Künstlerroman Criticism: Minority KüNstlerroman

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Criticism: Minority KüNstlerroman

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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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discussion of mimesis of process situates metafiction in its classical context by explaining how mimesis of product superseded mimesis of process and became the sole criterion for evaluating and interpreting fiction.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...

(The entire section is 9,648 words.)