African Literature, African Critics: The Forming of Critical Standards, 1947-1966

By Rand Bishop | Go to book overview

4 The Making of a Literary Tradition

AFRICAN LITERATURE, WESTERN CRITICS

When modern African literature began blossoming in the late 1940s and early 1950s, it was primarily for European consumption. An essay by a leading European intellectual ("Orphée noir" by Jean-Paul Sartre) and the establishing of an African-run journal and publishing house, Présence africaine, in Paris and Dakar, under the patronage of a group of Western intellectuals whose names read like a Who's Who of the period, were two early developments that helped bring about this peculiar writer-audience relationship. Certainly the paucity of a literate and literature-reading audience and a lack of publishers in Africa also contributed to this state of affairs. Thus it was inevitable, perhaps, if not desirable, that Westerners became involved very early on in the criticism of this new body of literature.

The Western critic was also filling a vacuum of sorts, a cultural lag growing in the wake of the literature due to the lack of a written critical tradition. Oral criticism is no doubt as old as oral literature, though we know little about it and await eagerly a definitive study of it. But it seems clear that the carry-over from oral to written criticism is more complex and less obvious than the carry-over from oral to written literature. And the bulk of written literature to this time would hardly have warranted a critical tradition. A chronological analysis of Jahn and Dressler Bibliography of Creative African Writing ( 1971) reveals that the number of items published for the years 1965-1966 equaled the entire publication record prior to 1950. Thus B. W. Vilakazi could say in 1942 that Zulu literature had "no governing body which could decide on any classic in our Bantu languages in South Africa today. We have no critical opinions of men of taste and knowledge, whose qualifications today enable them to judge a work by certain positive standards" (274).

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