Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9648
SOURCE: Jablon, Madelyn. “The Künstlerroman and the Blues Hero.” In Black Metafiction: Self-Consciousness in African American Literature, pp. 55-79. Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 1997.
[In the following essay, Jablon attempts to define the characteristics of the black künstlerroman genre, using several novels that use a blues musician as...
(The entire section contains 9648 words.)
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- Critical Essays
SOURCE: Jablon, Madelyn. “The Künstlerroman and the Blues Hero.” In Black Metafiction: Self-Consciousness in African American Literature, pp. 55-79. Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 1997.
[In the following essay, Jablon attempts to define the characteristics of the black künstlerroman genre, using several novels that use a blues musician as its artist-protagonist.]
Today. My simple passion is to write our names in history and walk in the light that is woman.
—Sonia Sanchez, Poem
Linda Hutcheon's discussion of mimesis of process situates metafiction in its classical context by explaining how mimesis of product superseded mimesis of process and became the sole criterion for evaluating and interpreting fiction. Her examination of classical rhetoric is a persuasive argument for the reintroduction of mimesis of process into the discussion of literature. As a point of entry into black metafiction, mimesis of process yields important findings. The first is that black fiction has always celebrated mimesis of process. The process of artistic production has always been portrayed as equal or greater in value than the product. Such novels as The Color Purple remind us of that history and speak out on behalf of the continuation of this tradition.
The second thing we learn is that mimesis of process functions metaphorically in black texts. Art is bigger than life. Novels such as The Temple of My Familiar advise readers to regard life as a painter regards a canvas: creativity is essential to success. An examination of mimesis of process culminates in a discussion of artist-characters who benefit from the reciprocity of artistic and personal lives. Rutherford Calhoun, Suwelo, and Ola overstep the boundaries that separate the worlds of artistic creation and those of everyday life. Unlike the protagonist of John Barth's “Life-Story,” who is catapulted from the real world to the imaginary and disoriented by the shift, characters in black metafiction move gracefully from one world to the other, taking advantage of the juxtaposition of the imaginary and the real worlds.
Discussion of the artist-character culminates in an analysis of the African American künstlerroman. Recent studies of women's bildungsromans and Canadian künstlerromans make the examination of the African American künstlerroman timely.1 Like the study of bildungsromans by women, difficulties are evident in locating a working definition of the term. Glossaries and dictionaries identify the künstlerroman as a subclassification of the bildungsroman.2 The künstlerroman—from the German Künstler (artist) and the French roman (novel)—is a narrative that “traces the development of the author (or that of an imagined character like the author) from childhood to maturity” (Shaw 215). Such works usually “depict the struggles of a sensitive, artistic child to escape the misunderstandings and bourgeois attitudes of his family and youthful acquaintances” (Shaw 215). The term is synonymous with “apprenticeship novel,” a term derived from Goethe's The Apprenticeship of Wilhelm Meister (Holman 55). Scholars cite James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as the best example of a künstlerroman in English.
The first problem is evident in an attempt to locate the definition in an African American context. The definition calls for a plot that revolves around an artist-protagonist in conflict with society, but the plot of African American künstlerromans cannot be reduced to this conflict. Artists in black novels are often strongly connected to their communities, and art often serves to strengthen this connection. Eighteenth-century African American autobiographical narratives are evidence of the beginning of a tradition of künstlerromans that portray the artist as a representative or spokesperson of the community. James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man describes an artist whose work languishes as his distance from the black community increases. His talents are nurtured, not threatened, by the community. Altering the definition to allow for distinctions between black and white communities does not make it more relevant. White society is not cast in the role of the antagonist in the künstlerromans reviewed here, although internal conflicts founded on the distinction between classical or “high” art and vernacular or “low” art are central in the novels by Johnson and Dove.
A second difficulty with the definition is the meaning of the word “artist.” The meaning of the word changes as we move from nineteenth-century Germany to twentieth-century America, but the definition of künstlerroman does not allow for these changes. In her collection of essays, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, Alice Walker speaks of the importance of literary ancestors and the community to her work. She also discusses artists who might never be acknowledged as artists according to standard definitions, but who nevertheless play a paramount role in keeping artistic traditions alive and viable. In the title essay Walker imagines artists who were never free to practice their craft. In the short story “Everyday Use,” she suggests that crafts such as quilting be recognized as art. The everyday use of the quilt—its functionality—is important to its aesthetics and links African American quilting with African weaving and cloth-making. Walker's story juxtaposes the functional art of the black vernacular with the nonfunctionality that distinguishes Western art as a luxury reserved for the economically privileged. The history of Western art—as cultural artifacts produced and consumed by the leisure class—is imbued in this definition of the künstlerroman, which privileges fine art over craft, classical music over ballads and folk music, and theater for passive spectators rather than a responsive audience.
Black metafiction requires redefining the künstlerroman to encompass diverse artist-protagonists and alternative central conflicts. Black metafiction also affects preexisting controversies among theorists of the künstlerroman. One such controversy concerns whether or not narratives about artists are metafiction. In Private Lives in the Public Sphere, Todd Kontje argues that the bildungsroman is metafiction because it theorizes about itself and its status as fiction at the same time that it portrays the life of an artist (9-15). Kontje maintains that the bildungsroman is a “self-critical genre” (16). Inger Christensen takes the opposite stance in The Meaning of Metafiction, contrasting John Barth's The Floating Opera with Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance to distinguish between “metafiction and the nineteenth century künstler-roman” (12). Christensen says that although the themes are similar—both “deal with the artist-writer's existential situation”—important structural differences warrant recognition of the distinct genres represented by these works: “While Hawthorne stops after having described his narrator-protagonist's existential dilemma, Barth goes on to disclose Todd Andrews' difficulties in writing the very book in which he figures as the narrator. By revealing the technique of The Floating Opera in the novel, Barth stresses the parallelism between the narrator's difficulties as an artist and as a man” (12).
