- James Weldon Johnson and the Genteel Tradition
James Weldon Johnson’s First Book of Poetry, Fifty Years and Other Poems (1917), might be the least recognized of his contributions to African American literature. Though well received by contemporary magazines from the Literary Digest to The Crisis, it was dwarfed by the popularity of Johnson’s Book of American Negro Poetry (1922) and by the achievement of his second collection, God’s Trom-bones (1927). Later critics have tended either to neglect Fifty Years or to denounce it as bland and conventional (Collier 352; Fleming, James Weldon Johnson 42–43; Kinnamon 174–76). Indeed, its genteel forms and values seem outdated on the eve of the Harlem Renaissance, a period that saw the publication of Claude McKay’s radical protest poems and the rise of the NAACP, of which Johnson already was an active member. Its reception by the general public, however, was much more favorable than such retrospective categorization suggests. At the time, Johnson was widely known as the author of the “Negro National Anthem” (his early poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing”), and the title poem of Fifty Years, which remains one of Johnson’s most popular compositions, had been published to great applause in the New York Times (Levy 145–46; Kinnamon 174). This contradictory reception points to the many facets of Johnson’s early work, which includes clichéd comedy songs about black life as well as uncompromising editorials on the race question, imitative poems as well as attacks on imitative poetry.1 In the words of his biographer Eugene Levy, Johnson “pleased many and antagonized few”; he was virtually the only prominent African American to maintain good relations with both Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois throughout their struggle for black leadership (Levy [End Page 85] 146). A closer look at Fifty Years and Other Poems shows a similarly complex and contradictory picture. There are unmistakable imprints of the genteel tradition that had dominated American poetry up into the 1910s, but alongside mere imitations of genteel standards the collection features a number of poems that question and destabilize these very standards. After a brief overview of the genteel tradition and its impact on black poetry, this essay offers close readings of selected poems from both of these strands. In a second step it will make a case for the neglected “Mother Night” as a nodal poem in the collection, a centerpiece that encompasses both strands and sends a strong, racial message despite its apparently innocuous form.
The genteel tradition, according to some of its historians, began as early as the 1840s. It emerged from the elite sectors of the young literary field of the American Northeast, especially among the Boston Brahmins and the editors of leading publication outlets such as the Atlantic Monthly. Always conservative in its aesthetic values, it gathered momentum as an idealist alternative to both the social problems of the postbellum era and the tendency among fiction writers to describe these problems in realistic detail. It reached its apex around the turn of the twentieth century, the period when Johnson wrote his first poems. By that time most of its initial leaders were dead, and the writing produced under their continuing influence suffered increasingly from a tendency to nostalgic lamentation. The unfavorable 1911 lecture by George Santayana that gave the genteel tradition its name turned out to be its epitaph (Santayana; Sedgwick; Tomsich 2–4, 15–18). While it remained an influence on American poetry into the 1920s, the genteel tradition appeared to the emerging modernist generation as an aesthetic straightjacket and a bourgeois denial of the hard facts they were facing in the world of mass warfare and individual alienation (Cowley 11; Cox 212; Perkins 100). Van Wyck Brooks, one of the spokesmen of the new generation, described it as a bloodless, theoretical, and effeminate mindset unable to address the pressing concerns of practical life (1–4, 58–59, 88).
This reversal was brought about by several problems and contradictions within the genteel tradition. First and foremost, its emphatic idealism appeared increasingly outdated and inadequate as America developed from the rural backwater it was before...