Friday, August 26, 2011

Rafia Zafar on Harlem Renaissance novelists Arna Bontemps, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Langston Hughes, and Nella Larsen

In September The Library of America celebrates one of the most remarkable eras in American literature with its publication of a two-volume collection of nine novels of the Harlem Renaissance. As editor Rafia Zafar notes in her exclusive LOA interview (PDF) about Harlem Renaissance Novels:
In literary terms what happened during this period was epochal. David Levering Lewis has pointed out that in the nineteen years after Charles W. Chesnutt published The Colonel’s Dream in 1905, only five African Americans published significant books. By contrast, between 1922 and 1937 the sixteen best-known black authors of the Harlem Renaissance published more than fifty books.
Zafar goes on to describe the challenging task of selecting what to include:
LOA: While best known for his poetry, Langston Hughes re-created the experience of growing up black in Kansas in his semi-autobiographical character-rich novel Not Without Laughter (1930). Does Hughes get at something through his Midwestern lens that the Harlem settings of the other novels are not able to? 
Zafar: Yes, one of the reasons I included Not Without Laughter was to break down ideas about the “Harlem Renaissance” only being about New York City—or for that matter, about rural folks in the deep south, à la Jean Toomer. Although there is another American classic that begins with a tornado in Kansas, there are few other similarities between this one and the L. Frank Baum novel (how can I resist pointing out this congruence?). Hughes’s boy’s-eye view of growing up poor but aspirational I find simply beautiful—just as some of his reflections on the bedrock nature of racism hit me equally hard. Few have painted as astutely the roller coaster of emotions that illuminate the life of a poor black child. 
LOA: You chose to include Nella Larsen’s questing identity novel Quicksand instead of Passing, her intriguing novel of racial and sexual ambiguity. It had to be a difficult choice. Why Quicksand? Was it because you favor Jessie Redmon Fauset’s treatment of “passing” in Plum Bun
Zafar: It was difficult! With Plum Bun, one has the passing theme, as of course does Larsen’s second novel. Yet I chose to include Plum Bun not only for its handling of those who cross the color line but also for its depiction of a wellbrought-up black woman’s decision to live la vie bohème. For Fauset’s Angela Murray to have sex outside of marriage—and not be punished for that decision—challenges ideas about a tightly laced brown bourgeoisie. Fauset’s casting her character’s narrative as a modern fairy tale, as Deborah McDowell has shown in “The Changing Same”: Black Women’s Literature, Criticism, and Theory, gives us an interesting take on a familiar genre. 
As for my choice of Larsen’s first novel rather than her second—Quicksand adds to the LOA set a psychologically astute treatment of the (supposedly) tragic mulatto. In the nineteenth century, characters “caught” between the white world and the black generally ended up dead; Quicksand’s Helga Crane does not die by her own hand, but her inability to choose one category over another, and her imprisonment within the heterosexual female gender role, lead to a different kind of troubled ending. 
In other words, I asked myself how could I get the most extensive representation of writing styles, themes, generic experiments, and so on within a limited number of pages? I would have loved to put in every Renaissance novel published! 
*             *             *
LOA: Black Thunder (1936) by Arna Bontemps is the only novel in the collection that recreates a historical event, in this case Gabriel Prosser’s slave revolt in Richmond, Virginia in 1800. Charles W. Chesnutt attempted a similar reclamation of a historical event in The Marrow of Tradition (1901). How does Bontemps’s effort compare with Chesnutt’s?
Zafar: What’s particularly notable about Black Thunder is that Bontemps reaches back so far—Chesnutt’s novel imaginatively recreated a relatively recent event, the horrific anti-black Wilmington, North Carolina riots of 1898 (Marrow was published three years later). Bontemps reconstructs a historical figure, Gabriel Prosser, who already had passed emphatically into folk tradition. So in some ways it’s fair to say that the two authors, although crafting historical fiction, had different contemporary agendas. Bontemps, who would later become Fisk University’s archivist, understood that heroic black figures like Prosser need sympathetic authors to script their nearly mythic lives; black narratives of progress become potent when historical actors stand at the center.
Read the entire interview (PDF)

Previous Reader’s Almanac posts of interest:
Related LOA works: Harlem Renaissance Novels (boxed set); 20th-Century African American Authors Set (6 volumes plus a free book); Charles W. Chesnutt: Stories, Novels, and Essays

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