Christensen concludes that Hawthorne's novel is not metafiction because it “does not in any way explore the process of its own making” (12). Although critics might disagree with his reading of The Blithedale Romance, the distinction that Christensen observes is legitimate. His argument that Hawthorne's novel is not metafiction severs nineteenth-century realism from the history and evolution of metafiction. Unlike Hutcheon and Waugh, who regard metafiction as being as old as fiction itself and see literary realism as a moment in its evolution, Christensen regards it as a by-product of postmodernism. This argument is similar to Donald Gibson's attempt to distinguish between African American novelists who privilege content and those who privilege form. Linda Hutcheon's historicizing of metafiction provides an alternative that allows us to envision realism as a part of the evolution of metafiction. Rather than argue that Hawthorne's text is not metafictional, she would classify it as an example of fiction that is thematically self-conscious. She argues that texts that simply thematize or allegorize the role of the storyteller compose one type of metafiction, but a second type draws attention to its fictionality by linguistic play, such as invented words. Hutcheon says that such novels actualize their preoccupation with themselves. Robert Scholes makes a similar distinction,3 one that allows critics to envision realistic novels about artists—künstlerromans—as metafiction without obscuring the importance of innovations characteristic of postmodern literature.
The distinction between thematic and actualizing techniques and the controversy concerning the scope of metafiction explain why black novels are often excluded from discussions of postmodernism, especially the solipsistic, “unhappy metafictionists.” Critics, like Christensen, who regard metafiction as synonymous with postmodernism omit discussion of thematically metafictional black texts. Others believe that there is no such thing as African American postmodernism, that the term itself is an oxymoron.4 The resolution of these dilemmas warrants an investigation of the African American künstlerroman. Rita Dove's Through the Ivory Gate and Arthur Flowers' Another Good Loving Blues exemplify the contemporary African American künstlerroman. Both are about artists, hence they are thematically self-conscious, and both demonstrate actualizing techniques indigenous to the black vernacular.
Robert Stepto's distinction between “articulate survivor” and “articulate kinsman” assists in characterizing the differences between the novels' protagonists (167). Dove's novel examines the interplay of classical European and African American vernacular musical traditions. Like the “ex-coloured man,” Virginia juggles European and African American artistic traditions and learns that mastery of the cello and her own destiny requires a balance of Duke Ellington and J. S. Bach. Her story follows the plot of the ascent narrative: she leaves her family to enter the least oppressive environment, at the price of loneliness. Another Good Loving Blues is a self-proclaimed blues novel that traces the history of the blues from the lone traveling blues man to the big bands and race recordings. Bodeen's story is the prototype of the immersion narrative: he “forsakes mobility in the least oppressive society for a posture of relative stasis in the most oppressive environment” (167). Both künstlerromans are meditations on art and culture. Dove's extensive travel (especially time spent living in Germany) and Flowers' experiences as a jazz musician provide their autobiographical foundations.
The protagonist of Through the Ivory Gate is Virginia King, a cellist, mime, and puppeteer. After receiving a degree in theater arts from the University of Wisconsin, Virginia joins Puppets and People, a performing arts troupe that combines the art of Japanese theater with the pageantry of the three-ring circus. When the troupe disbands, Virginia accepts employment with the National Arts Council to visit public schools introducing students and their communities to puppetry. When the novel opens, she is beginning a six-week residency at Booker T. Washington Elementary School in Akron.
Although her stay in Akron is brief, it is long enough for Virginia to be reintroduced to the family she lost when her parents moved to Arizona. Visits with her father's mother and sister, Grandmother Evans and Aunt Carrie, acquaint her with a disturbing event from the past: she learns that the abrupt move to Arizona was prompted by her mother's discovery of her husband's incestuous relationship with his sister. Although this occurred before their courtship, Belle could not forgive Ernie or Carrie, and she insisted that the family relocate immediately.
Unlike her mother, Virginia can “let go of the anguish” (256). Virginia lets go of this anguish in her family's past, as well as the more recent anguish resulting from her frustrated longing for a gay man. She also lets go of the anguish inspired by the limited opportunities available for black actresses. This ability is consistent with the blues hero's acceptance of misfortune. Virginia is able to accept anguish, whether it is the result of social inequities or her own poor judgment, as an inescapable part of life. In “The Hero and the Blues,” Albert Murray describes the blues statement as “an experience-confrontation device” that enables people to accept “the difficult, disappointing, chaotic, absurd … facts of life” (104). Virginia excels at this experience-confrontation strategy. While her mother's anguish causes her to retreat to the deserts of Arizona, Virginia's anguish is abated by a process that empowers her to accept misfortune. Unlike Belle, who will not listen to anyone's explanations, Virginia accepts the variety of explanations and homespun truths that her grandmother shares from her “talking seat” in the living room (56). Although she acknowledges the family's riddled past, her grandmother does not warn her of impending doom—the sins of the fathers will be visited upon the heads of their children. Instead, she urges Virginia to forget past sins and get on with her own life: “old bones, dead and buried” (248). Virginia acts on this advice by arranging a visit to her long estranged aunt and listening to her account of the event. Listening to the stories and advice of her women relatives provides Virginia with a sense of her own past and the confidence to determine her own future.
The novel is organized according to Virginia's progression through the Six Suites for Unaccompanied Violoncello. Although Virginia decides to be an actress rather than a musician, music is the scaffold on which her narrative is arranged. It provides a means of assessing her growth. Each of J. S. Bach's six suites serves as a signpost of Virginia's increasing autonomy and self-definition.5 Her initial frustration with the score sends her to the library, where she reads that Bach's Suites fulfill “the established rule that every union of parts must make a whole and exhaust all the notes necessary to the most complete expression of the contents, so that no deficiency should anywhere be sensible by which another part might be rendered possible” (91). Her friend Clayton puts it more simply: “If a cellist were stranded on a desert island all he would need are his instrument and the Suites—no piano, no trio, no orchestra backup. The Suites are entirely self-sufficient. They can sustain you for a lifetime” (180).
