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.

Philip Stevick, The American Short Story 1900 – 1945

Stevick, Philip, Ed. The American Short Story 1900 – 1945. Twayne, 1984.

Summary of Work
This collection of essays overviews the evolution of the American short story through the first half of the twentieth century. Starting with a discussion of a moving into an era of technology and mechanical instruments when previously life had been devoid of many things people of today take for granted (like bathtubs), Philip Stevick says that the writers of the first half of the century became fixated on the issues that came with such modernization and invention.

The first essay discusses the work of Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Willa Cather. While writing styles differed slightly as did topics, all of these authors dealt with how to portray the importance of specific morals in light of a more mechanical world. Cather also made the focus of her work the indomitable spirit of the American pioneers. The short stories worked to form a more general identity of what it meant to be an American and what morals should never be relinquished because they would lead to tragic, heartless, mechanical ends. The chapter concludes with an author that the whole rest of the collection will not stop discussing: Sherwood Anderson.

Although Sherwood Anderson insisted that his work Winesberg, Ohio was a novel, it also served very much as a collection or series of short stories that were seemingly formless, although artfully crafted. Dealing with specific individuals seen through the eyes of the journalist George Willard, the stories deal with more than just morals: they deal with individuals and insist on displaying the loneliness and sexuality of the characters. Those last two, loneliness and sexuality, had yet to be talked about so explicitly in American short story writing, and from the moment Anderson started writing about them so openly, the short story would never be the same.

The era of the 1920s saw a more structured and formulaic short story, with earlier writers lamenting the mechanical way that stories were written in order to gain popular acclaim. Fitzgerald was a master of this formulaic story, crafting his stories to sell and so he would have money while he worked on his novels. Hemingway came to start writing at this time, influenced by Anderson, and he wrote in a straight-to-the-point, short-sentenced prose that took Anderson’s formless story a step further: his stories were also pointless, showing only pieces or vignettes of a story that led nowhere. Yet his stories painted complex pictures of his characters and revealed that a story could defy form and still be artful. His work would come to shape the next generation of writers, who would write more like journalists than formulaic popular writers.

Then, in the period of the 1930s, there was a return from realism and social realism to the romanticism of the nineteenth century. The stories told could be considered strange or exotic or highly emotional, as might be seen in some of the stories told by authors such as Richard Wright and William Faulkner. Wright is part of what the authors detail as a revealing of an invisible group of writers, the African American population. The focus for Wright and many of the writers of this period is the creation of the character as an individual and the deconstruction of the notion of a national identity that could apply to every character. One of the ways this featured in writing of the period was an insistent on writing dialects specific to region. William Faulkner, also strongly influenced by Anderson, was first a novelist and then a short story writer, and yet he forever changed the short story and novel in America the way James Joyce did in Great Britain. Many of his short stories were long and prosaic, the exact opposite of Hemingway, and he strove not for brevity and journalism with an iceberg principle, but instead the creation of legend. His short stories very often became chapters in his novel, and he, building off of Anderson’s work, created an intricate set of stories that build the legend of Yoknapatawpha County and the characters living within it. His form of American Gothic shaped writers who came after him, and indeed, no one wanted to try to better his form, as Flannery O’Connor would state in the 1960s.

Overall, the thread that tied all of these authors together despite their disparate styles was regionalism. The American short story came to represent specific regional cultures throughout the nation, and it did so whether the story was formulaic, journalistic, formless, or legend. Anderson, Hemingway, and Faulkner would come to be the lasting names that defined the evolution of the short story for the first half of the twentieth century, and they became the building blocks for the second half of the century.

Discussion of Work
For the most part, this work gives a good, brief but thorough overview of the development of the short story by discussing the careers of the longest-lasting authors of the time period. While it goes by decade, another quality feature of this critical work is that it admits that the decades are perhaps not the best indicators of a switch in style or literary movement, particularly considering that there were wide variations of what people called realism or social realism, and that was because each author had a different life experience that defined what they saw as “real” to write about. This is why Sherwood Anderson plays a major role in the discussion of each of the authors that come to influence the development of the short story.

The major failing I see in this work is the near complete erasure of minority authors who made an impact on the writing of the time period. The whole of the Harlem Renaissance writers are passed over, with only brief mention of Wright and Langston Hughes, and only briefly mentioned names like W.E.B. Du Bois. The criticism is far more focused on the development of the short story in terms of its development through white authors. While such a development is surely important, to claim that it will be a thorough discussion of the development and history of the American short story, it must deal with these authors of color.

