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.

Langston Hughes, The Big Sea

Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea. 1940. U of Missouri P, 2001.

Summary of Work
This autobiography of Langston Hughes’s life details some of his life experiences from his early twenties into the end of his twenties and the beginning of the Great Depression. When he was a child, his parents split, and he lived with his mother for a time. He remembers having his parents try to get back together in Mexico, but that was the year of the great earthquake in Mexico City, and so his mother got scared and they went back. He was sent to live with his grandmother in Kansas and to go to school, and she was a proud woman who would never do service jobs for white people to earn a living. When she died when he was just before his teenage years, he went to go live with his Aunt. During this time his Aunt took him to a Christian church, where they were praying over people to be saved. Everyone had gone up but him, because he believed he would get to see Jesus in the flesh, and he did not want to be dishonest about coming to Jesus. Finally, filled with guilt that he is the only one who hasn’t been saved, he comes to the front at the alter, and his Aunt is overjoyed. That night, he cries over having lied. His mother remarried, and he liked the man. Hughes was elected the poet for his school (it was integrated) because people made assumptions that all black people had rhythm and could dance, so they must be able to write poetry. He wrote his first poems there. He admits that his entire life, he rarely majorly edited poetry once it was down on the page. He also admits that most of his poetry and other work was written when he was miserable or unhappy rather than when he was happy.

In his late teenage years, his biological father wrote to him that he wanted him to come down to Mexico. His mother was upset about it, but he went anyway. There, he found out that his father was considered very American because all he cared about was money, but he was wiser than other Americans that came to Mexico because he was interested in keeping and saving his money. He hated Mexicans and many black people, and all poor people. Hughes was fairly miserable his first year there, because his father was always trying to force him to hurry places, and because he had to do bookkeeping and was no good with numbers. He got so angry at his father that it made him physically ill and he couldn’t eat for weeks, which landed him in a hospital that cost his father $20 a day to keep him there. After he was feeling better, his father sent him back to the US.  But the next time he went down to stay with his father, he spent more time to learn Spanish and became better friends with the Mexicans in town. A German woman also stayed with them (she later became his father’s wife), and she made the space more pleasant. His father expressed that he wanted to send him to college somewhere in Europe and have him come back to Mexico to be an engineer, but Hughes said he wanted to be a writer and did not want to go learn things he was no good at. His father told him that writers made no money and that if he was going to pay for college, Hughes would go where he wanted him to. He would also not be allowed to leave Mexico until he agreed to his father’s wishes.

So in order to escape, Hughes started tutoring Mexican children so they could speak English. Word spread that he was good at his job, and soon he was able to raise his rates and take on as much work as he wanted. He also got offered two jobs at colleges to teach English, and he took both jobs because scheduling worked for him. While working these jobs, he is lucky to narrowly escape death because a man who the German woman’s relation was working for thought that the German girl was sleeping with Hughes, and he, enraged, came to the house, shot the girl in the head three times, and went in search of Hughes to kill him, but couldn’t find him because he wasn’t home. The girl miraculously survived, and the man was sentenced to twenty years in prison.

Hughes had made quite a bit of money, and he started thinking that he did want to go to college, but in NYC at Columbia. He and his father fought about it, but eventually his father agreed to send him there. On the train to New York City, he was mistaken as Mexican and when he said he was black, white people in the South would not serve him. He remembered the struggles of living as a black man in the US, and contemplated why it was so difficult for white people to interact with black people in the US when it was so easy for them to do so in other countries. He spent a year at Columbia, only to find he really disliked college, and so he quit and started looking for a job. But his father at that point had cut him off, his mother was looking for work and struggling, and he could not find a job that would take him, even if it were available, because he was a black man. He finally found a job working at a shipyard, and in the meantime he was having some of his poetry published by Crisis magazine. Alain Locke wanted to meet him and he had met several major figures of the New Negro movement, but he told Locke no because he was nervous and because he knew that Locke wouldn’t be able to get his way around the docks very easily and it could kill him if he weren’t careful. Before Hughes sets off to sea on his first voyage, he tosses all his books from college into the ocean, ridding himself of their weight both literally and figuratively.

