Bernard W. Bell, The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition

Bell, Bernard W. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. U of

Massachusetts P, 1987.

Summary of Work
This work gives a critical analysis and historical overlook of the development of the African American novel from slave narratives to the novels written in the 1970s during Postmodernism. The work takes a mix of historical, anthropological, and cultural analysis as Bell analyzes the development of the African American novel. Bell determines that there are four unique qualities that run throughout the AfAm novel that separate it from the regular American novel: double-consciousness, referring to the biracial identity of black people as black and American; socialized ambivalance, meaning “the dancing attitudes of Americans of African ancestry between integration and separation, a shifting identification between the values of the dominant white and subordinate black cultural systems as a result of institutionalized racism” (xvi); double vision, which is the use of irony and parody in the art form in order to deal with the hardships of life; and folklore, or the artistic forms and communicative process which are unique to African American cultural communities.

For the purposes of my area of study, I have skipped over the chapters with a focus on nineteenth century writers and moved into the twentieth century writers. The beginning of the twentieth century into WWI was the era of naturalism for the novel, which kept some of the sensationalism of romanticism from the nineteenth century, but focused much more on social issues of the day and spoke more to reality. This is particularly true of African American novels, which “combine the themes of love, marriage, and success with the protagonist’s struggle for freedom from color and caste discrimination in a cyclical quest to fully realize his or her rights and potential for growth as a person of biracial and bicultural identity” (79). These ideals were further promoted by the idea of having a Talented Tenth, the New Negro movement, and a higher class of art from African American artists that harbored elitism even as white America was moving away from those ideals itself. Two authors representative of naturalism during this time period are W.E.B. Du Bois, who’s novels failed in being very enjoyable reads, but succeeded in providing a sociological take on current issues; James Weldon Johnson’s novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man was a psychological form of naturalism which enjoyed enough success to initially be considered an actual autobiography. They dealt with the same problems of existing in a white world and succeeding as a black man, especially the irony of interracial relations when one could pass as white. They deal with the cultural tensions and biases of the rising middle class of black people in America.

With the Harlem Renaissance came a new belief of what black art forms, especially written forms, should do: they should celebrate black life, achievement, and show the complexities of black cultural existence. It was an era where black men were still being lynched in large numbers each year, and race tensions were as high as ever, but expression without fear or shame was a driving theme of the Harlem Renaissance writers.

Jean Toomer represents poetic realism at this time period. Considering himself neither white nor black but an American, he often came into conflict with others over the labeling of his work and what he was doing. He termed himself an essentialist rather than a realist or classicist, particularly meaning that he believed in the transcendent nature of the soul and that he believed in truth through intuition, and that he was a believer in Eastern practices of mysticism. Cane, Toomer’s masterwork, is a mix of prose and poetry, creating a poetic novel that on the surface may seem pastoral, but is much deeper than that because there can be no return to the country life or pre-industrial life, and the characters are complex. Mystical visions of life combine with folklore and cultural history and knowledge to create an undercurrent of a metaphysical journey. His work modeled those of Robert Frost and Sherwood Anderson, and he, like them, worked on experimenting with utilizing regional and local materials in high artistic works.

During the time of both nationalism and assimilationism, with the cry for a back-to-Africa movement in Garvey and a melting pot theory on the other hand, authors such as Nella Larsen began to explore what it meant to have dual identities as a response to both of these movements. Against both assimilationist beliefs and the nationalist formations, Larsen’s books explore what happens to people when they force themselves to accept one or the other of these options.

