Literary Criticism, U.S.: Overview

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Literary Criticism, U.S.: Overview

In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, to illustrate his assertions of Negro inferiority, remarked, "Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately [sic; reference is to Phillis Wheatley], but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism" (p. 189). Jefferson's attitude of dismissal extended equally to the writers Jupiter Hammon and Ignatius Sancho and to every other black person. Though his discussion of Wheatley's work falls short, by his own admission, of literary criticism, it initiates a tradition of disparagement in which European-American critics use ideology as a grounds for judging African-American writing inferior. Not surprisingly, the work of African-American critics has often been conceived, at least implicitly, in response to such critical chauvinism.

African-American literary criticism should be understood to comprise several interlocking categories of writing: criticism of works by African Americans, criticism by African Americans, and criticism of African-American works by African-American critics. Furthermore, criticism includes literary biography, literary history, literary theory, and cultural theory as well as analyses of specific literary works. Thus African-American literary criticism is a broadly defined genre, and because the racial category "black" or "African American" has always been heavily laden with social values, literary criticism has been one of the realms in which questions of racial values and racial identity have always been articulated and contested.

The explicitly Euro-chauvinist tradition that uses literary criticism as a pretext for assertions of white supremacy and black inferiority, initiated by Jefferson and perpetuated through the late twentieth century, has its vigorously antagonistic counterpart in the tradition that commits itself to demonstrating through criticism the distinctiveness and integrity of African-American artists and culture. Despite their sharp disagreements, these two traditions hold in common the premise that the race of the author should be a major consideration for the critic. This presumption, needless to say, has not generally been inflicted upon European-American authors, and such differential treatment has provoked anger or anxiety in many black writers. Ironically, this passion or its absence has manifested itself in writers' works and has in turn shaped the critical responses to their works. Such are the literary burdens of race.

In one sense, Jefferson's overtly dismissive comments are anomalous to the critical tradition. If work is "below the dignity of criticism," why would a critic lower himself to it? More typically, racial chauvinism has been expressed in the form of condescending praise. For example, in 1926, just as the Harlem Renaissance was beginning, John Nelson published The Negro Character in American Literature, the first full-length study of this subject. Nelson took particular delight in the comic and sentimental portraits of black people in works by turn-of-the-century writers such as Thomas Nelson Page, Irwin Russell, and Joel Chandler Harris:

[the Negro's] irresistible gaiety, his gift for dance and song, his spontaneity and childish delight in gay colors and all forms of display, his love of high-sounding words, his fondness for chicken and watermelon, his gullibility, his excuse-making powers, his whimsicality, his illogicalness and superstition, his droll philosophy, his genial shiftlessness and laziness, his "superb capacity for laughter"these traits were appreciated as never before, were revalued and pronounced delightful.

In other words, Nelson loved minstrelsy. Nelson' comments are noteworthy because they both reflect the attitudes of many critics and indicate implicitly the kind of portrayals of black people that critics found acceptable, even in works by black writers: colorful and comical.

The impatience of such critics with black writers who rendered more serious or realistic depictions of African-American life is articulated by David Littlejohn in Black on White: A Critical Survey of Writing by American Negroes (1966):

A white reader is saddened, then burdened, then numbed by the deadly sameness, the bleak wooden round of ugly emotions and situations; the same frustrated dreams, the same issues and charges and formulas and events repeated over and over, in book after book the responding spirit is dulled, finally, bored by the iteration of hopelessness, the sordid limitation of the soul in the tight closet of the black imagination.

By contrast, Littlejohn praises Gwendolyn Brooks because she is "far more a poet than a Negro." The implication, clearly, is that "Negro" and "poet" are somehow antithetical. Such remarks illustrate the continuity of racially dismissive and condescending attitudes in American literary criticism over a span of two centuries. African-American writers and critics have produced their work fully cognizant that many highly educated white Americans continue to espouse such views.

Not surprisingly, then, the most conspicuous African-American critical tradition has been polemical. This polemical tradition has been primarily concerned to use literary criticism as a means of addressing social issues, not as a form of aesthetic engagement. In the nineteenth century, African-American criticism belonged almost exclusively to this genre; but there was relatively little of it, since the quantity of African-American literature was small and was primarily limited to the black periodical press. Not until after the turn of the century did the social and economic conditions exist to support a class of black professional critics. Thus the criticism published during the nineteenth century was generally the work of activists who published work in various genres. Frederick Douglass, for example, sometimes commented on books, but he was not a literary critic. Similarly, characters in the fiction of Frances E. W. Harper and Pauline Hopkins sometimes discuss books, but this is not what we mean by literary criticism, either.

