Praisesong of Survival: Lectures and Essays, 1957-1989.
The book is divided into six parts, or guiding themes, each distinct in its own right and yet integrally connected to those which precede and follow. Thus arrangement, beyond providing neat categories for the wide-ranging topics of the volume, suggests a literary tradition that continues to evolve even as it maintains an intimate dialogue with early voices within and outside of its historical focus. The first part, "Literary Canons and Blackness," begins with a discussion of Thomas Arnold's attitude toward race, and focuses specifically on the contracdictory impulses of this attitude. On the one hand, Arnold based his belief in the fallacy of inherent racial superiority on the Aristotelian theory of race, and further argued that a belief in the equality of all races was a basic tenet of Christianity. On the other hand, Barksdale convincingly suggests that Arnold believed in a "natural diversity" between white and black peoples, a belief which propagated the back-to-Africa movement in the nineteenth century.
This idea of a "natural diversity" is skillfully problematized in "History, Slavery, and Thematic Irony in Huckleberry Finn," in which Barksdale explores recent attacks by white and black pressure groups on Twain's famous novel. Both groups, according to Barksdale, seek to ban the novel in order to repress bad memories of slave times - "memories of the chaos wrought by incestuous concubinage and the birth of half-white half-brothers and half-black white half-sisters, memories of a dehumanizing system that reduced grown black men and women to |boys' and |gals' and grown white men and women to groveling hypocrites" (27). Barksdale insists, however, that these groups ignore Twain's literary intention, a subtle critique of the notion that "natural diversities" exist between the races:" ... Twain's ironic conclusion is that two human beings, however different in their backgrounds and |previous condition of servitude,' will, if far enough removed from the corrupting influences of |sivilisation,' become friends" (29).
While the notion of a "natural diversity" between the races is exposed as a fallacy in these opening essays, Barksdale curiously suggests the plausibility of such a notion - as it pertains to literary scholarship - in "Critical Theory and Problems of Canonicity in African American Literature." Working from the assumption that "African American literature cannot effectively survive critical approaches that stress authorial depersonalization and the essential unimportance of racial history, racial community, and racial traditions," Barksdale recommends that, "as we broaden our canon, we ignore deconstruction, poststructural textual exegesis, and continental hermeneutics" (37). While Barksdale's emphasis on a "politics of survival" with regard to African American literary criticism has much validity, to dismiss modern theory summarily as destroyer of traditions seems rash. Works such as Houston A. Baker, Jr.'s Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s The Signifying Monkey, which skillfully integrate traditional literary scholarship and modern literary theory, seem to reinforce and advance, rather than tear apart, the African American literary tradition.
Having made his position on modern literary theory clear in the previous essay, Barksdale turns, in part two, to a broad discussion of "The Humanities Beyond Literary Canons." The first essay, "Humanistic Protest in Recent Black Poetry," considers those poets of the 1960s who, despite increasing social and economic problems within urban black communities, wrote with a markedly humanistic tone. Focusing specifically on the poetry of Sonia Sanchez and Don L. Lee, Barksdale explores the seeming paradox of humanistic messages in the wake of the disheartening assassinations of the 1960s. Tracing a tradition of protest ranging from Olaudah Equiano's Narrative to the writers of the Black Arts Movement, Barksdale concludes that "each black poet has attempted, through his own special pattern of protest, to express a black humanism that would speak to the inhumanity of his times" (47).
The possibility that this humanism can be compromised and perhaps obliterated, under severe social, economic, and philosophical stresses is explored in "Ethical Invisibility and the New Humanism" and "The Humanities: The Eye of the Needle in the Black Experience." The former considers what Barksdale refers to as "a new note of futility and philosophic despair" in African American fiction of the 1950s, and suggests that works such as Kafka's The Trial and Camus' The Stranger had a profound influence on Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. Barksdale argues that "the message of these writers seems to be that having a recognizable identity in [a chaotically absurd world] is in and of itself absurd, and having or assuming moral responsibility is a massive non sequitur" (50). The solution to regaining an "ethical visibility," according to Barksdale, lies in a new humanism which will revitalize both individuals and their institutions: "Our colleges can produce the men and women of spiritual insight and moral probity who will help the individual serve the commonwealth and help the commonwealth serve the individual" (53). Only when this happens, Barksdale seems to believe, will the philosophical despair that marked works such as Wright's The Outsider and Ellison's Invisible Man give way to an ethical visibility.