Although Virginia's response is “Give it a rest, Clayton,” Clayton has predicted her future (180). The Suites sustain her through a painful episode of unrequited love, through college, Puppets and People, and the start of an acting career. The Suites provide a metaphor for Virginia's growing independence. Mastering the Suites means imagining herself as a symphony instrument playing solo: each suite is a higher plateau of independence. Her mastery of the Fifth Suite—“the music of a human being probing the darker corridors of the unachieved”—occurs when she hears the truth about her family's past (210). Her mastery of the Sixth Suite reflects the blues hero's triumph over pain and her ability to move on: “It was less indulgently sorrowful than the Fifth, more self-possessed and bittersweet and—adult, a chin lifted to the chill wind. It was the suite of departure, the conscious leave-taking of one who knows when it's time to move on” (258).
Because the Suites are central to the protagonist's development, knowing something about their composition provides additional insights into Virginia's position as a blues hero and the novel as a künstlerroman. J. S. Bach, their composer, is credited with the popularity of counterpoint in classical music, a technique of combining two or more independent melodies to make a harmonious melody. This technique, also known as polyphony, is present in much African American music. Therefore it is not surprising that Virginia's familiarity with jazz assists her in mastering the Suites—not only because jazz and they are both polyphonic—but because jazz involves improvisation, the musician's adaptation of the written score. Virginia can play the Suites when she applies the techniques of a jazz musician: “She had been so concerned with the score's harmonic structure … that she had failed to hear the musical line. It was like jazz, what Ellington meant by It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing. Playing Bach, she had to put inaccuracy into every note, that supreme inaccuracy—call it mistreatment, call it love—that makes the notes ‘blend’ and become music” (98-99).
What Virginia refers to as “inaccuracy” is the jazz musician's ability to improvise. She discovers that the musician who plays classical music must “swing” just like Duke Ellington. The musician must find a balance between personal expression, the summation of his or her own musical expertise, and the composer's directions as they are indicated by the score. At first, Bach's score appears to be crowded with notes, allowing no room for improvisation or the musician's personal interpretation, but after repeated attempts to play the music as written, Virginia discovers room for personal expression. The successful musician of classical music or jazz combines her own interpretation with what has been written by the composer: “eight notes to a measure, regular as clockwork; but that didn't mean the phrase ended at the bar, or for that matter, that each eighth note had the same value. The music lurked in this intricate grid of notes; but she had to take a little from her guts and the air and then shape it, make it live” (98).
Both counterpoint and improvisation are central to Virginia's development. Counterpoint suggests appreciating the beauty of each individual, each melody, while at the same time appreciating the community, the collective of sounds and individuals. This describes Virginia's simultaneous movement toward independence and immersion into her family's past and the community where she is teaching. Her mastery of improvisation gives her the confidence needed to act according to her own feelings. There are several climactic moments when Virginia must choose between two courses of action—one reflecting her own idiosyncrasies and personal inclinations and another reflecting a generally approved or accepted route. By applying improvisation to life and trusting her own intuition, she makes the right choices. She violates the score her mother wants her to play by refusing to take the safe road of an acceptable career and marriage into the middle-class world of mediocrity. Instead, she trusts the unknown and chooses a profession without guarantees. She continues to follow her own instincts, to live improvisationally, when she rejects Terry's marriage proposal in favor of the unpredictable life of a teacher and actress. Accepting uncertainty, developing confidence in her ability to improvise, and trusting her own abilities to handle whatever the future may hold make Virginia a blues hero. Unlike the protagonist of the künstlerroman, whose art signifies withdrawal from the world, the blues hero's art is a means of confrontation and immersion.
Like the ex-coloured man practicing Schubert, Virginia marries black and white musical traditions when she plays her cello. Both musicians recognize that improvisation and other elements of black style enrich their performance of classical compositions, yet both remain committed to careers as classical musicians. The ex-coloured man's familiarity with ragtime and Virginia's knowledge of jazz help them to excel as classical musicians.
Dove's explanations of her views on race and writing provide insight into Virginia's character. Like her protagonist who seeks to master classical music, Dove says she will not be restricted to writing about “black concerns” (Taleb-Khyar 364). Efforts to “transcend” race cause Virginia and Dove to dismiss “black art” and black artists and to overlook vernacular aesthetic traditions. Virginia reveals this lack of understanding when she speaks of black musicians: “Most black musicians she had met before were either horn men—saxophonists of every stripe—or the ubiquitous percussionists who were always clicking out rhythms with their tongues and drumming on tabletops. She hated to fall into stereotyping, but it was true” (24-25). Virginia's criticism of the tabletop percussionist suggests that she is not cognizant of the historical forces that give rise to this impromptu drum solo. She fails to connect this drumming to the talking drum, one of the few African instruments that survived slavery. The drumming does more than just allude to a method of communication. It signifies the longevity of African American artists and art forms. Finally, as an illustration of synchrony, the drum suggests an important difference between African and Western music and thought. Dove stereotypes black writers in a similar way, criticizing those who write about “the Black cause” or “the female cause” and those whose writing is influenced by black music:
What I find distressing, for example, is the notion that if you're Black you're going to write in the Blues mode. Half the people who are writing these Bluesy-Jazzy poems really have no appreciation for the Blues as an art form. They think, in a very superficial way, that if you're Black, then you're Blue, so let's get down to it. That's fine, if the writing is good. What I don't like is the kind of poetry praised in certain cliques and journals for its “Blackness” or cultural verisimilitude when so much of it is just badly written. It's extremely frustrating to read a poem that has wonderful ideas and a few interesting images, but on the whole doesn't cohere because the writer is caught up with being hip and clever.