Hughes set sail to Africa eventually and landed in many ports to find that the Africans did not consider him a black man because his skin was more brown than black. This astonished him, and he also saw the terrible effects of colonialization. He recalls having to watch a prostitute and a young girl coming on board in hopes of receiving money, and receiving no money but being forced to have sex with all the men on board who were interested, which was a group of about 30 men. He tired of this type of exploitation as well as the economic exploitation. As they were about to leave, he bought a red monkey, and many of the other soldiers did as well. There were adventures on the ship with those monkeys getting loose and winding up drowned or in missionaries’ beds or in the masts, but eventually all were caught. There were also many more antics and debauchery, and all the men were fired upon returning to the US. Hughes made his way to Cleveland, where his family was staying, and found himself penniless in order to make it there with the monkey, named Jocko, who he had bought for his younger brother. His mother was very upset to have it in the home, but his stepfather and brother liked it, so the monkey stayed. Then his stepfather’s mother came to town, and his mother had an ally to protest about the monkey. Then when his stepfather had the monkey out on the town one night and it got scared and destroyed the carpeting of a pool table, it cost them 25 dollars to have it replaced, and his mother was furious. Not long after Hughes left to go back to sea, she sold the monkey.

His second voyage, he got off to stay in Paris, but found himself unable to get a job because he was not a musician, dancer, or performer. He makes friends with a Russian dancer who got sick and whose company had dissolved, and who had no money. They share a cheap room, and she finds a job before he does. He finally gets a job as a doorman and then, through someone who liked his poetry, found a job as a dishwasher and then a cook. When the club he is working at goes nearly bust, they tried to fire the head cook, and he brought out a knife and threatened everyone, and they let him stay. And when they tried to fire Hughes, he threatened them again, so he got a job as a waiter. During his time there, he saw many fights and other antics. The Russian lady got a job at La Havre, and she leaves him, very sad. He then falls in love with a girl named Mary, who is very well-to-do. But when her father finds out what she’s been doing, first she is very chaperoned, and then she is forced to leave. Soon after that, he spends some time with Alain Locke, who is in town, and then when one day he is waiting on a famous poet, he shares his work. The poet “discovers” Hughes, and then he became wildly popular and many people came to the club looking to get a photo with the poet. He has more poems published but is never paid for them.

When the club had to close down for refurbishment and because of lack of business, he goes with some Italians to see Italy. He has enough money to enjoy his time, and Locke is also there and takes him to Venice and they enjoy their time. However, while in Genoa, he has his passport and all his money stolen, and the US embassy and consulate refuse to help him, so he lives homeless and in poverty, unable to get a job that will pay him enough to either get back to France or to find safe passage to America. He finally gets passage as a workman on a ship bound for NYC, and he is nearly kicked off in Spain for being late back to the ship, but he makes it back to the US with a quarter more than he had in France when he first landed. He makes his way to Washington, where his relatives are, and they want him to work in the Library of Congress, but it has too many needed qualifications and Hughes needed work, so he started working doing wet wash laundry for twelve dollars a week. His mother and the relatives had a dispute, and so he found them different accommodations, and they struggled to make ends meet. Carl Van Vechten contacted him and helped him publish a book of poetry at this point, but the elitist community would not welcome him or his mother because they were poor.

He makes his way back to Harlem in hopes of going to college, but he can’t get a scholarship. He talks of meeting Van Vechten and Jean Toomer, who could pass as white and refused to be labeled a “Negro Artist” much to critics’ dismay. He also met Zora Neale Hurston, who he had a good relationship for years until a dispute over a co-writing project. He speaks of Vechten and his parties, the decadence of the Harlem Renaissance and how the area was a victim of its own image. Hughes finally makes a bit of money off of some poetry, works as a personal assistant for a time, gets patronage to go to college at Lincoln, and visits and explores the South and takes a short voyage to Cuba and Jamaica, which he liked very much and would have kept doing if he hadn’t had to go back to college. During his final college years, he wrote a survey of the issues of the color line at Lincoln college, where all white professors taught a nearly all black student body. The founder of the college came up to him at graduation to tell him that as time passed, he would see that there was no way for him to do what he did in founding the school unless he could have had white patronage and made concessions. Hughes disagreed with him.

