As I apply for academic jobs, I’ve had to revisit my dissertation abstract. Apparently, an abstract should be of something already written–which my book project is not–so I’ve been doing the fairly painful and procrastination-inducing task of revising my dissertation abstract for job materials. Here it goes.
Archives Of Transnational Modernism: Lost Networks Of Art And Activism reassesses the contours of race and gender in literature of the interwar period. Many scholars in recent decades have argued for the centrality of work by women and people of color in modernist literature, chipping away at the hierarchies and exclusiveness that defined modernism for so many years. This project highlights contributions of several women who played crucial roles in international networks of writing and activism—as editors, friends, and organizers. People who acted as hubs in these networks left behind newspaper articles, unpublished manuscripts, letters, and scrapbooks that redefine our understanding of this cultural moment. These forms, tropes, and authors have been historically excluded from the canons of modernism as well as African American literature.
Figures who played key roles as hubs within networks are often reduced to a footnote in the life of a celebrated writer. People like publisher Nancy Cunard, activist Sylvia Pankhurst, editor Charles Barnett, collector Arthur Schomburg, and organizer Louise Thompson created webs of contacts and collaborators to mobilize political campaigns and circulate writing—but often their importance is lost in scholarship that tends to focus on major writers rather than the interpersonal networks that facilitated the writer’s productivity. The archives of such figures contain information about connections among writers and movements. The letters and manuscripts evidence an interconnected history of literature and interpersonal exchange that goes against individualist accounts of literature. Mapping interpersonal networks in literary history offers a methodology that can be applied particularly well to locate those who did not necessarily appear in those networks as authors. Among the connections this dissertation takes up are those between African American writers and white British women in the twentieth century. There is a long history of contact between members of the African diaspora in the Americas and politically active white women in Britain. In part, this dissertation wonders about the position of antiracist white women in the history of the Black Atlantic.
Chapter One considers Jamaican poet Claude McKay’s work at Sylvia Pankhurst’s weekly newspaper The Workers’ Dreadnought while he was in London in 1920. The topics he covered in his Dreadnought articles had an afterlife in his fiction from later in the decade, particularly Banjo. His articles on sailors, docks, nationalism, racism, and cultural panic about white women and black men’s sexuality resonate with many of the themes he pursued throughout the decade. Moreover, McKay’s articles, and Pankhurst’s writing and testimony in a court case involving the paper, provide evidence that challenges McKay’s recollection of this time in his 1937 memoir, A Long Way Home, which distances him from his involvement with left organizations. Sylvia Pankhurst’s inclusion of black and South Asian authors was rather outstanding among publications on the British Left, as well as literary magazines. Pankhurst’s position as an outsider—outside the Communist Party, on the far Left, feminist, anti-imperialist, anti-racist—meant that she has been left behind in the “women editing modernism” conversation as well as studies of the British Left. McKay and Bengali author S.N. Ghose’s presence in the pages of Pankhurst’s publications suggest an expansion of the canon of Black British literature to include these early examples.
In the second chapter, I examine a newly recovered epistolary poem by Langston Hughes (published in 2012 in my Langston Hughes, Nancy Cunard, and Louise Thompson: Poetry, Politics, and Friendship in the Spanish Civil War) in order to reassess the intersections of gender in Hughes’s political poetry, as well as to suggest how Hughes applies the epistolary form to internationalist politics in his poetics. Additionally, the chapter elaborates how real-life women in Hughes’s life facilitated the life of his poems. The letters and manuscripts exchanged between Langston Hughes and women activists—Nancy Cunard, Louise Thompson, Thyra Edwards—evidence a rich, productive literary network. These women’s archives contain a number of poems and ephemera that shift common readings of Hughes’s late 1930s work. The political poetry of the late 1930s, including Hughes’s, tends to be thought of as masculinist, dogmatic poetry. Just as Paula Rabinowitz’s Labor and Desire pointed out the presence of an alternate women’s archive of revolutionary writing within 1930s proletarian literature, this chapter identifies an alternate archive of poetry and literary history related to women activists in Langston Hughes’s late 1930s poetry.
Chapter Three argues that the Spanish Civil War scrapbooks of Nancy Cunard and Thyra Edwards intervene in the anglophone historiography of the war to record experiences of women, children, and refugees. To date, scholarship on African American engagements with Spain has largely focused on the volunteer soldiers and medics who travelled to fight. African American social worker and labor organizer Thyra Edwards’ Spanish Civil War scrapbook illuminates the contributions of women and expands the geographical and political scope of what we typically think of when we consider African American engagements with Spain. Edwards’ scrapbook arranges clippings from the black press. The stories demonstrate the wide geographic span of African American organizing around the cause of Republican Spain, and the importance of women organizers in mobilizing the response. The scrapbook also makes clear the variety of organizations involved in these fundraising efforts—not just organizations on the Left, as would be expected, but also fraternal organizations, the NAACP, and black churches across the South and Midwest. Cunard’s scrapbook, Cosas de España, 1936-1946, composed in 1949, assembles her “Things from Spain.” These scrapbooks, archives unto themselves, reflect on the violent erasure of things lost to fascist, Nazi, and Francoist aggressions, and represent life after the war for Republicans in exile in France and Mexico. More broadly, this third chapter joins works like Ellen Gruber Garvey’s Writing with Scissors to suggest the scrapbook as a form for African American studies to embrace. A form that curates public and private fragments, it has the potential to be—and a history of being—put to critical use, challenging and supplementing mainstream media accounts.
The conclusion offers a methodology for revealing networks of black internationalism housed in institutional archives, which considers the possibilities digital archives brings to these questions. The fragmentary archives that this dissertation draws upon were often vulnerable to the conditions of exile and poverty their creators faced. Newspapers, correspondence, scrapbooks, pamphlets, and unpublished manuscripts tend not to be widely available in books. They are, however, suited for non-linear presentations. Digital technologies provide exciting possibilities for recovering and circulating archival materials. A project on “Mapping Black Internationalism,” could be imagined as something along the lines of Stanford’s Mapping the Republic of Letters, populated with case studies like those in this dissertation, which would illuminate new texts, translations, collections, and publishing projects that revise current understandings of interwar African American literature.
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