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The Poetics and Politics of Modernism
After the Second World War Gertrude Stein asked a friend's support in securing a visa for Richard Wright to visit Paris.
"I've got to help him, she said. You see, we are both members of a minority group."
The brief, little-noted friendship of Stein and Wright began in 1945 with a letter. Over the next fifteen months, the two kept up a lively correspondence which culminated in Wright's visit to Paris in May 1946 and ended with Stein's death a few months later.
Gertrude Stein and Richard Wright began their careers as marginals within marginalized groups, and their desire to live peacefully in unorthodox marriages led them away from America and into permanent exile in France. Still the obvious differences between them-in class, ethnic and racial origins, and in artistic expression-beg the question: What was there to talk about? This question opens a window onto each writer's meditations on the influence of racial, ethnic, national origins on the formation of identity in a modern and post-modern world.
The intuitive and intellectual affinities between Stein and Wright are illuminated in several works of non-fiction. Stein's Paris France and Wright's Pagan Spain are meditations on expatriation and creativity. Their so-called homecoming narratives-Stein's Everybody's Autobiography and Wright's Black Power --examine concepts of racial and national identity in a post-modernist world. Respectively in Lectures in America and White Man, Listen! Stein and Wright outline the ways in which the poetics and politics of modernism are inextricably bound.
At the close of the twentieth century the meditations of Stein and Wright on the protean quality of individual identity and its artistic, social, and political expression explore the most prescient and pressing issues of our time and beyond.
M. Lynn Weiss is an assistant professor of English and African-American literature at Washington University.
More than 200,000 African American soldiers fought in World War I, and returning troops frequently spoke of "color-blind" France. Such cosmopolitan experiences, along with the brutal, often desegregated no-man's-land between the trenches, forced African American artists and writers to reexamine their relationship to mainstream (white) American culture.
The war represented a seminal moment for African Americans, and in the 1920s and 1930s it became a touchstone for such diverse cultural concerns as the pan-African impulse, the burgeoning civil rights movement, and the redefinition of black masculinity.
In examining the legacy of the Great War on African American culture, Mark Whalan considers the work of such canonical writers as W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Nella Larsen, and Alain Locke. In addition, he considers the legacy of the war for African Americans as represented in film, photography, and anthropology, with a particular focus on the photographer James VanDerZee.
Nationalism and the Bildungsroman in African American and Jewish American Fiction
Growing Up Ethnic examines the presence of literary similarities between African American and Jewish American coming-of-age stories in the first half of the twentieth century; often these similarities exceed what could be explained by sociohistorical correspondences alone. Martin Japtok argues that these similarities result from the way both African American and Jewish American authors have conceptualized their "ethnic situation." The issue of "race" and its social repercussions certainly defy any easy comparisons. However, the fact that the ethnic situations are far from identical in the case of these two groups only highlights the striking thematic correspondences in how a number of African American and Jewish American coming-of-age stories construct ethnicity. Japtok studies three pairs of novels--James Weldon Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man and Samuel Ornitz's Haunch, Paunch and Jowl, Jessie Fauset's Plum Bun and Edna Ferber's Fanny Herself, and Paule Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstones and Anzia Yezierska's Bread Giver--and argues that the similarities can be explained with reference to mainly two factors, ultimately intertwined: cultural nationalism and the Bildungsroman genre. Growing Up Ethnic shows that the parallel configurations in the novels, which often see ethnicity in terms of spirituality, as inherent artistic ability, and as communal responsibility, are rooted in nationalist ideology. However, due to the authors' generic choice--the Bildungsroman--the tendency to view ethnicity through the rhetorical lens of communalism and spiritual essence runs head-on into the individualist assumptions of the protagonist-centered Bildungsroman. The negotiations between these ideological counterpoints characterize the novels and reflect and refract the intellectual ferment of their time. This fresh look at ethnic American literatures in the context of cultural nationalism and the Bildungsroman will be of great interest to students and scholars of literary and race studies.
J. McHenry Jones’s Hearts of Gold is a gripping tale of post-Civil War battles against racism and systemic injustice. Originally published in 1896, this novel reveals an African American community of individuals dedicated to education, journalism, fraternal organizations, and tireless work serving the needs of those abandoned by the political process of the white world. Jones challenges conventional wisdom by addressing a range of subjects—from interracial relationships to forced labor in coal mines—that virtually no other novelist of the time was willing to approach. With the addition of an introduction and appendix, this new edition reveals the difficult foundations upon which African Americans built a platform to address injustice; generate opportunities; and play a prominent role in American social, economic, and political life.
