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Hemingway and the Black Renaissance ed. by Gary Edward Holcomb and Charles Scruggs (review)

From: The Hemingway Review
Volume 33, Number 1, Fall 2013
pp. 117-119 | 10.1353/hem.2013.0032

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Largely gathered from Hemingway panels and convention sessions organized by editors Gary Holcomb and Charles Scruggs since 2005, this collection of essays offers groundbreaking studies about the relationship between Ernest Hemingway and “the Black Renaissance.” Along with the editors’ extensive and quite lucid introduction, the collection contains nine essays varying in length, tone, and agenda. There is much to discuss. The subject has been either casually addressed or simply ignored by scholars skeptical about critical associations between mid-20th-century black writers—who suffered, survived, and surmounted in a pre-civil-rights era—and Hemingway, whose works such as Death in the Afternoon or Green Hills of Africa are often criticized for lacking a wider social consciousness and who himself evokes (for many) a particularly gritty, even apolitical white masculinity. Accordingly, the book’s value may derive less from any sense of finality (unchallengeable conclusions, say) than from a spirit of possibility.

Holcomb and Scruggs argue that previous scholarship has underestimated Hemingway’s presence in the lives and writings of 20th-century black authors. Citing such influential African-American scholars and writers as Henry Louis Gates, Houston Baker, and Toni Morrison, the editors contend that “the now accepted critical methodology of African American literature [is] the notion that literary texts by black authors originate from a black folk and vernacular tradition.” This methodology, they feel, ignores “the extent to which Hemingway’s stimulus was crucial” to African-American writers including Chester Himes, Albert Murray, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, and others (8). In this way, many of the essays in Hemingway and the Black Renaissance are intertextual readings such as Scruggs’s broad search for Hemingway’s “ghostly presence” in works by Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison; Joshua Parker’s mapping of Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room against the Parisian setting of The Sun Also Rises; and Roger Field’s account of Hemingway’s political and stylistic influences on the African Marxist Alex La Guma. Perhaps the most impressive chapter of this sort is Joseph Fruscione’s, which chronicles in great detail Ralph Ellison’s complex appropriation of Hemingway and his writing. Quoting Ellison, Fruscione posits that “In Ellison’s view, the ‘relatives’ he inherited—Wright and Hughes—were important but secondary to the ‘ancestors’ he chose”—among them Hemingway, whom Ellison deemed a “true father-as-artist” (78-79).

Undoubtedly, opinions may vary about the exact nature of praise for Hemingway from Ellison and other black writers. Ellison’s admiration goes well beyond casual commentary, but as contributors acknowledge, his early idealization waned into tempered criticism as he grew older. Other writers—Wright and Baldwin, for example—also expressed mixed views during their lifetimes. Thus, assessing Hemingway’s influence on black writers based solely on what those writers said or even wrote about Hemingway can be a delicate matter. When the characters in a Wallace Thurman narrative agree that “Hemingway exemplified the spirit of the twenties in America more vividly than any other contemporary American novelist” (qtd. in Holcomb and Scruggs 9), are we to conclude that Thurman is speaking of Hemingway’s influence on black writing or culture during the 1920s? Or, coming from a black character’s perspective, could this be a critical comment (even reproach) about which narratives really comprised the “spirit” of America during the 1920s? To this collection’s credit, such questions only point toward the thought-provoking range of material available for scholars working in this area.

While the primary thesis of Hemingway and the Black Renaissance is to demonstrate Hemingway’s influence on black literary figures, another aim is to demonstrate how Hemingway and black writers created, experimented with, and borrowed from similar techniques and styles, many relating to the Modernist appeal to “make it new.” As Mark P. Ott argues in his essay, although “Hemingway did not participate in the Harlem Renaissance per se… he coexisted in cultural clusters of exchange and influence, sharing with Hughes, Hurston, McKay, and others an aesthetic that sought to shock with allegiance to depicting both ugliness and beauty” (35). In another chapter, Holcomb argues that Hemingway and McKay each “marked out territory for his own articulation of the modern” (147), yet the territories...



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