During this time in the Harlem Renaissance there was also a turn to Folk Romance, or more specifically forms of ancestralism or pastoralism and even at times primitivism within novelistic writing. The writing was meant “to express the historical struggle of black Americans to achieve a dynamic synthesis of their individual and collective double-consciousness” (113). Thus, the African American pastoral was different than the regular pastoral because it encompassed both rural and urban settings, utilizing the near past to discuss the African American psychological and social struggles. Zora Neale Hurston’s work is full of folk romance. This could be in part because of her lifetime refusal to relinquish her heritage and folk origins that made up her identity. Their Eyes Were Watching God is the pinnacle of her work, her best folk romance. The work explores the life of Janie and her dreams and hopes as she marries different men and those dreams either get taken away through violent means to herself or to the one she loves (Tea-Cake having to be shot because he attacks her after getting rabies). The narration switches from third person to first person and has a variety of different narrators (with mixed success), making Hurston better able to discuss the sacrifices that black women have made from slavery forward in order to survive and help their men, and what happens when black women refuse to sacrifice and instead pursue their own interests. The whole of the novel also centers the oral folk traditions of the black South.

Unlike Hurston and other folk romantics, authors like Langston Hughes stuck to a form of folk realism that looked narrowly at specific, everyday lives of black people, focusing on common social rituals rather than larger, more universal truths. While the stories in isolation do not tell all of the black experience, they do offer perhaps a successfully “realistic portrayal of the ways in which ordinary black folk used religion, music, humor, and language to cope with adversity than their counterparts” (129).

With the coming of the Great Depression and the rise of the ideas of socialism and communism in America with it, there was a greater realization of the disunity of the races than there had been in the 1920s, with as many as 60 percent more black people being unemployed than white people (152). While many black people and their leaders were wary of the Communist party because of their oversimplification of racial issues in favor of economic issues, Richard Wright became a party member because he felt it gave him and black people a chance to gain a unity that had been lacking, and that the unity would help solve many of the racial and economic problems of the time. The writers of this time also benefitted from the Federal Writer’s Project, and Hurston, Ellison, Wright, and many other black writers were able to get funding for their writing projects.

Wright was a naturalist writer, and he rejected “both the concept of black consciousness and the values of Afro-American culture,” which is evidenced in his writing, including Native Son (155). In Native Son, he looks closely at poor black life in the South Side of Chicago, and discusses fear and freedom as sources of weakness and strength: weakness in the bad things it leads to, strength in the power of action. While many critics see the work as part of black nationalism, the double-consciousness throughout the work would speak against that theory or belief. Instead, the work shows how racist beliefs that white people have consistently spoken and acted upon have become internalized in black people to the point that they may even go commit crimes like Bigger Thomas as an act of self-realization or freedom. The themes and issues Wright explores in Native Son make his work the “naturalistic vision of the social paradoxes that bind white and black Americans” (166). The work is a play between Marxism and Freudian psychology.

The 1950s saw a move from Naturalism to a revitalization of cultural discussions of myth, rituals, and double-consciousness of the black experience. At this point, black authors began writing and experimenting with non-racial themes as well. Authors such as Ralph Ellison discuss that they came to the realization that what T.S. Eliot was doing with cultural myth and ritual could be done in black culture as well, and that it could be done with different materials, their own cultural heritage. Ellison’s one novel, Invisible Man, solidifies this change in novel writing as Ellison creates a modern epic by utilizing African-American history and cultural traditions, particularly traditions of blues and jazz music. In Ellison’s work, African Americans become a metaphor for the human condition.

James Baldwin’s novels carry on a similar work, but through religious overtones and discussions, which he was better able to carry on because of his childhood religious background. Baldwin’s early interviews, writings, and discussions look very similar to Richard Wright’s beliefs outlined in Native Son, and indeed, Baldwin’s self-professed literary father was Wright. However, he grew as a novelist and became interested in focusing on more components of black life than the political, even though he still kept the narrow viewpoint of Wright by exploring specific narratives of specific characters rather than a more general search for a generalized black experience. His work is “spiritual and sexual,” exploring “not the terrifying possibilities of hatred, but the terrifying possibilities of love” (219). He relies on the social structures and myths given him in black churches and in black music as he writes his narrative, integrating more cultural discussions than were prevalent in naturalism. Specifically, Go Tell It on the Mountain is a story that exposes “the moral foundations of the institutional pillars of the black community” (224).

