The Harlem and Irish Renaissances: Language, Identity, and Representation.
Scholars have long commented on the importance of the Irish Renaissance of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as a model for African American artists and intellectuals theorizing what a "New Negro" political and cultural "renaissance" might be during the 1920s. Such comments are hardly surprising given the prominent invocation of the Irish Renaissance in key "New Negro" documents, such as the praise of John Synge as an inspiration for black writers by James Weldon Johnson in the preface to the seminal Book of American Negro Poetry (1922) and the analogy between Dublin as the center of the "New Ireland" and Harlem as the locus of the "New Negro" in Locke's introductory essay to The New Negro (1925). However, despite the acknowledgment of this influence, no previous study has appeared which seriously investigates the connection between the two cultural movements in depth.
Tracy Mishkin's The Harlem and Irish Renaissances is, then, a groundbreaking work that begins to open up this important aspect of the Harlem or New Negro Renaissance. Mishkin's study lays side by side the basic features of the Irish Renaissance and the Harlem Renaissance, particularly with respect to issues of literary language and the use of "folk" culture. While the summary of the Harlem Renaissance will not be new to African Americanists, the account of the Irish Renaissance presents material much less familiar (to specialists in African American studies, anyway) in a usefully concise manner. Though Miskin's portrait of the New Negro Renaissance is not new, for the most part, the juxtaposition of the ideological underpinnings of the art and politics of the Irish Renaissance with those of the Harlem Renaissance allows readers to draw their own connections between the two cultural moments. Mishkin's discussion of the representation of literary Irish "folk" voices by John Synge and other Irish writers, follo wed by a similar consideration of black writers and their approaches to the recreation of voices of African American folk subjects, is particularly helpful to thinking about the debates about literary language in both movements and possible cross-currents between the two sets of debates.
However, the study would be stronger if Mishkin had made more of these connections herself. It is clear from the statements of many of the leading writers and intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance that they were inspired by the works, figures, institutions, discussions, and arguments of the Irish Renaissance. Mishkin notes some of these statements in the introduction to her study. However, Mishkin does not dig more deeply into the direct influence of the Irish Renaissance on the New Negro Renaissance. Instead, the linkage between the two movements is mostly rhetorical, with words and phrases such as like, as with, and as well as substituting for drawing more substantial and concrete relationships.
This failure to make more specific, non-rhetorical linkages results from what seems to me to be the book's primary weakness: an over-reliance on secondary sources, including a number that are now dated. More archival work, reading of periodicals of the two movements, and other sorts of primary research would reveal, I think, a wealth of information about the direct influence of the Irish Renaissance on the New Negro Renaissance (and the conceptualization of literary "renaissances" in the United States generally). Again, one obvious place to start would be the work (both as a writer and cultural catalyst) of James Weldon Johnson. As Mishkin notes, Johnson was long an enthusiast of the Irish Renaissance and was much influenced by the Irish movement, as well as by literary nationalists from other internal colonies of Europe. For example, the model of a new type of African American literature which elevates or transmutes elements of "folk" culture into "high" culture proposed in Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex- Colored Man (1912) is heavily marked by Synge and other Irish writers. Of course, as virtually every commentator on the Harlem Renaissance (including Mishkin) has remarked, Johnson (and his approach to how a new African American literature might be created) had no small part in shaping the various aesthetic positions of the Harlem Renaissance. So why not spend more time investigating the intellectual development and work of Johnson with respect to the Irish Renaissance?
As the study stands, the account of the Harlem Renaissance, and perhaps the Irish Renaissance (though I am less familiar with its secondary literature), is essentially a retelling of accounts by other scholars that have appeared elsewhere at greater length and in greater depth. Though the juxtaposition of the two "renaissances" is quite valuable, more primary research would have deepened and strengthened what I take to be her essential argument: that there are special relationships between the Irish Renaissance and the New Negro Renaissance. Otherwise, if there are no fundamental relationships between the movements, but only a participation in some generalized zeitgeist of cultural nationalism that could have easily paired the Harlem Renaissance with Finnish or South Slav literary nationalism, then why put the Irish Renaissance and the Harlem Renaissance side by side?
Mishkin's over-reliance on sometimes dated secondary material also limits her study in other ways. For example, her dependence on David Levering Lewis's When Harlem Was in Vogue (1981) and Nathan Huggins's Harlem Renaissance (1971), both unquestionably crucial works in their time, cause her to discount the impact of radical political thought on the New Negro Renaissance. While one could come legitimately to the conclusion that political radicalism of various sorts was peripheral to the cultural moment of the 1920s, to make this claim with a simple citation of Lewis's study without any consideration of newer work by such scholars as Ernest Allen, Jr., Robert Hill, George Hutchinson (who is mentioned in the bibliography, but not much used in the text), William Maxwell, Jr., and Joyce Moore Turner arguing for a greater impact of political radicals (and their organizations, journals, and so on) on the Harlem Renaissance seems questionable.
Nonetheless, despite these weaknesses, the relative newness and the absolute importance of the intellectual field that Mishkin opens up and ably introduces make The Harlem and Irish Renaissances a valuable study. Though one might wish that Mishkin had pushed the limits a bit more and had dug deeper into her material, she has initiated a much-needed intellectual conversation that others, and perhaps Mishkin herself, will pursue farther.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2000|
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