Through the Ivory Gate makes use of a musical trope but avoids being “hip and clever” by choosing a trope that is relevant to music in the eleventh, thirteenth, eighteenth, and twentieth centuries. By selecting this trope, Dove aims to transcend the issue of race. Although Virginia's behaviors are occasionally determined by race, they are more frequently determined by her personal idiosyncrasies. Paradoxically, this rugged individualism—in Virginia and Dove—is one of the defining characteristics of the blues hero. Although Dove may not want to write a what-did-I-do-to-be-so-black-and-blue novel, she responds to this type by creating a blues hero, a protagonist who represents a repertoire of black aesthetic traditions. Virginia's staunch individualism—a refusal to do anything to be in style or to fulfill the expectations of others—is a central characteristic of the blues hero. Although Albert Murray sees this “emphasis on rugged individual endurance” in the blues tradition as an extension of the American frontier tradition (106), Dove explains it as a part of her politics:
I think my “role” is or what it is that I'm trying to do in a social sense is to constantly remind myself, my students, and my readers of our individuality. To me, one of the greatest dangers for people in this country is the temptation to think in terms of groups rather than extol each person's uniqueness. … I try very hard to create characters who are seen as individuals—not only as Blacks or as women but … as persons who have their very individual lives, and whose histories make them react to the world in different ways. One could argue that insisting upon that individuality is ultimately a political act, and to my mind, this is one of the fundamental principles a writer has to uphold.
Virginia's insistence on her own individuality is political. This is apparent when she joins Puppets and People and devotes her time to writing and performing satirical plays to be performed on the streets of Madison, Wisconsin. The political dimension of her independence is made plain when she disregards her mother's plea to choose a career that would “advance the race” (94). She is attracted to Clayton for his adamant individualism. She compares this black gay cellist to the bumblebee whose flight defies the laws of aerodynamics (29). Virginia chooses to master the cello because she also seeks to defy the laws that discourage girls from preferring ungainly, unmanageable instruments. She defies the law of custom when she becomes the first black girl to join the majorettes. She insists she doesn't do it to be the first but because she enjoys the power and control of twirling. The baton, like the cello, is an instrument to conquer and to love. It tests her self-confidence and reflects her success at self-definition, but it also reveals the important role the vernacular plays in this, a role that goes unnoticed by Virginia:
And so she became one of the girls, the only black face and legs on a line of spanking white-and-blue uniforms. In that shimmering outfit she felt the membrane of illusion rise between her and the audience. Her baton spun easily, as though the twirling itself were a breathless silvery web slipping effortlessly from her magic wrists. In the majorette uniform she was a Titan, a fifty-foot woman whose legs stretched high and away joining together somewhere above a cloud. The princess lines of the bodice, its frog fastenings and brass-buttoned epaulets! The perfect circle of the skirt, cobalt-blue cotton lined with white silk! Tall with blue-and-white pompons (they used one skein of yarn for each boot), the shiny-hard white hats with those outrageous plumes! For the first time in her life Virginia felt not only attractive, but effective—like she knew how to handle what she had and, as they said in the lavatories, “deal that stuff.”
Virginia's is the black face in the orchestra and the black face in the majorette squad, but whether she is learning to play Bach with some “swing” or twirl a baton “dealing that stuff,” she resorts to the language of the vernacular to make sense of her experience.
Music is a barometer of her inner life. Acting is a barometer of her growth in relation to others. This explains her decision to major in drama and minor in music. She perceives the life of a musician as one of “solitary struggle” with “all the joys and grief of private experience transplanted into wordless ecstasy” (148). If she understood the history reverberating with every fall of the drummer's hand, she would know a music that reflects “collective struggle” and the experience of a community told in a complex, intricate language. However, Virginia's understanding of music is monopolized by symbols from the Western world; therefore she imagines the musician as a solitary figure, and she imagines his music as wordless.
Ekaterini Georgoudaki notes that Dove believes that language shapes perception (421). This explains why Virginia thinks in the vernacular, but it raises the question of why she chooses to major in mime. She arrives at this choice after viewing Children of Paradise, a film featuring a mime “who takes off his white paint and becomes merely ordinary” (94). Thereafter “pantomime was Virginia's passion” (94). The paint that masks the face dramatizes the “double-consciousness” that Dove perceives as an integral and unalterable aspect of black consciousness.6 It also serves as an allusion to minstrelsy. If Virginia had enrolled in courses on black music and theater, she would know the history of vaudeville and the black minstrel shows—the black actors who painted their faces to parody the white actors who blackened their faces.7 What originated as a white racist entertainment was recast as a black parody. Black minstrels were engaged in what Ishmael Reed calls “loa-making,” “an ancient survival form” that involved “adopting the oppressor's parody” of one's self and “evolving, from this, an art form with its own laws” (“Shrovetide,” 33). “Loa-making” is a part of the black vernacular, a way of signifyin(g), but it also serves to disarm double-consciousness. Virginia is ignorant of this heritage, so while her mime achieves the political, it falls short of filling Reed's prescription for parody. Like the artist-protagonist of the nineteenth-century künstlerroman, Virginia wrestles with contradictions.
When Dove veers from a strictly chronological account of the proceedings, her novel diverges from the path taken by conventional künstlerromans. Frequent lengthy flashbacks to Virginia's childhood and adolescence are interjected into a narrative about her experiences as artist in residence. Dove disrupts chronology to demonstrate the importance of internal mental clocks. In this respect, the artist resembles her nineteenth-century precursor, who is also governed from within. For the contemporary African American writer this is both a celebration of the creative self and a political act because it subordinates Western time to C(olored). P(eople's). T(ime). or personal time. In an interview with Mohamed B. Taleb-Khyar and Maryse Condé, Dove discusses the representation of time in Thomas and Beulah. She says that the chronology is “a parody on history because private dates are put on equal footing with the dates of publicly important happenings” (357). Although she later satirizes black nationalism and writing inspired by political reform, Dove's subordination of objective time is political and nationalistic.8 Equally important to the foregrounding of an Afrocentric definition of time is the juxtaposition of past and present enacting the principle of counterpoint, the musical term that functions as a central trope in the novel.