The work also brushes over a discussion of modernism, preferring to label the 1930s as an era of a return to romanticism, which simplifies the narrative in order to place someone like Faulkner firmly outside of the movement, whether or not that is in and of itself a true statement. What is said of modernism is that Gertrude Stein was at first accepted for her experimentalism and then later spurned for what seemed to strange and mechanical. Otherwise, the discussion of realism, social realism, and naturalism in the literature of the midwest and the South are well covered in the discussion of the authors’ careers.

Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio

Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio. 1919. Dover, 1995.

Summary of Work
Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio is a novel that contains a series of short stories interwoven to create a picture of the town, its history, and its residents. The story is framed by the brief introduction of a writer who, upon reaching old age and spending most of his time in his room, has a dream/vision where he sees truth created and then people walking past and picking up a truth or two, some as many as a dozen, and then going about trying to live their lives by those truths, and in turn becoming corrupted because they take the truth and turn it, and themselves, into a falsehood, a grotesque. The idea is that a truth clung to fiercely creates all sorts of problems for people and can destroy happiness and lives. The whole of the novel functions with this frame.

The stories range from tragic to hilarious in nature. Wing Biddlebaum is the first character that we meet. He is talking to George Willard, the young and naive reporter for the newspaper in town, and George always wonders about Wing’s hands, but has enough respect for the man to never ask. Wing has the fastest hands for picking produce in the town, but he is always insistent on trying to hide his hands, as if he is ashamed of them. His past is tragic. As a schoolteacher, he is affectionate and caring for the boys in his classroom, but upon one boy deciding that the man’s hands were making sexual advances rather than more of a fatherly care, the townspeople become enraged and one comes into the classroom and beats him bloody. Afterward, the townsmen come to his house with intent to hang him, change their mind and let him run, but then decide after all that they want to hang him. He gets away, changes his name to Biddlebaum, and lives a life in Winesburg after his relative dies that he had been living with.

Doctor Reefy is an older man who is known for having had a very young wife. The story goes that she came to him one day after a suitor had gotten her pregnant and she didn’t know what to do. He decided to try to help her as he could by offering her company and advice, and after she miscarried the child, the woman found that she very much loved the doctor, and married him. He was known for keeping thoughts on small pieces of paper, which he would read to her, and then put them in his pockets and roll them into balls and then throw them away when they were fully rolled. A year after they married she died of illness.

Elizabeth Willard, George’s mother, is the wife of Tom Willard, who runs the hotel in town. The hotel was her father’s, and she feels trapped in the town, unloved and unseen, never having been on an actual adventure. She hates her husband and her life, and wants her son to have the adventures she never had. There are later stories about her telling of her affair with Doctor Reefy, of her father’s giving her 800 dollars to live a different life than the one she had, and her inability to tell anyone about it so her son could have the money before she died.

Doctor Parcival is one who believes in living life with little amounts of work and going around hating people and feeling superior to them. When he refuses to help during an accident that leaves people dead, he, terrified, tells George that people will be after him for it and that everyone is Christ and ends up crucified in the end. Louise Trunnion is a woman on the poorer end of town that sends George a message that he can meet her one evening. He goes and they spend an evening together, and they figure no one has to know about it.

Jesse Bentley is a boy from a farmer’s family who goes away to become a preacher but must come back to his family when all his brothers are killed in the Civil War. He goes back with his wife and he becomes very industrious, but everyone is unhappy under him, including himself, despite his extreme success. He talks to God and is convinced his mission is to be like the Israelites of old and to conquer the Philistines around him by buying up all their farms, and he is convinced he needs a son, David, to help him. His wife delivers a child, Louise, and dies in childbirth, and Jesse is upset more at the birth of a daughter than his wife’s death. Louise receives no love from anyone, and in an attempt to find love, married Mr. Hardy. She is still very unhappy and is more unhappy when she has a son, David. She is vicious and cruel to everyone, including her son. One evening her son runs away to try and get to his grandfather because he doesn’t want to go home, and he gets lost. A search party is sent out, and when he is found and taken back to his mother, he is surprised by her warmth and care and concern. When her father states that he would like David to come live on the farm with him, everyone is even more surprised when she agrees. David loves the farm and gets the love his mother denied him, but Jesse is still insistent that he is God’s chosen. The first time he takes David out to the woods to pray, David becomes terrified and runs from the man who no longer looks like his grandfather. He gets over it, but years later after Jesse has become the most successful farmer in town, he gets it in his head that he needs to offer a burnt offering to the Lord with David. They get a lamb and tie it up and go to the same spot in the woods. While Jesse gets a fire going, David unties the lamb’s feet and waits for Jesse, but is determined that both he and the lamb will run when needed. When Jesse pulls out a knife to kill the lamb, David thinks that Jesse is going to kill him, and he runs with the lamb. David finds a rock, puts it in his sling, and hits Jesse square in the forehead with it, knocking him out. David thinks he has killed his grandfather and runs away, and when Jesse wakes up, forever after he states that he lost David due to his pride.