With the rise of the Black Power and Black Arts movements, and the rise of feminism and the Women’s Rights Movement, the African-American novel made a move toward Modernism and Neorealism as a response to the turbulent times. While Neorealism kept the forms of realism, it was “also a philosophical and political attitude toward the human condition” (246). Thus, there is far more hope for humanity in African American novels of this strain than of the novels written by other races of people. Alice Walker embodies this hope with her work, which seeks to uplift both men and women (leading her to call herself a womanist rather than feminist). Her work splits the line between realism and romance, and The Color Purple in particular utilizes the folk realism and romanticism embodied by the work of Zora Neale Hurston. Her work has a sexual egalitarianism to it that is unique in comparison to other novels written during the same time period.

Poetic realism, the act of realism including “imaginative power, compression, and lyricism of language,” moves toward the problematic reality of reality being largely shaped by consciousness (269). Thus, much like Jean Toomer, those writing in a Poetic Realist tradition are seeking to find the sensations or feelings of truth rather than to lay it out as reality. This form of realism is best embodied in the work of Toni Morrison, who’s Song of Solomon utilizes a nonlinear narrative and haunting tales of the Dead family and their surroundings to discuss the fact that no matter how terribly a race or group of people is treated, it seems like they are never turned into beasts. The poetic language in Sula explores the pain and suffering of African Americans while also exploring the topics of sexuality and freedom in newly-minted linguistic ways.

Finally, when it comes to Postmodernism, the African American novelists depart from the white novelist traditions of the work of art as meaningless and instead “are deeply concerned with fictive visions that focus on the truths of the perversity of American racism and the paradoxes of Afro-American double-consciousness” (284). They reaffirm the power of the folk tradition as a way of seeing and knowing important truths to navigate through the perversities of life. These features mix with fabulation, romance, fantasy, and satire to create the literature of the 1970s and into the 1980s, the time when this book was written. The work of John Edgar Wideman, particularly highlighted by the short story collection Damballah, blurs the distinctions between “history and fiction, novel and romance, orality and literariness” through his blending of “epistle, legend, myth, fable, biography, and autobiography” in his fiction (312). By doing this, he has a recurring theme of understanding that what we think we are is just as, if not more, important than what we actually are when it comes to identity. Ishmael Reed challenges his readers to break free of the idea of a monolithic narrative for the African American novel, and he uses a Neo-Hoodoo aesthetic in order to blend a variety of cultural writing techniques and challenge readers “to be as culturally egalitarian and imaginatively bold as the author” (331).

Discussion of Work
This book’s main strength is in its discussion of these authors and the evolution of the African American novel within the context of social and political happenings: by offering a brief historical overview in tandem with the development of new literary movements and returns to older movements, Bell is able to show how the African American novel is as tied to them as is the novel in general. The work provides much needed representation of black authorship in a scholarly field that for too long overlooked their additions and achievements and how they influenced the development of the novel. I largely agree with what is said in this work regarding the topics and critical discussions of the authors chosen for the work, and so I have little more to say about it than has been highlighted in the summary. However, I do believe that structurally, the book may be trying to do too much in that it tries to feature too many authors. While it is certainly necessary to offer up multiple authors’ works to show the breadth of the literature from each literary movement, the number of authors chosen leads to less of an in-depth discussion about many of them, and altogether excludes works that might be discussed from other authors.

Randall Jarrell, Poetry & The Age

Jarrell, Randall. Poetry & The Age. Ecco P, 1980.

Summary of Work
In this critical work, Randall Jarrell discusses the age of Modernism in poetry as well as the criticism surrounding that poetry. He states that while there is much lament over the current state of poetry readership, or rather the lack of readership, that there is nothing that poets can do about it except for to continue writing and attracting their current readers, because the world will only get noisier as new technologies take hold of people who once would have been readers. He also insists that poets need to make sure that their work is quality and that references and obscurity serve a purpose rather than simply being there in order for the work to be called poetry.