Kelly Miller, a professor and administrator at Howard University, published fine, erudite, vigorously argued, and elegantly balanced essays on a broad range of topics. His collection Race Adjustments (1908) includes essays on Thomas Dixon's The Leopard's Spots and Walt Whitman. The essay on The Leopard's Spots, a novel that sold over a million copies, challenges the racist views and historical accuracy of Dixon's narrative about Reconstruction. Furthermore, Miller contests Dixon's bigoted and inaccurate depiction of African Americans and racial politics at the turn of the century. In this essay, the critic appears in the guise of racial spokesman and defender. By contrast, "What Walt Whitman Means to the Negro" allows Miller to display his literary erudition and sensibility as well as to make a social point. He celebrates Whitman's work because of its democratic inclusiveness, such that "all are welcome; none are denied, shunned, avoided, ridiculed, or made to feel ashamed" (p. 204). Furthermore, he asserts:

Whitman has a special meaning to the Negro, not only because of his literary portrayal; he has lessons also. He inculcates the lesson of ennobling self-esteem. He teaches the Negro that "there is no sweeter fat than sticks to his own bones." He urges him to accept nothing that "insults his own soul" (p. 208).

These comments reflected Miller's own grounding in a late nineteenth-century culture in which moral issues were a paramount concern for literary critics.

That same predisposition is conspicuous in the literary criticism of the most influential African-American literary critic of Miller's generation: W. E. B. Du Bois. Du Bois is not generally regarded as a literary critic, but in judging intellectuals trained in the late nineteenth century, disciplinary categories of the late twentieth century can be misleading. Like Kelly Miller and Charles Waddell Chesnutt, Du Bois was a "man of letters." He published distinguished writing in virtually every genre. As editor of The Crisis for twenty-five years, he was easily the most widely read African-American writer of the early twentieth century. In his articles, columns, and commentaries, Du Bois addressed virtually every issue, event, and publication of relevance to African Americans.

It was not merely the quantity of his output nor the size of his audience, however, that made Du Bois so influential. Rather, Du Bois's accomplishments as a scholar and activist, his incomparable erudition, his elegant writing style and refined literary sensibility, and his intense passion for truth, justice, and beauty all combined to make him authoritative and compelling. Thus his judgments about particular artists or works carried extraordinary weight. Du Bois used his enormous prestige to endorse and publicize the works of black writers, including Harlem Renaissance figures such as Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and Jessie Fauset.

The essay that best represents Du Bois as a visionary and inspirational critic is his "Criteria of Negro Art" (1926). In it he reiterates his belief, earlier expressed in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), that black people have a special calling to revive in a debased, materialist nation an appreciation for beauty and higher values:

Who shall let this world be beautiful? Who shall restore to men the glory of sunsets and the peace of quiet sleep? We black folk may help for we have within us as a race new stirrings; stirrings of the beginning of a new appreciation of joy, a new desire to create, of a new will to be; as though in this morning of group life we had awakened from some sleep that at once dimly mourns the past and dreams a splendid future.

After declaring the unity of beauty with truth and justice, Du Bois concludes with a prophecy: "The ultimate art coming from black folk is going to be just as beautiful, and beautiful largely in the same ways, as the art that comes from white folk, or yellow, or red; but the point today is that until the art of the black folk compells recognition they will not be rated as human." For Du Bois, then, the creation of black art and the struggle for social justice were inseparable, and by implication, artists should be understood as warriors in this struggle, not deserters from it. This formulation encourages young artists to pursue their own aesthetic visions and offers them protection against charges of irrelevance or frivolity, such as political pragmatists have often advanced against art. While Du Bois did not hesitate to criticize particular works bluntly and even harshly, his broader critical impact was as a champion of literary art. As a critic, he exerted a major influence on artists of the Harlem Renaissance; and as a model of intellectual activism, he influenced the radical critics of the 1930s and 1960s.

Though Du Bois was the preeminent African-American critic and intellectual life of the Harlem Renaissance decade (the 1920s), several other notable critics of African-American writing emerged during that period. James Weldon Johnson deserves to be remembered alongside Du Bois as a truly exemplary figure who exerted influence in several fields. He was a poet, novelist, essayist, songwriter, civil rights leader, and diplomat, and though he is not usually described as a literary critic, his preface to the first edition of The Book of American Negro Poetry (1921) is one of the seminal essays on African-American poetry.

