Horace A. Porter, editor: Dreaming Out Loud: African American Novelists at Work (University Of Iowa Press, 2015)
Black scholar/literary critic and teacher since 1979 at American Ivy League universities (see his autobiography, The Making of a Black Scholar: From Georgia to the Ivy League, University of Iowa Press, 2003), Horace A. Porter (1950-) in his preface to Dreaming Out Loud: African American Novelist at Work writes that “My experience teaching courses as well as writing about novelists, particularly African American authors *, led me to edit this anthology.”
Divided in three parts, Porter in this teacher’s compendium has selected 26 contributions published between 1926 and 2007 by 21 African American novelists** – many also poets, essayists, and playwrights – writing in their own words On Becoming African American Novelists (Part One), On Aesthetics, Craft, and Publication (Part Two), and On Writing Major Novels (Part Three).
Manifestos. Porter reprints two now classic 1926 manifestos. In Criteria of Negro Art W.E.B. DuBois, the foremost African American intellectual of the first half of the twentieth century, wrote: “Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists.”
And Langston Hughes, poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance, in The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, writes: “But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America – this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.”
Hughes, praising Jean Toomer’s modernist classic Cane (1923), also writes: “Excepting the work of DuBois, Cane contains the finest prose written by a Negro in America.” And Criteria of Negro Art proves him right: The prose here, and in his masterpiece The Souls of Black Folk (1903), sings like poetry, propaganda not excluding art in DuBois’ complex aesthetic of Beauty, Truth and Art.
Major novels. The six novels introduced by their authors are Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), Margaret Walker’s Jubilee (1966), Ernest J. Gaines’ The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982), and a second novel by Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying (1993), testimony to Porter’s high regard for this writer.
How Bigger Was Born, Wright’s often reprinted introduction to Native Son and the novel’s protagonist, and Ellison’s introduction to the thirtieth anniversary edition of Invisible Man, are excerpted here, but the full text of both are easy enough to find elsewhere.
Porter dedicates this collection of essays to Ralph Ellison and his younger protégé, the short story writer James Alan McPherson of Hue and Cry (1968) and Elbow Room (1977). On reading Ellison’s Invisible Man in 1968 as a freshman at Amherst College Porter writes: “The book shook me with the force of an earthquake. It was the perfect book for me … precisely when I needed it.”
And Porter went on to become a friend and correspondent with both Ellison and McPherson. But let us take a closer look at some of these novelists/fiction writers.
The novel and the folktale. On his art and the novel Ellison writes: “I knew that I was composing a work of fiction, a work of literary art and one that would allow me to take advantage of the novel’s capacity for telling the truth while actually telling a ‘lie’, which is the Afro-American folk term for an improvised story. Having worked in barbershops where that form of oral art flourished, I knew that I could draw upon the rich culture of the folk tale as well as that of the novel …”
And Ellison would agree with James Alan McPherson when he writes in his 1978 essay On Becoming an American Writer that each American citizen, to approximate the ideals of the nation and its Fourteenth Amendment – granting citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” including former slaves recently freed – should “be on at least conversant terms with all its diversity ...” Living with all of its contradictions, you would be simply “a representative American.” The tradition of the novel and the folktale, both.
Miss Jane. Ernest J. Gaines’ 1978 extended essay Miss Jane and I¸ on his early life and the start of his writing career, is reprinted from his Mozart and Leadbelly: Stories and Essays (2005): “I was discharged from the army in 1955, and I enrolled at San Francisco State College. When I told my advisor that I wanted to be a writer, he asked me what else I wanted to be. I told him nothing else.”
The story of the life of Jane Pittman, born in slavery but living for 110 years (1852-1962) to see the civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s, Gaines at first wanted multiple voices to tell her story – like in his short story Just Like a Tree –, but after a visit with poet Alvin Aubert at Southern University at Baton Rouge, he decided to let Miss Jane tell her own story, thinking that that way he could better keep the story in a straight line, controlling the narrative. He was wrong:
“Once the story really got moving, Miss Jane did and said pretty much what she wanted, and all I could do was act as her editor, never her adviser.” Many readers thought her a real-life person.
Some favorites. If a reader of African American literature for the last fifty years, there will be few essays new to you, but many worth the re-reading.
Some of my own favorites – beyond those discussed above – are James Baldwin’s 1964 essay Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare on his struggle to make the bard’s language “bear the burden of my experience”; Arna Bontemps’ introduction to the 1968 reprint of his novel Black Thunder (1936) on Gabriel Prosser’s 1800 slave revolt in Virginia; Margaret Walker’s How I Wrote Jubilee (1972), her civil war novel years in the making and revisions, Walker cutting out heavy expository and purely historical passages to free her compelling story of unnecessary burdens.
And there is novelist John Edgar Wideman’s preface to bestselling novelist Terry McMillan’s comprehensive anthology Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African American Fiction (1990); Alice Walker’s essay on Writing The Color Purple, her prizewinning novel; and …
I could go on. And if you are new to reading, and reading about, African American literature, so should you. Or maybe, like me, you may just want to go back a second – or third – time.
UFI// 20 March 2020
*See Stealing the Fire: The Art and Protest of James Baldwin (Wesleyan University Press, 1989), and Jazz Country: Ralph Ellison in America (University of Iowa Press, 2001). Horace A. Porter is also an associate editor of the seminal anthology Call and Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998).
**The nine novelists/contributors not otherwise mentioned in this article are: James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, Chester Himes, Toni Morrison, Ishmael Reed, Charles Johnson, Gayl Jones, Walter Mosley, and Martha Southgate.
UFI | 03/20/2020