The Emergence of African American Fiction
DOI link for The Emergence of African American Fiction
The Emergence of African American Fiction book
The publication of Richard Wright's Native Son in 1940 changed the face of African American literature. This literature had a brief vogue 1n the 'Harlem Renaissance' of the 1920s with novels by Langston Hughes and Claude McKay among others, though the most significant novel by an African American man was Jean Toomer's non-Renaissance classic Cane (1923), an intense, lyrical work built around the prototype 1920s theme of the opposition of materialism and sexual repressiveness to passionate self-expression. Some of the novel is set in rural Georgia where racial tension mixes with sexual rivalry to produce an undertone of simmering frustration and rage that finally explodes into violence. But Toomer then turned to the Gurdjieff movement, losing interest in fiction, so the achievement of Cane was not followed up. By the 1930s the literature of the Harlem Renaissance was no longer in vogue. 1
Ralph Ellison, writing on 'Recent Negro Fiction' for New Masses in 1941, showed no regret for the virtual disappearance of some types of African American fiction. From his then radical perspective, Ellison condemned the 'exoticism' of novels that exploited a supposed 'primitivism' to entertain a predominantly white reading audience. Ellison equally repudiated a type of fiction he described as 'apologetic in tone and narrowly confined to the expression of Negro middle-class ideals'. In contrast, he found recent work 'marked by a slow but steady movement toward a grasp of American reality', with Native Son now in 'the front rank of American fiction,.2 Wright had quickly become a reference point, writers being attacked for lacking his political commitment or praised for transcending his alleged limitations. Ellison himself later qualified his praise of Wright so as to defend his own very different
novel, Invisible Man, and James Baldwin launched a pre-emptive strike against Wright in 'Everybody's Protest Novel' in order to free up his own literary space. It all came full circle when Irving Howe criticized Invisible Man for not being political enough, as Ellison had done with earlier African American novels.