You are here
ENGL 300: Introduction to Theory of Literature
- African-American Criticism
In this lecture, Professor Paul Fry examines trends in African-American criticism through the lens of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Toni Morrison. A brief history of African-American literature and criticism is undertaken, and the relationship of both to feminist theory is explicated. The problems in cultural and identity studies of essentialism, “the identity queue,” expropriation, and biology are surveyed, with particular attention paid to the work of Michael Cooke and Morrison’s reading of Huckleberry Finn. At the lecture’s conclusion, the tense relationship between African-American studies and New Critical assumptions are explored with reference to Robert Penn Warren’s poem, “Pondy Woods.”
|Low Bandwidth Video
|High Bandwidth Video
Introduction to Theory of Literature
ENGL 300 - Lecture 21 - African-American Criticism
Chapter 1. Origins of African-American Literary Criticism [00:00:00]
Professor Paul Fry: So I’m not sure how long this lecture is going to be. We could be finished in ten minutes, though I doubt that, and if we’re not finished at the end of the fifty, there are some things that I’ve reserved for the end of the lecture that I definitely do want to get said. I don’t know if you’ve noticed that there are times when the last point or two that I appeared to have been preparing to make never get made, but in this case I want to make sure that they are made so that if I don’t finish today, or if I still have a point or two to make, I’ll definitely be taking up those points at the beginning of Thursday’s lecture.
All right. Now the African-American tradition of literary production is rich and long standing. As Henry Louis Gates tells you, the first really rather important poet in the tradition, Phillis Wheatley, is an American colonial writer. The flourishing of the slave narrative form begins in the eighteenth century, continues into the nineteenth, the nineteenth century witnesses extraordinary works of fiction, and in the twentieth century, of course most conspicuously in the Harlem Renaissance, but throughout the century there has been extraordinary work done in the African-American literary tradition. It’s a very rich tradition–in other words, somewhat in contrast with the very rich but also very recent tradition of African-American literary theory and criticism.
It’s possible to argue that the development of theory and criticism in this tradition was somewhat balked by a preliminary way in which it found itself at odds with itself. Black criticism and black feminist criticism from the beginning saw that they didn’t have quite the same agenda. This is something that can resonate, perhaps, later in this lecture when we move to other topics, but in the meantime critics like Barbara Christian, Barbara Smith, Hazel Carby, and Bell Hooks were in their variety of ways working with emphases that other, male African-American critics weren’t quite comfortable with. So while work, especially beginning in the eighties, proliferated, there was, as I say, a kind of internal divide which has been a complex matter to negotiate and which is, I think, now largely sort of–well, détente has been achieved, and African-American literary theory is moving forward unfettered any longer by these concerns, or at least by any excess of these concerns. But in the meantime that may partly account for a certain delay in the emergence of theory and criticism given the long-standing richness of the literary tradition.
Chapter 2. Henry Louis Gates and the Problem of Essentialism [00:03:16]
Now the role of Henry Louis Gates in African-American criticism is, it seems to me, exemplary, although there are some rather harsh moments in this essay, moments that I wish to take up, that would suggest an element of–what shall I say?–extremism or overkill in Gates’s thinking. This is actually not at all the persona that he has projected. Indeed what’s extraordinary about Gates, whose administrative power and whose abilities as a program builder are remarkable. After he left Yale to go to Harvard, he was able to gather to Harvard Anthony Appiah, Cornel West, and others who have since departed from Harvard, but Gates is in a way an empire unto himself and he has been an extraordinary figure. The earliest work, which is actually among the earliest work in African-American criticism, is what you’ve been reading for today, and it established his reputation together with–not so much discovery of, but authentication of–a manuscript by Harriet Wilson which he published, an important contribution to our knowledge of nineteenth-century African-American literature.
In any case, what happened then was that Gates who by some miracle or other–he was a perfectly good writer in the first place but gradually became a marvelous writer–began writing for The New Yorker, and during this phase of his career, when among other things he produced a remarkable autobiography about growing up in West Virginia, during this phase Gates really became a spokesperson for a détente among races and racial factions. In other words, he was a voice of moderation without incurring any imputation of Uncle Tom-ism or anything of the sort. His sheer urbanity as the remarkable writer that he is in those years when he wrote under Tina Brown for The New Yorker was just a remarkable achievement, and his career is still going strong.
