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Bernard W. Bell. The Contemporary African American Novel: Its Roots and Modern Literary Branches.

Bernard W. Bell. The Contemporary African American Novel: Its Roots and Modern Literary Branches. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2004. 490 pp. $80.00 cloth/ $24.95 paper.

A sequel to Bell's award-winning 1987 study The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition, this book focuses mainly on black fiction published between 1983 and 2001. Like its predecessor, it is grounded in what Bell calls "two interrelated theories," his contention that African American novels are formally rooted in "oral forms such as oratory, legend, tale, myth and song" while being thematically centered in the problems and possibilities of what W. E. B. Du Bois called the "double consciousness" of black American experience (388).

Arguing that "the 1980's and 1990's marked a renaissance in the tradition of the African American novel," Bell creates a broad context for examining this rich body of literature by studying it from very revealing historical and theoretical perspectives (333). The introduction clearly defines Bell's critical stance as an "African American scholar activist," and the first three chapters map out his theoretical framework while tracing the "roots" of the African American novel from its folk origins to 1962. These chapters survey the "peaks and valleys" of black American fiction, laying heavy stress on the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, the Great Depression, and the post-World War II period. Chapters 4 and 5 offer a lucid, incisive analysis of the forms of modernism and postmodernism developed by novelists from the early 1960s to the early 1980s, giving special emphasis to major figures such as Alice Walker, Ernest Gaines, Toni Morrison, Ishmael Reed, and John Edgar Wideman. The final three chapters present an analysis of significant trends in the contemporary African American novel stressing both new developments and important continuities with the tradition of black writing in the US.

Throughout the entire book Bell stresses that he is "primarily committed to the validation and valorization of the authentic everyday voices and previously excluded experiences of ordinary black Americans." Such voices record in a great variety of ways "the struggle of black Americans for power, status, and community in an emerging, radically new social order of mutually respected, enacted, and enforced human and civil rights and responsibilities" (xvii). Bell thus makes important distinctions between contemporary African American novelists and their mainstream counterparts, who often operate from an elitist perspective, reject their cultural traditions, and express bleakly nihilistic visions of the world containing little hope of either social or political regeneration. Bell argues convincingly that novelists such as Toni Morrison, Charles Johnson, Alice Walker, and Ishmael Reed are able to transcend the despair that enervates the work of writers such as Alain Robbe-Grillet, John Barth, and Ronald Sukenick because they can still tap into a vital tradition supplying potent spiritual and moral values as well as political energy. Bell rightly concludes that there is more "hope for humanity and the world expressed in contemporary black American writing than in the current literature arising from European and Euro-American traditions" (141).

It is for this reason that Bell takes to task black postmodernists, including Colson Whitehead, Trey Ellis, Nathaniel Mackey, and Percival Everett, for behaving too much like mainstream experimentalists and failing to draw on the rich resources of African American tradition. He complains that these novelists "seek in different ways to displace rather than complement and expand African American proletarian and vernacular tropes of core black personal and collective identity with African American middle class satirical tropes that privilege individualism and indeterminate multiculturalism and sexuality" (303). Bell questions the "authority, authenticity, and agency" of such writing and regards other contemporary black novelists as pursuing more fruitful directions in work grounded in African American literary tradition (xxvii). He has particularly high praise for the science fiction of Octavia Butler, the detective novels of Walter Mosely, and the gay/lesbian romances of E. Lynn Harris.

The Contemporary African Novel: Its Folk Roots and Modern Literary Branches is clearly the most comprehensive and penetrating study of contemporary black American fiction that has yet been produced. By so skillfully exploring the folk roots of African American literature, Bell has provided us with a deeper understanding and fresh appreciation of the extraordinary flowering of the black American novel in the latter part of the twentieth century. His richly textured, broadly conceived book will be an indispensable resource for Americanists and African Americanists for many years.

Reviewed by

Robert Butler

Canisius College
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Author:Butler, Robert
Publication:African American Review
Date:Mar 22, 2007
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