Radical Revisions: Rereading 1930s Culture.

Posted on October 13, 2012

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September 22, 1997 | Smethurst, James
African American Review
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James Smethurst Harvard University
Though the careers of many of the authors who are considered foundational to modern African American literature – Sterling Brown, Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Robert Hayden – began or came to maturity during the 1930s, relatively few studies exist which attempt to survey African American literary production as a whole during that crucial era. This problem is exacerbated by the absence of black authors from the standard accounts of 1930s literary engagement with the Left where, with the partial exception of Richard Wright, African American authors are mentioned only in passing, if at all. This absence is puzzling because, with the exception of Hurston, all the above authors (along with Langston Hughes, Margaret Walker, Frank Marshall Davis, Arna Bontemps, Waring Cuney, Chester Himes, Gwendolyn Bennett, Alain Locke, William Attaway, Theodore Ward, Countee Cullen, and Owen Dodson, to name only a very partial list) emerged from or were nurtured by the literary and cultural institutions of the Communist Left in the 1930s and played important roles in these institutions.

Of course, there is an important intellectual current which sees the intersection of the African American intelligentsia and the Communist Left during the 1930s as a definitive moment in African American intellectual life. This current runs from (at least) Claude McKay’s 1940 Harlem: Negro Metropolis through Harold Cruse’s 1967 The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. (Earl Ofari Hutchinson’s 1995 book Blacks and Reds: Race and Class in Conflict, 1919-1990, can be seen as an extension of this tradition.) In these accounts, the influence of an essentially white CPUSA on African American intellectuals is pervasive, cynical, unidirectional, corrupting, and stultifying. This powerful narrative of cooperation and manipulation remains the dominant account of African American literary production and the Communist Left, despite some recent challenges. However, it has the disadvantage of denying any real agency to African American writers and intellectuals during the 1930s. It also makes it difficult to investigate seriously the emerging poetics of many of the most crucial African American writers of the 20th century by dismissing large bodies of work (such as Hughes’s “revolutionary” poetry) or by spending an inordinate amount of time and energy attempting to prove that various authors and their works opposed some normative model of Communist aesthetics despite the participation of these authors in the institutions of the Communist Left.

Radical Revisions places African American literature in the mainstream of 1930s literary radicalism in the United States – while at the same time insisting on the importance of writing by radical African American authors during the 1930s to the development of African American literature, a stance that runs counter to still-prevalent notions of corruption and cooptation. The essays in Radical Revisions are not in any sense definitive; rather, they open up a series of new conversations about the Left and the culture of the United States during the 1930s which approach that decade from many disciplinary perspectives, including those of African American Studies, Women’s Studies, Cultural Studies, Popular Culture Studies, and Ethnic Studies (or some combination of fields). Of course, a number of the contributors, such as Cary Nelson, Paula Rabinowitz, and the late Constance Coiner, have already published valuable book-length studies of the subjects they discuss, but Radical Revisions remains remarkable for the quality and range of the discussions (although the subtitle is something of a misnomer, since only four of the thirteen essays in the collection deal in any depth with cultural forms other than literature).

Alan Wald’s “The 1930s Left in U.S. Literature Reconsidered” is a particularly helpful survey of the dominant trends in the scholarship of Left literature as well as an outline of productive areas for further investigation. Wald’s essay has the virtue of placing 1930s Left writing in a continuum of writing by radical authors in the United States, thereby avoiding the usual periodization of what might be called “Depression exceptionalism.” This exceptionalism, which limits the literary radicalism associated with the Communist Left to the period between the Crash of 1929 and the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939, has been notably unsatisfactory with respect to African American literature, since many of the most important publications by African American authors connected with the Communist Left took place after the Pact. Wald, like the editors in their choice of essays, locates the work of African American authors (and the issue of race and national identity) at the heart of the discussion of 1930s literary radicalism.

Two other valuable essays for African Americanists are James A. Miller’s “African American Writing of the 1930s: A Prologue” and William J. Maxwell’s “The Proletarian as New Negro: Mike Gold’s Harlem Renaissance.” These essays draw links between the New Negro Renaissance and African American Leftism of the 1930s (or what Langston Hughes called the “New red Negro” in his 1932 play Scottsboro Limited). These connections help us re-read the New Negro Renaissance itself, as well as rethink the antecedents of 1930s radicalism. Both essays are especially concerned with contesting Harold Cruse’s originaly and paradigmatic story of Claude McKay’s relationship with international Communism. Maxwell is particularly insightful and original in his re-reading of the encounters between McKay and Mike Gold (and of Gold’s critiques of the Harlem literary scene), in which Gold is cast as an advocate of the New Negro Renaissance rather than an antagonist. Maxwell argues that, rather than attacking the New Negro Renaissance per se, Gold polemicized against what he saw as a pandering exoticism promoted by white patrons such as Carl Van Vechten and Charlotte Osgood Mason. What Gold advocated was a more “proletarian” (or “popular,” in the sense of the later Popular Front) literature that represented and was at least in part addressed to the “masses” of African Americans. While one can criticize this stance for, among other things, a sub rosa (or not so sub rosa) homophobia and masculinism, Gold’s arguments were not, as Maxwell points out, very different from those of W. E. B. Du Bois (or Sterling Brown in his poetry, as well as his prose criticism).

The essays by virtue of their diverse subjects and approaches are uneven. A number of the essays suffer from the residual Cold War need to reclaim various writers from the Communist Party. The operating notion in these cases seems to be that, if a particular writer is of any value, then he or she must be in some sense at odds with the Communist Left, even if he or she is actually a member of the Communist Party (or, in the case of Meridel Le Sueur, part of the national leadership of the Communist Party). A more fruitful and less tortured approach would be to complicate our sense of what was possible even for those writers who actually joined the Communist Party and not to assume that an organizational commitment was an artistic death sentence. Another limitation of the collection is that, despite the willingness of several contributors, notably Maxwell and Miller, to consider the antecedents for 1930s literary radicalism, none, with the exception of Wald, gives much attention to the considerable connections of the 1930s Left to literary production in the 1940s and beyond. Also, while Suzanne Sowinska contributes a valuable essay on race and the treatment of the “Negro Question” by white female authors in a number of early 1930s novels focusing on the Gastonia, North Carolina, textile strike in 1929, it would have been useful if there had been an essay discussing the intersection of race and gender in the writings of African American authors during the 1930s.

Despite these quibbles, Radical Revisions is a welcome addition to the increasing number of studies of 1930s literary radicalism. It opens up a wide range of discussions that have not occurred, or are only beginning to occur, and that are long overdue. For African Americanists, these discussions are crucial for understanding the formation of the poetics of so many of those writers recognized as canonical within the field and for extending and revising the powerful arguments made by Harold Cruse regarding the centrality of the 1930s (and 1940s) to the development of African American literary and intellectual traditions in this century.
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