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This chapter focuses on the career of Jean Toomer. It looks first at Toomer’s Washington upbringing among the black bourgeoisie, his course of reading in modern literature and the attraction for Toomer of the Greenwich Village literary world he associated with an “aristocracy of culture.” It then examines the way Toomer, following the advice of his friend Waldo Frank, capitalized on his African American identity and experience in the South in writing his first book Cane, which he retrospectively thought of as his “passport” into the literary world. The chapter goes on to demonstrate the extent to which Cane became a burden for Toomer, as it came to define him as a “Negro writer” despite the more ambitious, post-racial works he was writing, none of which could get published. It focuses finally on the reasons why African American anthologists and critics needed to claim Cane for African American literature – in good part, the chapter argues, because it showcased the race’s capacity for modernist experimentation. And it deals finally with Toomer’s reluctant agreement to be anthologized as an African American writer, as this ensured that his writing would endure.
The chapter focuses on the way Ralph Ellison established his literary reputation first by aligning himself with the modernizing step forward representing by Richard Wright, whom he identified as black America’s equivalent to James Joyce, then by self-consciously surpassing Wright with Invisible Man. It touches upon the complex, seven-year gestation of Invisible Man, mainly to reveal the extent to which the novel got increasingly tailored and steamlined for commercial success. It looks at the way the critical reception of Invisible Man neatly fit Ellison’s ambitions for the novel, making him the first African American novelist to be routinely compared to the great European modernists and classic nineteeth-century American novelists. Finally it takes on the question of why Ellison never finished his second novel, situating his struggle in relation to the discourse of “the death of the novel” so prominent in high literary circles in the 1950s. Despite his lifelong attacks on this notion, the chapter argues, Ellison was haunted by it, and condemned by his success as the first “great” African American novelists to aim at nothing short of some synthesis of “the great American novel” and Joyce’s novel-ending Finnegans Wake. It ends with an ironic recognition of the posthumous state of Three Days Before the Shooting as more a book for academics than for the broad American public for whom Ellison thought the novel so essential.
I first conceived this project with a hazy sequel in mind: it would begin with James Baldwin, with an analogous focus on the vicissitudes of his career and of his reputation, and would end on the high note of Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize win. Along the way it would deal with LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, of especial interest because of the way he migrated aesthetically from intimate familiarity with (white) modernism (most evident in The System of Dante’s Hell) to a more exclusively “black aesthetic” and helped found the Black Arts movement. The Black Arts movement and the surge of African American women’s writing in the 1970s would have framed studies of the careers of, say, Ishmael Reed and Alice Walker. And the rise of Morrison to a national treasure and internationally esteemed author would make for a closing literary success story with few parallels in American literary history.
This chapter focuses on the the literary career of Zora Neale Hurston, which notably takes off after the Harlem Renaissance. It first focuses on the relative failure of her ambitious musical pageant “The Great Day,” which might have led to a theatrical career. Hurston then wrote her first novels, Jonah’s Gourd Vine and Their Eyes Were Watching God, against the propagandistic, race-conscious novels she associated with the Harlem Renaissance, using the novel instead to showcase African American oral-performative art and to elaborate her key theme of the tension between individualistic leaders like herself and a vital but leveling, resentful African American community. Hurston both consolidated her literary reputation and began reinventing herself in her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road, before turning away from African American subject matter in her ambitious novel for Scribner’s, Seraph on the Suwanee. The chapter analyzes Seraph on the Suwanee in terms of Hurston’s efforts to write a kind of national epic, then argues for the increasingly universalist direction of Hurston’s work as articulated in her many letters about her long-standing work-in-progress “Herod the Great.” Unable to finish or publish this book, Hurston’s career uncannily recapitulates that of Jean Toomer, insofar as broader reaching after literary universality increasingly undercuts her literary power.
Introduces the argument about the literary ambition motivating landmark African American novelists from Charles Chesnutt to Ralph Ellison, and essential to the creation of a world-class African American literature. Introduces the general argument that these African American novelists based their hopes for literary success on the fundamentally enabling assumption of African American “literary destitution.” Assuming that the first “great” African American writer was yet to come, each writer aligned his or her individualistic ambition with the collective project of building an African American literature. In practice this led to later generations of writers making “sacrificial precursors” of those who had achieved but short-term, relative success in the past, and who came to seem dated or overly conventional in response to the growing prestige of international literary modernism that added a pressure to be “modern” to the pressure to be “literary.” The introduction challenges notions of an internally developing African American literary canon by insisting on the extent to which African American literature developed internationally and comparatively, through the work of writers who inescapably measured literary success in terms of the modernist literature being canonized within the literary field they struggled to win prominent positions in.
