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Publishing during the Harlem Renaissance

Par Cécile Cottenet : Maître de Conférences - Université d'Aix-Marseille
Publié par Clifford Armion le 18/02/2011

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This article proposes to present the American literary and publishing scene of the 1920s, that favored the publication of Langston Hughes's first two volumes of poetry, ((The Weary Blues)) (1926) and ((Fine Clothes to the Jew)) (1927). I will first attempt to define the Harlem Renaissance, its temporal boundaries and leading figures, before highlighting the particular nexus of magazine editors, white patrons and publishers, that contributed to the flowering of the New Negro movement.


African American poet Langston Hughes broke into print at a time when "the Negro was in vogue" in America; when critics, editors, publishers were becoming increasingly interested in the cultural literary and poetic production of Black writers. His first two collections of poetry, The Weary Blues (1926) and Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), were published during the Harlem Renaissance, a moment of intense cultural, literary and intellectual development that began during World War I, declined with the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression, and ended with the Harlem race riots of 1935.

Within this time span, Harlem Renaissance scholar David Levering Lewis distinguishes three, artificial yet convenient, phases (Lewis, 1995): a first phase from 1917 to 1923, when a few Black authors emerged; a second very short phase, from 1924 to 1926, when the Renaissance was "officially" launched, with the publication of Jessie Fauset's There is Confusion in 1924; and a third stage, from 1926 to 1935. Lewis also highlights how this artistic movement went from a "Bohemian Renaissance," suggesting the interracial ebullience fostered by the radical press and Greenwich Village, to a Renaissance of the "Talented Tenth," in reference to W.E.B. DuBois's concept of an elite, educated group of colored men and women who would lift the Black population out of the social nadir they were experiencing at the turn of the 20th century; to, finally, a "Niggerati" Renaissance, emphasizing the closed circle of artists and writers in which the younger Hughes moved ((Concerning the Harlem Renaissance, its temporal boundaries, main events and protagonists, see George Hutchinson. The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996; Cary Wintz. Black Culture and the Harlem Renaissance. Houston, Tx.: Rice University Press, 1988. Nathan Huggins. Voices from the Harlem Renaissance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995; Houston Baker. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989; David Levering Lewis. The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader. London, New York: Penguin, 1995; When Harlem Was in Vogue. Penguin, 1997.)).

1. Harlem

The Harlem Renaissance is best circumscribed in terms of its temporal boundaries, although recent scholarship has attempted to enlarge these limits ((See the collection of essay edited by Jeffrey Ogbar, The Harlem Renaissance Revisited: Politics, Arts, and Letters, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.)). Of course, as Nathan Huggins aptly remarked, the movement can only be delimited retrospectively, and

[...] like historical "watersheds," the Harlem Renaissance is merely a convenient fiction. There is no actual year or decade forming a line which divides the old from the new. Those qualities and characteristics which seemed to mature in the 1920s actually can be found earlier. Also, those features of the 'New Negro' presumed to have been buried with World War II surely persisted long afterward. [...] Nevertheless, something did happen, suggesting a dramatic change, having its focal point in Harlem at that moment in time (Huggins, 1995, 5).

The notion of "dramatic change" can certainly be debated, for the very term "Renaissance" suggests the pre-existence of a body of African American literature, poetry and artistic achievements prior to the 1920s, as we shall see. The focus on Harlem however can be explained by the sociological, cultural and economic contexts of the times.

By the 1920s, Harlem boasted of housing "the largest Negro community in the world" (Locke, 1997, 6), and had come to be known as "the Negro metropolis," a "Mecca for the sightseer, the pleasure-seeker, the curious, the adventurous, the enterprising, the ambitious, and the talented of the entire Negro world" (Johnson, 1991, 3). Although large numbers of African Americans were already living in New York City before the 1910s, the Great Migration certainly amplified this demographic trend. Fleeing the dearth of jobs in agriculture, the cultural backwardness and Jim Crow - another figurative term for racial discrimination - over one million Blacks between 1914 and 1930 fled the southern states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Georgia, Alabama and Florida, and headed for the North and the Midwest in the hopes of finding work in factories and manufactures. The greatest proportion of these men and women settled in the cities of Tulsa in Oklahoma, Chicago, Detroit or Cleveland, and New York.

Yet Harlem was not only an attractive place for Blacks; in the late 1910s and 1920s it had also become a place of great interest for Whites, New Yorkers and tourists alike. In fact, the glittering moment of the Harlem Renaissance coincides with what F.S. Fitzgerald named "the Jazz Age," and indeed the interest in Black culture was an interest in a quintessentially "black thing," the jazz played by Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson or Louis Armstrong in the famed cabarets of Harlem and Chicago. In the age of Prohibition, Whites thronged to the Cotton Club and Small's Paradise in Harlem. Paradoxically, this had the perverse effect of barring Negro customers from many of these fashionable places - which they often could not afford.

