Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance

Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance

by Houston A. Baker, Jr.

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"Mr. Baker perceives the harlem Renaissance as a crucial moment in a movement, predating the 1920's, when Afro-Americans embraced the task of self-determination and in so doing gave forth a distinctive form of expression that still echoes in a broad spectrum of 20th-century Afro-American arts. . . . Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance may well becomeSee more details below


"Mr. Baker perceives the harlem Renaissance as a crucial moment in a movement, predating the 1920's, when Afro-Americans embraced the task of self-determination and in so doing gave forth a distinctive form of expression that still echoes in a broad spectrum of 20th-century Afro-American arts. . . . Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance may well become Afro-America's 'studying manual.'"—Tonya Bolden, New York Times Book Review

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Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance

By Houston A. Baker Jr.

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1987 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-15629-3


The term "modernism" has something of the character of Keats's cold pastoral. Promising a wealth of meaning, it locks observers into a questing indecision that can end in unctuous chiasmus. Teased out of thought by the term's promise, essayists often conclude with frustratingly vague specifications. Harry Levin's essay "What Was Modernism?" for example, after providing lists, catalogues, and thought problems, concludes with the claim that modernism's distinguishing feature is its attempt to create "a conscience for a scientific age." Modernism's definitive act, according to Levin, traces its ancestry to "Rabelais, at the very dawn of modernity."

Such an analysis can only be characterized as a terribly general claim about scientific mastery and the emergence of the modern. It shifts the burden of definition from "modernism" to "science" without defining either enterprise.

Robert Martin Adams, in an essay bearing the same title as Levin's, offers a key to modernism's teasing semantics. Adams writes:

Of all the empty and meaningless categories, hardly any is inherently as empty and meaningless as "the modern." Like "youth," it is a self-destroying concept; unlike "youth," it has a million and one potential meanings. Nothing is so dated as yesterday's modern, and nothing, however dated in itself, fails to qualify as "modern" so long as it enjoys the exquisite privilege of having been created yesterday.

Adams implies that bare chronology makes modernists of us all. The latest moment's production—by definition—instantiates "the modern." And unless we arbitrarily terminate modernism's allowable tomorrows, the movement is unending. Moreover, the temporal indeterminacy of the term allows us to select (quite randomly) structural features that we will call distinctively "modern" on the basis of their chronological proximity to us. We can then read these features over past millennia. Like Matthew Arnold in his Oxford inaugural lecture entitled "On the Modern Element in Literature," we can discover what is most distinctively modern in works a thousand years old.

As one reads essay after essay, one becomes convinced that Ihab Hassan's set of provocative questions in a work entitled "POSTmodernISM: A Paracritical Bibliography" are apt and suggestive for understanding the frustrating persistence of "modernism" as a critical sign. Hassan queries:

When will the Modern Period end?

Has ever a period waited so long? Renaissance? Baroque? Neo-Classical? Romantic? Victorian?

When will Modernism cease and what comes thereafter?

What will the twenty-first century call us? and will its voice come from the same side of our graves?

Does Modernism stretch merely to stretch out our lives? Or, ductile, does it give a new sense of time? The end of periodization? The slow arrival of simultaneity?

If change changes ever more rapidly, and the future jolts us now, do men, paradoxically, resist both endings and beginnings?

Certainly it is the case that scholars resist consensus on everything—beginnings, dominant trends, and endings—where modernism is concerned.

Yet for Anglo-American and British traditions of literary and artistic scholarship there is a tenuous agreement that some names and works must be included in any putatively comprehensive account of modern writing and art. Further, there seems to be an identifiable pleasure in listing features of art and writing that begin to predominate (by Virginia Woolfs time line) on or about December 1910.

The names and techniques of the "modern" that are generally set forth constitute a descriptive catalog resembling a natural philosopher's curiosity cabinet. In such cabinets disparate and seemingly discontinuous objects share space because that is the very function of the cabinet—to house or give order to varied things in what appears a rational, scientific manner. Picasso and Pound, Joyce and Kandinsky, Stravinsky and Klee, Brancusi and H. D. are made to form a series. Collage, primitivism, montage, allusion, "dehumanization," and leitmotivs are forced into the same field. Nietzsche and Marx, Freud and Frazier, Jung and Bergson become dissimilar bedfellows. Such naming rituals have the force of creative works like Ulysses and The Waste Land. They substitute a myth of unified purpose and intention for definitional certainty. Before succumbing to the myth, however, perhaps we should examine the "change" that according to Woolfs calendar occurred on or about December 1910.

