- New Essays on the African American Novel: From Hurston and Ellison to Morrison and Whitehead
In commenting on New Essays on the African American Novel: From Hurston and Ellison to Morrison and Whitehead, one may not be prompted to say that it is good, but that it is worthy. Calling a book good in a review has too much of a connotation that, at best, it will be found merely useful by the reader, at worst, merely enjoyable. However, the subject being addressed seems too important for either motivation for owning it and reading it: the purpose here is partially to explore the evolution, as the book's introduction by the editors puts it, of the African American novel, and surely to serve partly as a corrective to previously missing portions of this record.
Certainly explorations and discussions of the African American novel have occurred before, but New Essays came about in great part due to a conference on the subject held at Pennsylvania State University in 2005, and the aforementioned introduction also slightly narrows the field of examination in one early passage: the articles assess "the impact of the African American vernacular tradition . . . on the structure and style of the African American novel" (1). To put it another way, there is agreement here that generally, the African American cultural tradition has something special to offer to the conventions of other artistic media. That something special involves the vernacular, and while this may today strike the average listener as suggesting an intimately oral manner of communication that stems from the oppression that went hand in hand with the history of the United States itself, the word also has its roots in the Latin vernaculus, meaning native, but it comes from verna, which refers to a "slave born in the master's house." It is a word that simultaneously suggests roots in slavery, but with an increasing right to citizenship and equality.
So how does this book approach these facts and agreements? With fifteen articles on the era of Charles Chesnutt, on blues narratology, on psychology in Invisible Man, on music and Clarence Major; a combination of already exposed topics (Toni Morrison's Paradise, dealt with partly or wholly in two different articles) and those in need of new light (Edward Christopher Williams's The Letters of Davy Carr: A True Story of Colored Vanity Fair, published in 1925-26; and ranges from the contemporary (Colson Whitehead) to, well, Charles Chesnutt's era. Some articles clearly focus on a given book, some on a given theme, and some on just a broader relevant topic.
Still, given this tendency toward an appropriately wide overview, it's also interesting to use this brand-new collection of articles as an augury for trends in literary analysis. It is good to see the growing trend toward more critical work on Octavia Butler. It is true that Butler has not been ignored in the last decade or two, but there nonetheless continues to be room for discussion of her works, both old and new. Likewise, it should not come as a surprise to any who have read them that Colson Whitehead's novels The Intuitionist and John Henry Days would gather increasing academic interest as time progressed, and there are two articles about him here. One may be intrigued by the way that Howard Rambsy's article "The Rise of Colson Whitehead: Hi-Tech Narratives and Literary Ascent" is as much (or more) about how Whitehead is getting attention from the literary community while other African American novelists are not, as it is about Whitehead's work itself—although most Americans have not heard of Whitehead. Of course, most Americans have not heard of Ishmael Reed either, but Rambsy's point is partly that Whitehead's success as a young writer is so unusual that it (arguably) allows one to examine the very mechanics of successfully marketed innovation as they apply to contemporary African American authorship. Rambsy's point about...