James Weldon Johnson, poet and anthologist, editor of The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922) and The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925), has captured Harlem's power of attraction:

Within the past ten years Harlem has acquired a world-wide reputation [...]. It is farthest known as being exotic, colourful, and sensuous; a place of laughing, singing, and dancing; a place where life wakes up at night [...]New Yorkers and people visiting New York from the world over go to the night-clubs of Harlem and dance to such jazz music as can be heard nowhere else; and they get an exhilaration impossible to duplicate (Johnson, 1991, 160).

The attraction for "things Negro" spread to Black revues and musicals staged in the early 1920s, such as Shuffle Along (1921) or Running Wild (1923). In his autobiography, Langston Hughes suggests that it was precisely Shuffle Along, that set the stage for the Renaissance:

The 1920s were the years of Manhattan's black Renaissance. It began with Shuffle Along, Running Wild, and the Charleston. Perhaps some people would say even with The Emperor Jones, Charles Gilpin ((Charles Sidney Gilpin (1878-1930), an African-American actor and vaudevillian dancer, was recognized as one of the best artists of the American Theatre by the Drama League of New York in 1921.)), and the tom-toms at the Provincetown. But certainly it was the musical revue, Shuffle Along, that gave a scintillating send-off to that Negro vogue in Manhattan, which reached its peak just before the crash of 1929, the crash that sent Negroes, white folks, and all rolling down the hill toward the Works Progress Administration (Hughes, 2002, 175).

In this extract the poet gives pride of place to the theatre, alluding to O'Neill's Provincetown players and to Gilpin. Indeed, Eugene O'Neill and Ridgely Torrence were the first white playwrights to incorporate the Negro as a theme in their works. As early as 1914 Torrence had written Granny Maumee, and issued Plays for a Negro Theatre three years later. O'Neill, one of the most famous American playwrights of the 20th century, further explored the notion of primitive sexual desire in All God's Chillun Got Wings (1924). Primitivism and exoticism were frequently extolled; the idea that Blacks freely gave in to sexual desire perpetuated some of the racial stereotypes of the 19th century. The "natural," rural life of Blacks was also the subject of Dubose Heyward's novel and play Porgy (1925), later used as a script for Gershwin's musical Porgy and Bess (1935). On the other hand, the dissonance of jazz echoed in the modernist poetry of Vachel Lindsay or E.E. Cummings, pointing to a form of uninhibited behavior for which some Whites longed.

2. "The New Negro" and the racial artist

If the term "Harlem Renaissance" undeniably focuses on the locus of production, the name "New Negro Movement" unmistakably foregrounds the authors and the life they chose to represent in their literary and artistic endeavors.

Sociologically speaking, the figure of the New Negro was urban, modern, the result of a geographical and cultural migration initiated long before. The literary figure of the New Negro is certainly best defined by Alain Locke, one of the "midwives" and leaders of the movement, in the eponymous manifesto, the seminal collection of essays, fiction and poetry published in 1925 (The New Negro). Locke, one of the leading colored intellectuals of the times, highlighted the significance of this figure. Merely emerging out of the night of the 19th century, a half-century after the abolition of slavery in 1865, the New Negro symbolized a renewed race consciousness, and invalidated the idea that Negroes had been a "problem" in American society. The new generation of poets and writers no longer wrote about the Negro - as prior generations of white authors had - but of the Negro.

We [...] discover in the artistic self-expression of the Negro to-day a new figure on the national canvas and a new force in the foreground of affairs. [...] Yet the New Negro must be seen in the perspective of a New World, and especially of a New America. [...] There is a renewed race-spirit that consciously and proudly sets itself apart. Justifiably then, we speak of the offerings of this book embodying these ripening forces as culled from the first fruits of the Negro Renaissance (Locke, 1997, xv-xvii).

Judging from the list of contributors to the collection, these "ripening forces" included poets Countée Cullen, Claude McKay, Arna Bontemps, James Weldon Johnson, Jean Toomer, and Langston Hughes, as well as W.E.B. DuBois. The volume, dedicated to "the new generation," implied the acknowledgement of the forefathers of the Renaissance, in particular poets Phillis Wheatley and Paul Laurence Dunbar, as well as author Charles Chesnutt. By the 1920s Dunbar and Chesnutt had become pillars of the Afro American literary tradition, as much for their works as for their success in breaking through the wall of the white mainstream publishing industry. Yet they belonged, in part, to the generation of "Old Negroes" according to Locke, a "formula rather than a human beinga something to be argued about, condemned or defended" (Locke, 1887, 3).

