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this beautiful, vivacious mulatto woman . . .delighted my sister and me . . .

with the story of a mad sea captain named Ahab, and his travels

 in search of a white sea-maggot, named Moby Dick.



A Response to Professor Cleanth Brooks

The Eternal Linkage of Literature and Society

By Wilson J. Moses


This paper was delivered as a response to a presentation by the distinguished scholar, Cleanth Brooks at a Conference held at Boston University: “The Changing Culture of the University.”  November 3, 1990.  Professor Brooks, a leader of the Southern Literary Renaissance during the 1930s was among the foremost American literary theorists.  He became associated with the "New Criticism" when he coedited from 1935-1942, The Southern Review with Robert Penn Warren.   He taught at Yale University, and contributed largely to the literary reputation of Faulkner.  Two of his texts, in particular: Modern Poetry and the Tradition (1939), and The Well Wrought Urn (1947) profoundly influenced American culture and literary ideology. 

Professor Brooks' paper began with an autobiographical sketch and ended with the following words:

It is foolish to assume that each of us is sealed up in some private and impenetrable envelope.   The Dean of Yale College has recently spoken on this point with eloquent authority.  A few weeks ago, in addressing the newly arrived freshmen, Dean Kagan spoke as follows:


In response to those who claim that Western culture is relevant only to a limited group, it is enough to quote W.E.B. Du Bois, the African-American intellectual and political leader, writing at the turn of the century in a Jim Crow America:  "I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not.  Across the color line I walk arm and arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls.  From out of the caves of the evening that swing between the strong limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn or condescension.  So, wed with truth, I dwell above the veil."  For him the wisdom of the West's great writers was valuable for all, and he would not allow himself or others to be deprived of it because of the accident of race.

The following pages are my response to Dean Kagan's and Professor Brooks'  invocation of The Doctor.

W. J. Moses

Boston University 1990

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The Eternal Linkage of Literature and Society

Wilson J. Moses

Professor of English and History

Boston University

For the past fifty years the academy has been split over the question of whether historical and sociological methods are appropriate to the concerns of literary scholarship.   It is the perpetuation of this debate and not the issue of remaking the canon that dominates Professor Brooks' animadversions in this paper, which was sent to me on October 23 and on which these remarks are based.   It may seem surprising that the director of an African-American studies program finds very little to disagree with in this paper, but that is, in fact the case, and as I proceed with my remarks, I believe the reasons why will become evident.  In the course of my response I shall be concerned with two ends.  By engaging in the medieval, and Catholic, tradition of disputation, on which this conference is founded, I hope through dialogue to shed new light on timeless truths in the content of Professor Brooks essay.  I shall be precise about exactly those areas where I disagree, but I intend to spend the greater part my commentary addressing those areas where we are fundamentally in agreement.

Professor Brooks has pointedly reminisced in the opening lines of his paper, on the central role of language training in prep schools attended by comfortable Southern white youth before the first world war.  This variety of education based in the study of foreign language that he experienced, and perhaps even enjoyed, certainly represents a worthy ideal.   Unfortunately, there are very few Americans who are willing to pay for language education today.  Bilingual education is supported primarily by ethnically focused communities, who are obsessed with their cultural heritages and seeking to pass them on to their children.  With the exception of those who support Hebrew schools, Islamic schools and Spanish-speaking schools, there are very few Americans who are committed to training American youth in foreign languages.  Perhaps Greek and Latin are not sufficient to meet the needs of American youth in the present age.  It may be that studies in Russian, Chinese, or Persian would better suit the needs of modern school children, but there can be no arguing with Professor Brooks' point that we would do well in this country to return to the good old days when language study was the basis of all learning in the humanities.  Such training would certainly make a difference in how we approached the study of literature.

