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Archive for the 'Literary Studies' Category

Thursday, July 2nd, 2015

Thursday Fiction Corner — A New Perspective on Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

As Anne Fernald suggests in her very thoughtful review of Virginia Woolf: A Portrait, by Viviane Forrester, we don’t suffer from a lack of books on or biographies of Virginia Woolf. However, Forrester’s work, which won the Prix Goncourt award for biography, in its distinct approach to Woolf’s life does offer something new and important in our understanding of Woolf’s life and work. Fernald writes:

[Virginia Woolf] offers unexpected insights and useful challenges to settled ideas about Woolf, her friendships, her marriage, and her imagination. Progressing in sections through five key relationships in Woolf’s life—her husband, her family of origin, her sister Vanessa Bell and Bloomsbury, other writers, and death itself…. Bad or lazy biographers draw straight lines, linking historical figures to fictional characters. Forrester never does that. Instead, she shows patterns of imagery, suggestive links, taking up seldom-quoted diary entries and juxtaposing them against less-familiar passages from the novels to illuminate something that, at its best, seems both fresh and apt.

Much like her subject, Forrester’s own life was both accomplished and complicated. As Fernald writes, these similarities color and strengthen Forrester’s book:

In short, Forrester’s life contained many of the key elements of Woolf’s, but arranged differently: haute-bourgeois family, close acquaintance with painters (a husband, a sister), intellectual background, a mixed Jewish-Protestant marriage that saw strains but endured, and suicide. These personal connections, these experiences, similar but different, add poignancy and authority to her several meditations on living in an atmosphere of anti-Semitism, the artist’s life, and the complex factors that lead to suicide.

(more…)

Monday, June 29th, 2015

Columbia University Press to Publish New Translations of Russian Literature

Columbia University Press  Russian Flag

We were very excited to read today’s New York Times included an article on our ambitious and very exciting new series of Russian literature in translation. The series, tentatively titled the Russian Library (on Twitter at @RusLibrary) will publish dozens of works in modern Russian literature as selected by the Press and a committee of Russian and American scholars.

While the first books are unlikely to be published until after 2017, the books will include some modern classics in need of new translations with a majority of the titles being contemporary and post-Soviet works. In addition to bringing these works to the attention of English-language readers, the hope is that the series will also contribute to improving relations between the United States and Russia. Stephanie Sandler, a professor in the Slavic Department at Harvard University and one of several American professors to travel to Moscow for the conference, commented:

Think about the good work that can be done by making available a wide variety of perspectives on Russia both from the past and the present. For many of us, the reason to be involved in the project and have it happen precisely at what would seem this inauspicious, high-tension political moment, is that we can start to find bridges between the two cultures and ways to talk to each other.

The series will also help develop a canon for more recent Russian literature, a project that’s not without its challenges as Caryl Emerson, a professor of Slavic Literature at Princeton University, explains:

Part of the problem is the delicacy of trying to define a future canon. The past is established. The Russians take their identity from what they read. What happens when you have a traumatic regime shift? People want things out there that are not known in the West but at what point are they worthy of being known?

(more…)

Thursday, June 18th, 2015

Thursday Fiction Corner: Portrait of the Artist as a Thrusting Spiral

Brancusi's portrait of James Joyce

Extending the concept of Bloomsday to Bloomsweek, we take a look at James Joyce for our Thursday Fiction Corner. Specifically, we feature a short excerpt from Nico Israel’s Spirals: The Whirled Image in the Twentieth-Century Literature and Art, in which he examines the use of spirals in Joyce’s work and Brancusi’s spiralesque portrait of the writer (see above) :

In 1929, the editors of the newly formed, Paris-based English-language publishing house Black Sun Press commissioned a drawing of James Joyce from the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi for a limited edition of fragments of the ongoing Work in Progress that they planned to publish later that year. Brancusi
produced two drawings that certainly resembled Joyce but did not have the modern signature style sought by the editors, so the editors asked the artist to try again. This time, Brancusi created a far more abstract work, titled Symbole de Joyce, consisting of three vertical, straight lines of varying lengths spaced at intervals along the paper and, on the right half of the drawing, a large Archimedean spiral (figure 28). Brancusi later commented that this portrait captured le sens du pousser (the sense of pushing or thrusting) he thought to be his model’s principal characteristic. Joyce’s biographer Richard Ellmann claims that when Brancusi’s drawing was eventually shown to Joyce’s father, who had not seen his self-exiled son in many years, the elder Joyce wryly remarked, “The boy seems to
have changed a good deal.”

