Mapping the African-American Literary Left

Against the Current, No. 160, September/October 2012

Konstantina M. Karageorgos

The Indignant Generation:
A Narrative History of African American Writers and Critics, 1934-1960
By Lawrence Jackson
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011, 579 pages, $37.50 cloth.

LAWRENCE P. JACKSON’S The Indignant Generation: A Narrative History of African American Writers and Critics, 1934-1960 is the most recent study, and to date perhaps the most thorough, of the mid-20th century African-American literary Left. It provides a powerful countermand to leading African American critic Kenneth Warren’s provocative claim that African-American literature is no longer a vital (or vibrant) category for literary and especially textual analysis. (For the full nuance of this complex and engaging argument, see Kenneth Warren’s What Was African American Literature? Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011.)

Jackson’s expansive study reaffirms the merits, even the transcendent potential, of African-American site-specific literary inquiry. Although not a direct answer to Warren’s complaint that the category of African-American literature unnecessarily limits, both politically and formally, the literariness of literature produced by African Americans, The Indignant Generation proves the inverse true, offering new political, historical and formal insight into 25 of the 20th century’s most politically tumultuous — and aesthetically innovative — years of African-American literary and critical production.

Jackson may remain committed to a contested category for analysis, but his study is neither regressive nor rehearsed. Jackson’s first critical act, to revise existing chronologies for studying the 20th century African-American literary Left, immediately announces the project as critically bold.

While the vast majority of studies on Black literary radicalism span the period of the Third International (1919-1943), using start and end dates that coincide with the ebb and flow of African-American engagement with the CPUSA to the detriment of other forms of Marxist cultural practice, Jackson’s study significantly extends the boundaries of Left engagement far beyond the years of the mass exodus of African Americans from the Communist Party well into the peak years of the Cold War.

This re-periodization inspires a new temporal logic for Left literary study, establishing as a social movement “the quarter century between the Great Depression and the Bay of Pigs.” (11)

The “indignant” quality that Jackson ascribes to his subject is a direct nod to Ralph Ellison’s appropriation of Hegel’s theorization of the “indignant consciousness,” a term that Hegel first used in his lectures of 1819-1820 to name the revolutionary tendency of those who directly confront, in order to transcend, material and spiritual difficulty.

Ellison, who was at this time a great reader of Hegel (and Marx), applied this phrase to Bigger Thomas, the irreverent protagonist of Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) who, according to Ellison, retains a critical humanity in spite of the “dehumanizing conditions which shaped his personality.” (3) Through this unabashed — and thus deliberate — ventriloquization of Ellison, Jackson communicates not merely the political, but the philosophical and literary gravity of Native Son.

More than a single novel, Native Son was an event that, according to Jackson, both nominally and in spirit inaugurated this new generation of Black writers and intellectuals. For both Jackson and Ellison, Bigger’s “indignant consciousness,” heralded “a new era of psychological freedom” for Black Americans, a period in which it became possible for Black indignation toward Jim Crow to be “theoretically,” and more importantly aesthetically, transformed by new “strata of art works.” (3)

Through Jackson’s magisterial command of his rather capacious subject, we observe and absorb fresh insight into material both familiar and less explored. While literary luminaries James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and of course Richard Wright loom large, other less studied but no less illustrious figures, including Sterling Brown, Horace Cayton and J. Saunders Redding, are granted near-equal critical weight.

A Complex Synthesis

Jackson opens his narrative with Redding, suggesting that the “twenty-five year arc” of Redding’s career, during which he struggled to strike a balance between a perceived “duty toward the literature of the race” and his own creative proclivities, is “emblematic” of the “intellectual and artistic struggles”  of an entire generation of Black writers. (3)

While the literary struggles of J. Saun­ders Redding gave voice to a generation in conflict with itself, the “signal origin year” of Jackson’s study, 1934, cannot be explained by Redding alone. This was a watershed year for African-American literary production, witnessing the rising star of Richard Wright, the beginning of the Communist Party’s Popular Front strategy, and the death of the New Negro movement’s icons Wallace Thurman and Rudolph Fisher.

Additionally, 1934 marks the inaugural year of Challenge. Edited by Dorothy West, Challenge, African-American Left culture’s answer to Pound’s modernist network of the “little magazine,” showcased new literary talent, including in its impressive list of contributors the then unknown 17-year-old Frank Yerby. (32)

If, as Jackson states in his Introduction, W.E.B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, Carter Woodson and James Weldon Johnson “established the very idea of an African rooted culture and people,” the succeeding, indignant generation strove to further expand the semiotic, or expressive terrain previously delimited by a folk specific repertoire. Although such expansion in its broadest sense remained a shared goal among the Black writers and critics Jackson surveys, the forms that it took generated inevitable, and in some cases, irreparable divisions.

Yet rather than rely either on all too familiar personal attacks (especially those circulating among Ellison, Wright and Baldwin), accusations of gender bias and misogyny (between Wright and Zora Neale Hurston), or unnecessary generic distinctions that result in the solidification of politically specious formal hierarchies — such as the tokenizing critical invention of the “protest novel,” which gets pitted, again unnecessarily, against more literary-minded fiction — Jackson refuses generalization altogether. He chooses instead to forge a more complex and historically honest narrative in which feuds, debates and even individual tete a tetes between friends are untethered by short-sighted frameworks, no matter how superficially dramatic and marketable.

