- The Collage Aesthetic in the Harlem Renaissance
Rachel Farebrother’s The Collage Aesthetic in the Harlem Renaissance is a book that fulfills its promises. Quite contrary to the form upon which it focuses, it guides the reader clearly, linearly, and compellingly through its central argument. By the end of our reading of the book, we can never think about Harlem Renaissance writing again without thinking about collage patterns and the “historical, aesthetic, and political burdens of these recurring patterns” (2). Looking at works by Alain Locke, Jean Toomer, and Zora Neale Hurston, Farebrother borrows her key term from the visual arts in order to get at the prevalence of both ”fragmentation” and “synthesis” in these writers’ work focusing on “technical innovation,” the politics of such formal strategies, and “neglected, often transatlantic, connections between modernism and the Harlem Renaissance” (3). What makes the book even more interesting is that Farebrother sees collage also as a central trope in Franz Boas’s anthropological writings through which he understands culture not as a coherent whole but as an assembly of diverse fragments. His anthropological work, which influenced all writers considered here, then contributes to the use of collage techniques as well. Even this brief summary reveals the critical payoffs of Farebrother’s study: a connection of visual and anthropological vocabulary that allows her to investigate exactly how these three Harlem Renaissance writers used formal innovation as a way of responding to the questions modernism and anthropology raised for them about literary form and modes of reading, as well as about racial and cultural identity.
After having read the introductory discussion of high-modernist visual arts, readers may still have collagist images by Benjamin Péret, Pablo Picasso, and Aaron Douglas in mind when Farebrother moves them to Franz Boas’s work and the central place collage occupies in his description and understanding of culture. In that sense the book works both linearly as well as through the juxtapositions that make collages work. While critics have, of course, noted the importance of Boasian anthropology for Harlem Renaissance writers, they have not performed the kind of close readings of his work that Farebrother presents. She is interested in showing how Boas’s critique of evolutionary models of race and culture is reliant on his definition of culture as a collage—an assembly of diverse elements and cross-currents rather than a linear development of discrete cultures and races. Boas himself saw the potential for his understanding of culture as a vehicle of social critique on notions of cultural and racial identity, but he was somewhat limited by his inability to relinquish the concept [End Page 727] of the primitive. Harlem Renaissance writers responded to Boas’s definition of cultures as collages by revising it so that it served their own aesthetic and political ends. Farebrother’s detailed attention to Boas’s writing—which she grants has none of the creative energy of Harlem Renaissance writers, and therefore has not received sufficiently close attention by critics—sets the stage for her exploration of the revisions and reinterpretations of Boas’s work in the creativity of Harlem Renaissance writing, which in turn gives his ideas an additional dynamism and political urgency. Farebrother’s wonderfully close attention to the ways in which Du Bois as editor subtly showcased, framed, and implicitly revised Boas’s writing in The Crisis—a critical focus she grants may appear “eccentric” to a reader at first sight—aptly sets the stage and tone for her sustained attention to Harlem Renaissance revisions of Boasian anthropology.
Farebrother’s focus also provides a perfect segue into her illuminating discussion of The New Negro. If we see Locke’s anthology as a collage, she argues, we are better able to investigate the central tensions in the work among democratic inclusiveness, internal contradiction, and editorial control to shape a coherent whole. Her borrowing from the vocabulary of visual arts also accentuates the multiple genres and media the anthology employs. While an anthology may be understood as a collection, a collage functions through juxtaposition, and as Farebrother contends...