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Chapter 2 - Arna Bontemps and Black Literary Archives

from Part I - Productive Precarity and Literary Realism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 March 2022

Eve Dunbar
Affiliation:
Vassar College, New York
Ayesha K. Hardison
Affiliation:
University of Kansas
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Summary

The precarity of the 1930s undergirded major transitions in Arna Bontemps’s waged and writerly labor. The flusher years of the 1920s saw him winning prizes, teaching school, and writing poetry, but the 1930s saw him take a decidedly historical turn, penning historical novels Black Thunder (1936) and Drums at Dusk (1939) and training to be a curator. This tracks alongside broader shifts in African American literature during the decade, both formally, as a bridge to social realism, and politically, through engagement with Marxism. By excavating Bontemps’s archive, this chapter confirms that he was an innovator who repurposed the historical novel to critique racial capitalism. At the same time, he sought to create saleable products and enhance his career. This paradox illuminates how African American literature of the 1930s was generated from the tension between leftist solidarity and the persistent notion of the talented tenth. Ultimately, Bontemps’s work emerges from the nexus of two radical projects: historical preservation and self-preservation, which together enabled the transition from New Negro aesthetics to the protest literature of the 1940s.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2022

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