Around this time, he also received patronage to write and finish his novel Not Without Laughter, which he wishes would have been better because it is about the best of his family members. He receives a major literary award for it. He tries to write other things, but the white patron dislikes his work, and finally they part ways, and it makes him sick like he was with his father. He remembers all the decadence and security he experienced and remembers seeing the other people in the street starving because of the depression, and he remembers the disgust the white chauffeur had over being forced to drive a black man places. He went to the doctor to see what was wrong and spent a lot of money doing it, was told first he had a Japanese tape worm, and then told by a white doctor that he had no such thing. Then he got tonsillitis and had to have them out, using up the last of his money from the Park Street patron. After that, he immediately got better from his illness brought on by anger over the patron. It is during this time that he had his dispute with Hurston over the play they had been working on, and while it had been in production, it had to be shut down over the dispute. After that he went to Haiti and decided that he would make money writing for a living, and at the time of writing the autobiography, that is what he had done successfully.

Discussion of Work
This book gives an adventurous story about Langston Hughes’s life during his twenties. Its major dealings in terms of themes that cut across works of African American writing are the color line, economic oppression and poverty, travel narratives, and artistry, particularly writing and music. Hughes regularly comments on the struggles of being a black man, particularly when it comes to finding housing or a job. While he knows that other races are discriminated against, he knows they also have an easier time finding work, which makes all the difference. And he struggles with the knowledge that many of the black elite are not interested in changing the situation because they feel that there can be no progress unless they tell the white people what they want to hear. He states that while the Harlem Renaissance was happening, the majority of the black communities in America felt nothing change in their situation or economic or social standings. Economics and travel go hand-in-hand for Hughes, who travels in order to get money, which he can never keep as he comes back to the US, or even as he simply travels from one country to another. Job opportunities do not change, and while he doesn’t experience the same type of color prejudice, he does experience it in that the natives of the countries he visits dislike him for being a threat to their jobs.

Artistry is the other large portion of this narrative. He shows several of his poems and discusses when he wrote them and why. Much of his work was strongly influenced by blues songs and structures, which can be seen throughout much of his poetry with the AAB writing format, just as many blues lyrics are written. He also talks about how dance and music were a rich part of many black people’s lives, specifically citing the many rent parties and house parties he went to, some of which were certainly to help pay people’s rent, but others which were just hosted to be hosted. He provides several examples of printed up tickets for these events. He states that these parties were the spaces where he liked to be because black artistry was not put on display for racist white audiences. His understanding of what it is to be a black man or a black person in general is changed and given more value in an all-black space.

However, he also discusses the problems that come with the assumptions that all black people have rhythm and can dance and sing: he could not dance or sing, and those were almost the only jobs available to him in Europe and even in the US. The stereotype led to success for some, but not for long for many: once they were injured or could no longer work or could not work the grueling schedules or create enough new material, they often died in poverty. It ultimately narrowed black people’s options and avenues for success, even as it provided a rich culture and outlet for many. In discussion of his own work, he also talks about how a narrow view of what black artists should create doomed his work Fine Clothes to the Jew because critics and general public readers alike felt that the dialect and blues structures should not be used in his art: white people saw enough of that elsewhere, and writing was supposed to highlight the best to show people that black artists were capable of high art. The strict rules placed upon what a black artist could write or create further limited what people read, and who could be successful in the field of art.

W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. Barnes and Noble Classics,

2003.