Now for Gates, as for Elaine Showalter last week and for Woolf before her, the problems surrounding the concept of identity persist. Identity–which of course is an important anchor for the thinking of people who feel the need for voices, for a place in the literary and cultural horizon–is nevertheless at least potentially, as we’ve begun to notice already, a kind of quicksand. There are two problems really that dog the issue of identity. One of them is the problem of “essentializing” which I’ll take up now, and then, as I’ll take it up next, also the problem of what might be called the identity queue. In other words, I am a lower-class black lesbian feminist whose nation is Palestine. Needless to say, I have a variety of identity options to choose from, but the result is I’ve got to figure out which of them has priority. In other words, which of those identities do I suppose has the underlying integrity and essence, essentiality, that can motivate, as it were, the characteristics of my other identities, which are therefore somehow or another placed further down in the queue?
So this is a topic that I’ll come back to in a minute, but in the meantime the problem of essentializing, as we call it: for example, as Gates describes it on page 1893 in the right-hand column, where he’s very clear on the dangers of ascribing, whether positively or negatively, attributes to any group that is constituted as or thought of–because of course, the notion of race and whether there is race is in itself according to Gates problematic–the problem of ascribing attributes even honorifically to a race is, as he describes it on page 1893:
In other words, obviously, apportioning out stereotypes to the various groups that may come forward as candidates to be races–he’s pointing out that all of these stereotypes do nobody very much good.
So the problem of essentializing, which undergirds the wish to make manifest the existence of race gives pause. Think about it. On the other hand, Gates seems to be divided at the beginning of his essay between a certain candor about race, as in the work of Hippolyte Taine that he describes, in which “race,” “milieu” and “cultural moment” are considered the key determining issues of any kind of artistic or cultural production. He says of that in effect, “Well, at least race is being talked about,” while at the same time obviously wincing away from the implications of race and from the belief that there is such a thing as race, which goes all the way back to Montesquieu and others from Taine. Nevertheless, as I say, he’s rather cheerful about the fact that at least race is being discussed, unlike the twentieth century when the whole thing is swept under the rug and a kind of ersatz and hypocritical politeness prevents anybody from talking about such categories at all, and gives rise to the idea that we all exist in the same Great Tradition, that work either belongs to that tradition or, if it for some reason seems egregious or outside the tradition, it just can be shoved aside and neglected.
That’s the supposition of the twentieth century when folks don’t talk about race. So the very question whether it is an issue is part of this problem that is dogged by the more complicated issue of essentializing. For example, suppose–and of course, you’ve been reading about this in Showalter as well–you ascribe positive value to what another person might call a stereotype. This is what the important Francophone African poet Senghor does, as Gates says at the top of page 1901, the right hand-column. Gates says:
So you can see there are a lot of landmines to be avoided in negotiating the discourse of race, and certainly Gates is aware of them.
Chapter 3. The Problem of the “Identity Cue” [00:12:13]
Now there’s also the problem, as I say, of the identity queue, and Gates himself may have a little difficulty with this, at least from time to time, because as I said at the beginning, he does have this sort of uneasy détente with feminism in the African-American critical tradition still to work within. So for example, on page 1894, a somewhat problematic passage in which the identity queue seems to be at issue, about a third of the way down, the left-hand column, he says:
So what he’s saying is in biological terms there’s definitely a difference between the sexes, but in biological terms there is not necessarily a difference among the so-called primary races. The result is that at least when one speaks of women and men in the feminist tradition, one has to come face to face with the problem of actual difference; whereas when one speaks of black and white in the traditions of discourse about race, one isn’t actually talking about a genuine difference at all. Therefore the discourse with the greater integrity of the two is the one which is about differences that are absolutely ephemeral, as opposed to the one which is about differences, which, whatever one thinks of them and whatever one wants to make out of them, are nevertheless essential.