Surely that change is most accurately defined as an acknowledgment of radical uncertainty. Where precisely anyone or anything was located could no longer be charted on old maps of "civilization," nor could even the most microscopic observation tell the exact time and space of day. The very conceptual possibilities of both time and space had been dramatically refigured in the mathematics of Einstein and the physics of Heisenberg. A war of barbaric immensity combined with imperialism, capitalism, and totalitarianism to produce a reaction to human possibilities quite different from Walt Whitman's joyous welcoming of the modern. Whitman in the nineteenth century exulted: "Years of the modern! years of the unperform'd!"

For T. S. Eliot, on or about December 1910, the completed and expected performance of mankind scarcely warranted joy. There was, instead, the "Murmur of maternal lamentation" presaging

Cracks ... and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London

Eliot's speaker, however, is comforted by the certainty that there are millennia of fragments (artistic shrapnel) constituting a civilization to be mined, a cultured repertoire to act as a shore against ruins. Fitzgerald's Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby might therefore be a more honestly self-conscious representation of the threat that some artists whom we call "modern" felt in the face of a new world of science, war, technology, and imperalism. "Civilization's going to pieces," Tom confides to an assembled dinner party at his lavish Long Island estate while drinking a corky (but rather impressive) claret. "I've gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things," he continues.

Now, I don't mean to suggest that Anglo-American, British, and Irish moderns did not address themselves with seriousness and sincerity to a changed condition of humankind. Certainly they did. But they also mightily restricted the province of what constituted the tumbling of the towers, and they remained eternally self-conscious of their own pessimistic "becomings." Tom's pessimism turns out to be entirely bookish. It is predicated upon Stoddard's (which Tom remembers as "Goddard's") racialist murmurings. What really seems under threat are not towers of civilization but rather an assumed supremacy of boorishly racist, indisputably sexist, and unbelievably wealthy Anglo-Saxon males. One means of shoring up one's self under perceived threats of "democratization" and a "rising tide" of color is to resort to elitism—to adopt a style that refuses to represent any thing other than the stylist's refusal to represent (what Susan Sontag refers to as an "aesthetics of silence"). Another strategy is to claim that one's artistic presentations and performances are quintessential renderings of the unrepresentable—human subconsciousness, for example, or primitive structural underpinnings of a putatively civilized mankind, or the simultaneity of a space-time continuum. Yet another strategy—a somewhat tawdry and dangerous one—is advocacy and allegiance to authoritarian movements or institutions that promise law and order.

Regardless of their strategies for confronting it, though, it was change—a profound shift in what could be taken as unquestionable assumptions about the meaning of human life—that moved those artists whom we call "moderns." And it was only a rare one among them who did not have some formula—some "ism"—for checking a precipitous toppling of man and his towers. Futurism, imagism, impressionism, vorticism, expressionism, cubism—all offered explicit programs for the arts and the salvation of humanity. Each in its turn yielded to other formulations of the role of the writer and the task of the artist in a changed and always, ever more rapidly changing world.

Today, we are "postmodern." Rather than civilization's having gone to pieces, it has extended its sway in the form of a narrow and concentrated group of powerbrokers scarcely more charming, humane, or informed than Tom Buchanan. To connect the magnificent achievements, breakthroughs, and experiments of an entire panoply of modern intellectuals with fictive attitudes of a fictive modern man (Fitzgerald's Tom) may seem less than charitable. For even though Tom evades the law, shirks moral responsibility, and still ends up rich and in possession of the fairest Daisy of them all (though he ends, that is to say, as the capitalist triumphant, if not the triumphant romantic hero of the novel), there are still other modes of approach to the works of the moderns.

Lionel Trilling, for example, provides one of the most charitable scholarly excursions to date. He describes modern literature as "shockingly personal," posing "every question that is forbidden in polite society" and involving readers in intimate interactions that leave them uneasily aware of their personal beings in the world. One scholarly reaction to Trilling's formulations, I'm afraid, is probably like that of the undergraduates whom he churlishly suggests would be "rejected" by the efforts of Yeats and Eliot, Pound and Proust. It is difficult, for example, for an Afro-American student of literature like me—one unconceived in the philosophies of Anglo-American, British, and Irish moderns—to find intimacy either in the moderns' hostility to civilization or in their fawning reliance on an array of images and assumptions bequeathed by a civilization that, in its prototypical form, is exclusively Western, preeminently bourgeois, and optically white.

Alas, Fitzgerald's priggishly astute Nick has only a limited vocabulary when it comes to a domain of experience that I, as an Afro-American, know well: "As we crossed Blackwell's Island a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry." If only Fitzgerald had placed his "pale well-dressed negro" in the limousine or if Joseph Conrad had allowed his Africans actually to be articulate or if D. H. Lawrence had not suggested through Birkin's reflection on African culture that

thousands of years ago, that which was imminent in himself must have taken place in these Africans: the goodness, the holiness, the desire for creation and productive happiness must have lapsed, leaving the single impulse for knowledge in one sort, mindless progressive knowledge through the senses, knowledge arrested and ending in the senses, mystic knowledge in disintegration and dissolution, knowledge such as the beetles have, which live purely within the world of corruption and cold dissolution.