Johnson's preface serves a number of purposes at once. It identifies the major styles and tendencies of African-American artistic expression and assesses the relationship of black culture to the broader American and international cultures. It considers the relationship between vernacular culture and fine art traditions and does so with a refreshingly uncondescending appreciation of black popular arts such as the blues and the cakewalk. And not least, it provides a concise historical overview of African-American poetry from Jupiter Hammon and Phillis Wheatley to Langston Hughes and other poets born about the turn of the century. In effect, the essay sets a broad context with its detailed discussions of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century poets and other aesthetic forms, though the anthology actually begins with Paul Laurence Dunbar. In its time The Book of American Negro Poetry was important for introducing many poets who were unfamiliar to the reading public. Its preface endures, however, as one of the best and most insightful discussions of the African-American poetic tradition.

Another distinguished and influential critic of the 1920s was Alain Leroy Locke, a philosopher, essayist, editor, art collector, critic, and the first African-American Rhodes scholar. Like Du Bois, Locke was a man of broad interests and influence. He is most commonly remembered as the editor of the New Negro (1925), a volume that announced and sought to define the cultural explosion known subsequently as the Harlem Renaissance. At the time it was more often called "the New Negro Movement," and Alain Locke was regarded as its midwife and intellectual leader.

Locke's literary essays of the 1920s reflect a fundamental conflict between two antagonistic intellectual tendencies. On the one hand, Locke was deeply committed to empirical social science and to an understanding of race in social and cultural terms. This tendency is expressed in his introductory essay, "The New Negro," when he argues that the Negro Renaissance should be understood in relation to recent migration from the rural South, the black response to urban social conditions, and a political consciousness developed from struggles over race, labor, economics, and related issues. In this sense, he argues, developments in Harlem should be understood in the context of national and international developments, and Harlem would become a "race capital" because "Harlem has the same role to play for the New Negro as Dublin has had for the New Ireland or Prague for the New Czechoslovakia" (p. 7).

On the other hand, Locke's thinking also reveals a strain of romantic primitivism, a tendency that some scholars attribute to his close association with the white philanthropist and Negrophile Charlotte Osgood Mason. "Godmother," as she insisted she be called, believed that white civilization was decadent and doomed unless it could be infused with the vitality inherent in "primitive" cultures, such as black and Native American. Thus she undertook to subsidize African-American artists, and with Locke as her talent scout, she became a patroness to Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Aaron Douglas, and others. Locke, himself, received considerable largesse from Godmother, enabling him to travel to Europe annually and helping him to acquire what developed into a major collection of African art. "Negro Youth Speaks," Locke's introduction to the literature section of the volume, argues:

Art cannot disdain the gift of a natural irony, of a transfiguring imagination, of rhapsodic Biblical speech, of dynamic musical swing, of cosmic emotion such as only the gifted pagans knew, of a return to nature, not by way of the forced and worn formula of Romanticism, but through the closeness of an imagination that has never broken kinship with nature (p. 52).

Since Locke published this primitivist manifesto in 1925 and did not meet Mrs. Mason until 1926, perhaps their relationship would be more aptly described as a confluence of like minds. Mrs. Mason doubtless encouraged this aspect of Locke's thinking, but she did not initiate it.

By the late 1930s Locke repudiated primitivism, returning to an emphasis on social experience as the basis of black cultural expression. Locke might be more aptly described as a cultural critic than as a literary critic, strictly speaking. Nevertheless, his literary influence was substantial because of his essays, anthologies, correspondence, social activity, and his role as a procurer of patronage. In addition to The New Negro, he also published Plays of Negro Life (1927), coedited with T. Montgomery Gregory.

Another influential anthologist of this period was William Stanley Braithwaite. Unlike Locke, Braithwaite was himself a creative writera poetand his purview was not exclusively or even primarily African American. Raised by very fair-skinned parents who encouraged young William not to associate with black people, Braithwaite eventually developed into a poet whose work betrayed virtually no evidence of his African-American background. He developed a substantial reputation as an essayist and reviewer for leading literary magazines such as Atlantic Monthly, North American Review, and Scribner's. His greatest fame and influence, however, accrued from his several poetry anthologies, such as The Book of Elizabethan Verse, and the series of annual compilations that he edited from 1913 to 1929, called Anthology of Magazine Verse. In this editorial capacity, he helped to bring national attention to such younger writers as Carl Sandburg, Edgar Lee Masters, and Vachel Lindsay. Though he was celebrated by African-Americansfor example, he won the Spingarn Medal in 1918many of his readers were unaware that he was black. Braithwaite was unique in enjoying a successful literary career in which his race was neither a stigma nor a premise of his professional identity.

