Magazine article Insight on the News

Renaissance Writers, Back in Vogue, Are Fresh as Ever

Magazine article Insight on the News

Renaissance Writers, Back in Vogue, Are Fresh as Ever

Article excerpt

The Harlem Renaissance -- 'the period when the Negro was in vogue,' as Langston Hughes preferred to call it -- produced great poetry and prose, much of it forgotten but now back in print.

Duke Ellington and Bessie Smith performed at popular night spots such as the Cotton Club and Leroy's. Paul Robeson starred in Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones and gave his famous concert of Negro spirituals in Greenwich Village. But for Langston Hughes and his contemporaries, the 1920s were the first vivid flowering of African-American poets and writers, a literary epoch known as the Harlem Renaissance. "It was Harlem's Golden Era," wrote Hughes about the period bordered roughly by the end of World War I and the start of the Great Depression, "when economic hardship made publication difficult," notes Jennifer Jordan, a professor of English at Howard University.

Now, for the first time in more than 60 years, all the major writers of the Harlem Renaissance -- Hughes, novelist Zora Neale Hurston and others such as Claude McKay, Jean Toomer and Countee Cullen -- are in print, either in new and often definitive editions of their works or reprints of the originals. The new editions sometimes reinstate material regarded as obscene or too controversial in the 1920s and 1930s.

In 1994, Viking Penguin issued The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader, an 816-page anthology edited by David Levering Lewis, and the Oxford University Press brought out two of Hughes' books, The Sweet and Sour Animal Book and Black Misery, "intended for readers of any age." (The first contains a curiously pertinent poem with the prescient lines "Newt, / Newt, Newt, What can you be?") Two children's biographies of Hughes and Hurston also were published.

This year, the prestigious Library of America is presenting a two-volume collection of the complete works of Hurston, edited by Cheryl A. Wall of Rutgers University. Pantheon is issuing The Harlem Renaissance: Hub of African American Culture, a critical study by Steven Watson. Even minor figures -- "the kinds academics will read and regular folks won't," says Jordan -- are available thanks to publishers such as the Northeastern Library of Black Literature at Northeastern University in Boston. Among the newly reprinted books: Infants of the Spring by Wallace Thurman, a wealthy litterateur from Salt Lake City who presided over a salon at his apartment on West 136th Street in the 1920s; the novel is a roman a clef that has as its characters the chief figures of the Renaissance.

Most unexpected, however, was the publication in February of a new novel by the last surviving member of the Renaissance, 87-year-old novelist Dorothy West. Born in Boston in 1907, West began her writing career almost 70 years ago, tying Hurston for second place in a 1926 national short-story competition sponsored by the Urban League's Opportunity magazine.

The Wedding, set in 1953, traces a black family's heritage back more than a century to the days of slavery The book's title refers to a wedding between a light-skinned black woman, Shelby, and a white man. Shelby's relatives "debate" -- often in a wordless rage -- the "rightness" of the marriage.

West doesn't hedge when it comes to the evils of slavery and racism. Everyone in The Wedding is warped, sometimes horribly, by their influence, so much so that the reader may not be ready for Shelby's epiphany at the novel's end: "A roiling fireball of rage and grief engulfed her, and she sank to her knees, hand drawn involuntarily to her mouth. The scales had fallen from her eyes." Shelby comes to understand that "color was a false distinction; love was not."

At their best, the Harlem Renaissance writers strike themes that are universal, despite that they often experienced divided loyalties to the culture in which they lived. As West puts it in a passage from The Wedding, "Most of them would always be exiles." Cullen reacted to this circumstance with irony: "Yet do I marvel at this curious thing: / To make a poet black, and bid him sing! …

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