Now plainly when we go back to feminist criticism, particularly the gender theory of Judith Butler, we’ll see of course that the whole question of the biological basis of sex, the biological difference between the sexes which essentializes what we will be wanting to talk about, is of course something that is profoundly in question, and not just because of so-called trans-gender issues but also, at the same time, because of the way in which our very sexual identity is something which, according to Bu
Chapter 4. Tony Morrison and African-American Identity [00:15:15]
tler, we construct. So there is an insistence here on a biological difference between these two forms of discussing identity which may or may not seem to us to be problematic.
Now I think this is the point at which we can see the importance of the extraordinary essay that I’ve also asked you to read, by Toni Morrison. We know her best, of course, as a novelist, but she’s also a distinguished critic, as she has been a distinguished editor of other important work. Here it seems to me that her reflections in some ways give us a sideways exit from the predicaments that I have been talking about, the problem of essentialism and the problem of the identity queue, because what Morrison wants to say–and I think she borrows here particularly from the famous discussion of the master-slave dialectic in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind–what Morrison wants to say is that identity isn’t so much a question of what something is but rather a question of what it is not. She says not that we should be so much preoccupied with what it is to be black, but rather that, as we think about the way in which being black is inscribed within the white tradition–as we think about that, we need to think about what white is not: in other words, as she says repeatedly, about black as absence, as negation, as negativity. We have to understand the absolute–and this is where she drives her argument from the master-slave dialectic–the absolute necessity in the construction of white identity for there to be, as an absence and as a lack over against white identity, the existence of the African American and, more particularly, for the better part of the American cultural tradition, of the slave.
Let me quote then from her essay on page 1795, the left-hand column, where she says:
Then she points out that although her subject is the American tradition, there also exists a European Africanism with its counterpart in its own colonial literature. To reinforce this, she takes a remarkable example which must have reminded you, those of you who know Faulkner, of Thomas Sutpen or at least reminded you in some ways of Thomas Sutpen–the example of this character Dunbar, who actually rose up not so much out of the swamp as out of the Scottish Enlightenment and came to the United States and–according to Bernard Bailyn, the historian from whom she cites her information–became a completely transformed character. I won’t quote to you the long passage from Bailyn’s text which makes what Morrison wants to take from it clear, but rather from what Morrison summarizes of it on page 1796, the top of the right-hand column:
This is uncannily parallel by the way to the rationalization for slaves in Greek culture. The Greeks always said that the reason they had slaves was so they could be free: in other words so that the home or ruling population was liberated in the case of the Greeks from performing the daily necessities that are life sustaining and keep us going. In other words, to be free according to the citizen of the Greek polis is to be free from work.
Now in a certain way, this is still a rationalization that Tony Morrison sees in the American slave-owning tradition, but it’s not so much in the case of this Dunbar a freedom from work. It’s a more broad and insidious idea of freedom: freedom from responsibility, freedom from the need to acknowledge otherness as human–freedom, in other words, from the sorts of constraint imposed by old world civility in Scotland and in London; freedom on this frontier, in this wilderness, in this swamp, simply to be whatever one wants to be. That freedom is achieved on the backs of the black slaves. It is in some ways similar, as I say, to the rationalization for slavery in Greece, but it is in a way more insidious and certainly more–in the terms that Morrison’s giving it to us in–more dialectical. That is to say, it is the question of whether a person could become white without the availability of a black absence, of that which can be oppressed– like a kind of spring for the jack-in-the-box–which allows the white jack-in-the-box to leap out of the box because of that which has been suppressed down below.
Chapter 5. Morrison’s Reading of Huckleberry Finn [00:22:01]
All of that is part of Toni Morrison’s concern, and it colors her, well, certainly controversial reading of Huckleberry Finn–which nevertheless, it seems to me, has a quite profound interest. Now my own first instinct when people single outHuckleberry Finn for blame is to wince away, because it’s an extraordinary novel. The controversy about it in the school districts which made it a banished book had mainly to do with the “N-word,” to which we’ll return, and the question of who has the right to use the “N-word,” which is not an easy question to answer, as we’ll see. But that controversy, while it had an authentic basis, was nevertheless certainly in literary terms and in terms of the imagination perhaps rather limited.