 

Summary of Work
In this nonfiction work, W.E.B. Du Bois discusses the problem of the color line in the United States through a series of essays that describe personal experiences black people have had, particularly in the South. He coins two terms that become of major importance in discussions of race: double consciousness and the Veil. The first term is meant as a representation of African-Americans being forced to live double lives because of irreconcilable, conflicting identities they have in the US: these being black identity and American identity, coming in that order. The Veil refers to black people living behind a curtain or veil from which they experience their own lives and the lives of the rest of Americans. They can see out to understand other people’s lives, but others cannot understand them or see their lives. His first essay describes how from the time of Reconstruction forward, black people realized that they would be treated differently based on skin color. Discussing the color line through Jim Crow, he states that there was the idea that the Freedman’s Bureau and education would be a panacea that would bring equality to African Americans, but with social barriers still in place, there would be no way for them to progress and overcome oppression, especially oppression in the South.

He also gives a strong critique of Booker T. Washington and his ideas about social progress: particularly about needing to accept a subordinate position, not focus so much on having the same level of education as white people, and not wanting political equality either; social peace was more important than social progress. While certainly Du Bois believed that Washington had done good in his work at Tuskegee, he thinks that Washington has done more damage than good because many black people are no longer willing to stand up for what is theirs and it is harder for black people who want to stand up to make any progress.

Du Bois also describes his time as a schoolteacher in the rural South, and he realizes the struggles of teaching in spaces where children have no opportunities and must work in the fields. When he returns years later, he finds that industrialized life has taken over the area, and that many of the students he taught are dead or sharecropping, not doing anything that would help better their lives. He then talks about how in Atlanta, Georgia, the point of life has become money and physical possessions, which has made many black people forget about what is important in life. He also says that with industrialization came a new form of slavery, because black people were trained for new jobs and how to be submissive in those jobs.

In discussion of this, Du Bois specifically mentions the problems of the justice system in the South, particularly in specific counties in Georgia. He states that the police in the South were primarily used to keep track of and manage slaves, and that hasn’t changed. Black people are arrested on the slightest offenses and then put in the peonage system and worked to death. Many black people are assigned this fate, and it makes the communities down there afraid and feeling trapped. It is not easy to escape the injustice of the law because the counties and states in the South all use the same labor system to make the South rich, and so they together hunt down the black people trying to leave the area. He also mentions the problems of the lien-system of sharecropping and states that it is essentially a form of slavery, and that the 40 acres and a mule dream that many African Americans had is completely erased from hope and reality. Very few black people are able to get land, and when they pay the white landowners for it, many times they are cheated and robbed.

Du Bois also recounts the death of his son in the book, and states that while he was happy when his son was born, he was also worried about him because he knew the challenges he would face. When the child died, he was sad but also somewhat relieved because he knew his son never had to experience the racial prejudice and live behind the Veil like he and all other black people had to. He then discusses the life of Alexander Crummell and tells about his struggles to deal with segregation once he became an educated priest and how he travelled the world to fight for what was right, even though he never felt fulfilled or satisfied. He also talks about a young man named John Jones who gets an education and returns home to find that he cannot be satisfied when he sees the inequality that was not so much visible in the North. He starts teaching, but under the direction that he is not to teach anything about social equality, and when the Judge hears that Jones is teaching about the French Revolution and it is causing people to not call white people sir or ma’am, he gets angry and shuts down the school. On the way back, he sees the judge’s son trying to sexually assault his younger sister, and he hits him with a branch and bloodies him up and knocks him out. He tells his mother he is going to leave and before he can, he is lynched.

The last chapter of the book focuses on the sorrow songs. Mostly spirituals, they describe the struggles and hardships that many black people faced. Christianity was the most important thing to preserve the ideals of redemption and salvation, especially when it came to some preservation of Obea belief systems. The songs carry with them vital information for the community as well as messages and hope for the future. This chapter has the most mixed media with song lyrics and song notations throughout the chapter. The book itself has a few lines of poetry and a line or two of musical notation to begin each chapter.

