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Research in African Literatures 32.4 (2001) 147-154

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Tributes to Bernth Lindfors

Bernth Lindfors and the Archive of African Literature

Kenneth W. Harrow

In studying the work of Ben Lindfors, one gets the impression that it spans the entire history of African literature: that he began the study of African literature not only when it was in its infancy, but that he was part of that beginning of the critical work. His books and articles have been published with increasing frequency, and in recent years have encompassed more and more of the performative and historical aspects of the discipline, thus following something of the disciplinary shift from the earlier tracing of historical sources and influences and biographical studies to the cultural studies emphasis on context and performativity. In that, Lindfors has continued to be a bellwether for the discipline. The prestige journal of African literary studies, Research in African Literatures, was begun by Lindfors whose editorship continued until 1990 when he finally yielded the helm to Richard Bjornson.

A discipline has many components. The generations of writers associated with the University of Texas, either as teachers, scholar-writers, or as visitors, began to appear in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The students of that period are now part of a cohort of major scholars, figures like Richard Priebe, Ian Munro, Reinhard Sanders. The production of scholars and scholarship has not ceased for more than three decades. During this same [End Page 147] period, roughly the early 1970s to the present, the African Literature Association was formed as an offshoot of the African Studies Association, 1 which had alienated many of the scholars working in literature. The reasons generally given for the split were the ASA's failure to focus on literature, and, more importantly, the desire for greater political engagement on the part of the literature faction in contrast with the studied scholarly neutrality of the ASA. Lindfors was one of the founders of the ALA, one of its earliest presidents, one of the major forces in its growth. The discipline in every one of its aspects was marked by his input.

The purpose of this paper is not to present a simple encomium. Ben Lindfors, a good friend for many years, is very much alive and productive, and I prefer not to treat him and his work as though it were a frozen, fixed body of works, but rather a living oeuvre with its own decided stances, strengths, and weaknesses. I do not want to give an assessment as much as to seek to understand what I believe are the principal lines of development it created and fostered: Lindfors's principles, as it were. In doing this I will be examining not only a corpus of works, but a field. To begin with the limits of that field it should be understood that Lindfors has worked primarily in anglophonic literature, and in his early work almost exclusively in anglophonic literature. Many American researchers did the same, and as a result when the term "African literature" was employed, it often referred to literature written in English, not francophone or lusophone, and not African language literature. Where there are important exceptions to this, as in the case of D. O. Fagunwa's work, it is still within the context of an anglophonic country, Nigeria, and in terms of his relationship to and influence on other anglophonic Nigerian authors like Amos Tutuola.

Secondly, from the beginning African literature was treated as a body of worthy texts whose authors had to struggle against European prejudices to establish their pride of place. That place was taken when major novelists were able to produce complex and carefully crafted texts, texts that could justifiably be placed alongside those of their European counterparts. There was a definite measure of worthiness that underscored all critical judgments of the 1960s and 1970s so that, in the end, the African Writers Series (AWS), edited by Chinua Achebe and published by Heinemann--for many years the collaborative work of James Currey and John Watson--resulted increasingly in what...


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