Morrison gives rise to another equally and intensely critical way of thinking about Huckleberry Finn. She argues that to liberate Jim–which of course is the tremendous failure at the end of the novel, a failure of imagination on the part of Tom Sawyer and a failure of will or independence of mind on the part of Huck himself–that the failure to liberate Jim, which would have been the easiest thing in the world, because all they had to do was point out the right fork in the river, is an absolute necessity for the ongoing self-definition of whiteness as it’s available both to Tom and to Huck and, after all, by implication, to Mark Twain himself. He couldn’t figure out how to end the novel. He wrote it, then it lay on his desk for a long time because he just couldn’t figure out what to do with it, and he finally comes up with this–as we all agree–appalling ending. Toni Morrison says it’s the only ending available because in ways that the, as she sees it, sentimentality of the novel and the sentimentality of the relationship between Huck and Jim, which is so strong that it caused another critic named Leslie Fiedler to talk about a homoerotic relation between them–the title of Fiedler’s famous essay is “Come Up on the Raft, Huck, Honey”–with all of that in the background, Toni Morrison says the basic structure of consciousness in Twain’s novel is obscured, a basic structure which makes it absolutely imperative that Jim not be free. If Jim is free, then there is no Other over against which whiteness can define itself. That’s the way in which she makes use of the general argument about the traditions of American literature in culture in applying it to Huckleberry Finn.
Chapter 6. Gates and the Community of African-American Critics [00:25:17]
All right. Let’s go back to Skip Gates–Henry Louis Gates’s nickname, sorry–another person who was at Yale and whom I knew very well. I actually had a little bit to do with the origin of the notion of the signifying monkey; I’ll come back to that later. Barbara Johnson, also now at Harvard, and I had a lot of conversations with Skip at that period about this, and so it’s not that I feel proprietary–it’s Skip’s idea–but I was in on that, and so it’s not just name dropping. I get to call him by what his friends call him. However, I’ll try to remember to say Henry Louis Gates, and in any case to return to him now.
Before moving on to this crucial central issue, I want to talk a little bit simply about his understanding and the understanding of others of the African-American tradition–both of the critical tradition and of the literary tradition. First of all, the grasp of the critical tradition as basically a two-step or two-part progression is something that he shares with Elaine Showalter from last time. You remember Showalter says that the important movement of feminist interventions in literary criticism begins with the moment that she calls “feminist”: that is to say, the moment of Kate Millett and other authors who talk about the degradation and unfair treatment of women in male books, and then what Showalter prefers and supposes to have supervened and to have become more important, “gynocritical criticism,” which is women’s appropriation of literary traditions for themselves, the archival work that makes the canon of women’s literature not just leaping from great name to great name, but an actual unfolding and continuous development from decade to decade, as Showalter puts it.
Now Gates on page 1896, the right-hand margin, sees it in much the same way for the development of African-American criticism. You can do two things basically, says Gates. He doesn’t put them chronologically, but you could map onto what he’s saying here the same chronological sequence. He says:
As Showalter argued too, the question of the literary tradition is more complicated; it has more steps. In other words, the powers of self-expression available to women from the beginning of their creative expression passed through more than just two stages, and the same thing is true of African-American literature. Now I think that Gates simply takes for granted as an implicit premise of the work that was done the year before he published this essay in Critical Inquiry by another colleague of ours here at Yale–who died tragically not too long thereafter–named Michael Cooke, who in 1984 wrote a book called Afro-American Literature in the Twentieth Century: The Achievement of Intimacy. Cooke argued in this book that the history of African-American literature passes essentially through four stages. It begins with what Cooke calls “self-veiling”: the period, in other words, in which people attempting for the first time to write–and of course Gates talks about the way in which writing is really writing oneself into the human community for black people–the people who first attempted to write used white models. Phillis Wheatley, the poet whom Gates talks about, a remarkable poet and a very interesting one, nevertheless wrote in the manner of Alexander Pope, so much so that a great deal of her work is almost impossible–which is course a point of praise–to distinguish from that of Alexander Pope. She is an instance of the first phase, which Cooke calls “self-veiling.”
The second phase, which Cooke calls “solitude,” involves continuing to use white models, a white prose style, a way of narrating which is obviously derived from white teachers and white models but which nevertheless involves, as its central theme, self-definition. Here you might want to think of Douglass and of slave narratives in general, where the emphasis is on being taught by white people, but nevertheless there is a tension which exists and which founds and governs the possibility of self-liberation and self-freedom. In other words, the slave narrative as an ongoing form partakes of this second phase in the development of African-American literature as Cooke understands it.