Since my own foreign language abilities are sadly limited, so too, must be my reminiscences on the pleasures of reading a great deal in foreign languages.  I am told that the subtleties of Japanese can never be mastered by anyone who has not learned it as a child and that it is impossible to capture the essence of the Koran in any language but Arabic; however, I am also told that much of the best that has been thought and written is native to these traditions.   I found this a humbling idea, when studying some years ago at the Goethe Institute.   I had among my colleagues many students from non-western countries, who in addition to knowing their own traditions, displayed a remarkable interest in European and American arts and letters.  With one of them, a young Japanese businessman, I struck up an acquaintance, based on our common interest in Verdi and Puccini.  He had studied English, as well as German in school, and he wanted to know my opinions on the poetry of Wordsworth.   Even if I had not been a college professor, he would have expected me, an English speaking college graduate, to be familiar with Wordsworth.

My introduction to the canon began, as did Professor Brooks' in early childhood.   I was five years old and almost through kindergarten, when my mother was released from the TB sanitarium where she had been since shortly after my fourth birthday.  She was awfully happy, and yet anxious, about being reunited with her children and eager to make up for lost time.  And I after spending a year with my grandmother in Chicago was with the rediscovery of this beautiful, vivacious mulatto woman, whom I could scarcely remember, who delighted my sister and me shortly after she brought us home to Detroit, with the story of a mad sea captain named Ahab, and his travels in search of a white sea-maggot, named Moby Dick.

She introduced us to a set of books that is still among my most treasured possessions, a series of twelve volumes, edited by Olive Beapré Miller, entitled The Book House for Children.  The purpose of this series was to introduce children to the literatures of the world by retelling the great myths and legends of all the world's peoples.  Europe was the focus, to be sure, but African and Asian tales were also included as well as American Indian myths and legends.  The great thing about these books, although I did not know it at the time, was that they introduced us not only to the Western canon, but to the socio-historical method of studying that canon; so from earliest childhood, it always seemed natural to me that literature and history, music and biography should go hand in hand.

The other element in Olive Beapré Miller's method was to insist on the moral power of storytelling.   Great literature, in her mind, was associated with great lessons.  In the twelfth volume of The Book House all the stories in all the volumes were indexed according to themes, that is according to the moral lessons that they supposedly illustrated.  If you wanted to teach your child about courage, you could turn to volume 10, page 38, and so it was that my dark-haired, eccentric mother first read me the story of Beowulf.  By the time I was twelve years old, I had dipped into book eleven, with its capsulated version of The Divine Comedy called, "A Dream of the Middle Ages."   It was there I first saw the drawing by Gustave Doré of Francesca and Paolo, "hung together, poised upon the wind," and in a footnote I was informed that "The fantasia, Francesca Da Rimini, by the Russian composer, Tschaikowsky, is based on the story of Francesca and Paolo, as given in this poem by Dante."

I don't know what good it did a little colored boy on the east side of Detroit to have this information, but by the time, I was fourteen, I had pretty-well worked my way through the two Tchaikovsky compositions that my father had in his collections of 78 RPM recordings, and when good old mom brought home a translation of Dante's Divine Comedy complete with all the Doré engravings, well, wasn't I in seventh heaven.  I read the entire Inferno, although I didn't have the foggiest notion of what I was reading.  But perhaps that the story of Dante's devotion and the concept of Platonic love saved me during my sexually deprived adolescence, from many of the problems that befall black boys.   I attended a Roman Catholic Parochial school, where my two sisters and I constituted half the colored population.  Sexual Puritanism was a good defense mechanism in that working-class German and Italian environment.

Not that I was unaware of my deprivation.  I remember two lines from a poem that my father kept among his souvenirs of Morehouse College, entitled "Song of the Negro Dancer," which was my first introduction to Afrocentric romanticism.

You should live naked, naked and free

Where black skin is not God's curse

Wondrous sentiments, but as I said, I was puritanical and most of my affectionate relationships were Platonically focused on the Beatrices and Lauras within my circle of acquaintances.  What really kept me so puritanical, was the dominant myth of my adolescence the story of Emmet Till, a colored boy from Chicago, who got himself lynched for recklessly eyeballing a white woman.   The self-defensive Puritanism had its true origins in the stoical example of my uncomplaining father, whose traditions was not unrelated to the tradition of Puritanism found in the Nation of Islam.  I was, of course, aware of being black, but although I liked to fancy myself the descendant of proud African warriors, I identified strongly with the medieval traditions of Roman Catholicism.   I was dutifully reverential towards the memory of George Washington Carver, and worshipped Joe Louis like a god, but as a Roman Catholic, I also felt that in a special way, the heritage of Dante, and Michelangelo belonged to me.