Moving from questions of ethics and the humanities to cultural visibility and endurance in part three, "Literary Forms of Historical Survival," Barksdale considers African American literary history from two broad vantage points: metaphor and comic irony. The former is quite brilliantly explored in "White Triangles, Black Circle," an essay that attempts to reconcile, within a literary tradition, the very disparate images of the institution of slavery and the human beings who suffered under that institution. Triangularity, according to Barksdale, "connotes inequality, a killing thrust and power, and a time resistant endurability" (74). The metaphor of the triangle, in this sense, is evident in works ranging from Elizabeth Keckley's Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave and Four in the White House to Langston Hughes's explorations of miscegenation in poems such as "Cross" and "Mulatto." The metaphor of the circle, by contrast, is "all symmetry and harmony. It connotes a beginning and a return - a voyage ant does not abandon one among strangers but a voyage that returns one to the warmth and love of his or her homeland" (77). Barksdale traces this metaphor, with its consequent patterns of call-and-response, to the slave songs, which he describes as "a music that circled back to Africa - a music of polyrhythmic intensity - a music that made people dance - a music that was a cathartic for the pain and misery of slavery" (78).
Another method of coping with the dehumanizing institution of slavery was the use of comic ridicule, which "provided the spiritual stabilization of a good defensive strategy and the emotional lift of a good offensive strategy" (87). Barksdale convincingly situates the autobiographies of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Nate Shaw (written by Theodore Rosengarten) within this tradition, and argues that through comic distancing these writers "rise above racism's drab and cruel realities and inject a note that lightens the mood of the reader and lifts the tone of the narrative" (97). More than vehicles for pleasing potential readers, however, comic distancing and irony play integral roles in Barksdale's paradigm of a "politics of survival." Writers such as Hughes, he argues, utilizes these techniques" to avoid personal and often emotionally eroding commitments and comment on the ever-changing social and political events [of the 1930o and 19409) with some objectivity ... from the events themselves" (112).
In parts four and five Barksdale shifts his focus from literary history and technique to examinations of individual writers, beginning with essays on Phillis Wheatley, Margaret Danner, Margaret Walker, and Toni Morrison and concluding with a series of essays on Langston Hughes. In these essays Barksdale's eloquent prose rivals the words of the poems he explicates, as is evident, among other places, in this passage from "Margaret Danner and the African Connection":
Somehow the question so elegantly phrased by Margaret Esse Danner in the beautiful edition of her poems, The Down of a Thistle, is laced with history and the clash of empire. It's a question that smells of smoky slave barracoons and the stench of slave ships wallowing in the middle passage. It's a question that echoes and reechoes across oceans and continents, bounding and ricocheting off the walls of the blood-spattered centuries. It's a question that provokes bitter memories of black children torn from the tortured embrace of black mothers. (128)
This intimacy with his subject is also apparent in Barksdale's essays on Langston Hughes, some of which have become standards in Hughes studies. Barksdale explores the fun range of Hughes's talents in part five, and gives often brilliant readings of the writer's blues- and jazz-inspired poems of the Harlem Renaissance, his radical writings of the 1930s, and the Broadway production of Mulatto. One senses throughout these pieces Barksdale's sincere admiration for both the poet and the man, evident in his argument against early critics who believed that Hughes somehow failed "to approximate in function or attitude or role what [was] considered to be proper for the poet in Western society":
His was no ton" genius, pitted against a massively hostile world, he did not burn enough with disenchantment. He was not a ferociously maladjusted, angry man. Nor was he a heroic loner or philosophic isolate. Actually, Hughes was a peripatetic cosmopolite - a man who made his convivial way to all shores and way stations and seemingly had more friends than enemies. (195)
Praisesong of Survival seems also to reflect a man who, by some standards, goes against the grain of function or role or attitude deemed proper for the literary critic in Western society. Barksdale resisted the trend in higher education to be pigeonholed into ever more narrow specializations. His tenacity resulted in a distinguished career as a scholar of Victorian, American, and African American literature, and produced a wise commentator on issues of race, canonicity, and the humanities, as well as an able administrator in institutions of higher learning. This volume is indeed a fitting praisesong.
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|Author:||De Santis, Christopher C.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1994|
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