Thirdly, there is what Cooke calls “kinship,” a literature in which African Americans reach out to each other, identify themselves as a community, not as individuals struggling to be free but rather as a community. Cooke identifies this phase with the experimentation with dialect and a way of narrating and poetizing which involves a self-conscious insistence on verbal and linguistic difference. You can think of many of the poems, for example, of Langston Hughes in this regard and of a great deal else that goes on in the Harlem Renaissance; so that’s the third phase, kinship.
Then the last phase–and what I’m going to want to say is that Gates doesn’t think we’ve reached this. In other words, the point of disagreement between Cooke and Gates is precisely about this. The last phase, which Cooke calls “intimacy,” is the freedom to expropriate any and all models, not in other words to insist necessarily on one’s own creative paradigms as a racial tradition but to expropriate anything that comes ready to hand. Ellison’s Invisible Man, for example, is a masterpiece of High Modernism. It takes freely, in other words, from whatever traditions come to hand and are most readily available for the kind of work that Ellison wants to do. Cooke identifies this perhaps rather optimistically with what he calls “intimacy”: in other words, a merger, a finally achieved merger of traditions such that–and this is plainly the ideal of Virginia Woolf as well–such that one no longer has to write as a spokesperson. One no longer needs to be concerned with thematizing the kinds of identity out of which one’s writing has arisen. One can write just anything one wants to–in other words, the utopian vision of “no matter who I am, I have access to absolutely any forms and themes I care to work with.”
That is the vision of Michael Cooke, which Gates, I think, unfortunately, rightly feels that we haven’t quite arrived at, and that’s why I deliberately used the word “expropriate” in talking about Cooke’s fourth phase. If I use models other than models made available by my own tradition, I’m not just kind of pulling them out of the air. I’m using them with a calculated purpose. I always have something in mind in choosing the model that I choose. We’re not really quite at intimacy because self-definition is still at issue. You can talk about the High Modernism of the Invisible Man all you like, but think of what the Invisible Man is about. The Invisible Man is still about what it means to be black. What is “passing”? What does it mean in other words to have this racial identity? So that, yes: traditions, manners, styles have been expropriated, but at the same time the business of writing as an African American continues, and it is as much, after all, a question of self-definition as it has been hitherto.
As Gates sees it, it continues to be the issue. We use other models. We need to make them our own. Otherwise we’re just colonized by them, and then after all we’re back in phase one, right? We’re back in self-veiling because, after all, Phillis Wheatley used other models. Phillis Wheatley actually aspired to the idea that she was just a poet. She could write about anything she wanted to write about–the tears of Niobe in the painting by Richard Wilson–whatever it might be, she could write about it because she was just a poet. That was her great aspiration, to be received not as that amazing thing, a young black slave woman who could write. She wasn’t interested in that. She wanted to be a poet, and so in a certain sense you can see the problem. If intimacy is achieved in the fourth phase, well, then that’s finally just the realization of what Phillis Wheatley wanted in the first phase, [laughs] and we have to admit, for all of the complicated reasons that these critics go into, that this is not a moment which can be said yet to have been achieved.
Chapter 7. Expropriation [00:36:44]
Okay. Now this brings us to Gates’s key concept: what does it mean to expropriate other people’s traditions, more particularly the white tradition, and what is the advantage of doing so? Here Gates is after all thinking primarily about criticism. How can we do theory and criticism in the white man’s language? How can we appropriate or expropriate for ourselves the white man’s language? The necessity of bending language to one’s own purposes is what is emphasized in the remarkable epigraph on page 1891 that Gates takes from Bakhtin. This is, it seems to me, as central a passage in Bakhtin, by the way, as anything that we studied when we were actually reading Bakhtin, and I’d like you to make note of it because I think it really can illuminate a great deal that’s going on in Bakhtin that we didn’t perhaps fully articulate at the time. This is what Bakhtin says:
Now actually during the course of his essay, Gates echoes this sentiment of Bakhtin by quoting Derrida at the very top of the right-hand column on page 1901, where he says, “We must master, as Derrida wrote, ‘how to speak the other’s language without renouncing (our) own.”