Like everyone else in my high school, I know by heart at least one Latin poem, the twelfth century text by Thomas of Celano, and although I couldn't translate it word for word, I knew, in general, what it meant

Dies Irae, dies Illa

Solvet saeclum in favilla

Teste David cum Sibylla.

Quantus tremor est futurus

Quando judex est venturus

Cuncta stricte discussurus

Tuba mirum spargens sonum

Per sepulcra regionum

Coget omnes ante thronum

When I was sixteen, and in the eleventh grade a darling Italian girl, named Sheila sat in front of me in  home room presided over by the kindly Sister Jane.  I still have the painting that I did of Sheila; she was one of those blonde blue eyed Italian girls, who look like Rhine maidens.    I used to entertain her with songs and stories of Wagner, with tales of Siegmund and Sieglinda, and Fasolt and Fafner, and Hunding and the Dragons blood, and the forest bird, and Mime, and the magic sword.   It was in Sheila's honor that I committed to memory Michelangelo's sonnet "To the Unknown of Bologna," which, it now occurs to me, I have not recalled for thirty years, and I am astonished that I still remember any of it.

The blossoms twined garland in her hair

Delighteth so to cross her sunny tress

That flowers one before the other press

To be the first to kiss that forehead fair

Her gown all day puts on a blissom air

Clingeth then floweth free for happiness

Her meshed net rejoiceth  to carress

The cheek whereon it lies and nestle there

More fortunate her golden pointed lace

Taketh her breathing in as close a hold

As if it cherished what it did enfold

And sacred zone that doth her waist embrace

Seemeth to plead, "Here give me leave to stay,

What would my arms do, if they had their way?"

Sheila was a quiet, pretty, and extremely shy girl, who went to communion almost daily.   I was a clown and a show-off, frequently admonished by my parents and the devoted German nuns that if I did not apply myself more diligently to Latin and algebra, I would end up a ditch-digger.  But although I was a confused black boy, living in a kind of Limbo, between the black and white working classes, I knew that perfectly good translations of Julius Caesar had been around for centuries.  Why should I worry myself with Latin declensions when, I could be learning sociology from the novels of Robert A. Heinlein, or historical theory from those of Isaac Asimov? Or when I could hang out with the black boys in the neighborhood learning the story of "Shine," who was shoveling coal on the Titanic, when she struck the iceberg, but who made it to shore after a fantastic adventure. 

Shine swam three days and he swam three nights

And when he reached Detroit he was ready to fight

When the news reached Detroit the Titanic had sunk

Shine was on Hastings Street, sloppy drunk.  

It was good to be initiated into the profane tradition which is part of the adolescent experience of black boys, but was this to be my self image?   Or should I seriously aspire to the ideals represented in the Idyll of Launcelot and Elaine.   What was Africa to me?  Certainly it had no more reality than Lohengrin or Parsifal.   When I started to college at Wayne State University, I began to read W.E.B. Du Bois and learned of his fascination with German opera and the myth of Lohengrin.   I joined the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, the fraternity of W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King,, and Thurgood Marshall, where I vowed to uphold the chastity of woman, and paid lip-service to the knightly ideals of the following verse.  I find it a perfect illustration of the principle articulated by Northrup Frye that the social and historical interest we find in a verse cannot suffice alone to raise it to the level of poetry.

There goes man of high impulse

Of princely mien and grace

There goes a man of humble faith

A credit to his race

No, although I find this verse interesting for historical purposes, I do not consider it a statement of much originality or literary interest.  On the other hand, I find that Frye and others who attack the sociological method are often guilty of representing the arguments of their opponents only by the most grotesque and extreme examples.  A concern for social, historical, and moral issues need not be a substitute for the joy of language, employed with wit and precision.   I think, however, that we do a disservice to the western tradition in literature, when we ignore or seek to override those principles so often interpreted as the basis of Dr. Johnson's critical theory, that the poet must, "trace the changes of the human mind as they are modified by various institutions and accidental influences of climate or custom." 