During the 1920s the first serious histories of black literature began to appear. Foremost among them was Benjamin Brawley's The Negro Genius (1937), originally published in 1918 as The Negro in Literature and Art. Benjamin Griffith Brawley was a professor of literature with degrees from Chicago and Harvard, who spent the bulk of his teaching career at Shaw University and Howard. He published textbooks on English literature and a biography of Paul Laurence Dunbar, but The Negro Genius was his most enduring work. As its original title suggests, The Negro Genius was actually a history of African Americans in all of the arts: literature, drama, visual arts, and music. Brawley's objective was to trace the various manifestations of African-American creative talent, and his book is virtually an encyclopedia of black artists, offering brief introductory essays on each, in chronological order.

The Negro Genius has embedded within it a kind of racial theory, distinguishing between the inherent gifts of "people of mixed blood" and "blacks":

People of mixed blood have given us the college presidents, the administrators, the Government employees; but the blacks are the singers and seers. Black slaves gave us the spirituals; modern composers of a lighter hue transcribe them. In other words, the mixed element in the race may represent the Negro's talent, but it is upon the black element that he must rely for his genius (pp. 8-9).

"Negro genius" is, according to Brawley, "lyrical, imaginative, subjective." Though Brawley makes such claims in a spirit of race pride, vindicating dark-skinned people, racial theory cuts in both directions. If the aesthetic is black, the scientific must be white. If genius is racial, the lack of genius must also be racial. Brawley's larger intention is to celebrate African-American achievement; but framing the argument in racial terms simply perpetuates the basis for invidious hierarchies, which has always been the primary function of racial ideology. As a critical premise this notion is also flawed, because it encourages the critic to appreciate the lyricism of black artists but not their formal designs. It stereotypes black artists even as it celebrates them. Nevertheless, The Negro Genius did a valuable service by providing a broad, concise, and readily accessible account of African-American artistic achievement.

Another notable work of this period was The Negro Author and His Development (1930) by Vernon Loggins, which unlike Brawley's work focused exclusively on black literature. The most sophisticated history of African-American literature published during this era, however, was To Make a Poet Black (1939) by J. Saunders Redding. Indeed, no book is more deserving to be regarded as the classic African-American literary history. Redding's book is distinguished by its literary style, its conceptual design, its high aesthetic standards, and its vigorous critical argument. Unlike Brawley, who was constrained by the essentially apologetic conception of The Negro Genius to praise the authors he discussed in order to persuade a doubting audience that black people are capable of creating serious art, Redding defined for himself a critical agenda, committed to analyzing and evaluating the work of black writers.

Redding begins with an acknowledgment of the conflicting social imperatives that have bedeviled black writers, the sharply opposed expectations of black and white audiences. As a consequence of this conflict, Redding argues, "Negro writers have been obliged to have two faces." These two impulses Redding defines as, first, the aesthetic quest for honest, well-crafted self-expression, and second, the political quest to contribute to the advancement of one's oppressed race. In Redding's own concise description, "these two necessities can be traced with varying degrees of claritynow one and now the other predominantlike threads through the whole cloth" (p. 3). This describes aptly a trait that has characterized African-American writing throughout its history, and accordingly it provides a set of terms that Redding can use cogently and consistently to analyze texts from Jupiter Hammon to Sterling Brown.

While he addresses the writers' work with a sympathetic understanding of their circumstances and an appreciation of their particular talents and achievements, Redding never relinquishes his commitment to the primacy of aesthetic concerns. For him this means that literature should be not just skillfully wrought but also honest, passionate, and purposeful. Thus, while he acknowledges Phillis Wheatly as a talented and important poet, he deplores her glib religiosity, her acceptance of slavery, and her failure to identify with the plights of other slaves as attitudes that undermine her art:

It is this negative, bloodless, unracial quality in Phillis Wheatley that makes her seem superficial, especially to members of her own race. Hers is a spirit-denying-the-flesh attitude that somehow cannot seem altogether real as the essential quality and core of one whose life should have made her sensitive to the very things she denies. In this sense none of her poetry is real (p. 11).