(more…)

Wednesday, June 17th, 2015

Was Henry George the 19th-Century Thomas Piketty?

Henry George   Thomas Piketty

The success of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First invited comparisons to Henry George and his own surprise, runaway bestseller Progress and Poverty, which was published in 1879 and sold more than 3 million copies. Aside from their shared status of becoming unlikely bestselling authors, Piketty and George’s work focuses, in part, on the relationship between capitalism and inequality. Moreover, both are advocates of the market but worry that a concentration of wealth corrupts it and is a threat to democracy. George’s life and writings are, of course, the subject of Edward T. O’Donnell’s new intellectual biography, Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age.

In an essay on the two Charles Lane, writing in The Washington Post, comments:

To Piketty, like George an admirer of market efficiency and opponent of protectionism, the resulting accumulation of wealth in relatively few hands threatens economic fairness, economic dynamism — and democracy. “Extreme inequality makes it impossible to have proper working of democratic institutions,” Piketty told a recent meeting at Washington’s Urban Institute.

And so, updating Henry George’s single tax, Piketty proposes a global wealth tax, making similar claims about its benefits for both equality and growth.

For Piketty and George, the bottom line, both moral and economic, is to socialize “rent” — rent, that is, not in the colloquial sense but in the economic sense of income disconnected from productivity.

It’s an attractive vision: an egalitarian, productive society, purged of parasitical rent-seeking through the expedient of well-aimed taxes.

(more…)

Monday, June 15th, 2015

James Joyce and His Publisher, Sylvia Beach — Keri Walsh

James Joyce and Sylvia Beach

In a recent article in The Irish Times, Keri Walsh, editor of The Letters of Sylvia Beach, examines the difficult relationship between Beach and James Joyce. Beach, of course, was the publisher of Ulysses but became estranged from Joyce after he sold the rights to the novel to Random House. Beach’s difficulties were exacerbated as the Depression and World War II took its toll on her and her famous Parisian bookstore Shakespeare and Company.

However, in 1962, as Walsh explains, Walsh’s connection with Joyce was reaffirmed when she was the guest of honor for the opening of the Martello Tower, where Joyce lived. In describing the impact of the visit and Beach’s influence on modernism, Walsh writes:

The visit of the sprightly 85-year-old Beach allowed her to give her blessing to this new Joycean generation before returning to Paris for the final months of her life. She had devoted herself to a writer, a book and an ideal of artistic community. For a time, she was viewed merely as a handmaiden and secretary, but recent studies have shown her in a fuller light, as a key taste-maker and producer of modernism; as a lesbian; as a feminist; and as the hub of many different modernist circles.

Her own story as a publisher, encourager, connector and framer included many chapters. Along with Joyce, she supported and promoted a wide roster of writers including HD, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Walter Benjamin, Ezra Pound, Richard Wright, and many others. But Joyce was at the core of her commitment to literature, and her commitment to him was the chief enigma of her personality.

What drew them together and what broke them apart? Partly war, partly new friendships, partly Joyce’s health and pecuniary difficulties, partly time, but whatever had severed them in those days, Beach’s trip to Dublin in 1962 served partially to restore the bond, returning her one last time to the energy and promise of their 1922 partnership, and also to that oceanic setting-out of 1904 and the first pages of the book she loved best, Ulysses.

Thursday, June 4th, 2015

Thursday Fiction Corner — The Tale of Genji

The Tale of Genji, Michael Emmerich

For this week’s fiction corner we look at what is considered by many to be the world’s first novel. The following is an interview with Michael Emmerich, author of The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature now available in paper.In the interview, Emmerich discusses, among other subjects, how The Tale of Genji became a classic of Japanese literature, how it changed reading habits, its place in world literature, and his first experience with the novel:

Question: We tend to think of The Tale of Genji as a kind of immortal classic but in fact its history is more complicated. How did it become a national classic or emblematic of Japanese culture and literature?

Michael Emmerich: Genji was written in the early eleventh century, so of course the story of how it achieved its present status as one of the preeminent classics of both national and world literature is very long—a millennium long, in fact—and very complex. I argue that while Genji came to be regarded as a “treasure” very early on at an elite level, ordinary readers had little or no interest in the tale until surprisingly recently. The work that first managed to interest a truly popular readership in Genji—if only indirectly—was a sort of early modern graphic novel called A Fraudulent Murasaki’s Bumpkin Genji that was published over the course of thirteen years, from 1829 to 1842. The way I see it, Bumpkin Genji was crucial because it inspired for the first time in a popular readership the desire to know more about Genji, and then offered itself up as an enjoyable means of satisfying that desire, without actually having to read Genji itself. In other words, Bumpkin Genji popularized the notion of the complete translation of Genji into vernacular Japanese. Then, almost exactly a century later, from 1939 to 1941, the novelist Tanizaki Jun’ichirō published a translation into the Japanese of his day that became a best-seller. That was when Genji really came to be re-canonized not just as a celebrated but unread “treasure,” but as a “national classic” in the sense of “a classic of the Japanese people”—as a work for which, and to which, Japan and its citizens were somehow responsible.

