New Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism Between the Wars

Overview

Howard "Stretch" Johnson, a charismatic Harlemite who graduated from Cotton Club dancer to Communist Party youth leader, once claimed that in late 1930s New York "75% of black cultural figures had Party membership or maintained regular meaningful contact with the Party." He stretched the truth, but barely. In a broad-ranging, revisionary account of the extensive relationship between African-American literary culture and Communism in the 1920s and 1930s, William J. Maxwell uncovers both black literature's debt to ...

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Overview

Howard "Stretch" Johnson, a charismatic Harlemite who graduated from Cotton Club dancer to Communist Party youth leader, once claimed that in late 1930s New York "75% of black cultural figures had Party membership or maintained regular meaningful contact with the Party." He stretched the truth, but barely. In a broad-ranging, revisionary account of the extensive relationship between African-American literary culture and Communism in the 1920s and 1930s, William J. Maxwell uncovers both black literature's debt to Communism and Communism's debt to black literature — reciprocal obligations first incurred during the Harlem Renaissance.

Juxtaposing well-known and newly rediscovered works by Claude McKay, Andy Razaf, Mike Gold, Langston Hughes, Louise Thompson, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, and Nelson Algren, Maxwell maintains that the "Old," Soviet-allied Left promoted a spectrum of exchanges between black and white authors, genres, theories, and cultural institutions. Channels opened between radical Harlem and Bolshevik Moscow, between the New Negro renaissance and proletarian literature. Claude McKay's 1922-23 pilgrimage to the Soviet Union, for example, usually recalled as a lighthearted adventure in radical tourism, actually jumpstarted the Comintern's controversial nation-centered program for Afro America. Breaking from studies governed by Cold War investments and pivoting on the Great Depression, Maxwell argues that Communism's rare sustenance for African-American initiative — not a seduction of Depression-scarred innocents — brought scores of literary "New Negroes" to the Old Left.

Columbia University Press

A Choice Magazine Outstanding Academic Title of the Year

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Editorial Reviews

Choice - D. J. Rosenthal
In this brilliant book, Maxwell closes significant theoretical gaps in the histories of African American literature and communism.
American Literature - Alan Wald
William Maxwell's creative and compelling new book presents the case for a mutual indebtedness, a two-way channel 'between radical Harlem and Soviet Moscow, between the New Negro renaissance and proletarian literature' of the 1920s and 1930s. His emphasis on 'Black volition' and the 'interracial education of the Old Left' also aims to enhance our understanding of African American and 'white' modern literature as well as radicalism....This is a book that not only demands the attention of those who wish to be informed about the history of the African American Left, the Harlem Renaissance, and proletarian literature, but that will also engage anyone seeking to understand the potential relevance of contemporary critical arguments from scholars such as Eric Lott, David Roediger, Pierre Bordieu, Eve Sedgwick, Hazel Carby, George Hutchinson, Michael North, Michael Rogin, Robyn Wiegman, and others. Specialists in black culture and Communism will come away from the experience of reading New Negro, Old Left with a much enriched apprehension of the ambiguities of cultural practice and a salutary desire to open up some of those little boxes ('Harlem Renaissance,' 'proletairan literature,' 'Wright versus Hurston') by means of which we have too neatly classified earlier relationships.
College Literature - James Grove
William J. Maxwell's New Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism Between the Wars is a closely argued, thoroughly researched attempt to show how this dominant narrative [of the history of African-American writing during the period between the First and Second World Wars] has often been misleading and reductive....[a] fine book....
Choice - D.J. Rosenthal
In this brilliant book, Maxwell closes significant theoretical gaps in the histories of African American literature and communism.
American Studies
Lucidly argued and written, New Negro, Old Left is an astute, original addition to work on the Harlem Renaissance, proletarian literature and, in particular, the often misrepresented relationship between them.
American Literature
William Maxwell's creative and compelling new book presents the case for a mutual indebtedness, a two-way channel 'between radical Harlem and Soviet Moscow, between the New Negro renaissance and proletarian literature' of the 1920s and 1930s. His emphasis on 'Black volition' and the 'interracial education of the Old Left' also aims to enhance our understanding of African American and 'white' modern literature as well as radicalism....This is a book that not only demands the attention of those who wish to be informed about the history of the African American Left, the Harlem Renaissance, and proletarian literature, but that will also engage anyone seeking to understand the potential relevance of contemporary critical arguments from scholars such as Eric Lott, David Roediger, Pierre Bordieu, Eve Sedgwick, Hazel Carby, George Hutchinson, Michael North, Michael Rogin, Robyn Wiegman, and others. Specialists in black culture and Communism will come away from the experience of reading New Negro, Old Left with a much enriched apprehension of the ambiguities of cultural practice and a salutary desire to open up some of those little boxes ('Harlem Renaissance,' 'proletairan literature,' 'Wright versus Hurston') by means of which we have too neatly classified earlier relationships.

