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In the African-American Grain: The Pursuit of Voice in Twentieth-Century Black Fiction.

John Callahan's In the African-American Grain offers a rich and comprehensive vision of modern black fiction which will be an indispensable source to scholars for many years. Skillfully placing twentieth-century African-American masterworks in a folk tradition of oral tales and music dating back to the time of slavery, Callahan argues convincingly that black fiction is centered in a "pursuit of voice" which is "bound up with the struggle for freedom" and that "both test the still evolving, revolutionary idea of citizenship in America" (14).

Like Michael Cooke, who has argued that African-American literature tends toward "intimacy" rather than the alienation recorded in so much mainstream literature, Callahan sees modern black fiction as arising from a tradition which "projects values of community and citizenship" (20), a literature committed to the reconstruction of the public world and the recuperation of voice rather than a recoil from outer experience and a drift into silence. He builds an impressive case for this by carefully examining the ways in which the call-and-response pattern of traditional black folk art continues to inform modern black fiction, becoming a powerful "open narrative form" (258) which encourages the free discourse essential to a democratic society. Because such a form is by its very nature "experimental, open and responsive to new voices, new stories" (19), it generates a dialectic of free and equal voices rather than a privileged conversation in which voices of the majority culture silence or inhibit voices of minority cultures. Because it can work only when a dynamic and reciprocal relation exists between audience and storyteller, it regenerates community rather than promoting alienation. For Callahan, a literature based upon a call-and-response pattern can, therefore, use "the spoken word" to "create bonds and bring about personal and social transformation" (15). Such a "narrative discourse of democratic possibility" (257) endows African-American writing with an energy, depth, and resonance often missing in modern fiction produced by mainstream writers.

Callahan, however, is careful to avoid an exclusivist interpretation of black fiction which would envision it as so distinct from the mainstream that it becomes a totally separate literature, radically cut off from other literary traditions. On the contrary, he stresses that the "grain" of African-American fiction is strongly related to the "grain" of American literature, although viewing American reality from a unique perspective and using a distinctive "voice" to express that perspective. In other words, he agrees with Alice Walker's claim that the story told by American black writers is an integral part of the "immense story" (20) of America. While Callahan insists that African-American literature speaks "preeminently" to black Americans, he also emphasizes that it speaks powerfully to all others too" (21).

In order to support this view, Callahan analyzes in meticulous detail six important texts - Chesnutt's The Conjure Woman, Toomer's Cane, Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, Ellison's Invisible Man, Gaines's The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and Walker's Meridian - discussing them as examples of the different ways in which the search for voice is handled by black writers of varying backgrounds and artistic temperaments. His chapter on Chesnutt convincingly demonstrates how The Conjure Woman responded to the call of fictions written by post-Civil-War white writers such as Joel Chandler Harris and Thomas Nelson Page, who appropriated black folk art, inverting its meanings to express the social values of white supremacy during the Reconstruction period. Rejecting such literary "ventriloquisim" (34), Chesnutt artfully recovered the subversive voice of slave art, countering the sentimental and reassuring fictions of Page and Nelson with conjure tales which emphatically "indict slavery and affirm the principle of human equality" (44). In a similar way, Toomer's Cane and Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God rescued authentic black folk speech and literary form from a modern commercial culture intent on destroying them. In both novels the recovery of a genuine black voice and perspective leads to self-discovery and the re-connecting of self to "a new community of values" (121). Callahan's chapter on Invisible Man, perhaps the most sensitive discussion of that novel to appear in recent years, stresses how Ellison's novel imbues black folk speech with an "intellectual depth" and "eloquence" (153) which the hero needs to connect his personal voice with a "participatory audience" (163). This, in turn, can enable him to overcome the isolation that threatens to reduce him to impotence and silence. The novel's Prologue, which issues a "call" of a "disembodied voice" (151), is finally answered by the "response" of the Epilogue, which portrays the hero building "a bridge of words and actions between self and American democratic ideals!" (168).

Callahan's study of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is a brilliant analysis of how that novel is structured as a "moveable form" (189), a complex montage of voices resulting in a re-imagining of history, converting a past of slavery into a liberating vision of "possibility" (199). His chapter on Meridian, likewise, stresses the author's use of voice as a formal principle, exploring the book as an "inner civil war of voices" (230) leading to a restoration of "language, self, and nation" (216).

In each of these chapters Callahan succeeds in providing a useful and revealing theoretical framework for the study of modern black fiction without killing texts to accommodate theory. On the contrary, his lovingly detailed discussions of individual masterpieces remain altogether faithful to their complexities and individuating characteristics, while still linking them together in ways which are solid and coherent without being rigid. Theory is used, not for its own sake, but to deepen and enrich our understanding of individual works and the traditions out of which they grow. Moreover, the book is admirably free of jargon, even though it makes extensive use of extremely complex theories of discourse. Clearly and compellingly written, it is a welcome relief from many recent studies which are riddled with unassimilated abstraction and needlessly abstruse terminology.

Perhaps the source of the book's many strengths is Callahan's sense of African-American literary tradition as a fluid, ever-evolving process rather than a fixed and static "paradigm." Like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who sees the tradition as a never-ending dialectic in which black texts create new meanings by "signifying" upon each other and texts from other literary traditions, and like Houston Baker, who compares African-American literary tradition to the protean nature of the blues, Callahan stresses that black writers are always developing new forms and meanings even while being part of a literary continuity dating back to slavery. Because this continuity is dynamic and not static, it is always generating fresh interpretations of black experience and novel ways of expressing that experience.

One searches in vain for serious weaknesses in this book. In fact, it is difficult to find minor problems worth talking about. My only dissatisfaction with the book is its relative brevity. It would be interesting to see Callahan's ideas applied to other seminal black texts such as Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, Wright's Native Son, and Baldwin's Go Tell It On the Mountain, novels where the pursuit of voice is clearly a central issue. It would also be fruitul to examine a wider range of texts written by black women. Although Callahan's chapters on Their Eyes Were Watching God and Meridian are excellent, much could be learned by an investigation of how novels by Nella Larsen, Jesse Fauset, and Toni Morrison deal with the problem of voice. Then, too, it would be profitable to study the special handling of voice in the large and growing body of black experimental fiction. Specific works by Charles Johnson, John Edgar Wideman, Ishmael Reed, and Clarence Major offer fresh - and very different - insights on the search for authentic black voices.

But these are small quibbles - indeed, they are not so much a criticism of In the African-American Grain as a "call" for other books along the lines it has established. Callahan has laid out important territory to explore, and one hopes that many students of black literature will "respond" with more examination of the important topic he introduces.
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Author:Butler, Robert James
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1992
Words:1330
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