Q: What has been the role of The Tale of Genji in the popularization of Japanese literature in English?

ME: Scholars have long recognized the importance of Arthur Waley’s translation of the tale, The Tale of Genji, which was issues in six volumes from 1925 to 1933. Waley’s version was widely read, and was praised by reviewers from the time its first volume appeared as one of the great works of world literature. In my book, though, I explore the role an earlier partial translation that has now been largely forgotten played in making Genji known—though less as a literary classic than as a portrait of eleventh-century Japan, and as a work by a woman writer. This translation, published in England in 1882, was done by a young Japanese named Suematsu Kenchō. At the time, the publication of a work translated from Japanese was such a rarity that it was actually considered newsworthy, and the notion that women writers had played such a crucial role in creating what is now known as classical Japanese literature made its appearance even more sensational. It’s hard to say how much of an effect the attention Genji garnered, first in 1882, then in 1925, then in 1976 with the publication of Seidensticker’s translation, and again in 2001 when Royall Tyler’s appeared, has had in popularizing Japanese literature more broadly, but I do think it has helped give people an image of Japanese literature as something worth paying attention to.

Q: How has the reception of The Tale of the Genji changed over time?

ME: To tell the truth, I’m somewhat skeptical of the notion of “reception.” In the case of Genji, hardly anyone reads it in the original classical Japanese these days, and even fewer people read it in the form in which it was originally circulated—in calligraphic manuscript rather than typeset book. Instead, most people come into contact with Genji through what I call “replacements.” Translations are perhaps the paradigmatic form of replacement, but there are all kinds of other replacements, too: digests, guides, movies, manga, artworks, designs on kimono. So many people have created so many different kinds of replacements of the tale over the millennium since it first appeared that it would take a book even to begin to explore the trajectory they have followed—as it happens, Columbia University Press has published just such a book: Envisioning the Tale of Genji, edited by Haruo Shirane—but I think one might at least say that, over the centuries, the forms Genji’s replacements take have moved further and further away from the forms in which it was first circulated.

(more…)

Thursday, May 28th, 2015

Thursday Fiction Corner: Colson Whitehead on Coney Island

A Coney Island Reader

With summer just around the corner, we thought we would devote this week’s fiction corner to one of the season’s icons: Coney Island. Specifically, here is Colson Whitehead’s very particular take on the neighborhood and the beach, which was included in the recently published A Coney Island Reader: Through Dizzy Gates of Illusion, edited by Louis J. Parascandola and John Parascandola.

Whitehead’s essay “Coney Island,” gives a stream-of-consciousness account of a typical day looking at both the good and the bad, and of course, screaming on the Cyclone. Whitehead writes:

A rollercoaster is your mind trying to reconcile two contradictory propositions. Earth and space, cement and air, city and sea. Life and death. Choose quickly. The city and the sea don’t get along, never have. Two trash-talking combatants, two old bitter foes.

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

An interview with Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, Author of Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett

Theatre and Evolution, Kirsten Shepherd-Barr

The following is an interview with Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, author of Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett:

Question: What initially struck the connection between the theatrical arts and evolutionary theory? What specifically drew you to evolutionary theory as a lens?

Kirsten Shepherd-Barr: I had written about it before for my book Science on Stage in 2006, where I devoted each chapter to an area of science, such as physics, evolution, math, medicine, etc. After I finished it, the chapter I really wanted to pursue in a lot more depth was the one on evolution. Then around 2009 everyone was gearing up for the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species and Darwin’s 200th birthday so there was this massive worldwide interest in Darwin. I was asked to do a panel on “Darwin and the Theater” for the International Darwin Festival in Cambridge. I brought together two playwrights and a neuroscientist who had been a theater director earlier in his career. I did a lot of research for the panel and it revealed to me how much there was to still delve into. And the other piece of the puzzle was that I had come across fantastically interesting books on Darwin and the novel, but nothing on Darwin and drama. It struck me that there was so much to say about theater and evolution and it became very clear to me that it was going to go way beyond Darwin. It’s not just a 19th century phenomenon, either; it’s looking over the past 200 years at evolutionary theory’s development.

