Imagining the Primitive in Naturalist and Modernist Literature

By Gina M. Rossetti | Go to book overview

Chapter Five
The Primitive as the Racial Exotic

The squalor of Negro life, the vice of Negro life, offer a wealth of
novel, exotic, picturesque material to the artist. The question is:
Are Negro writers going to write about this exotic material while
it is fresh or will they continue to make a free gift of it to white
authors who will exploit it until not a drop of vitality remains?

Carl Van Vechten, “The Negro in Art”

We have seen how modernist artists assumed the position of the primitive to escape from modern culture. Now we will examine a related impulse as it addresses itself to race and the primitive. As one of the leading architects of the Harlem Renaissance and a leader in the push toward representing African Americans as “natural” primitives, Carl Van Vechten poses a question that strikes at the heart of early twentieth-century American literature: To what extent do white and African American authors rely on, and sometimes challenge, the literary use of racial primitivism as a means to suggest both the African Americans’ important separation from a deadening modern culture and their intellectual and emotional unsuitableness in this fast-paced culture? I will first contextualize the

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Imagining the Primitive in Naturalist and Modernist Literature
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Introduction 1
  • Chapter One - The Primitive as Primordial Beast 26
  • Chapter Two - The Primitive as the Brute Working Class 66
  • Chapter Three - The Primitive as the Immigrant 90
  • Chapter Four - The Primitive as Modernist Artist 117
  • Chapter Five - The Primitive as the Racial Exotic 143
  • Conclusion 173
  • Bibliography 177
  • Index 189
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