Modernism and Harlem and Post-WWI Radicals

In Monday’s discussion, we got into questioning modernism, and considering the place/time/definition of modernism. In particular we asked what was so “new and improved” about that period,something that got me thinking back to other discussions I’ve had about this question.

81eKXTcXnwLTo me, WWI is a major factor in defining what happens to modernism. The war period is an ambivalent, confused time that deeply affects the work of  a lot of writers. In the September 2013 issue of Modernism/Modernity, which Suzanne Churchill and Adam McKible edited, Barbara Foley argues this in relation to the New Negro movement:

“While it is evident that, in the wake of the Red Summer of 1919, the leftist upsurge lost some of its immediate energy, it is also evident that the Bolshevik revolution had a continuing and mounting impact throughout the decade. The proletarian movement of the 1930s cannot be attributed solely to the effects of the Great Depression; its origins in the post–World War I radicalism that was inspired in large part by the establishment of socialism in the Soviet Union cannot be effaced. The routine designation of the Harlem Renaissance as a cultural “flowering” beginning in the 1920s—even if it is seen to continue to 1940, as the Norton Anthology of African American Literature proposes—deflects attention from these crucially important postwar political roots.  Indeed, if anticapitalist radicalism is viewed as central to the New Negro movement from its outset, and the culturalist thrust of much of the “Harlem Renaissance” is seen as a movement within a movement, one largely confined to the mid- to late 1920s, then the entire arc of African American literature is significantly reconfigured” (439-40).


Jacob Lawrence, Migration Series

This made me think that the New Negro movement (which I always associated with the separate but concurrent upheaval of the great migration instead) had important things in common with other modernisms. I thought about Georg Lukacs, who was also deeply affected by the events during and immediately after the Great War. In History and Class Consciousness, he writes that the years during and immediately after the Great War and the Russian Revolution were intensely destabilizing and at times incomprehensible. I like the way he explains what this meant for him: “Mental confusion is not always chaos. It may strengthen the internal contradictions for the time being but in the long run it will lead to their resolution […] my ethics tended in the direction of praxis, action and hence toward politics. And this led in turn to economics, and the need for a theoretical grounding there finally brought me to the philosophy of Marxism” (Lukacs, HCC xi).

Perry Anderson further explains the linkages between modernist art forms and the destabilized social structure of the first decades of the twentieth century in “Modernity and Revolution”:

“European modernism in the first years of [the twentieth century] flowered in the space between a still usable classical past, a still indeterminate technical present, and a still unpredictable political future. Or, put another way, it arose at the intersection between a semi-aristocratic ruling order, a semi-industrialized capitalist economy, and a semi-emergent, or semi-insurgent, labor movement. The First World War, when it came, altered all of these coordinates, but it did not eliminate any of them; for another twenty years they lived on in a kind of hectic afterlife. [. . .] Finally, the prospect of revolution was now more proximate and tangible than it had ever been–a prospect that had triumphantly materialized in Russia, touched Hungary, Italy, and Germany with its wing just after the First World War, and was to take on a new and dramatic immediacy in Spain at the end of this period. It is within this space, prolonging in its own way an earlier ground, that generically “modernist” forms of art continued to show a great vitality.” (326)

And I guess this is what I’m really coming to. Anderson argues that “the imaginative proximity of social revolution” (325) characterizes the modernist period. To define modernism in this way is to see it as a ”periodizing” concept that enables multiple forms produced in the era to be studied.

Unknown-3To me, that means that the work of the New Negro movement fits nicely into the multiplicity that a pluralist modernisms offers. The New Negro anthology is a profoundly utopian work, very much focused on creating a new and better world. And the voices of the writers in that anthology are not separate from other movements of the period–there is a lot of border crossing everywhere.

Anderson argues that “the number of people who can create art in our society, who can find any sort of aesthetic self-expression, is a fraction of what would be possible if society were democratic in a more radical socialist sense” (336). He sees the revolutionary proximity of the high modernist era as enabling a greater number of people to produce art, and that is probably the “great party” or “dog party” that Adam and Suzanne proposed.

And I’ll let Anderson have the last word here. By this, I think he means he doesn’t trust many of the tastemaker scholars who defined modernism for us in the 20th century. But he is also inviting everyone else to the party:

“The really interesting thing about that period is not the completely confected and bogus notion of modernism. What is interesting is how many quite different and incompatible but concurrent aesthetic programs and practices there were. That is the richness of the period from 1900 to 1930” (Anderson 336).

–Noreen O’Connor


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One response to “Modernism and Harlem and Post-WWI Radicals

  1. This is helpful perspective and leverages consideration of classficiations out of the framework dominated by little literary magazines, to analyze periodicals as part of fabric of social history. The return of African-American veterans with experiences of European soceities and soldier pride, provoked outbreaks of violence and rioting after WWI that show one aspect of this overall matrix of social disruption, highly pertinent to analysis of various “dissenting” magazines across the spectrum of political and social divergence from the mainstream.

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