To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature

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Overview

This powerful book argues that white culture in America does not exist apart from black culture. The revolution of the rights of man that established this country collided long ago with the system of slavery, and we have been trying to reestablish a steady course for ourselves ever since. To Wake the Nations is urgent and rousing: we have integrated our buses, schools, and factories, but not the canon of American literature. That is the task Eric Sundquist has assumed in a book that ranges from politics to literature, from Uncle Remus to African American spirituals. But the hallmark of this volume is a sweeping reevaluation of the glory years of American literature - from 1830 to 1930 - that shows how white literature and black literature form a single interwoven tradition. By examining African America's contested relation to the intellectual and literary forms of white culture, Sundquist reconstructs the main lines of American literary tradition from the decades before the Civil War through the early twentieth century. An opening discussion of Nat Turner's "Confessions," recorded by a white man, Thomas Gray, establishes a paradigm for the complexity of meanings that Sundquist uncovers in American literary texts. Focusing on Frederick Douglass's autobiographical books, Herman Melville's Benito Cereno, Martin Delany's novel Blake; or the Huts of America, Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson, Charles Chesnutt's fiction, and W.E.B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk and Darkwater, Sundquist considers each text against a rich background of history, law, literature, politics, religion, folklore, music, and dance. These readings lead to insights into components of the culture at large: slavery as it intersected with postcolonial revolutionary ideology; literary representations of the legal and political foundations of segregation; and the transformation of elements of African and antebellum folk consciousness into the public forms of American literature.

This powerful book argues that white culture in America does not exist apart from black culture. The hallmark of this volume is a sweeping reevaluation of the glory years of American literature--from 1830 to 1930--that shows how white literature and black literature form a single interwoven tradition. (Harvard Univ. Press)February

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Multiculturalism is a burning issue in literary study nowadays, and Sundquist has written a substantial and provocative piece devoted to the influence of African Americans on the national literature. The works he uses to illuminate his thesis are unusual and apt. His thesis, that African American influence permeates the culture to such a great extent that it cannot and should not be separated out in any study of American literature, is both intriguing and convincing. Were it not for the dense writing style and exceedingly scholarly language used (making frequent recourse to a dictionary necessary for even the informed reader), this work would find a wide audience of interested readers. Recommended for academic libraries and public libraries collecting strongly in American literature.-- Denise Johnson, Bradley Univ. Lib., Peoria, Ill.
Booknews
Sundquist (English, Vanderbilt U.) makes the compelling case, and exemplifies it in a number of intriguing ways, that white and black cultures in America cannot be properly understood (indeed, do not exist) independently of each other, and that rather than conceiving of American literature as solely Anglo-European in inspiration and authorship, "a redefinition of the premises and inherent significance of the central literary documents of American culture is in order." Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
CLIO

Thus instead of literary history that invokes the same, shopworn links between old world and new, readers of To Wake the Nations will discover a not-so-subtle change in the frame of reference from Europe to Africa…This radical reconstruction of American literary history results in a dazzling if somewhat humbling experience for readers schooled in the European tradition. Sundquist's conscientious scholarship and immense learning set a high standard for future scholars that will not soon be matched.
— Jonathan Veitch

Bookforum

To Wake the Nations brilliantly [weaves Sundquist's] analysis of African American 'sorrow songs' with textual material.
— David Yaffe

CLIO - Jonathan Veitch
Thus instead of literary history that invokes the same, shopworn links between old world and new, readers of To Wake the Nations will discover a not-so-subtle change in the frame of reference from Europe to Africa…This radical reconstruction of American literary history results in a dazzling if somewhat humbling experience for readers schooled in the European tradition. Sundquist's conscientious scholarship and immense learning set a high standard for future scholars that will not soon be matched.
Bookforum - David Yaffe
To Wake the Nations brilliantly [weaves Sundquist's] analysis of African American 'sorrow songs' with textual material.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674893306
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/1993
  • Pages: 720
  • Product dimensions: 6.69 (w) x 9.61 (h) x 1.71 (d)

Meet the Author

Eric Sundquist is UCLA Foundation Professor of Literature at UCLA.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
Pt. I Slavery, Revolution, Renaissance
1 Signs of Power: Nat Turner and Frederick Douglass 27
San Domingo and Its Patriots 31
Nat Turner, Thomas Gray, and the Phenomenology of Slavery 36
Ibo Warriors 56
Blackhead Signpost: Prophecy and Terror 67
Frederick Douglas's Revisions 83
Iron Sentences: Paternity, Literacy, Liberty 93
Broken Fetters: The Right of Revolution 112
2 Melville, Delany, and New World Slavery 135
Memory, Authority, and the Shadowy Tableau 139
The Play of the Barber 155
Ashantee Conjurors: Africanisms and Africanization 163
The Law of Nature or the Hive of Subtlety 175
Caribbean Empires 182
"It Is Wrote in Jeremiah": American Maroons 189
Sugar, Conspiracy, and the Ladder 199
El Dia de los Reyes 210
Pt. II The Color Line
3 Mark Twain and Homer Plessy 225
The Second Slavery 228
The Badge of Servitude: Homer Plessy and the Rise of Segregation 233
Blaspheming Colors, Extraordinary Twins 249
A Whisper to the Reader 263
4 Charles Chesnut's Cakewalk 271
The Origin of the Cakewalk 276
Word Shadows and Alternating Sounds: Folklore, Dialect, and Vernacular 294
Uncle Remus, Uncle Julius, and the New Negro 323
"De Ole Times," Slave Culture, and Africa 347
Talking Bones: Conjure and Narrative 359
White Weeds: The Pathology of the Color Line 392
Fusion: The Marrow of Tradition 406
A Great Black Future and a Doll 435
Pt. III W.E.B. Du Bois: African America and the Kingdom of Culture
5 Swing Low: The Souls of Black Folk 457
In the Kingdom of Culture 459
"This Wonderful Music of Bondage" 467
Bright Sparkles: Music and Text 490
Black and Unknown Bards: A Theory of the Sorrow Songs 525
6 The Spell of Africa 540
The Color Line Belts the World 546
"Ethiopia Shall Stretch Forth Her Hands": Toward Pan-Africanism 551
Africa: The Hidden Self and the Pageant of Nationalism 563
The Burden of Black Women 581
The Black Christ and Other Prophets 592
Notes 627
Acknowledgments 693
Index 695
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