If we are to find any coherence in the works of the New Negro writers - beyond the obvious, although vexed, question of racial origins - we might venture to offer some characteristics: their specificity perhaps lay in their capacity to express the feelings and the life of Blacks in the early 20th century, all the while acknowledging and taking pride in a shared heritage. These writers drew on the culture and folk tradition that came out of the slave experience, the songs, short stories and tales; like many of his contemporaries, Hughes wished to preserve this culture, and mixed it with the Black urban experience. In this literature, the New Negro was "being seriously portrayed and painted," not "caricatured" as he had previously been (Locke, 1997, 9).

Again, we should note that precursors of the Harlem Renaissance had already expressed Negro life, in "authentic lyric utterance" and "true to life," as critic William Stanley Braithwaite wrote of Dunbar in his essay "The Negro in Literature" (in Locke, 1997, 37). But their expression and themes had necessarily been limited, restricted historically to the era of Reconstruction. Frédéric Sylvanise reminds us that Dunbar, who foregrounded folk people and dialect, influenced Hughes's blues poetry. Again, for Locke, New Negro authors wrote "as Negroes," and for them "race [...] [was] but an idiom of experience, a sort of added enriching adventure and discipline, giving subtler overtones to life" (Locke, 1997, 48). He viewed the writings and poems of Rudolph Fisher, Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer or Hughes as taking "their material objectively with detached artistic vision; they have no thought of their racy folk types as typical of anything but themselves or of their being taken or mistaken as racially representative" (Locke, 1997, 50). And he believed that they were making a genuine contribution "in flavor of language, flow of phrase, accent of rhythm in prose, verse and music, color and tone of imagery, idiom and timber of emotion and symbolism" (51). According to him Hughes's poetry in particular had "a distinctive fervency of color and rhythm, and a Biblical simplicity of speech that is colloquial in derivation, but full of artistry" (52).

Hughes did see himself as a racial artist, as he declared in his famous 1926 essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," published in The Nation. In this sense he adopted Locke's vision, but the two men differed on the forms Negro poetry should take, Locke insisting on formalism, while Hughes delved into low-culture forms, jazz and blues.

Most of my own poems are racial in theme and treatment, derived from the life I know. In many of them I try to grasp and hold some of the meanings and rhythms of jazz. I am as sincere as I know how to be in these poems [...].

[...] jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soulthe tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile (Hughes, 1995, 1270).

Certainly not all the Harlem Niggerati approved of Hughes's Jazz Poems, as fellow-poet Countee Cullen suggests in his review of The Weary Blues:

I wonder if jazz poems really belong to that dignified company, that select and austere circle of high literary expression which we call poetry [...]. [the selections] tend to hurl this poet into the gaping pit that lies before all Negro writers, in the confines of which they become racial artists instead of artists pure and simple (Cullen, 1997, 55).

Hughes and Locke also differed on the themes and subjects that should be treated by Negro artists. In 1974 scholar Henry Louis Gates provocatively denied the emergence of any genuine black artistic form during the Harlem Renaissance, and noted the subjects that were acceptable for Black writers, whom he saw as catering mainly to a white audience. Since Locke in The New Negro was trying to project an acceptable image of Negro artists, it was essential that the squalor of Negro life be toned down; Harlem could not be depicted as the ghetto it really was becoming in the 1920s. We should not be blind to the fact that the Harlem to which white Americans flocked, and which white - along with black - authors glorified, was indeed mythical. The glitter, the brilliant jazz, could not conceal for long the fact that the socio-economic conditions were "deplorable" and "unspeakable" (Gates, 1974, 46), that rent was high, and income was low, or that infant mortality was almost twice as high as it was in the whole city of New York. For Locke and many others, black characters in the novels and poems of the New Negroes should be closer to the middle-class that had emerged in cities like New York.

For Gates, Hughes was the "first dissonant chord in the Renaissance's orchestration," because he turned for his subjects to the "basic black man," or in Hughes's own terms, "[...] the low-down folks, the so-called common element [...].The people who have their hip of gin on Saturday nights," whose "joy runs, bang! into ecstasy," whose "religion soars to a shout"; who play, sing, dance, and "are not afraid of spirituals, as for a long time their more intellectual brethren were". "These common people [...] furnish a wealth of colorful, distinctive material for any artist because they still hold their own individuality in the face of American standardizations" (Hughes, 1995, 1268).

