Stephanie Brown begins The Postwar African American Novel by using one of the most reliable indices of canonicity around: Cliff Notes. For Brown, these study aids are merciless market indicators of the novels that students are most often assigned to read, and therefore what books the broader public comes to think of as essential works in American literature. (The distinctive black and yellow books have now been replaced by a scourge of study-aid websites that students stubbornly insist on citing as “sources.”) What Brown finds is that in 2001, there were 247 Cliff Notes books, sixteen of which were by African American writers. Of these sixteen novels, only two fall between 1940 and 1964: Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952). This actually turns out to be a fairly accurate representation of the scholarly criticism on this period as Wright, Ellison, and the “protest” novel paradigm have held a dominant presence among post-World War II black writing. In The Postwar African American Novel Brown seeks to shine some light on other writers of this period, such as Chester Himes, Frank Yerby, William Gardner Smith, and J. Saunders Redding, so that scholars can see a clearer and fuller image of the complexity and variety of black writing in the 1940s and 1950s.
Native Son and Invisible Man are certainly profound, complex, and provocative works of art that have rightfully garnered attention from critics. However, Brown also illustrates how Wright’s and Ellison’s novels have doggedly held their canonical positions because of the way they fit into the “protest novel” paradigm. In particular Brown writes about how these novels were often utilized as symbols by white intellectuals to articulate their own disidentification with bourgeois American values. In the first chapter “Retracing the Margins of the Postwar African American Novel,” Brown conducts an historical analysis of postwar criticism on black writing. Whether it was Ellison’s dustup with Irving Howe over the sociological nature of black writing or the White Negroisms of hipsters like Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer (both of whom Brown cites), black writers were too often wielded as political symbols by and for white intellectuals. Brown suggests that reconfiguring this paradigm must involve directing critical attention toward the black intellectual culture of the era. As she puts it: “This project considers what happens when we leave behind the maxims of a largely white critical establishment and turn instead to the everyday practices of black reading public, gleaned from a consideration of black literary journals as well as book reviews in publications aimed at a black readership” (33). Evaluating these critical responses, by black intellectuals who taught in black colleges and wrote for black publications, one finds critical readings of Ellison and Wright, but also interpretations of other writers in the period and critical interrogations of the “protest” paradigm itself. The works that Brown covers were not only addressing the ongoing resistance to Jim Crow, but also paid attention to intraracial black politics related to class, color, and education, themes that seemingly were not on the radar for white critics. In the black press and black literary societies there was ongoing intellectual engagement between and among black intellectuals that was illegible to establishment white liberals. And, Brown emphasizes that black novelists’ works were also playing with and subverting various genre conventions, including the protest novel, the Southern costume drama, the war novel, and the college novel. Brown’s book will hopefully encourage more critical attention to the novels [End Page 1189] that she covers in the main chapters, but also to the critics who engaged with that work in its own time.
Chapter 2, “’If I Can Only Get It Funny!’: Chester Himes’s Parodic Protest Novels,” directly addresses this concept of the protest novel as symbol of black rebellion. In it Brown reads Chester Himes’s If He Hollers Let Him Go as an intentional parody of the protest novel, and provides a close reading of Himes’s work to illustrate how he was deliberately subverting genre conventions.