Now how do you do this? How do you set about talking the language you are given? This isn’t, of course, just a question of the difference between the races. It’s a question of all of us in relation to each other. As Bakhtin says in what you have already read, most of the time we’re speaking other people’s languages. It is rare indeed that we can say, feeling very much like creative writers when we do so, that we have somehow wrenched other people’s language out of its conventional usages and made it our own, slightly rewritten it so that it is truly our own. So more broadly speaking, this is the challenge that faces a theoretical tradition or a theoretical enterprise, I should say, that doesn’t want to be just derivative from what other folks have already said.
The concept that Gates brings to bear on this, because after all he recognizes, as does Showalter too, that the notion of the sign is probably the cornerstone of white male literary theory–he recognizes that in order to perform this expropriative act, he’s got to do something with the notion of the sign, and so he talks about the way in which one cansignify on something. He introduces it very quietly on page 1900, the right-hand column, just seemingly in passing, near the top of the right-hand column:
Notice the accent. You don’t necessarily pronounce the g: they were signifyin’ on the chain. Of course, the great chain of being, which is hierarchical, is very different from the vertical chain of the chain gang, isn’t it? It’s very different from the chain that holds slaves together. That’s part of what it means to “signify on” something. At least allegedly, the “signifier” in the white male theoretical tradition is just a kind of placeholder in a play of linguistic differences. The question of the underlying sociological and cultural basis of this play and of the way in which this play takes shape isn’t taken into account–again, allegedly–because–well, in ways that you can probably grasp from what we’ve said all along, this is slightly to oversimplify, but this is the position taken up. In any case, you therefore need to take the signifier and signifyon it.
Well, what is it to signify on something? This is an expression that Gates takes from the trickster tradition, the tradition of African storytelling in which the weaker is also the smarter, and the monkey or Anansi the Spider–some of you may remember the songs of Rafi from your childhood about Anansi the Spider–in which the monkey or the spider tricks the big, bad guys, the elephant, the lion. All of the bad guys get tricked because they are stupider, and the little guy is always able to signify on them, to trick them, and to lie to them without their realizing what’s going on. This way of talking about signifying is very much in the tradition of African-American folklore and first comes to public consciousness in a song by the scat singer Oscar Brown, Jr., written by Oscar Brown, Jr., called “The Signifyin’ Monkey.” If I could sing, I’d sing it to you. Fortunately, I can’t sing, but it became extremely popular and was picked up by various instrumental jazz groups and was a staple in the jazz tradition of the fifties and sixties. In any case, Oscar Brown Jr.’s notion of the signifying monkey is where Gates takes his essay’s title from and which is where also he gets this idea of taking somebody else’s discourse out of its context and insisting on bending it into an African-American context–in other words, a context which is one’s own and not just the context one is given.
Now the other example of “signifyin’ on” that Gates gives is the culminating example of The Color Purple, and the conversation about “gettin’ the man out of your eye,” which is a way of taking back a problem that exists even within the African-American tradition. As Gates has been pointing out, Wheatley and later Rebecca Jackson take their models of education and self-development from white male figures who have taught them how to read. In each case of course, this is pernicious because the existence of the white male figure is very much still in your eye. You got to get the man out of your eye, at least according to the dialogue Gates quotes from The Color Purple.
Well, the interesting thing there is that in a way the issue of feminist criticism comes back to haunt Gates’s argument because plainly Shug doesn’t just mean the white man when she says “the man.” A big issue in The Color Purple, of course, is the emergence of a possible feminism from social constructions that aren’t just defined by race; so that when Gates says “the man,” which all of us recognize as shorthand for “the white man,” can be signified on by an African-American tradition, making it a term of opprobrium, right?–“get the man out of your eye”–at the same time it can be signified on by the feminist tradition, making it a term of opprobrium not in a completely different way, but in an overlapping and partially different way. Gates, in emphasizing the one as opposed to the other, is perhaps tilting again toward a certain
Chapter 8. Robert Penn Warren and Problems with New Criticism [00:46:50]
Now finally I want to take up the example, the most controversial example in his essay, one which is a source of outrage for most readers, at the bottom of page 1893 in the left-hand column. He’s been talking about the New Agrarian moment out of which there emerged a number of figures associated with the New Criticism, including Robert Penn Warren, who very early on repudiated the New Agrarians and became a politically progressive figure in his own writing. Many of you have probably read All the King’s Men, certainly, and his poetry as well. He was an avatar, a central figure, in the development of the thinking of the New Criticism, which we have briefly studied.