In his own retrospective vision of the New Negro movement, Hughes saw the "vogue" from a distance, and his recollection is not devoid of criticism. The following extract offers an insight into his own trajectory from blues poet to the radical figure influenced by Communism:

It was the period when the Negro was in vogue. I was there. I had a swell time while it lasted. But I thought it wouldn't last long [...]. how long could a large and enthusiastic number of people be crazy about Negroes forever? But some Harlemites thought the millenium had come. [...] They were sure the New Negro would lead a new life from then on in green pastures of tolerance created by Countee Cullen, Ethel Waters, Claude McKay, Duke Ellington, Bojangles, and Alain Locke ((Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (1878-1949) was a famous black tap-dancer who co-starred with Shirley Temple in several movies in the 1930s. Ethel Waters (1896-1977) was a blues and jazz singer who had moved to Harlem in 1919.)).

I don't know what made any Negroes [sic] think that - except that they were mostly intellectuals doing the thinking. The ordinary Negroes hadn't heard of the Negro Renaissance. And if they had, it hadn't raised their wages any (Hughes, 2002, 177).

Hughes was here articulating a thinly veiled criticism of Locke and by extension, of subsequent scholars of the Renaissance: the single-minded focus on the literary and artistic productions of the New Negro has for a long time drawn attention away from the economic and social conditions of Negroes in Harlem, and other cities, and from the central labor question as posited by DuBois in his essay "The Negro Mind Reaches Out" included in the New Negro anthology. Having provided a definition of the New Negro movement, I will now look at the "framers" of the movement, both black and white, examining the role of the press, and in particular, of magazines, and finally draw a broad picture of the publishing scene in the 1920s.

4. The "midwives" of the Renaissance

Although Whites had begun to explore the "Negro" as a theme in plays and other literary endeavors, the cultural impact of the Renaissance would not have been the same without Black writers and intellectuals. Several key figures were instrumental in shaping the Harlem Renaissance and helping writers to access publication. W.E.B. DuBois, Jessie Fauset, Alain Locke, and Charles Johnson were among the most active and emblematic.

Sociologist and historian W.E.B. DuBois can be considered a forefather of the Renaissance, for he was already in his fifties when the 1920s opened. A founding member of the interracial civil rights association, the N.A.A.C.P. (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), he edited its official magazine, The Crisis, whose staff also included a young literary editor, Jessie Fauset. Hughes had a "tremendous admiration" for DuBois (Hughes, 2002, 91) and his Souls of Black Folk (1903). Undeniably DuBois's appraisal of the works of the New Negro mattered greatly to the younger generation. Moreover, DuBois was developing a Marxist bent that might have added to his stature in the eye of Hughes, who would later turn to Communism. Fauset, whom Hughes also credits in his autobiography, was the one who accepted and first published one of his poems in 1921, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers".

Jessie Fauset at the Crisis, Charles Johnson at Opportunity, and Alain Locke in Washington were the people who midwifed the so-called New Negro Literature into being. Kind and critical - but not too critical for the young - they nursed us along until our books were born. (Hughes, 2002, 173)

In 1926, Fauset remembered that The Crisis had "sponsored [...] the boy" (Fauset, 1997, 61). Her own novel, There is Confusion, published in 1924, is often cited as the book that officially marked the advent of the Harlem Renaissance, when it was celebrated during a Civic Club Dinner organized on March 21, 1924 by Charles S. Johnson, editor of the competing magazine, Opportunity. Fauset's success might just have been an excuse for Johnson to bring together promising black writers with the established, white, publishing world and editors of such prestigious magazines as Scribner's, Harper's, Survey Graphic, Century or Tomorrow.

This now famous dinner gave Paul Kellogg the idea for a special Harlem issue of his magazine, Survey Graphic, which would ultimately be edited by Alain Locke - and subsequently be enlarged as The New Negro (1925). Hughes had been introduced to Locke, a professor of philosophy at the Historically Black Howard University in Washington, D.C., by another poet, Countée Cullen, in the course of 1922. However polemical his role might have been, Locke is responsible for starting several young writers' careers, including Cullen's, Toomer's, and Hughes, who took part in a circle of black literati in Washington, D.C. in the early 1920s.

Locke and Charles Johnson played a role in Hughes's career through Opportunity, the official magazine of the National Urban League, a Civil Rights organization created in 1910. Hughes readily testifies to Johnson's importance in his autobiography, underlining how he "did more to encourage and develop Negro writers during the 1920s than anyone else in America. He wrote them sympathetic letters, pointing out the merits of their work. He brought them together to meet and know each other" (Hughes, 2002, 173). In 1925, Hughes won first prize for poetry in the Opportunity contest initiated by Johnson with his poem "The Weary Blues"which would become the title of his first collection of poems published a year later. Some of his poems had already been selected for inclusion in the "Harlem Number" of the Survey Graphic edited by Locke that came out that same year. Success was on its way...