For similar reasons, he criticizes the work of William Stanley Braithwaite, dismissing it as "the most outstanding example of perverted energy that the period from 1903 to 1917 produced" (p. 89). Braithwaite's work, he argues, "is pretty and skillful poetry, but it is not poetry afire with the compelling necessity for expression. No passion (even slightly remembered in tranquility) of pain or joy, no spring of pure personal knowledge or conviction justifies it" (p. 91). For Redding, neither deficient literary technique nor deficient moral fervor is acceptable, and both of these poets lack the latter.

In the early fiction of Charles Chesnutt, Redding finds work that meets his high standards. He declares: "His early career was a great artistic success, for he did the one thing needful to the American Negro writer: He worked dangerous, habit-ridden material with passive calm and fearlessness. He exposed the Negro to critical analysis" (p. 76). The terms that he uses to convey praise reflect Redding's insistence on originality, honesty, and cogency. The poems and prefaces of James Weldon Johnson, especially in God's Trombones, also embody for Redding the mature achievement of African-American writing:

Aside from the beauty of the poems, the essay which prefaces them is of the first importance for it definitely hails back from the urban and sophisticated to the earthy exuberance of the Negro's kinship with the earth, the fields, the suns and rains of the South. Discarding the "mutilations of dialect," Mr. Johnson yet retains the speech forms, the idea patterns, and the rich racial flavor (p. 121).

Revealingly, Redding places Johnson out of chronological sequence at the end of the book, just before Sterling Brown and Zora Neale Hurston. These writers represent for him the most promising achievements of African-American writing. To Make a Poet Black is a monumental work of African-American literary criticism because it is the first book-length history of African-American literature that breaks entirely with the tradition of racial apologetics, devoting itself instead to a sustained examination of how social pressures, cultural traditions, and personal sensibility interact in the making of African-American literary art.

Sterling A. Brown was a major poet of his generation and a major critic as well. The Negro in American Fiction (1937) and Negro Poetry and Drama (1937) are exhaustive works on their respective topics. Brown's critical approach is primarily that of descriptive bibliography. His books are immensely useful, but they provide concise summaries or assessments rather than detailed discussions of individual works. A major concern of both books is "to show how attitudes to Negro life have developed in American thinking" (Negro Poetry, p. 2). Thus Brown surveys both black and white writers, assessing how African Americans have been depicted in literary works. Unlike Redding, he does not emphasize aesthetic evaluation. Nevertheless, these are works of formidable scholarship, and they have remained important to students of race in American literature, though they are not so pertinent to theoretical or evaluative concerns as To Make a Poet Black.

In 1939 the College Language Association (CLA) was formed to provide a professional outlet for African-American literary scholars, who were in effect excluded from the Modern Language Association (MLA). Like the MLA, the CLA held annual meetings and published a journal, which for many years was the primary outlet for scholarship by black critics. The formation of the CLA was an important event, since it marked the emergence of African-American literary scholars as a professional class. Two of the most prominent of the black academic critics during this period were Nick Aaron Ford (19041982), author of The Contemporary Negro Novel (1936), and Hugh Gloster (1911), who wrote Negro Voices in American Fiction (1948). Blyden Jackson (1910) is also a member of this generation, but he did not publish his most important book, the first volume of a general history of African-American writing, until 1989, after his retirement. A History of Afro-American Literature: The Long Beginning, 1746-1895 is a monumental achievement. A model of thorough and detailed scholarship, it supersedes all other histories of African-American literature and establishes Jackson as a preeminent scholar in the field at a time when others of his generation are regarded as forebears, not contemporaries. Jackson's lengthy bibliographical essay alone, which encompasses the entire fields of historical and literary scholarship on African Americans from the beginnings to the 1980s, makes his book an indispensable reference work.

These scholars of the 1930s and 1940s taught in black colleges, and the heavy course loads in those institutions limited their opportunities for research and writing. Thus, with a few exceptions, the literary scholars of this generation exerted their influence primarily through their articles, professional associations, and teaching, not through books. Ironically, however, most black colleges did not offer courses on black literature. (Sterling Brown at Howard was a pioneering exception.) English professors were expected to do research and writing on "canonical" (i.e., white) authors; and this remained the case even through the 1960s. The work of a few outstanding critics notwithstanding, then, the volume of criticism on African-American writers remained limited. Only in the 1980s, with the full integration of American universities, the gradual development of African-American literature courses as regular components in English department curricula, and the erosion of racist and elitist attitudes within the academy did it become possible for a generation of scholars to turn their full attention to the study of African-American literature.