Hemingway and the Black Renaissance, edited by Gary Edward Holcomb and Charles Scruggs, explores a conspicuously overlooked topic: Hemingway’s wide-ranging influence on writers from the Harlem Renaissance to the present day. An observable who’s who of black writers—Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Wallace Thurman, Chester Himes, Alex la Guma, Derek Walcott, Gayl Jones, and more—cite Hemingway as a vital influence. This inspiration extends from style, Hemingway’s minimalist art, to themes of isolation and loneliness, the dilemma of the expatriate, and the terrifying experience of living in a time of war. The relationship, nevertheless, was not unilateral, as in the case of Jean Toomer’s 1923 hybrid, short-story cycle Cane, which influenced Hemingway’s collage-like 1925 In Our Time. Just as important as Hemingway’s influence, indeed, is the complex intertextuality, the multilateral conversation, between Hemingway and key black writers. The diverse praises by black writers for Hemingway in fact signify that the white author’s prose rises out of the same intensely American concerns that their own writings are formed on: the integrity of the human subject faced with social alienation, psychological violence, and psychic disillusionment. An understanding of this literary kinship ultimately initiates not only an appreciation of Hemingway’s stimulus but also a perception of an insistent black presence at the core of Hemingway’s writing.
Race and Shame in America
As Bill Clinton said in his second inaugural address, “The divide of race has been America’s constant curse.” In Honor Bound, David Leverenz explores the past to the present of that divide. He argues that in the United States, the rise and decline of white people’s racial shaming reflect the rise and decline of white honor. “White skin” and “black skin” are fictions of honor and shame. Americans have lived those fictions for over four hundred years.To make his argument, Leverenz casts an unusually wide net, from ancient and modern cultures of honor to social, political, and military history to American literature and popular culture.He highlights the convergence of whiteness and honor in the United States from the antebellum period to the present. The Civil War, the civil rights movement, and the election of Barack Obama represent racial progress; the Tea Party movement represents the latest recoil.From exploring African American narratives to examining a 2009 episode of Hardball—in which two white commentators restore their honor by mocking U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder after he called Americans “cowards” for not talking more about race—Leverenz illustrates how white honor has prompted racial shaming and humiliation. The United States became a nation-state in which light-skinned people declared themselves white. The fear masked by white honor surfaces in such classics of American literature as The Scarlet Letter and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and in the U.S. wars against the Barbary pirates from 1783 to 1815 and the Iraqi insurgents from 2003 to the present. John McCain’s Faith of My Fathers is used to frame the 2008 presidential campaign as white honor’s last national stand.Honor Bound concludes by probing the endless attempts in 2009 and 2010 to preserve white honor through racial shaming, from the “birthers” and Tea Party protests to Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” in Congress and the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. at the front door of his own home. Leverenz is optimistic that, in the twenty-first century, racial shaming is itself becoming shameful.
Verbal and Visual Strategies of the Harlem Renaissance
Focusing on the years from 1922 to 1938, this book revisits an important moment in black cultural history to explore how visual elements were used in poems, novels, and photography to undermine existing stereotypes. Miriam Thaggert identifies and analyzes an early form of black American modernism characterized by a heightened level of experimentation with visual and verbal techniques for narrating and representing blackness. The work of the writers and artists under discussion reflects the creative tension between the intangibility of some forms of black expression, such as spirituals, and the materiality of the body evoked by other representations of blackness, such as “Negro” dialect. By paying special attention to the contributions of photographers and other visual artists who have not been discussed in previous accounts of black modernism, Thaggert expands the scope of our understanding of the Harlem Renaissance and contributes to a growing recognition of the importance of visual culture as a distinct element within, and not separate from, black literary studies. Thaggert trains her critical eye on the work of James Weldon Johnson, Nella Larsen, George Schuyler, Carl Van Vechten, James Van Der Zee, and Aaron Siskind—artists who experimented with narrative and photographic techniques in order to alter the perception of black images and to question and reshape how one reads and sees the black body. Examining some of the more problematic authors and artists of black modernism, she challenges entrenched assumptions about black literary and visual representations of the early to mid twentieth century. Thaggert concludes her study with a close look at the ways in which Harlem and the Harlem Renaissance were reimagined and memorialized in two notable texts—Wallace Thurman’s 1932 satire Infants of the Spring and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s controversial 1969 exhibition “Harlem on My Mind: The Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900–1968.”