Discussion of Work
This work contributed to an important discussion about racial problems within America in the 1900s and forward. The concepts of the color line, the Veil, and double consciousness still play an important part of discussions of race and social equality today. One of the important discussions that I think is rarely had about the tensions between Washington and Du Bois is that Du Bois was not wholly against Washington, even though he was a strong critic. There were pieces of Washington’s work that he admired, and they both agreed on the importance of education, even if they disagreed about what should be taught and how the black race was to become educated.

One of the most important parts of this work which needs more time spent with it is the discussion of the peonage system. Having done field work about the peonage system and the effects it had on black communities only to have the US government refuse to publish the government committee’s findings and then destroy Du Bois’s work, he was very upset and concerned about the US’s huge efforts to cover up the fact that many black people were still enslaved through unjust judicial systems and corrupt cops in the South. Douglas A. Blackmon’s work Slavery by Another Name discusses this issue in depth, but the fact that Du Bois does more than simply reference it, but talks about it across chapters of his work, more fully describes the fear these people lived in.

One pitfall of this work is Du Bois’s very open prejudice toward Jews, especially if they are Russian Jews. He proclaims that many of the black man’s struggles come from greedy and unjust Jews cheating black people out of house and home and livelihood. The statements serve to highlight the racial tensions between the two minority groups, both of which were discriminated against in the US. The word Jew was later changed to immigrant by Du Bois in later publications of the work, indicating that perhaps either he overcame much of this prejudice or that it was brought to his attention that his prejudice was undermining his own argument (I’m not sure if this is discussed somewhere in scholarship or history, because I haven’t looked it up yet).

With all this discussion of race and social ills, it is telling that Du Bois also includes a whole chapter on the sorrow songs, a mix of spiritual and blues, although largely focused on the spirituals. While the title of the chapter is The Sorrow Songs, the songs themselves carry messages of hope to the next generation, indicating that music is a very important communication device in the community. It also indicates that Du Bois sees the music and the things connected with the music as retainers of not just hope, but the potential for social progress.

Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, A New Literary History of America

Marcus, Greil and Werner Sollors, editors. A New Literary History of America. Belnap P of Harvard UP, 2009.

Summaries of Selected Sections

“The Problem of the Color Line”

This section briefly overviews the different viewpoints between Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery and W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk. Washington’s work was a combination of a slave narrative and a rags-to-riches narrative that called for blacks to allow segregation and white supremacy until they had worked hard enough to prove that it should be eradicated; the work glossed over many important points about the struggles in the South during the Reconstruction years. Du Bois’ work made a detailed attack on Washington’s ideology and addressed the color line as the problem of the century. Du Bois created a black intelligentsia that previously never existed in the country, and he also worked to found and build the NAACP, leaving his position at Atlanta University in order to do so.

“The Invention of the Blues”

This section gives a broad overview of the blues as a genre, particularly focusing on the fact that we do not know who specifically created it and that, as the claim, the evidence for it starting in the Delta is largely anecdotal (can you feel my skepticism yet at this entry?). The entry includes W.C. Handy’s description of the first time he heard the blues and Ma Rainey’s description of the first time she heard it. They also discuss Samuel Charters being the first person to write a book on the subject, Country Blues, and how folklorists such as the Lomaxes went South and recorded numerous musicians.

“Alexander’s Ragtime Band”

This section details Irving Berlin’s start from humble origins to writing Broadway musical scores. He started as a singing waiter, and when Tin Pan Alley became successful, he tried his hand at it and was making a living writing coon songs, stereotypical and racist songs about black people and their wanton ways. All of these songs were ragtime music, and the press eviscerated the music. Then, Berlin wrote “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and it was not only popular, it stayed popular. It changed the format of American popular songs, and the form would become the mainstay for a half a century. The song broke him out of having to write coon songs, and he was able to transition into a variety of songwriting and scoring. The most impressive thing about the song is that it persists in its popularity even today, and most people can sing the song if it is played for them.