Joe Welling is a man who runs around with all sorts of funny stories and ideas, and he falls in love with a woman who is part of the scariest, meanest, toughest family in town. When they come to tell him to stay away, he wins them over with his strange ideas, obliviousness, and charm. Alice Hindman waits for a lover that will never come back. Wash Williams was made a cuckold by a wife and he hates all women for it and spends his days as a telegraph operator in Winesburg after that. Seth Richmond is quiet and doesn’t feel he fits into the town. He loves Helen White, but determines that he cannot be with her because he isn’t part of the town, and he decides to leave to find a better life. Tandy Hard is a young girl who’s name is given to her by a drunkard who is passing through town. The Reverend Curtis Hartman is married and a good reverend, but he is tempted when he sees the schoolteacher partly naked and reading a book through his open window, which is stained glass with a picture of Christ with a child. He breaks a hole in the corner of the glass so he can “overcome temptation,” but he is never able to. He sees her naked, praying, and crying in her room one cold night when he has nearly frozen himself to death waiting in the bell tower to see her and walked with no shoes through the cold to do so, and he runs to George Willard and says that God has saved him and shown him new ways. Kate Swift is a teacher who is unmarried, bound to be an old maid, but who cares about her students and in a motherly and womanly way loves George Willard and tries to guide him but also fails because she loves him but doesn’t feel she can be with him. Enoch Robinson spent time in New York City and became an illustrator for an advertisement company, but he leaves his wife and two children to be with himself and his imaginary friends. He is happy in his small hallway-like space until a neighbor starts talking to him and he realizes she’s ruined everything because she understands him. He moves back to Winesburg a bitter and lonely old man.

Belle Carpenter loves the local bartender but does not feel like she can just see him because of her social station. So she sees George Willard, but isn’t really interested, and George knows it and is unhappy. George makes one more attempt to woo her, but the bartender has come by earlier to tell her not to see him, and so she uses that as an opportunity to make the bartender jealous. George is shoved out of the picture and his pride is wounded. Elmer Cowley feels like his father and his whole family are queer and that they will never understand that is how the whole town sees them and their little shop. He feels like he needs to let the town know, and particularly George Willard, that he isn’t queer like his family, and after several failed attempts, decides to leave town, and before he goes, he beats up George Willard. Ray Pearson reflects on his life and how if he hadn’t had gotten his girl pregnant he wouldn’t be married, and that perhaps he shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place because it wasn’t his responsibility to take care of a woman after he got her pregnant. He is going to tell a fellow farmhand this in regard to his same situation, but then determines that it is a lie and the farmhand decides to marry the girl he has gotten pregnant. Tom Foster is a boy who comes to Winesburg with his grandmother and does odd jobs around town. He tries things once so he knows what it is like and then never does them again.

Helen White reflects upon her time with George Willard and determines she has some sort of affection for him after spending time with city folk and academics and determining that she doesn’t like their company. She and George spend an evening together, and out of it they gain a mutual respect for each other. They never sleep together, but instead laugh and occasionally kiss and then get serious as they think about life. They do not get married, but instead George leaves the city in search of a job as a reporter in a bigger city, perhaps Cleveland or Chicago.

Brief Note on Themes
The themes of this work deal very much with the idea of the grotesque as outlined in the beginning of the book, but it also describes much of small town life in the Midwest and deals with the relationships between people in small towns as well as the mentalities and personalities that come with that town. The strongest, most overt themes come in the stories that deal heavily in religion, making commentary about how seemingly good things and religious upbringing and study can lead to a warped sense of reality and disaster for families and individuals as they lose their way by getting caught on certain particulars of religion. The idea of getting caught up on small things rather than seeing a bigger life picture is, in fact, what hooks all of these stories together outside of their happening in the same town.