Through the Ivory Gate is both thematically self-conscious and structurally self-conscious. It exemplifies the actualizing techniques that Hutcheon describes by interweaving song lyrics with the narrative. Changes in typography remind the reader that she is engaged in reading a text. The novel is a collage of such diverse materials as scripts for puppet plays, surrealistic dream sequences, excerpts from reference books on music and Javanese theater, letters and notes written by characters, folk songs, and the antics of an imaginary Sambo. This collage fulfills the definition for actualized metafiction, but it is a pastische of actualizing technique from the vernacular.
Virginia's appreciation for music is grounded in its escapism. She speaks of music as making her feel complete and autonomous, transporting her to the “upper ether” where there is “no memory or hurt” (30). “Real music,” she says, “makes you forget where you were, made you forget where your arms and legs ended and luscious sound began” (22). This contrasts with the experience of the musicians who inhabit Flowers' novel. His characters hear the voices of their ancestors in the music they play. Their music is a means of immersion into the folk culture rather than a means of ascending beyond it.
Examining Dove's novel for endemic definitions of art produces the idea that loss of consciousness plays a prominent role in artistic creation. This “loss of consciousness” resembles the artistic process portrayed in the Romantic künstlerromans. The novel, however, doesn't stop here in its investigation of art but pursues it to uncover the relationship between art and reality. As part of her final exam in mime, Virginia mimics a cellist. After her performance, her teacher explains that the successful mimicry of a cellist does not depend on the ability to play the cello and that on this occasion Virginia's ability to play interferes with her skill at mime. This advice makes Virginia a better mime and a better cellist.
Virginia's instruction in mime has taught her the difference between art and reality. As an artist and teacher, she takes pleasure in substituting one for the other and celebrating the purely imaginative. She collaborates with her students to write a love story about a talking football. At the Javanese play, she assures her students' parents they need not worry about the plot. She compares her own experiences to their rendering on stage and finds humor in the fact that there are few happy endings in real life. Art serves as the middle term in a scene that juxtaposes Virginia's imaginings with reality. Listening to music performed by Clayton and his lover, she notes: “In the theater, the curtain would have fallen just then, with the two musicians upstage right, encapsulated in a silver-blue spot, and the woman downstage left, drenched in the warmth of a yellow gel. But in the real world she had to listen on to the end, struggling to keep her composure among the lumps of the red couch, which made her feel mortal and messy” (200).
She knows that art does not mimic reality, and like most blues heroes, she knows that reality is often more dismal. This fosters her appreciation of nonrepresentational art. It also keeps her from trying to make life resemble artistic production. She refers to the story of Narcissus to explain this to Terry, an attractive divorcé whose pursuit of her persists in spite of her disinterest. She tells him about a story she read in German class. It is about a handsome young man who wants to be a dancer. “No one knew if he had talent, but he had natural grace and was totally unaware of his own beauty” (169). His demise occurs when a dancer tells the young man that he looks “like a Greek sculpture.” Thereafter, the narcissistic young man spends hours in front of the mirror trying to re-create the pose: “The more he looked, the more self-conscious he became—his smile grew forced, he would pinch his eyes into a squint he thought provocative, and his lilting walk became a calculated jaunt” (169). When the dancer sees him again, he doesn't recognize him: “The boy waving from the other side of the street was no different from the swarm of other teenagers heading downtown” (169). Although this anecdote is meant to warn Terry about the evils of excessive pride, it reveals the complexity of Virginia's thoughts on art and artistic creation. Virginia's retelling of the myth of Narcissus, the myth that Hutcheon cites as an allegory of metafiction, defines and exemplifies metafiction.
Dove's novel celebrates art that breaks the rules, including the rule that art mimic reality. This may explain why Virginia's puppets have “magical properties inversely proportional to the probability that they could exist: an apple tree with a hundred red eyes, a talking bush, a blue-eyed dragon, a ballerina bewitched in the hide of a hippopotamus, a cross-eyed peacock” (34). The theory that issues from the novel is one that celebrates the process of artistic creation as personal and improvisational but also stresses the importance of artists' interacting with their communities. The African American künstlerroman as exemplified by Dove's novel is a celebration of self and a celebration of community. It is this duality, this demonstration of counterpoint, that makes it unique yet vital to the definition of the term.
While novels such as Rita Dove's Through the Ivory Gate allow for some initial observations about the African American künstlerroman, discussion of this genre would be incomplete without an examination of the portraiture of the artist whose goal is mastery of African American aesthetic traditions. Like the ex-coloured man, Virginia is more concerned with “high” art than “low,” and her knowledge of jazz becomes a means of achieving her goals as a cellist and classical musician. Arthur Flowers' second novel, Another Good Loving Blues, portrays a musician whose exploration of his African American musical heritage is an end. Like most protagonists of bildungsromans, Luke “Bodacious” Bodeen, a Memphis City blues man, is an autobiographical character who shares both his place of residence and his vocation with his author. Unlike Dove's novel, which veers from a chronologizing of the events in the artist's life, Flowers' novel obeys the rigorous chronology characteristic of the künstlerroman. Instead of flashbacks of the key episodes in the protagonist's life, it provides a close scrutiny of the five years during which Luke metamorphoses from novice to master musician.
It is no coincidence that the five years documented in the musician's development are five of the most eventful years in the history of jazz. Bodeen's story is a detailed account of the evolution of African American music from the traveling solitary blues musicians of the teens to the big jazz bands of the twenties. It documents the increasing professionalism of the blues musicians, from the solitary blues musician who felt called on to do the blues, felt he had received his talents by luck or by God, to the professional jazz band member who had been trained to read music and schooled in the European musical traditions:
He had played a little of that Jazz himself during one of his early New Orleans sojourns. Played with boys like mad Buddy Bolden and smooth Jelly Roll Morton and wasn't half as contemptuous as he sounded. Those New Orleans boys did some good work. Trained musicians a lot of them. He had been there when it started it. Had sneered cause it wasn't the blues; he liked the power of the word with his music. Bodeen remembered back when there wasn't no such thing as the blues, or jazz. He was a young boy then, about 15, maybe 16, new to Memphis, living off his wits and fascinated with the piano. They were playing ragtime back then. He'd haunt the places they were playing it and watch the old guys' fingering.