I shall not presume to improve on Johnson's assertion that literary documents are social texts.  Many of you are certainly aware that while Johnson understood that the human mind was influenced by institutions and customs, he also believed in "general and transcendental truths."   This century has witnessed the permanent demolition of many truths that we once assumed to be eternal, such as our erstwhile faith in science, which is everywhere in shambles.  And we need not travel as far as Saudi Arabia to discover the elusiveness of "transcendental truth."  There are many reminders in our own American society that we remain as petulantly frustrated as Pilate in our search for the truth that will free us from conflict and violence.

I shall not presume to lecture this audience to the effect that literary documents are social texts   We have all heard and understood the contours of the discourse carried on by Horace and Sidney and Dr. Johnson down through the centuries.  Professor Brooks, certainly, was acquainted with all the arguments, many years before I was born, and heard them delivered by persons more splendidly situated than I to defend the position.   If he was not convinced thirty years ago by his reading of Douglass Bush's Preface to The Fairy Queen, or forty years ago by C.S. Lewis's Preface to Paradise Lost  he certainly is not going to be converted by anything I have to say this afternoon.   But, for my part, I have never doubted that some great literary texts are overtly political, and that others while claiming to be universal are unconsciously prejudiced.   I knew this very well, at the age of  fourteen, when I read that Dante had the habit of putting all his enemies into hell.  My own observations convinced me that part of Shakespeare's art was to reveal ironies, ambivalences and ambiguities concerning the role of Jews and Moors in a Renaissance Europe where Catholicity was anything but a synonym for universal tolerance.  Othello  was written in an environment that produced the following document.

Her Majesty understanding that there are of late divers blackamoors brought into this realme, of which kind there are already too manie, considering how God hath blessed this land with great increase of people of our owne nation . . .  those kinds of people should be sent forthe of the lande. Acts of Privy Council, August 11, 1596

I winced, at age fourteen, when I first read those lines, "Mislike me not for my complexion shaddowed livery of the burnished sun."  Why, I wondered, must Tubal enter the Venetian scene with an apology on his lips.  My discomfort, however, was nothing compared to that of, William Ashby, a black man in the Yale class of 1916, who described a lecture in a Shakespeare in which the professor, while standing over Ashby offered the following commentary:

Let us imagine a scene something like this . . . Brabantio was deeply concerned about the fate of his daughter, Desdemona.   Othello had not won her love fairly.  He was a black man, a foreigner.   He had captivated her by tricks, bewitched her by incantations, conquered my darling weak daughter by his eloquent boasts of thrilling tales of battles he had fought and conquests he had made.   He has cast a spell over my daughter.  That nigger wants to marry my daughter.   I ask you gentlemen, how would you feel if a nigger asked the hand of your daughter?  I am a Senator of Venice.  This Moor seeks social equality with me.  I call upon my friends, my attendants to "lynch this nigger."

"I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not," wrote Du Bois, but let us remember that Du Bois did not write his famous lines as a rebuke to future black children or their teachers who might someday believe, perhaps naively, in an Afrocentric curriculum.  He wrote his words as an indictment of the attitude that still persisted years later, on the part of William Ashby's teacher at Yale.  Let us remember, that Du Bois became a defender of Stalin, and that he died in exile, in Africa, where, as he fancied, "Socialism blossoms bold, on Communism, centuries old."  Despite his erudition in the Western tradition, Du Bois was no opponent of Afrocentrism, far from it.   He was one of the leading proponents of the Afrocentric world view, which he unveiled in the 1919 version of his poem, "The Riddle of the Sphinx," where Greek and Germanic mythology--memories of Ulysses and Brünnhilde, are transformed within a Hegelian web into a prophecy of African Redemption.

Dark daughter of the lotus leaves that watch the southern sea

Wan spirit of a prisoned soul a-panting to be free

The muttered music of thy streams, the whisper of the deep

Have kissed each other in God's name, and kissed a world to sleep


The will of the world is a whistling wind, sweeping a cloud-swept sky,

And not from the East and not from the West knelled that soul-waking cry,

But out of the South,—the sad, black South—it screamed from the top of the sky,

Crying, "Awake, O ancient race! wailing, "O woman, arise!"