5. Other magazines

Prominent African American magazines such as The Crisis and Opportunity, and the men and women behind them, were instrumental in the discovering and launching of new Negro talent. They also afforded work opportunities for writers who had a difficult time supporting themselves while writing. It is worth noting that Countée Cullen, a close friend of Hughes's, served as assistant editor to Charles S. Johnson on the Opportunity staff between 1926 and 1928. Still the black press was not the only outlet for these authors: with the help of Carl Van Vechten, some of Hughes's poetry also appeared in Vanity Fair, while his first short stories were published in the black socialist journal, The Messenger. Incidentally, in 1926 the editor of The Messenger was none other than Wallace Thurman, another of the Niggerati, who roomed with Hughes for some time that summer.

Other Harlem Renaissance writers and poets found outlets in the radical small press of the 1920s, publishing in such journals as The Masses. Claude McKay made his debut in the United States in The Liberator, both contributing and serving as its editor. In turn, McKay would help publish Jean Toomer's early work before it was collected in the famous and hybrid volume, Cane (1923). In The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White, George Hutchinson draws a convincing picture of the connections between the radical literary and cultural circles of the 1910s and 1920s, both black and white, and the New Negro authors, many of whom would turn toward Communism in the 1930s. In turn, Hughes's autobiography, The Big Sea (1940), clearly highlights how a nexus of poets, editors, "angels" and publishers contributed to helping this young generation publish in the 1920s. Among Hughes's angels were two prominent and influential white patrons.

6. White patrons

One was the rich Charlotte Mason Osgood, who, after hearing a lecture by Locke, turned her attention to Langston Hughes, whom she supported financially between 1927 and 1930. The growing demands of this philanthropist, who asked to be called "Godmother," as well as her maternal but intrusive attitude, eventually led Hughes to break with her around 1930. Mason helped put Hughes through college, all the while attempting to steer him in the direction of primitivism, encouraging him to "maintain" a connection with Africa. By the late 1920s, the poet was, however, more preoccupied with the situation and life of Black Americans. It became increasingly difficult for him to reconcile the comfort and lavish lifestyle of his patron, with the terrible social conditions he witnessed at the onset of the Great Depression. He would eventually turn towards Communism, joining the Communist-affiliated League of Struggle for Negro Rights, which he presided, starting in 1934.

Another figure also supported Hughes: Amy Spingarn loaned him money when he decided to enroll at Lincoln College, and encouraged him in his literary endeavors. Along with her husband, Joel Spingarn, a Columbia Professor in Comparative Literature, and her brother-in-law, Arthur Spingarn, she considerably supported civil rights claims and individual artists. She ultimately gave her name to the Crisis literary contest, which she helped financed. Significantly, both Joel and Arthur Spingarn served on the executive board of the N.A.A.C.P.

The other essential white patron, and friend of Hughes's, was Carl Van Vechten, a music and literary critic, as well as a photographer. He wrote the "infamous" novel Nigger Heaven (1926) which was virulently attacked by the African American press. After meeting Hughes at the Opportunity contest in 1925, Van Vechten acted as middleman, literally jumpstarting Hughes's career when he presented his poetry to Blanche Knopf, wife of publisher Alfred Knopf. An open homosexual, Van Vechten might have been attracted to the handsome young poet; he was first and foremost fascinated with African American culture, and the modernist aspirations of the "younger generation" of Negro writers. The result of the encounter with Knopf was the publication, merely a year after the contest, of the collection of poems The Weary Blues.

Part of the New York literati, Van Vechten served as the link between the white Greenwich Village Bohemia, and Harlem. He was known for his lavish parties, fabulous opportunities to mix emerging and established authors, white patrons, as well as editors or publishers. In his autobiography Hughes recalls meeting, at one point or another, Somerset Maugham, Fannie Hurst, the publisher Horace Liveright, Helena Rubinstein, Waldo Frank, modernist author and editor of The Seven Arts, and Salvador Dali. Van Vechten embraced Hughes's radical political views and in 1931, financially backed the publication of Scottsboro Limited, a collection of poems using leftist agit-prop techniques, under the Golden Stair Press imprint. The subject was the fate of nine black young men who in 1931 were falsely convicted of rape on two white women in Alabama; eight of them were sentenced to death.