Instead of riding the tide of history on the wave of the Great Migration, which would transplant the Arkansas-Tennessee blues man in Harlem, Chicago, or Detroit at the height of the “renaissance,” Bodeen follows the lead of a blues-inspiring conjure woman, Melvira Dupree (a possible relation to blues musician Jack Champion Dupree) to Taproot, Mississippi. This physical journey south is a spiritual journey as well, during which Bodeen discovers the precursors and prerequisites of the blues. While other musicians are heading north, this blues man is going south to learn about the roots of the music he is playing: the gospels and spirituals, the plantation music and the work songs. Declining a scout's offer to record “race records” in Detroit, blues man Luke Bodeen and conjure woman Melvira Dupree choose to travel against traffic and head south.
The journey that begins in Sweetwater and ends in Taproot makes a short stop on Beale Street. During this stop in Memphis the solitary blues man rehearses with other musicians, and the conjure woman becomes apprentice to the great hoodoo, Hootowl. Both artists gain expertise as a result of their interaction with other artists. Hootowl instructs Melvira to visit Jackson's Drug Store, “the premier gathering hole of Beale Street resident intellectuals,” where she becomes acquainted with the opinions of “Doc Marcus Mosiah Garvey,” “Dr. Du Bois,” “the Lincoln League” and “the NAACP” (113). Debuting as a fictional character, Zora Neale Hurston hoists herself onto the stool next to Melvira's and engages in this conversation:
“How come you be a hoodoo?” asked Zora.
“How come you be a writer?” asked Melvira.
They were too much alike not to try each other. They had everybody's attention now, two strong women, each determined to be the question and not the answer. Zora, worldly and already jaded, Melvira, a provincial country hoodoo with a lot to learn. Yet they recognized in each other sisters of the cloth.
Although Melvira “hadn't really thought about coloredfolk as writers” and the “thought of writing books on hoodoo was totally new to her,” she comes to understand, with the guidance of Miss Rush and Hootowl, that both “literature and hoodoo” are “tools for shaping the soul” (119). The more experienced Hootowl regards writing and conjure as the “rootwork” that shapes the tribal soul and its destiny: “If you would provide tribal guidance, you must work with the tribal soul. Strategies now, they change with time and circumstance. Each makes its contribution in its proper time and place. But if you want to have fundamental influence on the colored race's destiny, you shape its soul and the soul shapes everything else. Rootwork” (120).
This conversation helps Melvira to understand her work. Although she is a powerful and respected hoodoo who is said to hold the town and its inhabitants in a spider web, her power multiplies during her apprenticeship to Hootowl because he instructs her on how her work resembles the anthropologist's and, more important, how both acknowledge the “African way” (122). Melvira's reading and writing will transform conjure in the same way that the recurring epidemic transforms the Jes Grew virus in Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo. These transformations make conjure and the virus responsive to the needs of the community they serve.
While Melvira is learning how knowledge of the personal and collective past can increase her powers and clarify her objectives, Luke is also gaining insight into his work. He realizes that he must relinquish his Stetson and ruffled shirts, the clothes he wore when he played the riverboats, and don the epaulets and brass-buttoned uniform that band musicians wear. This change of clothes is indicative of other changes as well. The success of the blues man who played by ear is past, and proud Luke Bodeen is forced to admit that he needs to learn how to read music if he plans on keeping up. When W. C. Handy asks Bodeen to join his band, Bodeen makes instruction in musicology a condition of the contract. Melvira's development as a conjure woman also depends on her ability to read. When Hootowl sees her reading her Bible, he realizes that this ability is what will enable her to transform hoodoo into its next phase, just as the influence of classical instruments, large orchestras, and written scores transformed blues to jazz. Hootowl notes:
Over the years his thriving hoodoo business fell off. The race was getting far too sophisticated for his kind of hoodoo. They took their bodies to the doctor and their souls to the preacher. Considered becoming a Baptist preacher himself once. But he felt with all his heart that the colored race deserved a spiritual tradition of its own. Needed one desperately. He knew that if the hoodoo way was to remain valid, it would have to find new life and purpose.
It didn't come together for him until the day he saw Melvira Dupree reading her Bible after leaving church. Standing there watching her read her Bible was like a revelation. Like many coloredfolks of his day and time he had never learned how to read, a power he had never mastered. Now that he understood the power of being able to read when other folks couldn't, he was just too old to try. But this Dupree, possibly this was the new study of hoodoo that would save the hoodoo way. In her he saw the future and the future was good. He saw in Melvira Dupree his last chance to serve the colored race.
Reading and writing are central to the future of music and conjure. This novel thus pays tribute to literacy and its history in the quest for freedom and civil rights. This is an allusion to the narratives of writers such as Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, whose ambitions depend on the mastery of the written word. Located in a narrative of immersion, this tribute to literacy should not be misread as the rhetoric of assimilationism, for it is an affirmation of the survival of vernacular traditions. The futures of hoodoo and jazz run parallel; they will employ an increasing number of Western artifacts but will retain what is essentially and exclusively African American.
