Harlem Renaissance Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Overview

The criticism on the Harlem Renaissance movement tends to focus on its impact on black literature and on the African-American community. In fact, many critics, while acknowledging that the current energy in black literature and music does have its foundations at least partly in the Harlem Renaissance, hold that the movement came up short in terms of staying power. Andrea Stuart, writing in New Statesman, questions whether the Harlem Renaissance has had any lasting impact on the lives of ordinary black Americans. “The legacy of the Harlem Renaissance remains a profoundly romantic one for the black bourgeoisie,” Stuart comments. But, “on the streets, where the great majority of black culture is made, its echoes are only faintly heard,” she claims.

Amritjit Singh notes in his book The Novels of the Harlem Renaissance: Twelve Black Writers that the artists involved in the Harlem Renaissance failed to develop a “black American school of literature” for a variety of reasons. The most critical reason, he argues, is that the artists themselves “reflect the spirit of the times in their refusal to join causes or movements” and were interested less in the societal problems of blacks than in their own individual problems. Margaret Perry, in her book The Harlem Renaissance: An Annotated Bibliography and Commentary, generally agrees with this concept, noting that the writers of this period “failed to use their blackness to fullness and with total honesty in order to create that unique genre of American literature one called black or Afro- American.”

While acknowledging the shortcomings of the Harlem Renaissance as noted by numerous current critics as well as by the era’s participants, George E. Kent believes that the movement has still provided American literature with some very “fundamental” accomplishments. He argues in Black World that “the short story in the hands of [Jean] Toomer, Eric Waldron, and Langston Hughes became a much more flexible form,” and that, while no Harlem Renaissance author created a truly new form of the novel, these writers did provide stories that “occasionally stopped just short of greatness.” Kent also...

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