Meanwhile, during the next two decades, the most important works of African-American criticism were written by literary artists, such as Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison; and their most famous literary essays were polemical pieces that echoed the larger debate between Marxists and liberals over the value and function of art. For instance, Richard Wright's essay "Blueprint for Negro Writing" (1937), rejecting black nationalist attitudes and most previous black literature, declares a Marxist agenda for African-American fiction. By the time he wrote "How Bigger Was Born" (1940), his meditation on Native Son, Wright's thinking had begun to manifest existentialist ideas that would dominate his work of the late forties and fifties. Wright's most sustained treatment of black writers, and one of his finest critical essays, is "The Literature of the Negro in the United States," which was published in a French periodical and later included in his book White Man, Listen! (1957). In any case, the unprecedented success of Native Son made Wright the preeminent African-American literary figure of the 1940s. His forthright identification with the Left seemed to convey an imperative for all black writers.

Not surprisingly, some writers took exception. James Baldwin's essays "Everybody's Protest Novel" (1949) and "Many Thousands Gone" (1951) reject the entire tradition of protest fiction, from Uncle Tom's Cabin to Native Son. In Baldwin's view, protest fiction dehumanizes characters by subsuming individual psychology and experience to sociological generalizations. Baldwin argues instead for fiction that foregrounds the individual perspective. One may debate how accurately Baldwin describes Wright and other protest writers, but clearly these two essays anticipate the character of Baldwin's own fiction and essays.

Ralph Ellison also distanced himself from Wright, but he did so by asserting his own alternative, humanist vision rather than by attacking Wright. Ellison's most famous skirmish was an exchange with the leftist critic Irving Howe, whose "Black Boys and Native Sons" (1963) chided with Baldwin, Ellison, and others for deviating from the activist model of Wright's fiction. Ellison's twoinstallment rejoinder, combined in his collection Shadow and Act into a single essay called "The World and the Jug," is a devastating deflation of Howe's argument. Ellison's importance as a critic, however, transcends such debates. With a few exceptions, Ellison's essays are not concerned with African-American literature but rather with issues of literary art more broadly framed. He does, however, give detailed attention to African-American music and comic traditions. As a theorist of the relationship between vernacular culture and high art, Ellison has been among our most sophisticated thinkers. Essays such as "Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke" and "The Little Man at Chehaw Station" are classic inquiries into African-American sensibility and the nature of American culture. The work collected in Shadow and Act and Going to the Territory demonstrates that Ellison was unsurpassed as a literary essayist.

The prominence of Baldwin and Ellison notwithstanding, the 1950s and early 1960s was a relatively moribund period in the history of African-American literary criticism. Though many talented black critics were active during this period, surprisingly little was published on African-American literature. One exceptional critic whose work, ironically, corresponds to this quiescent period is Nathan A. Scott Jr. (1925). A brilliant and prolific critic with degrees in both divinity and literature, Scott used his books to explore the manifestations of moral, psychological, and existential conflicts in modern literature. His works include Rehearsals of Discomposure: Alienation and Reconciliation in Modern Literature (1952); The Tragic Vision and the Christian Faith (1957); and Negative Capability: Studies in the New Literature and the Religious Situation (1969). Scott taught at Howard from 1948 to 1955, at the University of Chicago for twenty years, and subsequently at the University of Virginia. Though he published a splendid essay on Richard Wright, "The Dark and Haunted Tower of Richard Wright" (1964), Scott, arguably the most acclaimed and distinguished African-American literary critic of his generation, seldom turned his attention to black writers.

Several other critics of this generation were instrumental in moving the study of black literature from black colleges, where heavy teaching and administrative demands made the completion of book projects very difficult, to the major and predominantly white research universities. That group includes Richard Barksdale (University of Illinois), George Kent (University of Chicago), Charles T. Davis (Yale), and Darwin T. Turner (University of Iowa). Though all of these critics published important essays, they were most influential as teachers, mentors, and professional colleaguesdaunting scholarly models who set very high standards and proposed collective agendas for the future study of African-American literature. All of them published books after they moved to the universities, but Kent, Davis, and Turner all died prematurely, leaving major scholarly manuscripts unfinished. Nevertheless, the scholars who established black literary studies in the universities in the 1970s laid the basis for the blossoming of that field in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Mainstream academic critics, however, were not the only important critics of African-American literature during that period, and they were certainly not the most conspicuous. During the late 1960s a school of black nationalist criticism developed, and it was for a time predominant in setting the canon and shaping critical attitudes. The most influential critics of this group included Hoyt Fuller, the editor of Negro Digest : creative writers such as Amiri Baraka, Carolyn Rodgers, Haki Madhubuti, and Larry Neal; and academics such as Addison Gayle and Stephen Henderson. These black aesthetic critics shared a belief that literature and criticism should be socially relevant, providing a critique of racist white society and advancing the struggle for black consciousness, black solidarity, and black liberation. They favored writing that addressed political and racial issues and preferred polemics to introspection, collectivity to subjectivity, and didacticism to humor.