The events depicted in Another Good Loving Blues introduce Luke to the technical innovation and expressive content of the blues. He learns from experience what members of the Sacred Blues Band know: “If you want to sing about life, you got to know what you talking about. Everybody know you got to get all down in there if you wanna do the blues. But you can't get lost” (99). Luke gets “all down in there” with Melvira Dupree. Her romance keeps the traveling man in Sweetwater for a year, longer than he has ever stayed anywhere. When the sound of the train whistle is an irresistible siren's song and life on Beale Street is an overwhelming distraction, Luke and Melvira go their separate ways. The duration of their separation is indicated by chapter subtitles announcing the length of time they have been parted. As in Dove's writing, time in Flowers' novel is gauged according to personally significant events rather than consensually agreed-upon minutes, hours, and years. Over the course of time, Luke becomes an alcoholic and a cocaine addict who is forced to trade his fancy shirts and shiny guitar for a washboard and a tin cup. A broken heart humbles the cocky piano man, who “gets lost” in a blues that has him sleeping on Melvira's doorstep. He learns the blues by living the blues, but he also learns living isn't the only ingredient in good music. Like Virginia, he learns that the raw experiences of life must be “rendered” to produce good art. For Virginia this means learning to forget playing the cello to convincingly mimic cello playing. For Luke, it means learning to recast the experience in the telling of the story. Luke, the blues man, is a storyteller as well as a musician (he dreads the wordlessness of the new jazz). Unlike Virginia, who recalls Duke Ellington's words and discovers the importance of improvisation in rendering classical music, Bodeen learns to listen to the loas who speak through him and to be attentive to the religious and spiritual components of his music. Although he initially shuns religion, eventually he is as comfortable playing in church as he is playing in the familiar environs of the jook joint. He learns that in the vernacular tradition secular and religious practices are located on the same continuum.
Craig Hansen Werner describes both blues and gospel as a three-stage process of brutal experience, lyric expression, and affirmation. In the idiom of the church, the brutal experience is the burden, the lyric process is possession by the spirit, and the affirmation is salvation. Werner observes that this “blues/gospel process provides a foundation for the African American artists' explorations of new possibilities for self and community” (xxii). This interpretation explains Bodeen's religious conversion. In order to be a master musician, he must acknowledge the similarities among blues and religious conversion experiences. Not surprisingly, the loss of Melvira and his religious conversion are simultaneous occurrences that pave the way for the third and final step in the process: an affirmation that will foster the creation of art.
Love and death are popular subjects of the blues. Often these themes are intertwined, as they are in Another Good Loving Blues, where death shuffles in to take Jake, Luke's buddy, his father, and Melvira's mother. Jake's death, which occurs in the first few pages of the novel, makes Luke think about his own mortality: “Up to now the blues had took every kind of hammer life ever threw at him and defeated em. Tribulations that crushed other folk and sent em crying to God wasn't nothing but material for another blues for Luke Bodeen. But even the blues cant take on death and win. Or can they?” (40).
Melvira teaches Luke that death can be overcome by identifying with the community and heritage. When he accompanies her to visit her dying mother in Taproot, Mississippi, he learns the history of the community and the power of its spiritual and folk traditions. He learns that hoodoo summons hoodoos like a telepathic underground railroad; he learns that shooting the tree from which a lynched man hangs only hurts the tree; and he learns that he has a responsibility to the ancestors and to the community.
Encoded in this is a recognition of the power of the spirit world and belief in God: “Oluddumare mojuba” (123). These words, which translate to “God's blessing on us all,” serve as the refrain that is repeated periodically in the novel as a chorus in Bodeen's song. After experiencing the humbling effects of “a-good-woman-done-left-me” and the spiritual effects of God, Luke is ready to make music in church as well as jazz band.
Like country blues, Another Good Loving Blues is a solo performance, and like the older blues and their forerunners, the spirituals and work songs, this blues is performed by a single voice whose importance cannot be overemphasized. It is evident in the toast with which the novel begins: “I am Flowers of the delta clan Flower and the line of O Killens—I am hoodoo, I am griot, I am a man of power. My story is a true story, my words are true words, my lie is a true lie—a fine old delta tale about a mad blues piano player and a Arkansas conjure woman on a hoodoo mission” (1).
The voice of the storyteller is as important to the story as the characters and plot are. Both storyteller and characters issue from the vernacular tradition. Because the story is one with which the audience is already familiar (a blues man hoodooed by a conjure woman), the storyteller is obliged to make the old new by contributing his own comments, interpretations, and style:
Course what folks saw from the vantage points of their big wraparound porches wasn't the whole story. Never is. Any good story is always at least 4 or 5 stories deep. And since this is a good story, I expect you to pay close attention to the weave of it. Even they couldn't tell the whole story. But what they did come to understand deep down in once starved and lonely souls, is that when you do find yourself some of that real good loving, if you got any sense at all, you hold on to it.
Truth. I swear by all thats holy.
This is thematic and actualizing metafiction that issues from the African American vernacular tradition. The marriage of the secular and the religious is one of its hallmarks. The voice of the storyteller is foregrounded to draw attention to the skills of the speaker/author. Readers find themselves members of a back porch audience, a community of listeners. The written text mimics the rhythm and intonations of the voice. Repetition creates the cadences of speech. Punctuation indicates time and rhythm. Finally, the didacticism and the “universality” of the story's message situates this writing in the tradition of the African American vernacular.
Also noteworthy is the switch to the second-person point of view. Because of this shift in point of view, Gates describes Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God as a “speakerly text” and a momentous contribution to the evolution of African American literature. Houston Baker also observes this shift in his discussion of Hurston's poetics.9 Both theorists refer to a narrative voice that “slips” from first person to second and third, singular and plural, like the blurred notes played by a jazz guitarist. This is an important characteristic of point of view in Another Good Loving Blues. Throughout the first four chapters, the narrator's voice “slides” among various points of view. The result is a narrative that re-creates the oral tradition of storytelling. It emphasizes the importance of storyteller-audience interaction while positing a definition of identity as transient and amorphous rather than fixed. It is as if narrator, audience, and characters participate in a game of musical chairs. In the following examples, italics are introduced to emphasize the shifts:
It was nice being back on Beale. He could feel himself getting better every day, picking up new licks, stretching out, Beale did that to you, you either kept up or fell behind. Music was all around you and it was as important to other folks as it was to you. You constantly being exposed to new licks and you constantly growing. On Beale Street in those days you could live music. Melvira complained about the time he spent out.
He didn't hardly ever remember his daddy being sick, couldn't afford to be sick. Life sure was hard. His folks had worked hard all their lives and they were still struggling. Look like it don't ever let up on you, you just struggle on up to the day you die. When do you get to rest? He thought about how he had been out here having a good time and using up his life in the fast lane.