“A Modernist Moment”

This section overviews the Armory Show in NYC, where artists in the Modernist period were displayed to the public, from Van Gogh to Matisse to Duschamp and Picasso. Art was bringing new perspectives on what art itself was; it was no longer meant for noble topics, but also for everyday and common topics. The Paterson Strike Pageant at Madison Square Garden is also highlighted, with a discussion of how art brought together with striking workers made a statement about the time period as well as the economic moment, despite the failure of the performance to raise money for the strike. Finally, Poetry magazine, founded by Harriet Monroe and run by she and Ezra Pound, offered a revitalization of poetry in America, but also around the world as Pound inserted his thoughts on what poetry ought to be and Monroe searched for talent through an open door publishing policy: if it’s quality, we’ll publish it.

“Mamie Smith’s ‘Crazy Blues’”

This section suggests that we should take another close look at Mamie Smith’s blues recording, even though it is not considered an actual blues song among scholars and musicians. This suggestion comes because when looking at the history surrounding Smith and her recording, we can see that the song is important because it was a formal notice of a broken racial barrier: black people could now record their music for sale and entertainment. Sophie Turner, the white blackface performer, was actually the first white woman to record a successful blues song, and this is important because it may have been, if we look past appropriation, the first crack in the barrier to recording black music: since Turner’s recording was successful, they were less worried about recording black music. While Smith was a vaudeville performer who was never considered one of the great blues singers of the era, her song and musical choices are important for the racial barriers they maneuver and the racial issues the song codes into itself and the tone of the lyric.

“Jean Toomer”

This section provides a spotlight on Jean Toomer’s life and writing. He struggled to feel that anything he wrote was good enough to publish, even declining to be published in a landmark book of poetry. Those who knew him would describe him as a strange man. He would frequent salons run by James Weldon Johnson, and he would work odd jobs just long enough to know what it was like to work them before he quit to read and write some more. He was in Washington D.C. taking care of sick grandparents, who practically raised him, and he was going mad. He decided to take a job as a temporary principal at a school in Georgia, and it is there that he learned more about black communities in the South, which inspired his writing of Cane. Toomer himself was mixed race and had very light skin, meaning he was often mistaken for white but did not fit in there once his ancestry was known, but he also did not fit in the black community. Still, his work is considered the inauguration of the Harlem Renaissance, and was hailed again during the Black Arts Movement before and after his death.

“T.S. Eliot and D.H. Lawrence”

This section discusses the writing and lives of T.S. Eliot and D.H. Lawrence, particularly their crossing paths as Eliot moved to get away from America and its culture and Lawrence moved to it in hopes of a nationalist dream and pending publications. While Eliot had issues with his publication of Wasteland and the culture’s misunderstanding of his work and its seriousness, Lawrence was happy for the audience that would allow for his more sexual or deviant works to not just be published, but be popular. Eliot worked in finance during the financial dismantling of Europe after WWI, and Lawrence enjoyed freedom from discrimination with his German wife Freida in the USA. However, Lawrence became disenchanted with America the more and more he saw the treatment of Native Americans and the injustices; he came to the conclusion that the white American could never come to a cultural understanding with the Native American, and that similarly, he would always be Other from Americans as a European. Eliot would always call out and deplore dryness and sterility in writing as well as a nationalist spirit, while Lawrence would allow that nationalist spirit to create illusion.

The Great Gatsby

This section discusses the fear, dislike, and discrimination against new money in Fitzgerald’s work The Great Gatsby. Much as immigrants are discriminated against in America today, Gatsby and the other residents of West Egg are disliked by the East Egg residents, who are old, established money. The murder of Gatsby and the subsequent newspaper articles about how he deserved what he got are reminiscent of the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, where the Italians were convicted of robbery and murder even though they most likely did not commit the crime. The fear of immigrants still looms, just like it does in Gatsby when Buchanan talks about the rising of the colored races to supplant white people. But much like the dream of Gatsby making it in America, what is inspiring about the book is the author himself. Fitzgerald embodies the opportunity available in America with his riches and success as a writer, a career that is not thought of as one that will lead to a prosperous life.