Or if only O'Neill had bracketed the psycho-surreal final trappings of his Emperor's world and given us the stunning account of colonialism that remains implicit in his quip at the close of his list of dramatis personae: "The action of the play takes place on an island in the West Indies, as yet unself-determined by white marines." If any of these moves had been accomplished, then perhaps I might feel at least some of the intimacy and reverence that Trilling suggests.

But even as I recall a pleasurable spring in New Haven when I enjoyed cracking Joycean codes in order to teach Ulysses, I realize that the Irish writer's grand monument is not a work to which I shall return with reverence and charitably discover the type of inquisition that Trilling finds so engaging: "[Modern literature] asks us if we are content with our marriages, with our family lives, with our professional lives, with our friends." I am certain that I shall never place Ulysses in a group of texts that I describe, to use Trilling's words, as "spiritual" if not "actually religious." Perhaps the reason I shall not is because the questions Trilling finds—correctly or incorrectly—intimately relevant to his life are descriptive only of a bourgeois, characteristically twentieth-century, white Western mentality. As an Afro-American, a person of African descent in the United States today, I spend a great deal of time reflecting that in the world's largest geographies the question Where will I find water, wood, or food for today? is (and has been for the entirety of this century) the most pressing and urgently posed inquiry.

In "diasporic," "developing," "Third World," "emerging"—or whatever adjective one chooses to signify the non-Western side of Chenweizu's title "The West and the Rest of Us"—nations or territories there is no need to pose, in ironical Audenesque ways, questions such as Are we happy? Are we content? Are we free? Such questions presuppose at least an adequate level of sustenance and a sufficient faith in human behavioral alternatives to enable a self-directed questioning. In other words, without food for thought, all modernist bets are off. Rather than reducing the present essay to a discourse on underdevelopment or invoking a different kind of human being, however, what I want to evoke by emphasizing concerns other than those of "civilization" and its discontents is a discursive constellation that marks a change in Afro-American nature that occurred on or about September 18, 1895. The constellation that I have in mind includes Afro-American literature, music, art, graphic design, and intellectual history. It is not confined to a traditionally defined belles lettres or to Literature with a capital and capitalist L.

In fact, it is precisely the confinement (in the Foucauldian sense discovered in Madness and Civilization) of such bourgeois categories (derivatives of Kantian aesthetics) that the present essay seeks to subvert. Hence there will be few sweeps over familiar geographies of a familiar Harlem Renaissance conceived as an enterprise of limited accomplishment and limited liability—"Harlem Renaissance, Ltd." Instead I shall attempt to offer an account of discursive conditions of possibility for what I define as "renaissancism" in Afro-American expressive culture as a whole. I am thus interested less in individual "artists" (as my later discussion of Afro-American formal mastery and Paul Laurence Dunbar will make clear) than in areas of expressive production. It is my engagement with these areas of Afro-American production (intellectual history, music, graphic design, stage presence, oratory, etc.) that provides intimacy and that leads me through a specifically Afro-American modernism to blues geographies that are still in search of substantial analysis—and liberation.


The affinity that I feel for Afro-American modernism is not altogether characteristic. Scholars have been far from enthusiastic in their evaluation of the "Harlem Renaissance" of the 1920s—an outpouring of writing, music, and social criticism that included some of the earliest attempts by Afro-American artists and intellectuals to define themselves in "modern" terms. Few scholars would disagree that the Harlem Renaissance marks a readily identifiable "modern" moment in Afro-American intellectual history, but most would concede that the principal question surrounding the Harlem Renaissance has been Why did the renaissance fail?

Scarcely four years after "Black Tuesday," that awful moment which plummeted America into depression, a prominent intellectual and contemporary of the renaissance wrote:

It is a good thing that [the editor] Dorothy West is doing in instituting a magazine [Challenge] through which the voices of younger Negro writers can be heard. The term 'younger Negro writers' connotes a degree of disillusionment and disappointment for those who a decade ago hailed with loud huzzas the dawn of the Negro literary millennium. We expected much; perhaps, too much. I now judge that we ought to be thankful for the half-dozen younger writers who did emerge and make a place for themselves.

James Weldon Johnson's disillusionment that the Harlem Renaissance "failed" finds its counterparts and echoes in the scholarship, polemics, and popular rhetoric of the past half century. An avatar of Johnson's disillusionment, for example, is the scholarly disapprobation of Nathan Huggins's provocative study Harlem Renaissance (1971).


Excerpted from Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance by Houston A. Baker Jr.. Copyright © 1987 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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