The critics of this movement exercised their influence through conventional publications, but because of the vogue for public meetings during this era of heightened political passions, lectures and conferences were frequent and heavily attended. Thus the oral presentation of literary arguments acquired a special importance during the black arts movement. The social and political conditions created a large and avid audience for books on black topics, and this resulted in a proliferation of anthologies, new works, and reissues. Anthologies such as Black Fire by Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal, Black Expression and The Black Aesthetic by Addison Gayle, and Understanding the New Black Poetry by Stephen Henderson were very influential in shaping critical opinion. Furthermore, literary criticism and literary polemics were prominent features of important intellectual journals such as Negro Digest/Black World and The Black Scholar as well as literary magazines such as Cricket and The Journal of Black Poetry. Suddenly African-American literary critics had more outlets and a broader audience than had ever existed before.

Even serious scholarly books began to be directed toward a general audience. George Kent's Blackness and the Adventure of Western Culture (1972), a collection of essays on twentieth-century black writers, was published by Third World Press in Chicago as the first book of literary scholarship to be issued by a black publisher. Full-scale literary histories such as Addison Gayle's The Way of the New World (1975) and Eugene B. Redmond's Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry (1976) were published by major publishing houses and issued in mass market paperback editions. The black arts movement made literary criticism a popular genre.

At the same time, the black arts movement provoked opposition among academic critics that was soon to repudiate black aesthetic criteria as the basis of critical discourse. Black arts critics succeeded in articulating critical principles that were appropriate to the concerns of a black nationalist politics, but unfortunately these principles, seeking to incorporate only those works that seemed properly "black," defined a very narrow literary canon that excluded most extant African-American writing. Black arts critics were especially concerned with the relationship between vernacular culture and literary expression. Ironically, this had been the predominant preoccupation of the African-American critical tradition, most of which the black arts critics rejected. Despite their dismissive attitude toward their critical forebears, the black arts critics were not able to develop a black aesthetic theory that could respond adequately to the complexities of sophisticated literary texts. Consequently, critics who wished to take seriously the black literary tradition were obliged to move beyond the narrow limits imposed by black arts theory.

This process of critical rebellion was marked by several publications of the late 1970s, most notably, the anthology of Chant of Saints (1979), edited by Michael S. Harper and Robert B. Stepto, and Afro-American Literature: The Reconstruction of Instruction (1979), edited by Dexter Fisher and Robert B. Stepto. The latter was especially important. It developed from a two-week seminar on African-American literature sponsored by the Modern Language Association in 1977, and like the seminar, it was intended to reappropriate and reformulate the teaching and scholarship in the field. The volume features essays by Stepto, Melvin Dixon, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Sherley Anne Williams, Robert Hemenway, and Robert G. O'Meally, all of whom would gain recognition in the 1980s as major critics of African-American literature. This book, which includes designs for courses and recommends areas for future inquiry, represents the successful coup that displaced black nationalist hegemony over African-American literary studies. By focusing attention on questions of narrative structure, generic convention, literary form, and rhetorical design, Reconstruction redirected black literary critics into the academic mainstream.

The book was also notable because it represented the emergence of Henry Louis Gates Jr., whose three essays in this collection brought him national prominence within the profession. Gates was the most conspicuous and arguably the most influential African-American literary critic of the 1980s and early 1990s. His most important work of criticism was The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (1988), a synthetic work that used ethnolinguistic scholarship, folklore studies, and literary theory to explore "the relation of the black vernacular tradition to the Afro-American literary tradition. The book attempts to identify a theory of criticism that is inscribed within the black vernacular tradition and that in turn informs the shape of the Afro-American literary tradition" (p. xix). Gates argues that the signifying monkey derives from the messenger and trickster figure Esu-Elegbara (Legba) of the Yoruba tradition and manifests itself in literature as "Signifyin(g)," which represents "moments of self-reflexiveness" (p. xxi). Gates identifies this self-reflexiveness in the "intertexuality" through which black texts speak to and signify upon each other. Ironically, though Gates explicitly rejects the black arts critics, his endeavor to derive from African-American culture a theory of black literature represents the most thorough, scholarly, and intellectually compelling realization of what the black arts critics attempted and failed to achieve.