“John Dos Passos”

This section discusses how Dos Passos was both disenchanted by capitalism and communism in America, and how he, in his dissatisfaction with many things and growing his writing in his early twenties, went to Europe and then the Soviet Union and found a fellow writer who shared his ideas about how to structure his work. The rest of the section is dedicated to discussing the structure of the USA Trilogy, particularly The 42nd Parallel, and how the narratives cut off and come back and intertwine while the newsreels and camera eye biographies add a layer of complexity: on their own, they would have been gimmicky, but together, they create a uniquely layered complexity of American literature and life.

“Arthur Miller”

This section details the realist theater that is Arthur Miller’s legacy. Focusing particularly on Death of a Salesman, readers learn of his desire for people to feel that performance was immoral and to see how it conflicts with the American Dream even as it seems to uphold it. In fact, the illusion of the American Dream is also explored. Willy in the play is the ultimate performer, one who has cared more about what other people see and think than what he is actually building. As he breaks down, the rules of realism in theater break down: the scenes are regularly interrupted by music, which signal Willy’s entry into his memories, and all the other characters become supporting roles; when he runs out of memories and illusions, Willy breaks the fourth wall before killing himself. This and the other works of Arthur Miller, in their discussions of the problems of performance, set the stage for works like Sondheim’s Gypsy and Kushner’s Angels in America.

Gone with the Wind and Absalom, Absalom!

Coming out in the same year, these two novels would have very different successes, mainly that Margaret Mitchell’s work would become radically popular and well read, whereas William Faulkner’s work wouldn’t sell well and wouldn’t become a film. Yet they both look at the South and its problems. Mitchell’s work unveils the economic failures and class superiority issues in the South, but then by the end of the work has put the romantic lens back on the South; her book would be further romanticized in the film, and its success proves the obsession and enchantment of the American populace about the pastoral American South. On the other hand, Faulkner’s work sets out to dismantle the problems of racism and slavery that built the American South and continue to pervade its society. He discusses issues of miscegenation and racial hatred that blanket the South and points out the fact that America’s success was built on slavery. His work was prophetic in its dealings with what would later, in the 1970s, be hailed as a national dilemma.

“Jelly Roll Morton Speaks”

This section deals with Alan Lomax being encouraged to invite Jelly Roll Morton to talk about his songs and older music and to sing and play for him to record. Lomax was initially reluctant given his interest was not in a popular jazz singer of the past but of folk music, but when Jelly Roll sat down and sang a song Lomax requested and then started to give a history of it and his life and how Jazz was created in Storyville, Lomax recognized the importance of recording Morton’s story. He spent weeks recording Morton talking and singing, and it was the birth of oral history, using sound recording to allow people to tell their own stories free from transcription and the pauses that inevitably come with that.

“Billie Holliday, ‘Strange Fruit’”

This section describes how Billy Holliday, more of a Jazz singer than a blues singer, was able to instill the blues throughout her work in the way she sang her songs and what messages she communicated through them. Her work, much like her life, embodies the suffering and the lives of African Americans that exist in the lyrics and notes of blues music, and even more so in the fact that there is no reasoning or scapegoat for the suffering described. The blues were a way for Holliday and many others to both rid themselves of the blues and describe and embody their experiences as they sent messages to the next generation.

“Up from Invisibility”

This section discusses Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and its themes, particularly on communism and African American cultural elements. While Ellison insisted the book was not autobiographical, this section posits that perhaps it was at least somewhat autobiographical given Ellison’s time at Tuskegee, move to New York, his support of Communism and Stalinism for years, and his later renouncement of those viewpoints. In 1939, Ellison worked with old documents that contained information about African American history and folklore, and this greatly influenced his work; while the work has many blues and jazz tropes, it also contains a lot of folklore which embodies the ideas and tropes expressed in stories and characters such as Brer Rabbit and other trickster figures. He refused to allow his writing to be defined by victimhood and suffering, and instead focused on the rich traditions that would bring African Americans up from invisibility.

