Many thanks to You Can Call Me Al and Plotinus Plinlimmon for their posts on Hurston and Sorensen. I don’t have an answer about “wake up callin’ me and Ah’ll be gone,” but maybe some one else will. As Plotinus suggests, it’s entirely appropriate that a probable allusion in Hurston should be both recognizale and untraceable to any particular origin. It points to “folk” material that every culturally competent person in the world of the novel can use; and insofar as we can’t quite use it, it marks a social boundary. Like the allusions we worried over in Eliot, these are forms of cultural capital.
I’d like to explore the issue Al raises about possessive desire further in discussion. Another way to think about it, which I’ll ask you all about, is to think about how the novel uses the two genres of Bildungsroman and love story. Janie’s Bildung is all about how to become an autonomous person in a sexually and racially oppressive society; the love story, by contrast, seems to climax in annihilation of the self (and of the lover), or at least in the yielding of the self to something else (cf. the pear trees in blossom at the start).
As for recovery, neither blogger commented on the two documents of reception I placed on Sakai, so let me just underline their importance. Our discussion of Hurston has to reckon with at least four historical frames:
- The period of the novel’s setting, which seems to run roughly over the forty-five years up through 1928 (the likely date for the hurricane and Janie’s return).
- The field at the moment of publication in 1937, when the Harlem Renaissance is basically over and the cultural vanguard has moved off (and left). Wright’s review indicates how.
- The field in the epoch of recovery (late 1960s and early 1970s), when Hurston is made into an iconic African American writer and the signal Harlem Renaissance novelist. Walker’s Ms. article gives some clues about this climate for reading Hurston.
- The field we inhabit now, in many ways continuous with the one established by the 1970s but, as Sorensen suggests, perhaps even more sharply marked by conflict and dissensus over how to understand and value literary objects (texts, authors…).
Let’s try to make distinctions among these as we go along.
For next week
We’re going to rewind the clock by a few years to the early 1930s and sidle up to the apex of the cultural Left. “Sidle” because though I’ve put “Proletarian Literature” as the heading on the syllabus, we aren’t going to read any of the truly iconic documents of US proletarian literature. Hughes’s 1930s poetry and stories, as well Le Sueur’s texts, are also part of proletarian literature, but the core genres of this literature are a little different, what Michael Denning calls the strike novel and, especially, the ghetto pastoral. Denning’s chapter situates these various proletarian genres together.
Hughes forms a bridge from the Harlem Renaissance to the proletarian moment, biographically and in other ways. I’ve selected a few poems for you to read (including some that were literally published in the Proletarian Literature anthologies). Though a few of these are notorious, they aren’t “representative” Hughes; representative Hughes is constructed by bracketing this writing as a “phase,” leaving his early work (some of which we read in The New Negro) on the one hand, and poetry from World War II and after on the other. I’m asking you to read two very famous poems from his 1951 volume Montage of a Dream Deferred just so you have the contrast.
The ProQuest digitized version of Hughes’s Collected Poems is a horror (as is everything from ProQuest). You’ll find it slow and cumbersome to read in, and fundamentally hostile to poetry. The format also doesn’t accommodate some of Hughes’s most formally experimental poetry, which is typeset in multiple columns. These poems are left unreadable by the abusive digitization practiced by ProQuest.
I asked you to buy The Ways of White Folks and have suggested a few stories for us to read from the collection. I’m hoping you all did manage to get your hands on the book, since I’d like to pick one of those stories to spend time on in our discussion next week. Please let me know if you don’t have it.
The two selections from Le Sueur are on Sakai, as is the Denning chapter.
Last of all, and likely fated to be skipped by us, is a pointer to Gordon Hutner’s What America Read. This is an intimidatingly wide-ranging decade-by-decade survey of the “middle-class” fiction that was well-regarded and much discussed in its time, and which has subsequently been largely forgotten. The few pages I have suggested frame the bourgeois fiction of the 1930s against (and with?!) the proletarian movement. Hutner’s whole book is available on JSTOR.