- Shadow Archives: The Lifecycles of African American Literature by Jean-Christophe Cloutier
A recurring dispute on Twitter in recent years revolves around claims of archival discovery. Announcements of scholars finding documents "lost in the archive" inevitably provoke exasperated reminders, often from archivists, that such documents had already been found—and perhaps even cataloged. But when Jean-Christophe Cloutier came upon Claude McKay's last novel, Amiable with Big Teeth, few could dispute that discovery was the correct term. As a graduate student intern at Columbia University's Rare Book and Manuscript Library in 2009, Cloutier was processing the papers of literary agent and "all-around schemer" Samuel Roth when he encountered the lone copy of McKay's unpublished manuscript, the existence of which surprised scholars and archivists alike (286). The novel's posthumous publication, coedited with Brent Hayes Edwards, was Cloutier's early claim to fame. Shadow Archives: The Lifecycles of African American Literature follows in the wake of that discovery as an extended meditation not only on the surprises that archival research promises, but also on the "underappreciated archival sensibility" of McKay and other midcentury Black writers (12).
The experience of authenticating McKay's novel reshaped Cloutier's approach to literary criticism. Questions of access, he argues, as well as the work of archivists, appraisers, and copyright lawyers, are not ancillary to criticism but rather are part of the scene that constitutes literary studies. The theoretical scaffolding of the book, then, is part modernist studies, part African American literary history, and part archival science. Cloutier pairs the term "lifecycle"—drawn from archival theory to describe the "dynamics of records: their provenance, purpose, and telos"—with the concept of "afterlives" in contemporary African American literary discourse (6). This cross-disciplinary maneuver is what Cloutier calls the "parallax of the reference desk": a study of how literary objects and archival objects "mutually, often retroactively transform each other" (27). What results from this parallax is an indispensable guide—a [End Page 383] veritable detective's notebook—for how to study literary archives (plural) without succumbing to the definitional evanescence of the archive (singular).
Cloutier's first chapter traces the midcentury rise of institutional literary collections and the "complexities of archival delay" for Black authors (18). The economy of literary manuscripts had been largely a private and antiquarian enterprise until the 1950s, when Harry Ransom of the University of Texas initiated an unprecedented buying spree for the papers of twentieth-century authors. The rising financial valuation of certain white male authors' archives—especially the modernists D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, George Bernard Shaw, and W. B. Yeats—helped cement their canonization. Among the handful of institutions collecting African American authors were historically Black universities such as Howard and Fisk, the New York Public Library, and Yale, where the establishment by Carl Van Vechten of the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection led to intensive solicitation of Black manuscripts. Even for those writers like Ralph Ellison, who disdained Van Vechten and refused Yale's entreaties, these solicitations changed Black literary culture: "The age of the black archive had been set into motion, and the word was out: keep your stuff" (54). And yet, that "stuff" was usually acquired through donations or at prices far below those paid for white authors' material. Cloutier's reading of the acquisition file for the McKay papers at Yale underscores the "depreciated value of black special collections at the time" (61). The institutional lifecycle of Black literary papers has thus been characterized by deferral: late to be valued, late to be acquired, and, often, late to be processed.
The four authors Cloutier studies—McKay, Ellison, Richard Wright, and Ann Petry—exemplify Afromodernism's "counterarchiving" practices in the face of this deferral. All were caught up in the midcentury archival turn, which means they saved enough of their papers so that scholars like Cloutier would eventually inherit a great deal of material to mine. But they were simultaneously aware of the precarity of...