Van Vechten was reviled by Afro American, as well as white, critics for the publication of Nigger Heaven. In 1930 radical critic Michael Gold wrote of him in New Masses,

Gin, Jazz and sex this is all that stirs him in our world, and he has imparted his tastes to the young Negro literateurs. He is a white literary bum, who has created a brood of Negro literary bums. So many of them are now wasting their splendid talents on the gutter-side of Harlem. (Gold, 1930, 3).

In spite of these attacks, which focused on Van Vechten's excessive exoticism and taste for the primitive, Hughes stood by him, acknowledging his importance in The Big Sea:

What Carl Van Vechten did for me was to submit my first book of poems to Alfred A. Knopf, put me in contact with editors of Vanity Fair, who bought my first poems sold to a magazine, caused me to meet many editors and writers who were friendly and helfpul to me, encouraged me in my efforts to help publicize the Scottsboro case, cheered me on in the writing of my first short stories, and otherwise aided in making life for me more profitable and entertaining. [...] To say that Carl Van Vechten has harmed Negro creative activities is sheer poppycock. The bad Negro writers were bad long before Nigger Heaven appeared on the scene (Hughes, 2002, 208).

9. White Publishers

Van Vechten was, undeniably, an important connection to the New York publishing world; he truly introduced Hughes to the public, presenting his poetry to Blanche and Alfred Knopf, and writing the introduction to The Weary Blues ((For more information on publishers, see Charles Allan Madison. 1976. Jewish Publishing in America: the Impact of Jewish Writing on American Culture. New York: Sanhedrin Press; John Tebbel. 1978-1982. The Golden Age Between Two Wars, 1920-1940. Vol. 3 of A History of Book Publishing in the United States. New York: R.R. Bowker.)). In return, Hughes dedicated his second volume to him. Publication under a white imprint was, in itself, a form of recognition, as Robert T. Kerlin suggested in his May 1926 review of The Weary Blues,

Is it not a notable event in the history of the American Negro, and of America, that in the first months of the year 1926 two young Negro poets had their books put forth, on their merits and trade value, just as white poets' books, by two publishing firms of first repute for orthodox business? (Kerlin, 1997, 162-164).

Looking back on the Negro vogue, Hughes wrote in The Big Sea:

It was a period [...] when books by Negro authors were being published with much greater frequency and much more publicity than ever before or since in history (Hughes, 2002, 177).

That may very well have been true. For Cary Wintz, four specific books had opened the doors of white publishers: Claude McKay's Harlem Shadows (1922), published by Harcourt Brace, Walter White's Fire in the Flint (1924) published by Knopf, Toomer's Cane (1923) and Fauset's There is Confusion (1924) under the Boni & Liveright imprint. In 1929, James Weldon Johnson published an essay in Crisis wherein he listed quality African American fiction and poetry recently published by white publishers. The twenty or so books mentioned were de facto published by some seven publishers, among whom Harper & Brothers, presumably the oldest and most reputed in the list, but also Harcourt, Brace - who published DuBois - Stokes, Viking Press (Ben Huebsch), Boni & Liveright, and Knopf.

Contemporary and later critics, especially African American, have often characterized these publishers as preying on, and exploiting, the exoticism of Black authors ((For a discussion of the issue of the exoticism of Harlem Renaissance writers, see Michael Soto. 2001. "Jean Toomer and Horace Liveright; or, A New Negro Gets 'into the Swing of It'." In Geneviève Fabre, Michel Feith, ed. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 162-187. See also Redding, J. Saunders. "The Negro Author: His Publisher, His Public and His Purse." In Cary D. Wintz. 1996. Remembering the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Garland: 414-418; James Weldon Johnson, 1929. "Negro Authors and White Publishers. " In Sondra K. Wilson, ed., 1999. The Crisis Reader. New York: Random House, 263-266; Hughes. 1939. "Democracy and Me." In Christoher DeSantis, ed. 2002. The Collected Works of Langston Hughes, Essays on Art, Race, Politics, and World Affairs. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 203-206; Harold Bloom. 2004. The Harlem Renaissance. Broomall: Chelsea House Publishers.)). These white publishers were often criticized for their so-called obsession with the "low life" of the Negro, when they should have been participating in the uplifting of the Negro, through the portrayal of bourgeois or middle-class characters. For many, the epitome of such a supposed trend was the publication by Knopf of Van Vechten's Nigger Heaven (1926), whose title was actually never meant as derogatory, but was a reference to the segregated area where Blacks were meant to sit in theaters. Charles Chesnutt, one of the forefathers of the Renaissance, and a Victorian in taste, especially lamented the fact that, as Negro books "multiplied with[...] mushroom fecundity," their "moral quality" had not "kept pace with their growth. In fact, they seem to grow baser and baser. Compared with some of the more recent output, Mr. Van Vechten's Nigger Heaven is a Sunday School tract." (Chesnutt, 1999, 518).