At the festival in Cambridge, there was a wonderful exhibition on Darwin and the visual arts. They had mounted these huge canvases by famous painters of wildlife and scenes of survival and great drama in the natural world. There was a kind of underlying message there, a more oblique engagement with Darwin, not necessarily obvious, but doing it in a more subtle way. You have to sniff it out. It’s not necessarily going to be this overt reference to Darwin. It’s about the texture of the play rather than the direct references.

Q: What does theatre specifically ask from evolution that establishes a relationship different from other art forms?

KSB: The number one thing that struck me in the broader field in literature and science is that generally there is a sense that George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and other novelists of the time had a real understanding of Darwin’s work and incorporated it in a more or less positive way. There is almost the opposite reaction in theater. The plays I was studying tended to be questioning. There was much more probing skepticism going on. Why would that be? Theater is a live art form. And the potential there in terms of evolution is just so great. You’re putting a human body on stage, a physical signifier of evolution. When you stick an actor on stage you’re signaling physiological processes that all humans have in common. You have an evolutionary process in front of you. Evolution is such a long-term 19th century spectacle, you have these huge dramatic scenes, waterfalls on stage even, and they are all part of a larger process.

In many ways my real starting point is the discoveries of Lyell, whose work Darwin was reading during his voyage on the Beagle, seeing the things he’s reading about. He is absorbing this concept of deep time and is then incorporating that as he formulates his own evolutionary ideas. The connection is this idea of the spectacle, particularly seen in British theaters in the mid-19th century, where effects, machinery, sophisticated and ambitious stagings, displaying natural settings like waterfalls, are pointing to what’s going on in the sciences, telling us the earth is much older than we thought. There really has to be a connection there, it’s not a coincidence.

(more…)

Friday, March 13th, 2015

The Legacy of Eric Walrond: The Caribbean, Harlem, and Europe

Eric Walrond and Shirley Graham DuBois
(Shirley Graham Du Bois and Eric Walrond, Paris, 1930)

In the following excerpt from the postscript to Eric Walrond: A Life in the Harlem Renaissance and the Transatlantic Caribbean, James Davis explores some of the ways in which Walrond, and, specifically, his life spent moving from the Caribbean to the United States and then to Europe reflect questions of blackness and identity in today’s world:

One can see the ways in which Walrond’s world—the struggles and communities in which he participated—was a precursor to our own; it is more difficult to grasp its difference, its inscrutability, the possibilities that sprang into being but have since been foreclosed…. Even as we recognize in Eric Walrond incipient forms of familiar contemporary identities and communities, we should also consider the “historical mutilation” of the anticolonial struggles, transnational periodical formations, aesthetic movements, and political solidarities that animated Walrond’s work. We are ourselves the victims of their truncation. It may defy comprehension that a celebrated Harlem author would leave the United States, sabotaging his career at the height of the New Negro movement. It may seem unintelligible for a cosmopolitan Caribbean intellectual to spend twelve years as the only “Negro” in an English village….

Walrond forged a precarious career by crossing borders, none of which he crossed completely. From the “West Indian Circles” column of Pana­ma’s Star & Herald, to his work on Garvey’s journals in New York and London, to his Caribbean efforts at Opportunity and his Wiltshire essays about colonialism and the “colour bar,” his journalism was, like his fic­tion, an exercise in cultural translation. But borders are rarely neutral. They often presuppose or enforce privilege, and Walrond’s translations challenged the privileges attending the borders he crossed. Even within New York, the unofficial border he straddled between white and black Manhattan occasioned a Caribbean challenge to monolithic notions of Harlem’s blackness and a “Cabaret School” challenge to the prevailing discourse of respectability and “Negro” uplift. He benefited from his mobility and suffered for it, too.

(more…)

Thursday, March 12th, 2015

Thursday Fiction Corner: James Davis on the Writing of Eric Walrond

Eric Walrond, James Davis

For our Thursday Fiction Corner, we asked James Davis, author of Eric Walrond: A Life in the Harlem Renaissance and the Transatlantic Caribbean, to discuss what makes the fiction and journalism of Walrond so distinctive.

All of Eric Walrond’s writing has a kind of restless quality, a turbulence that is a bit disturbing yet intensely compelling.

