Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The first volume of a projected trilogy by a distinguished critic best known for THE JOURNEY BACK and BLUES, IDEOLOGY AND AFRO-AMERICAN LITERATURE: A VERNACULAR THEORY, this curiously titled study focuses on neither modernism nor the Harlem Renaissance, at least as the terms are normally understood. In part, this reflects Houston A. Baker, Jr.’s, belief that general critical apprehension of the terms is inadequate. Indeed, Baker’s arguments that modernism has been construed in narrowly Euro-American elitist terms and that the Harlem Renaissance has attracted only a fraction of the serious critical attention it deserves are accurate. Nevertheless, his decision not to address either issue directly guarantees that this book will have little impact on either of the revisions he desires.

This is not to say that Baker’s study is without value. In fact, he has written an intriguing study of pre-Harlem Renaissance rhetorical strategies. While not fully developed, his discussions of Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Charles W. Chesnutt suggest interesting, and in some cases, radical, new approaches to the discursive options available at the beginning of the Renaissance. Similarly, his discussion of Sterling Brown--normally viewed as a literary heir to the major Renaissance writers--provides a clear introduction to the poet’s sensibility.

Baker’s successes, however, render the absence of any real discussion of the title topic all the more frustrating. When Baker does invoke the names of Euro-American modernists, he shows little awareness of the complexity of their work (an awareness he has demonstrated elsewhere in his writing). For example, he treats T.S. Eliot and James Joyce as representatives of the same culture, whereas numerous Afro-American novelists have recognized that Joyce as an Irishman generated techniques of direct use to other “colonized” peoples. Equally important is Baker’s failure to discuss the actual, and in some cases extensive, biographical links between Renaissance writers and “mainstream” modernists. Readers seeking to acquaint themselves with Baker’s very real contribution to Afro-American cultural studies would do better to seek out his previous books.