Many reviews of The Weary Blues did emphasize the "primitive audaciousness" (Cleveland Herald, January 1926) and "the barbaric and erotic emotionalism" (The Seattle Post Intelligencer May 2, 1926) of Hughes's "caressing" portraits of "Harlem' s little prostitutes". A review of Fine Clothes to the Jew, entitled "Langston Hughes: the Sewer Dweller" (New York Amsterdam News, February 9, 1927) aptly sums up this feeling:

About 100 pages of trash, that is about all we can say of Fine Clothes to the Jew, by Langston Hughes. [...] It reeks of the gutter and sewer [...] .We do not maintain that all poetry should be uplifting, [...] but we do not believe that it should debase merely for the sake of debasing - to satisfy the morbid tendencies of a jazz-crazed world [...]. If poetry of this type is the only kind white publishers will accept, it may be that the world - both the black and the white world - would be just as well off without it (in Dace, 91-92) .

Still the all-too-general portrayal of these publishers feeding on black squalor is misleading. For Boni & Liveright, who published Jean Toomer's Cane, and Knopf, who along with Hughes's first two collections, also published Nella Larsen's novels, Quicksand and Passing, as well as Rudolph Fisher's Walls of Jericho, probably knew that these books would not sell well. In any case, poetry, all the more so when written by Negro writers, has never been known to sell huge numbers of copies. As it turns out, the so-called "primitivist" white publishers who published African American authors were, for many, small, relatively new on the scene, and Jewish - and some of the Negro critics' views might have been tainted by a form of antisemitism. More importantly, because they were small, and set apart from the well-established and reputed WASP tradition in American publishing, these publishers were definitely more innovative, in search of the daring modernist avant-garde, which they financed through their solid backlists - Knopf especially had built his house on translations of Russian and French literature. These were the houses that brought out the future high modernist stars: while Huebsch published Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in the 1910s and D.H. Lawrence's Rainbow in 1915, Liveright published The Waste Land in 1922. As for Alfred and Blanche Knopf, they had begun publishing Pound as early as 1917 (Lustra), followed by Eliot's essay Ezra Pound: His Metric and Poetry (1918) and Poems (1922).

Hence it is essential to consider the poetry and novels of the Harlem Renaissance in the midst not only of a Negro movement, but more globally, as part of the wave of modernist literature of the 1920s. As James Weldon Johnson wrote of Hughes,

Consciously he snaps his fingers at race, as he does at a great many other things. He belongs to the line of rebel poets. He is a rebel not only in the matter of poetic form, but also in the choice of poetic subjects, for, of subjects, he is as likely to take one from the gutter as from any other place (Johnson, 1991, 271).


Langston Hughes might not have published, or perhaps not published at such an early age, without the advent of this fabulous "craze" for Negro writers. There is no denying that the nexus of Negro intellectuals, editors and critics, white patrons and publishers, carried Hughes and his talent to the forefront of the literary scene.

 Some of Hughes's early poems epitomized the very essence of Harlem in the 1920s,

Does a jazz-band ever sob?
They say a jazz-band's gay.  
Yet as the vulgar dancers whirled
And the warm night wore away,
One said she heard the jazz-band sob
When the little dawn was grey. ("Cabaret")

He was a racial artist, a participant in the New Negro movement; yet some were sharp enough to recognize, as early as 1926, that his was a distinct voice

It is [...] as an individual poet, not as a member of a new and interesting literary group, or as spokesman for a race, that Langston Hughes must stand or fall (Heyward, 1997,74).

He was a racial artist; he stands as a true American poet.


Bloom, Harold. 2004. The Harlem Renaissance. Broomall: Chelsea House Publishers.

Chesnutt, Charles W. 1929. "The Negro in Present Day Fiction". In: J. McElrath, R. C. Leitz, J. S. Crisler, eds. 1999. Essays and Speeches. Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp. 516-529.

Cullen, Countée. 1926. "Our Book Shelf: Poet on Poet". Opportunity 4, February. In: T. Dace, ed. 1997. Langston Hughes, The Contemporary Reviews. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 55-57.

Dzwonkoski, Peter, ed. 1986. American Literary Publishing Houses, 1900-1980: Trade and Paperback. Dictionary of Literary Biography, 46. Detroit: Gale Research.

