The Hammers of Creation: Folk Culture in Modern African-American Fiction

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In The Hammers of Creation, Eric J. Sundquist analyzes the powerful role played by folk culture in three major African-American novels of the early twentieth century: James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, Zora Neale Hurston's Jonah's Gourd Vine, and Arna Bontemps's Black Thunder.

Sundquist explains how the survival of cultural traditions originating in Africa and in slavery became a means of historical reflection and artistic creation for modern writers. He goes on to illustrate and compare how the three representative novels use aspects of African-American culture, including the folklore of slavery, black music from spirituals to jazz, black worship and sermonic form, and African-American resistance to slavery and segregation.

The Hammers of Creation focuses on the unique narrative form of each of the three novels--Johnson's fictive autobiography, Hurston's ethnographic commentary combined with personal narrative, and Bontemps's historical fiction based on Gabriel's slave rebellion--to illustrate the range of fictional strategies black writers have employed. Through their attempts to gain cultural integrity, Sundquist explains, these writers were able to recover and preserve vital aspects of African-American history.

Sundquist argues that by incorporating vernacular culture and the oral tradition into their works, Johnson, Hurston, and Bontemps challenge the primacy of written narrative while creating an African-American literary tradition that links the world of African ancestors and antebellum culture to the world of contemporary letters.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Sundquist does not just offer us new readings of important modern African-American texts, he also offers us a new way of reading African-American writing that does greater justice to the alternative modes of knowing—hearing, feeling, singing, dancing—that African-American culture has brought to America. . . . Put alongside To Wake the Nations, The Hammers of Creation teaches how to read and understand anew what African-American culture has been telling us for a long, long time.”--Modern Fiction Studies

"By drawing upon literature, history, folklore, music, minstrelsy, preaching, autobiography, religion, and other areas of cultural studies, Sundquist works out some engaging ideas about African-American vernacular culture. In the end, this study is less about the novels than about how fictional scenes (a lynching, a sermon, a courtroom drama) act as points of entry into larger cultural, historical, and racial issues."--Trudier Harris, Western Folklore

"Sundquist writes with a poetic flair and elegant clarity. . . . Sundquist's choices for analysis in these essays are definitely timely and his readings are richly suggestive."--American Book Review

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Eric J. Sundquist is UCLA Foundation Professor of Literature. He is the author or editor of a dozen books, including Strangers in the Land: Blacks, Jews, Post-Holocaust America and To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature.
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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 "These Old Slave Songs": The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man 1
Ch. 2 "The Drum with the Man Skin": Jonah's Gourd Vine 49
Ch. 3 "A Song without Words": Black Thunder 92
Bibliography 135
Index 147
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