Besides Tropic Death, which I enjoy for these sensory appeals as much as its critique of colonial relations, I really like Walrond’s story “Miss Kenny’s Marriage” and his essay “White Man, What Now?” The first is a sly trickster tale set among Brooklyn’s early 20th century black bourgeoisie. It’s shrewd and hilarious, published originally in 1923 in The Smart Set, a New York magazine edited at the time by H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan. A sendup of the social pretensions of the “strivers” of the race, the story chronicles the rise and fall of a pompous Atlantic Avenue hairdresser—or as Miss Kenny puts it, “not a hairdresser at all, but a beauty culturist.” Day and night she’s in the shop, coiffing “girls and old women, spinsters and preacher’s wives, scrubwomen and colored ladies of gentility,” and saving bundles of cash. But despite her work ethic and churchgoing ways, she is arrogant and her striving for respectability involves deep prejudices. “I am not like a lot of these new niggers you see floating around here,” she tells a client, “A few hundred dollars don’t frighten me. Only we used-to-nothing cullud folks lose our heads and stick out our chests at sight of a few red pennies.” No, she adds, “there ain’t none of the nigger in me, honey.”

Walrond delivers her comeuppance in the form of Elias Ramsey, a prominent young lawyer, member of Brooklyn’s “olive-skinned aristocracy,” twenty-three years her junior. Courting Miss Kenny with professions of love and adulation, he absconds soon after their wedding with all her hard-earned savings. Although the story is just a lark, it exhibits Walrond’s flair for code switching, alternating idiomatic registers between Southern migrant characters, black New Yorkers, and his own wry narrative voice. A twenty-four year old writer only a few years removed from the Caribbean, Walrond’s performance in “Miss Kenny’s Marriage” is a kind of masquerade, a way of becoming a New Negro author by writing like an American. The story also stages a theatrical punishment for its title character because she commits the cardinal sin of harboring contempt for less respectable members of her race.

(more…)

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

Interview with James Davis, author of “Eric Walrond,” Part 2

James Davis, Eric Walrond

The following is the second half of our article with James Davis, author of Eric Walrond: A Life in the Harlem Renaissance and the Transatlantic Caribbean. You can read part 1 here.

Question: One of the more fascinating aspects of your biography are your descriptions of Walrond’s youth in Panama during the building of the canal. How did this episode shape Walrond and how does the Panama of this period fit in with the larger story of the Transatlantic Caribbean in the first half of the twentieth-century?

James Davis: Walrond described himself as “spiritually a native of Panama,” despite having spent his childhood in Guyana and Barbados. Panama during the construction of the Canal (1904-1914) was at once a new frontier for a United States eager to consolidate power in the hemisphere and an extraordinarily diverse contact zone in which laborers and their families from the entire Caribbean region converged. Panama attracted people from other parts of the world, to be sure, but economic precariousness in the Caribbean led to emigration in large numbers.

The U.S. occupation imported to the Canal Zone a Jim Crow form of racial segregation, which introduced an acute form of race consciousness many West Indians had not felt previously, despite living in European colonies with perceptible hierarchies of color. Walrond was among those for whom life in Panama compelled a new self-understanding as a West Indian (rather than, more parochially, a Barbadian, Jamaican, Trinidadian, etc.) and as a Negro. Recall that outside of the United States, the most successful branches of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association emerged in Panama, where the imprint of white command was stark, and in neighboring Costa Rica, where the United Fruit Corporation, a North American concern, effectively ran things. Despite segregation in the Canal Zone, however, Walrond was inspired by Panama’s tremendous ethnic diversity; it provoked the cultural tensions, collaborations, and hybridity that always intrigued him.

Q: Jumping ahead to later in Walrond’s life, is it fair to characterize his time in England as a letdown from the promise he showed as a writer during his time in Harlem?

JD: I struggled with this exact question while writing the biography. The record is clearly stacked against Walrond’s later career; he published much less after leaving the U.S. and didn’t publish another book, despite having composed several. It’s also hard to tell the story of someone who committed himself to a mental hospital for five years late in life as anything other than a tragedy. So from a certain empirical standpoint there’s no question that Walrond’s post-Harlem career was a letdown; he felt it acutely himself.

Nevertheless, the one-hit wonder label that affixed itself to Walrond distorts the real story. Very little of Walrond’s post-Harlem writing was available to readers until recently, with Louis Parascandola’s two collections, so any assessment of promise fulfilled or unfulfilled must attend to this work. Examining it closely, placing it in context, one realizes some things that complicate the idea that his career simply declined. First, although Tropic Death contains much of Walrond’s best fiction, some of the stories he wrote in England equal or surpass its quality, and some of his non-fiction prose in England definitely rivals his work for Negro World, Opportunity, and the mainstream publications for which he wrote in the mid-1920s. It just crackles with anti-colonial militancy and acerbic wit.

