to Professor Cleanth Brooks
The Eternal Linkage of Literature and
By Wilson J. Moses
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:
Poetry and the Tradition (1939), and
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
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
The following pages are my response to Dean Kagan's
and Professor Brooks' invocation
of The Doctor.
W. J. Moses
* * * * *
Eternal Linkage of Literature and Society
of English and History
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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."
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
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.
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
You should live naked, naked and free
black skin is not God's curse
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
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.
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
Quantus tremor est
Quando judex est
Cuncta stricte discussurus
Tuba mirum spargens sonum
Per sepulcra regionum
Coget omnes ante thronum
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
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?"
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
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.
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
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
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
Northrup Frye that the social and historical
interest we find in a verse cannot suffice alone to raise it to
the level of poetry.
goes man of high impulse
princely mien and grace
goes a man of humble faith
credit to his race
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."
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.
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.
was written in an environment that produced the following
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
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
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."
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.
daughter of the lotus leaves that watch the southern sea
spirit of a prisoned soul a-panting to be free
muttered music of thy streams, the whisper of the deep
kissed each other in God's name, and kissed a world to
will of the world is a whistling wind, sweeping a
not from the East and not from the West knelled that
out of the South,—the sad, black South—it screamed
from the top of the sky,
"Awake, O ancient race! wailing, "O woman,
crying and sighing and crying again as a voice in the
the burden of white men bore her back and the white world
stifled her sighs.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
* * *
* * * *
Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays
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,
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'."
* * *
The Persistence of the Color Line
Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency
By Randall Kennedy
Among the best things about
The Persistence of the Color Line
is watching Mr. Kennedy hash through the
positions about Mr. Obama staked out by
black commentators on the left and
right, from Stanley Crouch and Cornel
West to Juan Williams and Tavis Smiley.
He can be pointed. Noting the way Mr.
Smiley consistently “voiced skepticism
regarding whether blacks should back
Obama” . . .
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.
* * *
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
* * *
Ancient African Nations
* * * * *
If you like this page consider making a donation
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Negro Digest /
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* * * * *
The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Only a Pawn in Their Game
Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for
George Jackson /
* * *
The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
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