Now Warren wrote a poem called “Pondy Woods,” which is quoted completely out of context by Sterling Brown and unfairly out of context in the passage which I’m not going to read because I don’t think I have the right to speak the “N-word”; so I’ll just have you look at it–and I’ll come back to that in a minute. Sterling Brown’s response is also recorded there for you. Well, the problem is, from the standpoint of anybody who’s actually read the poem–but remember in some ways it’s a problem raised by a New Critical perspective, and I’ll explain what I mean in a minute–that expression is spoken by a buzzard or vulture from–I forget whether it’s Tennessee or Kentucky. The episode takes place in northern Louisiana, and the buzzard is sitting expectantly on a tree waiting for a fugitive slave who has been chased into the swamp by his white pursuers to die. The vulture is sitting there–well, if it could it would be–rubbing its hands with glee waiting for this to take place. It’s the vulture that says it in the poem: nothing to do in other words, as we say, with the author of the poem, Warren, who is writing a completely sympathetic evocation of what it’s like to be a fugitive slave in this state of terrible and overwhelmed panic.
So it seems completely unfair and it is, I think, unfair as Sterling Brown took it up and as Gates then perpetuates the idea in his own reference. The one thing I would add, however, is that it’s a New Critical idea that we invoke to say that it’s unfair. It’s the New Criticism, in which Robert Penn Warren was a participant, that tells us we shouldn’t confuse speakers in poems with authors. In other words, an author is someone, according to the New Criticism, who is dispassionate and who introduces dramatic voices even in lyric poems, voices with which we are merely confusing ourselves if we associate them with an author.
Now this is something that we just take for granted when we read poems. All poems for us are to some degree dramatic monologues on the model of Browning and others in the nineteenth century. We read them that way now, but it is, as I say, a New Critical idea, and it comes back to the question, “Who has the right to use the ‘N-word’?” It’s a frequent term used on the street, as you know, in African-American culture, used almost with a certain fondness as a form of mutual greeting, but at the same time it is a term that continues rigorously to be rejected as available to anyone other than someone who belongs within this community. And so that issue lingers. It’s an issue that Warren–because of course he wrote long before this controversy began to arise around the word–the controversy really boiled over precisely at the time of the banning of Huckleberry Finn from public schools, much later, and so there’s a kind of innocence perhaps in Warren’s use of the word. Nevertheless, in the critical tradition it’s a question, “Who has the right to use it?”
This gives rise perhaps to the suggestion of a certain insularity in the thinking of the New Criticism. Use any model you like: the model of the Freudian unconscious, the model of the political unconscious. In other words, we’ve been reading a lot in this course about our never quite saying what we mean to say, of our never quite being fully in control of our discourse because it bubbles up from the unconscious, right? Now if you take a model like this, even though it’s a nasty buzzard from Kentucky that’s saying what Gates quotes, nevertheless there is an author, and it has bubbled up from the unconscious of that.
Well, what are you going to do with that? There’s a kind of impasse there. We feel distinctly and vividly and even bitterly–because I love Warren, I love “Pondy Woods” and I also am something of a New Critic–so we feel a bitterness about the expropriation, the “signifying on” what Warren says in this fashion. At the same time, we have entertained these ideas of a subliminal author, not an authority but an author welling up from below. If that’s the case, then we have to worry a little bit about how an expression like that got into the poem after all. I call it a lingering problem because it strikes me as one of those moments when probably it would have been better if Gates hadn’t followed Sterling Brown, one of those moments when there is a kind of overkill in the zeal of argumentation, but which at the same time we can’t absolutely dismiss out of hand for the variety of reasons that I have mentioned.
Okay. I’ll leave it there, and we’ll return to many of these issues in a new vocabulary and in new forms when we read the examples of post-colonial criticism on Thursday that you’ve been assigned.
[end of transcript]Back to Top