Second, we should recognize that while writing by non-white Americans was published in book form with increasing frequency after World War I, it would not be until the 1950s that writing by non-white Britons – or by colonial subjects in England – appeared in book form with any regularity. Exceptions occurred but they were few and far between. The real cultural action in black letters in England was in periodicals, and here Walrond was, if not prolific, then quite present. So I don’t dispute the idea that Walrond disappointed expectations, nor do I explain away his shortcomings, but I definitely revisit the criteria by which we judge matters of success and failure and offer a sustained analysis of what his later work represents when considered on its own terms.

(more…)

Tuesday, March 10th, 2015

An Interview with James Davis, Author of “Eric Walrond”

James Davis, author of Eric Walrond

The following is part 1 of our interview with James Davis, author of Eric Walrond: A Life in the Harlem Renaissance and the Transatlantic Caribbean

Question: As you describe in your book, Walrond was very much at the center of the Harlem Renaissance at the time but history has largely forgotten him at least until recently. What explains his disappearance?

James Davis: Walrond’s departure from the United States partly explains his disappearance. After 1929, he lived the rest of his life in France and England, and he did not make a great effort to maintain ties with the Harlem community. Several people who sought to contact him had trouble locating him, so there is a sense in which Walrond was responsible for his own obscurity.

He was also estranged from his family, so no one was taking care that papers and manuscripts were preserved. But there are other important factors. Remember, many writers we think of as prominent New Negroes were actually “rediscovered” after protracted neglect. The poet Countée Cullen was for much of the twentieth century not well known or admired, the novelist Nella Larsen sank into obscurity, the work of Claude McKay and Jean Toomer was neglected, as were the careers of several black women poets, and perhaps most famously, the extraordinary talent of Zora Neale Hurston was only recuperated through the efforts of Alice Walker and others. It was only a matter of time before someone reassessed Walrond’s career and writing, and in fact, that process really began in the 1980’s with Robert Bone, a scholar of African American literature. His efforts to collect Walrond’s essays, articles, and stories and to reconstruct his career led in turn to Louis Parascandola’s publication of two anthologies of Walrond’s writings.

Q: Likewise, why do you think there’s been a resurgence of interest evident not only by your book but by the recent reissue of Tropic Death?

JD: I think two overlapping developments contributed to the resurgence of interest. One is the so-called transnational turn in American studies, an effort to revise the way we talk about literary and cultural history by situating the U.S. in the context of the plural Americas. The effect of this shift has been pronounced with respect to accounts of the Harlem Renaissance, which by now everyone knows was never strictly a New York phenomenon anyway. U.S. scholars have written brilliantly in recent years on the Caribbean dimensions of the Harlem Renaissance, including Michelle Ann Stephens, Brent Edwards, Winston James, and Lara Putnam. As well, Caribbean literary studies has enjoyed a kind of renaissance of its own, not only in the U.S. but also and especially in the U.K. and the Caribbean itself. Because Walrond’s best-known work, Tropic Death, is set entirely in the Caribbean, where he was born and raised, an argument can be made for his place in the region’s rich literary history.

Q: How does Walrond’s life and writing change the way we think about the history and character of the Harlem Renaissance?

JD: Some of our conventional wisdom about the Harlem Renaissance is reinforced by Walrond’s life and writing, including the emphasis placed on racial pride and expressions of militancy and the faith in the arts as a vehicle for social change. But Walrond also challenges some received ideas about the era. His work reminds us, first of all, that nearly one-fourth of the population of black New York in the 1920s was foreign-born. This is a striking fact, since we tend to think of the Harlem Renaissance involving African American migration from the rural South to pursue economic opportunities up North, bringing their cultural practices to new urban contexts and transforming the race in the process.

Accurate as far as it goes, this is nevertheless an incomplete account of the people and forces that created black Harlem and shaped the “New Negro” movement. Even W.E.B. Du Bois, among the most astute chroniclers of black history, suppressed the Caribbean dimensions of the movement, not because he despised the foreign-born (in fact, he praised what he saw as the thrift and industry of West Indians), but because the political commitments of certain Caribbean newcomers were antithetical to the vision of race progress he formulated with the NAACP. These included Marcus Garvey, most famously, but also lesser-known Caribbean immigrants such as Hubert Harrison, W.A. Domingo, and Cyril Briggs, whose radical activism and writing departed from the ideals that Du Bois and others advocated. Both migrants and immigrants alike contributed to the “New Negro” movement, Walrond’s career reminds us, sometimes struggling over its principles and direction, but also yielding an extraordinary diversity of voices and political perspectives, some of which has been lost in the “domestication” of Harlem Renaissance history.

