Saturday, August 28, 2010

Richardson, Edmund. Review of William W. Cook, et al., AFRICAN AMERICAN WRITERS AND CLASSICAL TRADITION. BMCR (August 2010).

Cook, William W., and James Tatum.  African American Writers and Classical Tradition.  Chicago:  U of Chicago P, 2010.

The beginning must be uncertain, a note half-heard. For here is a story of the edges of memory – unquiet, Protean, astonishing. In their exploration of the richness of African-American engagements with the ancient world – from the poetry of Phyllis Wheatley to the satire of Fran Ross – Cook and Tatum have produced one of the most important and enchanting books ever written in the field of classical reception.

(And if that has the heavy finality of conclusion, it still must serve as opening gambit – such is the scope of this work.)

Wisely, the authors have not attempted an all-encompassing narrative. Instead, each of the book’s eight chapters is focused around one complex, suggestive figure, or literary strategy. The Ciceronian speech of Frederick Douglass – seized from his self-proclaimed ‘betters’ – leads into the troubled Odyssey of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, where the Cyclops lies in wait in an American psychiatric ward, and the allusive, quicksilver verse of Melvin Tolson, the ‘Pindar of Harlem.’ The chapters’ progression is broadly chronological – beginning in eighteenth-century Boston, ending in the present day and a glance, half-longing, towards times to come.

Grand narrative this is not, in any conventional sense. The past is fragile, here – hard to reach, harder still to make one’s own. While still a slave, Douglass had to ‘steal knowledge’ (58) from under the nose of his master, by persuading his white childhood friends to give him lessons. Wheatley’s antiquity is structured by loss (46). Even when past and present do meet on solid ground, the result – as in W.E.B. Du Bois’s Quest for the Silver Fleece – is often far from triumphant; ‘just because you start interpreting everything allegorically,’ as the authors remark, ‘[it] doesn’t mean you’ll be any better off’ (134). These are discourses which many conventional approaches to reception would be hard-pressed to narrate – where remembrance becomes ‘a dream as frail as those of ancient time’ (Tennyson, quoted 229). . . .

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