The narrator's voice refers to the reader and the character as “he” and “you” to suggest that these identities are interchangeable. This shift from third person to second person also creates a community of reader, character, and narrator that has sympathetic understanding as its foundation. The narrator's repeated addresses to the reader, “you,” facilitate the reader's identification with the character and the situation. Additional shifts occur at the conclusion of the novel, where the third-person point of view is interrupted by a shift to first person singular and plural. The latter, “us” refers to a present audience, a visible gathering of friends on the back porch, for example, and an untraceable audience of departed ancestors:
Melvira scraped a shallow hole into Effie's grave with her fingers and put Hoodoo Maggie's mojohand in it. She savored Effie's approval. Yes, I know momma.
The ancestors approve. She does well doesn't she? She does us proud.
This passage extends the storyteller's community to include actors, audience, and ancestors—all of whom are transformed and regrouped. It also proffers a solution to mortality that is accessible via hoodoo and the blues. Whereas hoodoo provides transcendence by accessing the spirit world, the music achieves immortality through repetition. If Jake's death is the call that sets the novel in motion, Luke's response is its conclusion: “One day I'm gon do me a immortal blues Melvira. A blues that will still be here touching folk long after I'm dead and gone. A Luke Bodeen was here and he played a helluva blues blues. You can put that on my stone” (43).
Martin Swales concludes The German Bildungsroman from Wieland to Hesse by suggesting that his study provides a “model which can prove helpful in understanding certain kinds of contemporary fiction” (165). According to Swales, the study of the bildungsroman is especially helpful to understanding fiction authored by women because such writing focuses on identity-related subjects; however, “identity” and “self-knowledge”—the salient themes of the bildungsromans examined by Swales—are central to African American literature as well.10
This examination of two bildungsromans adds to the storehouse of information concerning literary self-consciousness in African American literature and the vernacular. Consistent with the findings produced in the previous chapter through the analysis of The Temple of My Familiar and Middle Passage, they make a persuasive argument on behalf of the eagerness among contemporary writers to use fiction as an opportunity to explore ideas about art: the process of artistic composition, its history and cultural contexts, and its influence on aesthetic traditions. They also draw attention to the fascination among writers with the craft of writing and with their lives and work, for artist-characters reveal their autobiographical underpinnings undisguised. Like Narcissus, these artists enjoy gazing at the reflections mirrored in their fiction.
African American writers such as Rita Dove and Arthur Flowers may view race and vernacular traditions differently. Their novels may urge rediscovery of aesthetic traditions or the assimilation of them with other aesthetic systems, but regardless of the context, their novels enact the African American tradition of literary self-consciousness.
Robert Scholes notes that “fantasy and irony” are “the two principal resources of metafiction” (109). While this may be an appropriate conclusion to his study of “four young American writers,” four white male writers, it is an inaccurate description of metafiction by “others” (107). African American metafiction demonstrates that his categories fail to represent the variety of metafiction. “Fantasy,” “irony,” and “parody” are but a few of the many categories of metafiction. Instead of parody or irony, Dove and Flowers create metafiction that achieves self-consciousness through the ruminations of artist-protagonist blues heroes and their art.
Laura Sue Fuderer's The Female Bildungsroman and David Williams' Confessional Fictions are evidence of this kind of research. Scholars of neglected literatures are revising the definition of the bildungsroman to make it more inclusive. This work contributes to the advancement of theory and the study of postcolonial and feminist literature. There is an abundance of such work to be done; however, it can be successful only if one makes the literature the foremost consideration and the theory only a point of departure. The following investigation of the blues hero and African American künstlerroman is an attempt at this.
The “bildungsroman” is defined as a novel, often autobiographical, that portrays a character's development from adolescence to maturity (Holman 55).
In Fabulation and Metafiction Robert Scholes says, “Both the conditions of being and the order of fiction partake of a duality which distinguishes existence from essence” (100). He uses this distinction as a basis for the classification of metafiction.
This is beginning to change as studies such as Craig Hansen Werner's Playing the Changes and Keith E. Byerman's Fingering the Jagged Grain explore the interplay of aesthetic traditions.
I borrow the term “self-definition” from Barbara Christian, who traces the history of African American women's fiction as a movement toward self-definition.
In the interview with Mohamed B. Taleb-Khyar, Rita Dove speaks about Du Bois' idea of double-consciousness as the “binocular vision” that results from growing up as a member of a minority (350).
This idea of parodying parody or “loa-making” is a form of signifyin(g). It is also, more generally speaking, a trope or strategy drawn from the “vernacular” as defined by Baker in “Belief, Theory, and Blues.” Baker says, “By the vernacular I want to suggest not only the majority of Afro-Americans, but, in both an economic and a political sense, the American majority. An image from a resonantly vernacular tradition of Afro-American expression serves to capture my notion of the vernacular. The picture is drawn from the black blues and sung by Howlin' Wolf” (9). Virginia's sense of herself as a black mime is disconnected from the history of “loa-making” in black theater and more generally, from the aesthetics of the black vernacular.
Dove explains her feelings about writing and politics in her interview with Taleb-Khyar:
When I walk into my room to write, I don't think of myself in political terms. I approach that piece of paper or the computer screen to search for—I know it sounds corny—truth and beauty through language. As an artist, I shun political consideration and racial or gender partiality; for example, I would find it a breach of my integrity as a writer to create a character for didactic or propaganda purposes, like concocting a strong Black heroine, an idealized so-called role model, just to promote a positive image. I'm interested in truth.
See Gates, Signifying Monkey, pp. 170-216, and Baker, Workings of the Spirit, pp. 69-101, for discussions of “speakerly texts” and narrative voice in Zora Neale Hurston's fiction.
Robert Stepto's From behind the Veil traces the history of the African American narrative from its origins as slave narrative to the self-determination and self-definition of modern narratives such as Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. Barbara Christian discusses the development of black women's writing as a movement toward self-definition. Valerie Smith's Self-Discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narrative is a third study that traces the history of the movement toward autonomy in fiction.