Jackson’s effort to achieve a more complicated literary historical synthesis is not a question of “historical accuracy,” though his accuracy in the face of such complexity and nuance is astonishing. It is, rather, the result of an approach unmoored by a singular, pre-existing polemic.

Jackson has not set out to recover a politically specific stolen history, which is the admirable and equally important task of other literary scholars of the African American Left who focus on Communist specific crossings, including Barbara Foley, William Maxwell and James Smethurst. Committed to both recovery and revaluation, Jackson’s main aim is to redraw the boundaries of what constitutes Left analysis.

Broadening the Context

Far from ignoring the “import and prominence” of the “American Communist Party as an engine of intellectual and artistic development for black writers and cultural workers” (12), Jackson recognizes the importance of non-Communist Marxist and more broadly Left (though never liberal) forums. This broadening of context is a major goal of Jackson’s, reminding emerging scholars that the American Communist movement existed “in conjunction” with other, lesser known but no less significant organizations.

As a result of widening his methodological cast, Jackson is able to offer new information toward previously closed narratives. In what cannot be reduced a mere gesture of inclusivity, Jackson foregrounds the contributions of comparatively unsung Marxist cultural workers to African American literary production. Jackson’s inclusion of Louise Thompson (Patterson) and Marian Minus offers particularly illuminating insights into a period — and culture — dominated by the literary/political crossings of African-American men.

Where other otherwise excellent literary studies tend to underplay Thompson’s own Marxist cultural work (for example, Kate Baldwin’s Beyond the Color Line and the Iron Curtain, 2002, whose discussion of Thompson is limited to her role in sending Langston Hughes to Soviet Russia), Jackson foregrounds it. Thompson is not merely instrumental in the context of Hughes’ Marxist education, but is “furthest to the left” among a cadre of mostly male Marxists. (44)

Crediting Thompson for her international vision in a cultural moment overwhelmed with nationalist concerns, Jackson highlights Thompson’s organization in 1932 of a group of Black writers and actors to visit Soviet Russia. Unlike Dorothy West, who “never gave her heart to Marx,” Thompson became even more committed to Marxism after her trip to the Soviet Union, returning to the United States with even less patience for African-American cultural production that in any way capitulated to a white audience.

Minus, a lesbian who was for some time romantically and professionally attached to the Black author and critic Dorothy West (The Living is Easy, 1948), and who before outing herself was courted by Wright, is credited for providing “one of the earliest pieces of evidence” that “gets at” the theoretical complications for African Americans whose commitment to Marxism was compromised by various CP mandates.

In 1936, Minus declares with aplomb the ideological limitations of the CP as the default organization for Black Marxist expression. In fact, we learn from Jackson that it is Minus who first identifies — and defends — Wright’s preference for non-Communist forms of Marxist expression. Jackson quotes from a letter between Minus and Dorothy West:

“Someone just rushed to tell me that Dick Wright is a Trotskyite. If only you could have seen the horror in her face! I must talk to Dick because I think he’s going through the same thing which I am just recovering from.  The Party is, of course, embittered because Dick was the Communist front in literature so far as Negroes are concerned. Now he will always have a message because he has always been proletarian. But thank heaven he won’t be forced to type out shibboleths just because he is a Communist. They should have seen long ago that he was beyond that stage and was crying to be allowed to let his mature work be born.” (60)

Minus’ letter has the potential to significantly alter the reigning political narrative on African-American Marxism more generally, and Wright’s Marxism specifically. While much of the content is not particularly “new” — Wright provided a full account of his alienation and later expulsion from the Communist Party due, in no small part, to his alleged Trotskyist proclivities, in American Hunger (1944, 1977) — it does indicate that the study of Marx’s thought in African-American literary circles cannot be contained, or explained away, by vetted frameworks.

Long before the beginning of the “long retreat” of American literary radicalism (see Walter Rideout’s seminal study The Radical Novel in the United States, 1900-1954 for an account of this retreat, beginning in 1945) Marx’s influence on African-American writers and critics far exceeded conventional (not merely orthodox) interpretations. Nevertheless, this line of inquiry is too rarely pursued. Without further study, new networks of Marxist influence and interpretation will continue to go undiscovered.

In addition to the potential for this material to mobilize new research, this archival gem, found in the letters of Dorothy West and Marian Minus housed at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University, showcases an aspect of Jackson’s study that risks being eclipsed by its riveting content: Jackson’s talent for archival research.

Although this underground aspect is procedural and thus far less glamorous than the actual narrative, or writing, itself, this form of invisible labor indicates the level of commitment involved in a study such as Jackson’s, and serves as a model (hopefully not a prophylactic one!) for future scholars of and on the Left.

The magnitude of Jackson’s study (550 pages with notes) renders the critical ideal of a full review a Sisyphean venture. Nearly every proper noun — from specific people to political organizations to the titles of periodicals — serves as an entry point, which if pursued leads into an additional nexus of personal and political ties.

For all that is revealed in The Indignant Generation, it is hardly a self-contained study. Jackson provides much of the empirical data needed to develop more theoretical studies of individual authors, literary tendencies, and especially Marxist forms of literary expression.  For those interested in the 20th century African-American literary Left, The Indignant Generation is an essential resource.

September/October 2012, ATC 160