This chapter examines Richard Wright’s career in terms of the gap between his aspiration to emulate the great, canonized modernists like Marcel Proust and Gertrude Stein and his practical recourse to the realist and naturalist novel as still the best means of representing African American experience. It examines as well the gap between his authorial image as an uncompromising black author telling harsh truths and the unprecedented popularity of his novels thanks in good part to compromises he made with his publishers in the interest of securing publication by the Book of the Month Club. Wright’s landmark stature, this chapter demonstrates, stems in good part from his remarkable commercial success, success that ultimately made it possible for him to follow in the footsteps of his American modernist precursors and write as an expatriate in Paris. The chapter deals largely with the expressed desire of the phenomenally successful author of Native Son and Black Boy, well-tutored in what he called “the writing game” by his agent Paul Reynolds and his editor Edward Aswell, to move beyond the expectations attached to the “Negro writer” he had become. It aligns his exile with his desire to write major multi-volume works outlined in private journals and letters, as well as produce the literary equivalent of the non-figurative art whose virtues he describes at some length in the major novel of his French period, The Outsider.
This chapter surveys the career of Charles Chesnutt, first by focusing on his strategic, self-conscious efforts to enter what he called the literary world. It looks at Chesnutt’s rise in the literary world through publication with Houghton Mifflin and the critical acclaim of William Dean Howells, then his downfall after The Marrow of Tradition led to his being marked as a propagandist. It analyzes his short story “Baxter’s Procrustes” for its satirical insight into the paradoxes of contemporary literary value. It charts his final years when he was recognized by Harlem Renaissance writers as “the first Negro novelist,” even as he struggled to publish new work during that period, making him a sacrifical precursor for the Harlem Renaissance writers with whom he could only partially identify.
This chapter examines the criticism and fiction of Wallace Thurman, who aligned himself with the Harlem Renaissance in 1926 and became one of its harshest critics. It analyzes the contradictory nature of that ambition as expressed in his unpublished autobiographical essay “Notes on a Stepchild.” The chapter goes on to situate Thurman’s efforts to create an avant-garde wing of Harlem writers, which culminated in the creation of the journal Fire!, in the context of 1926 debates about the nature of African American literature represented by the Crisis symposium and by landmark essays by W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and George Schuyler. It also explains his notoriously negative criticism of African American literature in terms of his aim of steering it away from literary parochialism and toward international modernism. Thurman embraced a mode of literary decadence, the chapter finally argues, as a means of repudiating the realist race problem novel and putting African American literature on the same track that led to a full-fledged modernism, but he recognized the futility of this in his novel Infants of the Spring, which is analyzed here as the story of two failed African American writers. The chapter ends by recognizing the irony inherent in Thurman’s devotion to Jean Toomer, which implies that the great African American writing he was calling for was already written.
This chapter focuses on three stages in the career of James Weldon Johnson. It deals first with Johnson’s expressed ambition to be the first great African American poet at the moment when he had just written “Fifty Years” and was set to publish The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. When Johnson’s hopes for a national literary reputation were disappointed, he then turned to the promotional, critical, theoretical, and editorial work that laid important groundwork for the Harlem Renaissance, which would help establish conditions for the quantitative production of African American writing from which great individual work, and more modern, experimental work, would emerge. The chapter argues for Johnson’s understanding of the extent to which a people’s literary output is inescapably measured in an international context, an understanding he grasped as a result of his familiarity with Latin American modernismo, even as he seemed unfamiliar with the expatriate American modernist agenda of Ezra Pound. During the 1920s and at the high point of the Harlem Renaissance he helped launch and promote, Johnson was able to capitalize on the arrival of a substantial body of African American writing to reissue his nearly forgotten novel as a “classic of Negro literature” and publish his major poetic effort, God’s Trombones.
This book shows how African American literature emerged as a world-recognized literature: less as the product of a seamless tradition of writers signifying upon their ancestors and more the product of three generations of ambitious, competitive individuals aiming to be the first great African American writer. It charts a canon of fictional landmarks, beginning with The House Behind the Cedars and culminating in the National Book Award-Winner Invisible Man, and tells the compelling stories of the careers of key African American writers, including Charles Chesnutt, James Weldon Johnson, Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison. These writers worked within the white-dominated, commercial, Eurocentric literary field to put African American literature on the world literary map, while struggling to transcend the cultural expectations attached to their position as 'Negro authors'. Literary Ambition and the African American Novel tells as much about the novels that these writers could not publish as it does about their major achievements.