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Monday, March 9th, 2015

Book Giveaway! Eric Walrond, A New Biography of a Major Harlem Renaissance Figure

This week our featured book is Eric Walrond: A Life in the Harlem Renaissance and the Transatlantic Caribbean by James Davis.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Eric Walrond to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, March 13th at 1:00 pm.

“Eric Walrond, handsome, cosmopolitan, and beguilingly enigmatic, may have been the most promising literary talent of the Harlem Renaissance…. James Davis’s finely written, beautifully paced Eric Walrond is a major biography of a fascinating figure, a triumph of archival sleuthing that reintroduces readers to almost everybody known to his peripatetic protagonist.”—David Levering Lewis, New York University

For more on the book, you can read an excerpt from the introduction:

Monday, March 9th, 2015

Mary Helen Washington at the Schomburg Center on Wednesday

On Wednesday night, Mary Helen Washington will discuss her new book The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s at the Schomburg Center. Washington will be in conversation with Farah Jasmine Griffin.

As a preview for the event, here is Mary Helen Washington explaining how her Catholic upbringing in the 1950s led to an interest in the relationship between African Americans and the Communist Party. She describes how Communist newspaper in the United States became one of the few venues to provide serious discussions and coverage of African American literature during the 1950s. She also talks about her desire to see the work of radical African American artists and writers from this period become part of the canon:

Monday, March 2nd, 2015

Internet Literature in China — An Interview with Michel Hockx

Michel Hockx, Internet Literature in China

The following is an interview with Michel Hockx, author of Internet Literature in China. You can follow Michael Hockx on Twitter at @mhockx

Question: What in particular struck your interest in Chinese Internet literature that prompted you to begin researching for a book?

Michael Hockx: I was struck by the fact that there was a nationwide debate among scholars and critics in China in the year 2000 about the merits and demerits of Internet literature. The phenomenon was taken extremely seriously. Around the same time I also noticed that collections of online work were starting to come out in print. They often ended up in separate sections of bookstores marked “Internet literature.” I realized this was a new type of literature in the making and I got curious.

Q: You mention the “Great Firewall” and the misconceptions western countries have of Internet censorship in China. To what extent are Internet behaviors in China similar to, let’s say in the US? Are they as different, in terms of freedom, as Americans like to believe?

M: They are similar in the sense that the vast majority of Chinese people also use the Internet for entertainment, social media, and shopping. Most people are rarely confronted with censorship since they simply have no interest in using the Internet for politically sensitive purposes. What they do notice and what does annoy them is that the “Great Firewall” sometimes prevents them from accessing certain foreign sites, especially Facebook and Youtube. In the course of my research I once came across an official Chinese statistic showing that Youtube was in the Top 30 of most frequently visited sites in China—even though it is blocked! Lots of people go around the Firewall in order to access it.

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Thursday, February 19th, 2015

The Other Blacklist — An Interview with Mary Helen Washington

Mary Helen Washington, The Other Blacklist

“I’m trying to restore that tradition of mid-century black left radical resistance, so that we don’t remember the 1950s only as the era of ‘integration’ but as the era of black civil rights radicalism. I’m restoring the other blacklist, the black blacklist.”—Mary Helen Washington

As part of our series of posts for Black History Month, we’re re-posting our interview with Mary Helen Washington, author of The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s:

Question: Why did you choose to focus on the 1950s?

Mary Helen Washington: I came of age in the early 1950s in Catholic schools in Cleveland, Ohio, fed on a steady diet of anticommunism at school, and, at home, a steady diet of integration, but both of those prescribed lessons—anticommunism and integration—separated me from the story of radical civil rights activity. While the black left of the 1950s was protesting discrimination on every front, from residential segregation to unions and factories, we black kids were being taught that integration meant blacks becoming acceptable to the white mainstream. When the left-leaning National Negro Labor Congress (NNLC) came to Cleveland for their 1952 conference, they staged a protest downtown against the airlines for refusing to hire blacks. Since stories like these were blacklisted by the anticommunists as well as the integrationists, black kids grew up in the 1950s with no access to a critical discourse on race. Radicals used terms like white supremacy and racial justice, not integration, while black kids were learning that we should dress, act, and speak a certain way as a marker of acceptability, radicals were defining integration as claiming the rights of citizenship—as you can see from the NNLC poster featuring the Statue of Liberty as a black woman.