And crying and sighing and crying again as a voice in the midnight cries,—

But the burden of white men bore her back and the white world stifled her sighs.

I have often used this poem in my teaching, to illustrate the principle that mythological allusions reveal the constant changes that occur in a literary tradition as it moves through  time and space.   The contextualizing of poetry does not denude it of meaning, on the contrary, it adds layers of complexity, irony, and ambiguity to the meanings with which an active mind may endow it.   If working through a poem can be seen in the same way as the weaving of Penelope's tapestry, then the processes of construction and deconstruction should be perceived as a perfectly normal and traditional way of maintaining things as they ought to be.   I think Professor Brooks is correct when he says that there is nothing new here.  

I suppose it would be begging the question to ask for empirical demonstrations of Professor Brooks' claims concerning the science-worshipping tendencies of contemporary society.  I have an intuitive feeling that while he may be right he is almost certainly overstating his case, and that the sources of the current crisis in literary studies are elsewhere than in knee-jerk scientism.   Furthermore, it is difficult to discern a genetic connection between our current sometimes divisive ethnocentricism and those cosmopolitan ideals of the enlightenment, immortalized in Schiller's "Ode to Joy."  As Peter Nozick has argued, in That Noble Dream, scientific objectivism is in serious difficulty at this time.  Neither social scientists nor historians are able to take it seriously, and as for the hard sciences, they are perhaps in even greater difficulty than the humanities.   My impression is that most American intellectuals born since 1940, are terribly frightened of science, which in their experience has bred numerous Frankensteins.   Ask any dean of any graduate school in any American research university, and you are likely to be told that we are having tremendous difficulty getting American students to pursue the doctorate in engineering, the sciences or the applied technologies.  The situation in medical schools is equally disturbing, for I have been told that the quantity and quality of applicants has been declining for several years.

It is not rationalism gone wild, but a recrudescence of romantic, evangelical nationalism, that is at the basis of this current wave of ethnocentrism.  Leopold Senghor, the poet president of Senegal, and one of the inventors of Negritude, one of the manifestations of the Afrocentic movement, speaking at the Frankfurter Buchmesse in 1982, specifically disavowed any connection between Negritude and the enlightenment, except, as a rejection of it.   Senghor insisted that Francophone Africans, like nineteenth century Germans, had created romantic nationalism in reaction to enlightenment rationalism and what he saw as its by-product, French imperial expansion.   Afrocentricity has numerous definitions, and I am not certain that I have understood or considered every possible meaning that the term might have.  But if I have any understanding of what it is that the Afrocentrists hope to accomplish, I believe it is no more and no less than a way of easing black students into a study of the general  and transcendental truth, through the gateway of the specific.   They are seeking a concrete universal or an objective correlative, on which to anchor a more abstract and generalized perception.

I am therefore happy that Professor Brooks chose to conclude his presentation with the quotation from W.E.B. Du Bois.   The fact that he has done so demonstrates a good awareness of the Afrocentric aims that are understood by some of the movement's most far-sighted advocates.  More important, it also shows the humanity, the decency, and the capacity for continuing growth of one of the foremost representatives of the American tradition in the humanities.

posted 11 June 2005

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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis 

Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America. This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as "the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field 'cut their teeth'."

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The Persistence of the Color Line

Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency

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The finest chapter in The Persistence of the Color Line is so resonant, and so personal, it could nearly be the basis for a book of its own. That chapter is titled “Reverend Wright and My Father: Reflections on Blacks and Patriotism.”  Recalling some of the criticisms of America’s past made by Mr. Obama’s former pastor, Mr. Kennedy writes with feeling about his own father, who put each of his three of his children through Princeton but who “never forgave American society for its racist mistreatment of him and those whom he most loved.”  His father distrusted the police, who had frequently called him “boy,” and rejected patriotism. Mr. Kennedy’s father “relished Muhammad Ali’s quip that the Vietcong had never called him ‘nigger.’ ” The author places his father, and Mr. Wright, in sympathetic historical light.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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