functions simultaneously as Johnson’s preliminary autobiography, predating the publication of Along This Way by just three years. The two works were composed at the same time and subjected to a gradual process of distinguishing the one from the other. One of the most telling indications of this process...

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Chapter 8: Not the story of my life: Along This Way

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pp. 167-184

Autobiography operates in crucial ways in the period framed by Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) and Along This Way (1933), his most productive years of writing. In between Johnson’s works, autobiography becomes revolutionized, unanchored from its moorings in convention and chronology, as it swings...

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Afterword: Remembering James Weldon Johnson

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pp. 185-206

In 1938, the year of the Depression’s second dip, Johnson was still riding high, enjoying the success of his national and local reputation as literary man and literary counsel—“father confessor,” as Gwendolyn Bennett praised him in January 1938.1 In February 1938 Viking laid plans for the simultaneous reprint of all three of Johnson’s publications with the press: ...


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pp. 207-226


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pp. 227-236


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pp. 237-243

E-ISBN-13: 9781609381592
E-ISBN-10: 1609381599
Print-ISBN-13: 9781609381585
Print-ISBN-10: 1609381580

Page Count: 260
Illustrations: 9 photos
Publication Year: 2013

Edition: paper