— Alan Wald, University of Michigan

College Literature
William J. Maxwell's New Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism Between the Wars is a closely argued, thoroughly researched attempt to show how this dominant narrative [of the history of African-American writing during the period between the First and Second World Wars] has often been misleading and reductive....[a] fine book....

— James Grove, Mount Mercy College

Choice
In this brilliant book, Maxwell closes significant theoretical gaps in the histories of African American literature and communism.

— D. J. Rosenthal, John Carroll University

Mark Naison
New Negro, Old Left is a brilliant intervention into debates on the role of Communism in shaping African-American literature. The book is valuable not only for what it tells us about the interaction between African-Americans and the Left, but for how it forces us to think about race and culture in a more creative and flexible way.
Barbara Foley
A highly significant contribution to the field of African-American studies, as well as to revisionary scholarship on the relation of writers to the left, and, more generally, on U.S. modernism. Maxwell´s argument is bold and original, and New Negro, Old Left will make its mark, generating controversy and stimulating further scholarship.
Alan Wald
William Maxwell's creative and compelling new book presents the case for a mutual indebtedness, a two-way channel 'between radical Harlem and Soviet Moscow, between the New Negro renaissance and proletarian literature' of the 1920s and 1930s. His emphasis on 'Black volition' and the 'interracial education of the Old Left' also aims to enhance our understanding of African American and 'white' modern literature as well as radicalism....This is a book that not only demands the attention of those who wish to be informed about the history of the African American Left, the Harlem Renaissance, and proletarian literature, but that will also engage anyone seeking to understand the potential relevance of contemporary critical arguments from scholars such as Eric Lott, David Roediger, Pierre Bordieu, Eve Sedgwick, Hazel Carby, George Hutchinson, Michael North, Michael Rogin, Robyn Wiegman, and others. Specialists in black culture and Communism will come away from the experience of readingNew Negro, Old Left with a much enriched apprehension of the ambiguities of cultural practice and a salutary desire to open up some of those little boxes ('Harlem Renaissance, ' 'proletairan literature, ' 'Wright versus Hurston' by means of which we have too neatly classified earlier relationships.
James Grove
William J. Maxwell'sNew Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism Between the Wars is a closely argued, thoroughly researched attempt to show how this dominant narrative [of the history of African-American writing during the period between the First and Second World Wars] has often been misleading and reductive....[a] fine book....
American Studies
Lucidly argued and written, New Negro, Old Left is an astute, original addition to work on the Harlem Renaissance, proletarian literature and, in particular, the often misrepresented relationship between them.
D. J. Rosenthal
In this brilliant book, Maxwell closes significant theoretical gaps in the histories of African American literature and communism.
Booknews
Examines why such a large percentage of African-American cultural leaders during the 1930s were allied directly or indirectly to the Soviet-led Communist Party, seen in popular imagination as a bastion of white connivance and black self-cancellation. Emphasizing the mutual influences between Communism and black literature, reveals a movement and party that promoted a spectrum of exchanges between black and white authors, genres, theories, and cultural institutions. Also traces the impact of that alliance on subsequent developments in US racial and radical cultures. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780231114257
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press
  • Publication date: 6/10/1999
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.04 (w) x 9.02 (h) x 0.62 (d)

Meet the Author

William J. Maxwell is assistant professor of English and an affiliate of the Afro-American Studies and Research Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Columbia University Press

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Black and Red All Over? 1. Kitchen Mechanics and Parlor Nationalists: Andy Razaf Black Bolshevism, and Harlem's Renaissance2. Home to Moscow: Claude McKay's The Negroes in America and the Race of Marxist Theory3. The Proletarian as New Negro; the New Negro as Proletarian: Mike Gold Meets Claude McKay4. Scottsboro Delimited: White Bait Red Triangles, and Interracialism Between Men5. Black Belt/Black Folk: The End(s) of the Richard Wright—Zora Neale Hurston Debate6. Native Sons Divorce: A ConclusionNotes Bibliography Index

Columbia University Press

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