- Poetry:1900 to the 1940s
There is a retrospective quality about the scholarship this year, at the turn of the millennium. Far from apocalyptic, most publications revisit questions that need further thought. No revolution is at hand that was not already under way. However, earlier revolutions—formalist, theoretical, and cultural—are beginning to mature and to be more widely incorporated into the assumptions of critical readers. A book on Sterling Brown's Afro-modernist aesthetics demands attention, as does another that discusses the artistic impact of the political Left on Brown, Langston Hughes, and other African American poets. A book about the intertextuality of H.D. and Sapphic Hellenism adds to a growing discussion. Another study of modernism's "queer poetics" in five women writers reflects the widespread integration of formalist close readings with questions of cultural history. The year's work includes a new biography of Robert Frost's connection to feminine sentimental and regional traditions, and a study of Wallace Stevens's experimental poetics. Two figures from the era of the New Critics appear in their role as poets: Robert Penn Warren in a study of his romanticism and Yvor Winters in a new book of selected poems. Scholars show their continuing interest in Claude McKay, Mina Loy, William Carlos Williams, W. H. Auden, and Hart Crane in multiple essays and books.
i Sterling Brown and Langston Hughes
In 1994, Michael North's influential study, The Dialect of Modernism (see AmLS 1994, pp. 135–36, 400–401), concluded that dialect writing did not benefit African American writers because, rather than linking them to aesthetic innovation, it was associated with both minstrelsy and non-aesthetic considerations such as the Communist Party's political agenda [End Page 361] reflected in Nancy Cunard's anthology, Negro. North limited his argument in part by separating the '30s from modernism, and he omitted any consideration of Sterling Brown's dialect poetry. This year, two books make the case that Brown is an artist who might force us to reconsider this history.
In place of a literary history that puts a separate high modernism and the Harlem Renaissance into an uneasy relationship, Mark A. Sanders in Afro-Modernist Aesthetics and the Poetry of Sterling A. Brown (Georgia) takes Brown as the very model for an expanded definition. Brown's poetic work in the '20s and '30s, Sanders aims to demonstrate, points to an eclectic rather than exclusivist modernist period. Sanders situates Brown's project in an aesthetic history as well as a political one. Brown creates a "rich complexity" through tropes, voice, ritual, and the construction of personae, although his is an artistry that masters and revises conventions from both the Western tradition and from the African American folk. Critics still focus too much on Brown's "authenticity" and ignore his modernity. Sanders locates Brown and the New Negro movement in an expanded, heterodox modern literary history, stemming from Whitman's democratic and oral poetics, from the new anthropology of Franz Boas with its view of culture as relative and its emphasis on a "politicized aesthetics," and from American pragmatism, including descendants such as Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank, William Carlos Williams, and Max Eastman, who were trying to found a national literature based on the vernacular.
Sanders points out that Brown's travels to the South after his New England education furnished him not only with rich folk material but also with the journey of return as a governing metaphor, a position that made him an outsider to the more urban New Negro Renaissance associated with Harlem. In his first collection of poems, Southern Road, dialect poetry functions as a response to James Weldon Johnson's attack on dialect and also as a critique of Northern city culture. Brown gives folk culture agency, dynamism, and aesthetic significance. The "road" as master trope signifies mobility and the chance for transformation, a myth of liberation or emancipation that shares a Whitmanesque sense of optimism. But the road of "liminality" encompasses tragedy and ambiguity at the same time that it leads beyond the borders and limits of racial construction. Brown reappropriates historical forms ( John Henry, Stagolee, Casey Jones) for the future with a "double...