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The Harlem Renaissance: 1920-1940, vol. 4, The Critics and the Harlem Renaissance.

Cary D. Wintz, ed., Vol. 4. New York: Garland Publishing, 1996. 382 pp. $75.00.

Reviewed by

Angelyn Mitchell Georgetown University

Cary D. Wintz's seven-volume series, The Harlem Renaissance, 1920-1940, is a wonderful addition to the critical study of the Harlem Renaissance. The primary purpose of the series, Wintz writes in his introduction, is to "focus on African American literature, the assessment and criticism of this literature, and the relation of this literature to the political and social issues confronting African Americans in the early twentieth century." Wintz characterizes the period as "a literary and intellectual movement" as well as "an attitude or a state of mind" that was influenced by politics, aesthetics, urbanization, and institutions. A major obstacle to the study of the Harlem Renaissance for students and scholars, according to Wintz, has been the difficulty of accessing needed source materials. The series includes three types of published and unpublished materials: critical and interpretive materials by Harlem Renaissance writers and their peers, retrospective examinations through the eyes of the participants and their contemporaries as well as the writers and critics of post-Renaissance literature, and scholarly analyses of the movement from the 1940s through the early 1990s.

Volume four, The Critics and the Harlem Renaissance, falls into the first category. It is a useful and needed compilation of primary source materials such as essays and editorials, interviews and letters, reviews, and surveys of literature from 1925 to 1939. In his introduction, Wintz establishes the role of the critics as essential to the movement because they "helped define the movement" as well as "served as a buffer between the creative artist and his or her publishers, patrons, and audience." He then classifies the critics into three groups: "the black intelligentsia primarily, but not exclusively, centered in Harlem; writers who doubled as critics; and those white writers and critics who focused their attention on the Harlem Renaissance." The critics, like the writers, were not monolithic thinkers. Some critics considered the literature a "disservice" to African American interests; some praised the freedom of expression and experimentation of the writers; and others called for the conjoining of the literature with political, social, and literary agendas.

The Critics and the Harlem Renaissance is divided into five sections: essays and editorials, reviews and related materials, surveys of literature, interviews and letters, and the responses to "The Negro in Art: How Shall He Be Portrayed?" symposium sponsored by the NAACP's Crisis magazine. The majority of the material included is reproduced from its original publication source, including photographs and sketches. Of particular interest to literary critics and historians are the essays, the reviews, the literary surveys, and the symposium responses.

The critical essays engage a variety of topics, genres, and authors. Among the essayists included are Wallace Thurman, Benjamin Brawley, V. F. Calverton, William Stanley Braithwaite, Alain Locke, and Walter White. Of particular note is Charles Chesnutt's "Post-Bellum - Pre-Harlem" (1931). An important figure in African American literary history, Chesnutt provides a unique perspective on the years that preceded the Harlem Renaissance and their relationship to the Renaissance.

The reviews offer the opportunity to assess how literary works of the Harlem Renaissance were received at the time of their publication. Indeed the names of those reviewed and those reviewing create a "who's who" listing of major figures in African American literature. For example, there is William Stanley Braithwaite and Alice Dunbar Nelson on James Weldon Johnson, Sterling Brown on Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Bennett on Jessie Fauset and Claude McKay, W. E. B. Du Bois on Nella Larsen and Claude McKay, Carl Van Vechten on Countee Cullen and James Weldon Johnson, and both Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison on Langston Hughes.

Alain Locke's yearly surveys published in Opportunity between 1929 and 1939 (excluding 1930) remain among the finest examples of literary and cultural criticism. In addition to literature, Locke also reviewed a variety of disciplines - sociology, economics, Africana studies, history, education, and anthropology - in relation to African American interests.

Finally, the symposium hosted by The Crisis (February-November 1926) attempts to answer the question that continues to engender discussion, "The Negro in Art: How Shall He Be Portrayed?" The varied respondents to the questionnaire included Carl Van Vechten, Vachel Lindsey, Alfred Knopf, H. L. Mencken, Joel Spingarn, Langston Hughes, Jessie Fauset, and Charles Chesnutt. Much of what they offered is certainly and interestingly relevant today.

The usefulness of this volume, as well as the series, is inestimable to students and scholars. Wintz's fine editorial decisions provide a broad view of the essential Harlem Renaissance critics. The Critics and the Harlem Renaissance is indeed a treasure trove of such material and a wonderful resource, so much so that a paperback edition of the series would be ideal for the personal libraries of students and scholars of the Harlem Renaissance, African American literature and studies, and American literature and studies.
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Author:Mitchell, Angelyn
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1998
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