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American Culture Between the Wars: Revisionary Modernism and Postmodern Critique.

Reviewed by Craig Wemer University of Wisconsin-Madison

An important change is taking place in the way American literary history is being written. Prior to the Black Studies movement of the 1960s and 1970s, standard histories of American literary movements or periods frequently ignored, marginalized, or trivialized African American culture. Nowhere was this tendency clearer than in studies of the 1920s and 1930s. Despite radically different perspectives on the interbellum period, Malcolm Cowley's A Second Flowering: Works and Days of the Lost Generation (1973), Frederick J. Hoffman's The Twenties (1955, rev. ed. 1962), Daniel Aaron's Writers on the Left: Episodes in American Literary Communism (1961), and Hugh Kenner's A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers (1975) all avoid serious engagement with black writers such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Marita Bonner, William Attaway, Dorothy West, and Sterling Brown. Richard Wright and Claude McKay, when they appear at all, are dispensed with in a few perfunctory sentences.

In this context, African Americanists should welcome the appearance of Barbara Foley's definitive study of the proletarian novel and Walter Kalaidjian's study of the international contexts of activist (post)modernism since the 1920s. Like Michael North's The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language & Twentieth-Century Literature (1994) and Ann Douglas's Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s (1995), these challenging studies make it clear that an adequate understanding of American modernism requires recognition of the central importance of racial tensions and African American writers. The primary difference between Foley's almost wholly successful project and Kalaidjian's interesting but flawed work lies in Foley's superior understanding that recognizing the presence of black culture is not simply an historical issue. In contrast to Kalaidjian, who fails to bring the black traditions he describes into dialogue with his vision of postmodern cultural activism, Foley demonstrates the pervasive impact of race (as articulated by both whites and blacks) on the political aesthetics of proletarian literature.

Emphasizing the ways in which "the conjuncture of popular culture and Left politics . . . fostered an alternative discourse of racial, sexual, class, and transnational experience" (3), Kalaidjian devotes a substantial discussion to the Harlem Renaissance. As he does throughout the book, Kalaidjian makes extremely effective use of the visual iconography of the period, reprinting and analyzing fascinating woodcuts and sketches by Bruce Nugent, Charles Cullen, and others. His analyses of the cultural politics reflected in the contributions to Countee Cullen's anthology Caroling Dusk and the journal Fire!! supplement existing commentary. Drawing extensively on black newspapers and journals, Kalaidjian demonstrates the connections between black writing of the 1920s and the aesthetic issues raised by Russian modernists of the previous decade. The most important contribution of American Culture Between the Wars, then, lies in the way Kalaidjian presents the Renaissance as an aspect of an international cultural matrix.

Despite this contribution, Kalaidjian's study does not succeed in its larger project of providing a thorough revision of traditional conceptions of modernism. The first half of his book focuses on several moments in the cultural history of modernism, among them the Harlem Renaissance, Russian futurism, and the mural movement exemplified by Diego Rivera. The second half of the book shifts attention to contemporary forms of cultural activism, including the work of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets and artists addressing AIDS. Both of the latter sections are innovative and worth the attention of readers interested in the social potential of (post)modern art.

Unfortunately, the problems with the project as a whole are particularly clear in relation to his treatment of black culture. On a mundane level, Kalaidjian's treatment of detail is frequently not trustworthy. He misspells names (Jessie Faucet, Alaine Locke, Wallace Thurmon), makes anachronistic connections (suggesting that Hughes's 1932 poem "Good Morning, Revolution" refers to a blues by "Leadbelly" [sic], who was in fact not "discovered" until 1933), and suggests that James Weldon Johnson rejected vernacular expression (rather than dialect poetry). More importantly in a book purporting to provide a thorough revision of modernism, Kalaidjian does not engage major figures such as Brecht, William Attaway, Hurston, Sterling Brown, Faulkner, Ellison, Toomer, and numerous others. Perhaps most damaging among the omissions is his failure to mention Richard Wright's "Blueprint for Negro Writing," perhaps the most important African American statement on the precise issues Kalaidjian raises. Finally, even though he cogently criticizes the left of the 1930s for marginalizing African American concerns, Kalaidjian perpetuates the same pattern by failing to include any serious discussions of contemporary black or multi-cultural art (rap, film, the performances of Guillermo Gomez-Pena or Coco Fusco) in his analysis of postmodern activist culture. Even as he insists on the interaction of race, gender, and class analyses, Kalaidjian reinscribes a limited and limiting discourse.

Embedding its treatment of race (and gender) much more deeply in its overall sensibility, Foley's Radical Representations is likely to remain the definitive study of the proletarian novel. Her chapter on "Race, Class, and the 'Negro Question'" provides the best overview of the treatment of racial issues in American fiction since Sterling Brown's classic The Negro in American Fiction (1937). Foley demonstrates a comprehensive mastery of the primary sources, discussing novels by white writers such as Mary Heaton Vorse, Fielding Burke, Albert Halper, Myra Page, Guy Endore, and Grace Lumpkin alongside those by Wright and Attaway. Her discussion of consciousness as a "site of contradiction" in Blood on the Forge is one of the most satisfying approaches to Attaway's undervalued novel. Foley frames her discussion of these novels with valuable overviews of the development of the CPUSA line on the "Negro Question" and the tension between "folk" and "proletarian" conceptions of black art (in which she makes effective use of Wright's "Blueprint"). Although Foley has something of the apologist's tone when she insists that the Communist Party did not abandon racial concerns during the 1930s (as Harold Cruse and others have suggested), her chapter is an excellent introduction to a complex discourse that played a crucial role in shaping African American literary history.

While Radical Representations is impressive as literary history, its most important contribution comes in Foley's discussion of the relationship between ideological tensions and literary form. In the second half of her book, Foley presents a typology of the forms present in proletarian fiction. Three of these forms - the fictional autobiography, the bildungsroman, and the social novel - are variations on approaches shared with mainstream novelists of the period. Moving beyond these fundamentally realistic forms, the fourth form - the "collective novel" - is a specifically proletarian form, one shaped in large part by racial and sexual tension. Emphasizing the problem of articulating a vision of change in relation to a world suffused with false consciousness, Foley describes the uses of forms (anticipated by Native Son) in which writers incorporate voices reflecting the various ideologies competing in the characters' minds. While Foley centers her analysis of the collective novel on texts by white writers (Steinbeck, Dos Passos, Josephine Herbst, Clara Weatherwax), these discussions are clearly part of a continuing dialogue with Wright and Attaway. Making a significant contribution to the movement exemplified by Douglas's Terrible Honesty and Eric Sundquist's To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature (1993), Radical Representations demonstrates the centrality of the African American presence in an important moment in our collective American story.
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Author:Werner, Craig
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1996
Words:1209
Previous Article:Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929-1941.
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