Despite the singularity and importance of The Signifying Monkey, Gates has exerted his greatest influence through his extensive editorial work and his vast energies as a publicist and entrepreneur for African-American literary studies. His compilations of literary criticism, such as Black Literature and Literary Theory (1984), and "The Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers," of which he is general editor, have shaped the work of a generation of graduate students.

While Gates was clearly the most influential African-American literary critic in the final two decades of the twentieth century, the books published by Houston A. Baker Jr. constitute the most sustained, wide-ranging, and detailed inquiry into African-American literature by any critic. In a series of books beginning with Long Black Song (1972), Baker has addressed nearly all of the major African-American texts, authors, and literary movements, as well as the most compelling issues associated with the study of African-American writing and culture. Furthermore, Baker has been an assiduous student of literary theory, and each of his books has reflected his careful engagement with current and emerging forms of theory or interpretive method, seeking always to examine the pertinence of such academic trends to the study of black expressive culture. Baker's distinctive combination of vernacular culture and high theory in the reading of black texts is most compellingly demonstrated in The Journey Back (1980) and Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature (1984).

Beginning his career during the era of the black arts critics, Baker shared many of their basic concerns and priorities; yet his work always displayed a scholarly thoroughness and theoretical sophistication that distinguished it from that group. Baker's work represents both the continuity of African-American critical traditions and the integration of black critics into the professional discourse of European-American criticism. Baker's unique position within the academy was aptly acknowledged when in 1992 he became the first African-American president of the Modern Language Association.

Though literary theory was the preeminent concern of academic critics from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, distinguished work continued to be done in literary history and literary biography. Two of the most significant scholarly events of this period were the publications of two exemplary biographies: Robert Hemenway's Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography (1977) and Arnold Rampersad's two volume biography A Life of Langston Hughes (1986 and 1988). Also during these years the number of black Ph.D.s increased dramatically, and correspondingly. African-American literary scholars found employment at virtually all of the major colleges and universities. Given the emphasis on scholarly publication as a necessity of professional survival, it was inevitable that the quality and quantity of publications by black critics would also increase dramatically. Thus the critics who have published excellent work in this field since 1980 are far too numerous to enumerate. Two journals were the primary venues for black literary scholarship during these years: African-American Review (originally called Negro American Literature Forum and subsequently Black American Literature Forum ) and Callaloo. Furthermore, the study of black writers became surprisingly fashionable during the early 1990s, and for the first time, journals on American literature began to publish work on black literature with some frequency.

The most significant and pervasive new direction of African-American literary studies from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s was the entry of large numbers of black women into the profession and the proliferation of work on black women writers. During the 1970s a small group of black women began to acquire national reputations as literary scholars, notably Barbara Christian, Thadious Davis, Trudier Harris, Nellie McKay, Hortense Spillers, Eleanor Taylor, and Kenny Williams. By the mid-1990s the black women entering the profession outnumbered the black men substantially. Black women writers such as Harriet Jacobs, Frances E. W. Harper. Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison, too long undervalued, began to acquire a secure place in American literature syllabi and in the pages of scholarly journals.

The creative capacity of African-Americans is no longer open to dispute, nor is it necessary to justify the study of African-American texts. Thus African-American literary criticism has at last escaped the onus of racial apologetics. In general, black critics remain deeply interested in the relationship between social experiencewhether this means racial and gender identity or cultural knowledge and conditioningand literary expression. This will likely remain the case as long as black critics experience social pressures that distinguish them from their white counterparts. Nevertheless, as awareness increases of various possibilities of African-American racial experience, critical judgments regarding the relationship between race and writing will doubtless become more and more vexed.

See also Baldwin, James; Baraka, Amiri (Jones, LeRoi); Black Arts Movement; Black World/Negro Digest ; Braithwaite, William Stanley; Brawley, Benjamin Griffith; Brown, Sterling Allen; The Crisis ; Du Bois, W. E. B.; Ellison, Ralph; Gates, Henry Louis, Jr.; Harlem Renaissance; Johnson, James Weldon; Literature of the United States; Locke, Alain Leroy; Neal, Larry; New Negro ; Redding, Jay Saunders; Wright, Richard


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david lionel smith (1996)
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Literary Criticism, U.S.: Overview

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