Jarrell takes a look at Robert Frost’s work, and he states that despite Frost’s later work, which is often filled with a conservative and overimportant and self-indulgent attitude, he is one of the best poets of the age. He specifically cites “Frost’s obsessive themes, those of isolation, of extinction, and of the final limitations of man” as reasoning for his high designation of Frost and his work, despite the poems that he finds less quality. The main argument for his awarding Frost the rank of great poet is the nonchalant and matter-of-fact way in which Frost puts forth the previously mentioned themes in his work.

Looking at the age he lives in, Jarrell states that criticism has caused less and less literature to be written, and just as importantly, less and less literature to be read. In an age that thrives on critics’ readings of supposedly great literature, both the average reader and the scholar spend more time reading criticism than actually reading literature, and therefore, when asked about important works of literature, they cannot answer that they’ve read them, because they have been too focused on criticism, most of which is dull and useless to the larger populace. Jarrell believes that criticism and theory evolved in English departments much as statistics and raw data and studies evolved in psychology and sociology: scholars in those fields did not want to be looked down upon by the hard sciences, so they found a way to make their field look like scientific fields. The problem with this for English is that it’s made people come to rely on critics’ readings of literature instead of coming to an understanding of the literature themselves. It’s also caused the USA to largely disregard poetry, since so few critics write about it and deal with it in comparison to fiction works.

Of John Ransom, Jarrell states that he is writing in the time of Modernism and is yet not a Modernist; Ransom’s poems are far too structured and perfect in their form to be Modernist (which one doesn’t find surprising when knowing that Ransom is the founder of New Criticism). His poetry ranks among the great poetry because of the way the form helps to make matters of morality and living ambiguous: people are unsure whether they should be looking at light and dark as good and bad, or if they should at once be rooting for both and neither.

Of Walt Whitman, Jarrell states that while many critics have lamented his work and are not ashamed of saying they have never read it, Whitman’s work is in fact great poetry. He states that certainly, there are many mistakes and failings of the work, which any critic can tell you. However, many critics fail to understand that the sentimentality of the work combined with the bombastic and often ridiculous use of language and the disorganized forms of many of his poems are what make the work great. Rather than stick to forms as Tennyson did, Whitman chooses not to limit his subject matter with form, and instead experiment with language and organization to capture what is the heart of America.

Wallace Stevens, he states, has much of a tourist feel to his work, which many readers resent. His poems that fail are the ones that strive to be philosophy, and poetry is a bad format for philosophical musings in Jarrell’s opinion. Yet Stevens shines when writing about the similarities between America and Europe, and creates forms that eloquently speak clear messages to his readers. He goes on to give more, similar readings of other American poets’ work, such as Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams. Indeed, he finds that Stevens and Moore and Williams have much in common, but that it is far harder to anthologize Williams in any adequate way.

Discussion of Work
To start with my criticism of this work, it would largely be how vague that Jarrell is in his analysis of the poets whose work he chooses to look at. He outright admits in the beginning of his work that he finds Frost to be one of the best poets of his generation, which may be why he has a hard time doing anything but broadly stating that Frost has his small failing points while overwhelmingly focusing on what he likes most about Frost’s work. He does a much better job of critiquing poets like Whitman, when even when striving to defend his work, he can admit the many shortcomings of the poetry.

However, his discussion of the problem of the age of criticism is worth keeping in mind when looking at the current state of scholarship. A scholar in today’s world can hardly expect to be taken seriously if they don’t know the major names in criticism and theory; the literature often seems secondary in scholarship to the response academics have to other critics. I’ve heard many of my colleagues (and even myself) say that it is fine to have not read a work of literature if they have read the scholarship on it, because the scholarship will tell them all they need to know anyway. Often in graduate courses, we are told to start reading the scholarship about a work during, or even before, we read the work of literature itself. This scholarship can come in the form of introductory materials at the beginning of a new edition of the work, critical reviews, or scholarly articles from peer-reviewed journals. While I am certainly not a New Critic, I do believe that it is important to spend time with literature first and foremost, as that is the field we are in, the field of literature. Scholarship is secondary material, especially given that its subject matter should be literature (in my opinion).