Dace, Tish, ed. 1997. Langston Hughes, The Contemporary Reviews. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fauset, Jessie. 1926. "Our Book Shelf". Crisis, 239. In: T. Dace, ed. 1997. Langston Hughes, The Contemporary Reviews. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 61.

Fishbein, Leslie. 1982. Rebels in Bohemia, The Radicals of The Masses, 1911-1917. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Gates, Henry Louis. 1974. "Of Negroes Old and New". Transition 46, pp. 44-45; 52-58.

Gold, Michael. 1930. "Notes of the Month: Negro Literature". New Masses 5 (February), p. 3.

Heyward, DuBose. 1926. "The Jazz Band's Sob". New York Herald Tribune Books (August 1). In: T. Dace, ed. 1997. Langston Hughes, The Contemporary Reviews. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 74.

Huggins, Nathan. 1995. Voices from the Harlem Renaissance. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hughes, Langston. 2002. The Collected Works of Langston Hughes, vol. 13, Autobiography: The Big Sea. Ed. Joseph McLaren. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

-. 1926. "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain". In: H.L. Gates, N. McKay, eds. 1995. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. New York: W.W. Norton, pp. 1267-1271.

-. 1939. "Democracy and Me. " In: C. DeSantis, ed. 2002. The Collected Works of Langston Hughes, Essays on Art, Race, Politics, and World Affairs. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, pp. 203-206.

Hutchinson, George. 1997. The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard.

Johnson, Charles Weldon. 1991 [1930]. Black Manhattan. New York: Da Capo Paperback.

-. 1929. " Negro Authors and White Publishers." In: S. K. Wilson, ed. 1999. The Crisis Reader. New York: Random House, pp. 263-266.

Kerlin, Robert T. 1926. Opportunity 4 (May). In: T. Dace, ed. 1997. Langston Hughes, The Contemporary Reviews. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 67-68.

Leach, Laurie. 2004. James Langston Hughes: a Biography. Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press.

Lewis, David Levering. 1995. The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader. London, New York: Penguin.

-. 1997. When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Penguin.

Locke, Alain, ed. 1997 [1925]. The New Negro, Voices of the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Madison, Charles Allan. 1976. Jewish Publishing in America: the Impact of Jewish Writing on American Culture. New York: Sanhedrin Press.

Ogbar, Jeffrey. 2010. The Harlem Renaissance Revisited: Politics, Arts, and Letters. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Rampersad, Arnold. 2002. The Life of Langston Hughes: Volume I: 1902-1941, I, Too, Sing America. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Redding, J. Saunders. "The Negro Author: His Publisher, His Public and His Purse."In: C. D. Wintz, ed. 1996. Remembering the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Garland, pp. 414-18.

Soto, Michael. 2001. "Jean Toomer and Horace Liveright; or, A New Negro Gets 'into the Swing of It' ." In G. Fabre, M. Feith, eds. Jean Toomer and the Harlem Renaissance. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, pp. 162-187.

Sylvanise, Frédéric. 2009. Langston Hughes poète jazz, poète blues. Lyon: ENS Editions.

Tebbel, John. 1978-1982. The Golden Age Between Two Wars, 1920-1940. Vol. 3 of A History of Book Publishing in the United States. New York: R.R. Bowker.

Wilson, Sondra Kathryn, ed. 1999. The Crisis Reader. New York: Random House, Modern Library.

Wintz, Cary. 1988. Black Culture and the Harlem Renaissance. Houston, Tx.: Rice University Press.

-. 1996. Remembering the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Garland.

Going further

Baker, Houston A. Jr. 1987. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Davey, Elizabeth. 1998. "Building a Black Audience in the 1930s: Langston Hughes, Poetry Readings, and the Golden Stair Press". In: J. P. Danky, W. A. Wiegand, eds. Print Culture in a Diverse America. Chicago, University of Illinois Press.

Fabre, Geneviève, Michel Feith. 2001. Temples for Tomorrow, Looking Back at the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Soto, Michael. 2008. Teaching the Harlem Renaissance. Peter Lang.

A forum on the Harlem Renaissance, hosted by the Public Broadcasting Service websitehttp://www.pbs.org/newshour/forum/february98/harlem_2-20.html

"Perspectives in American Literature" Chapter on the Harlem Renaissancehttp://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap9/9intro.html

"Harlem, 1900-1940" - An Exhibition Portfolio from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culturehttp://www2.si.umich.edu/chico/Harlem/

A Guide to Harlem Renaissance Materialshttp://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/harlem/harlem.html


Pour citer cette ressource :

Cécile Cottenet, "Publishing during the Harlem Renaissance", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), février 2011. Consulté le 20/05/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-americaine/publishing-during-the-harlem-renaissance