“Tennessee Williams”

This section focuses on how Tennessee Williams inserted grand emotional performances and personal experience into his plays. Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire was a combination of two of his lovers, and he admitted to all his female characters being some embodiment of his sister, mother, and even himself at the time of writing. People have said that Blanche is essentially Williams on stage with the theatricality and the sexual theatricality. Williams was always openly gay, something that was a big risk in the time period, and his work deals with homosexuality in ways that could have had his plays banned from screen adaption or seriously revised for screen adaption. His work was very open about sex during a time when such discussions were rarely, if ever, public. Yet Williams would be criticized by LGBT people and activists for his work being constructed around heteronormative tropes; he would always defend his work as being for a broader audience than just LGBT communities. All of his work is set in the South, and much of his work deconstructs the myth of Southern Aristocracy, as can be seen with the loss of Belle Reve and the falling apart of the Southern Belle Aristocrat.

“The Birth of the Cool”

This section discusses the Aesthetic of the Cool, the idea that an artist should be able to do very difficult acts while making it look as if it takes no effort at all. While some form of this idea exists across time and cultures, the phrase “Cool” was slowly brought into use in regard to jazz music. Miles Davis was the catalyst for this idea, with his focus on blending instruments together and using instruments like the tuba and French horn over the tenor sax in his band. His trumpet melodies float over the accompaniment and blend with the other instruments in ways that jazz as “hot music” did not. He also did not perform like other jazz musicians, even turning his back upon the audience while he played. Even though Miles Davis’ first records did not sell well, they are considered landmark records for the era. And even after Davis was done with his ideas and had moved onto new ones, his work had influenced jazz permanently.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

This section discusses the life of Malcolm X as he wrote his autobiography. He had been regularly denounced as a hate monger and demagogue, and he had even been exiled from Elijah Muhammad’s sect of black-centered Islam. Alex Haley had written a short bio piece on him for Playboy, and then he was invited by Doubleday to work with Malcolm X to write his autobiography. Haley’s work was rejected after Malcolm X’s assassination, but Grove Press picked it up. It is now firmly established in the literature canon, but that poses problems, as it is not simply a work of social science or literature, as it combines postmodern narrative elements into a work of nonfiction, something that had never been done before. There are also questions about narrator reliability given that Malcolm X upheld lies and then recanted them later in the narrative when he revealed Elijah Muhammad’s sins. Foucault calls this type of narrative parrhesiastes, where a speaker uses the most direct way to tell what he believes regardless of the full truthfulness of the tale being told.

“Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker”

This section discusses these three authors in relation to each other and the women’s movement of the 1970s. They told stories of black womanhood, a part of life that was a gaping hole in literature. They provided stories about what it was like to be a black woman in America, and showed the trauma that chased them in the South and in the North; but they also showed unique and strong women who had interesting stories to tell for their own sake, stories worth telling. They received criticism from all sides for the way they portrayed the black community and particularly black men, but they persisted in telling their stories. They also paved the way to the rediscovery of black female artists, such as Zora Neale Hurston and Nella Larsen, from previous generations.

“Toni Morrison”

This section discusses Morrison’s work in the framework of her being put on the cover of Newsweek. She was the first black woman to be featured on the cover since Zora Neale Hurston, and she was the first black author to be chosen for a Book of the Month club book since Richard Wright. Her work, with so many central black female characters, speaks to a new literary tradition that told untold stories, stories about pariah women who live a life outside of religious and community rule structures. Yet while her work, fictional and nonfictional, deals with many important racial issues, she has not become a public figure like James Baldwin did, who she claims as her main influence. She has done more than write amazing prose. She, as an editor for Random House, has helped a great number of African American authors bring their work to the public eye. She has won many awards, culminating with the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.