Q: Why did you call the book The Other Blacklist?

MHW: Most of what we know about the McCarthy era focuses on the white left. Communism is seen as a white left radicalism, though black civil rights activists were deeply involved in radical movements in the 1940s and 1950s. People who were investigated by J. Edgar Hoover for being communists were routinely asked if they were involved interracially because civil rights activity was considered radical. This is a very powerful and commendable radicalism that black people don’t get credit for. They weren’t the Hollywood Ten, but they were the New York/Chicago 100. There’s a fine documentary on screenwriter and novelist Dalton Trumbo and his admirable resistance to HUAC, but there’s no documentary on black radicals like Alice Childress, Lloyd Brown, Julian Mayfield, Charles White, Elizabeth Catlett or Lorraine Hansberry [some of the figures in my book], who also paid a price for their radicalism. I’m trying to restore that tradition of mid-century black left radical resistance, so that we don’t remember the 1950s only as the era of “integration” but as the era of black civil rights radicalism. I’m restoring the other blacklist, the black blacklist.

Q: You have a chapter called “Spycraft and the Black Literary Left.” Can you talk about the connection between government agencies, politics, and art?

MHW: Keep in mind that the Left and the Communist Party supported black artists when no one in white mainstream culture (with the exception of J. Edgar Hoover) showed any interest in black culture. They came to the defense of black culture because they saw art as a means to effect social and political change. One critic Willliam Maxwell says that Hoover should be considered an important historian of black culture because he always took black literary production seriously. The FBI files are thus a mixed blessing—a gold mine for biographical material because the FBI kept close track of the activities of radicals, and also a record of governmental abuse of artists and intellectuals. There’s a current play on Broadway about the life of Lyndon Johnson called All the Way that shows how relevant these issues still are. The character playing J. Edgar Hoover asks LBJ to justify his relationship with Martin Luther King because, Hoover claims, King is being advised by communists. The government, particularly in the age of McCarthy and Hoover, created the tradition of demonizing the Left that is still with us and that has resulted in the dismissal of an entire generation of black intellectuals and artists.

Q: Why is radicalism of the 1950s still relevant?

MHW: We’re grappling with the same issues today but without that radical perspective. I’m thinking about Rachel Jeantel in the Trayvon Martin case and all the discussion that was generated about Jeantel’s appearance and speech—the way she looked rather than the case itself. Another example is Paul Ryan saying “inner city” people live in a culture that doesn’t value work or doesn’t have a work ethic. And here we see how “inner city” becomes a code for “black.” The jurors from the Jordan Davis case in Florida, one white and one black, said that the Davis case, in which a black man was shot and killed because a white man thought his black music was too loud, was not about race. This kind of political illiteracy shows how and why we need what I call a critical racial discourse. As Boston Governor Deval Patrick said—“words matter.” Even more than words, the radical left—and, yes, I include communists– gave us examples of a powerful resistance. The Rosa Ingram case and the Trenton Six—which were also about racial violence inflicted on blacks– were fought in the courts, in the streets, and in African American artistic production. When Rosa Ingram was sentenced to death along with her two sons for killing a man she claimed had violently assaulted her, the left and civil rights groups organized the protests that eventually freed them, and, as part of that protest, artist Charles White made the Ingram case the subject of his 1949 drawing.

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Wednesday, February 18th, 2015

Eric Walrond, Harlem Renaissance Forgotten Giant — James Davis

Eric Walrond

In celebration of Black History Month, we continue our focus on recent titles in African-American studies. Today, we look at Eric Walrond: A Life in the Harlem Renaissance and the Transatlantic Caribbean, by James Davis, which was recently featured in the Daily News.

In the article, Davis explains Walrond’s important role in the Harlem Renaissance, who was friends with such figures as Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. Walrond was best-known for Tropic of Death, his book of short stories, which offered one of the first portrayals of Caribbean characters in American literature. However, after achieving recognition for Tropic of Death, Walrond left New York City and faded into obscurity.

In praising the book, David Levering-Lewis says ““It’s a gorgeous book, and it’s detective work that is really exceptional.” Walrond was born in Guyana and his role in the Harlem Renaissance reflects the important place Caribbean-Americans have had in the history of Harlem.

For more on the book, we’re very excited about an event with James Davis to celebrate the book’s launch at Greenlight Books in Brooklyn, on Monday, February 23rd.

And here’s an excerpt from the book:

Friday, February 13th, 2015

Absorbed in Translation: The Art — and Fun — of Literary Translation, by Juliet Winters Carpenter

The Fall of Language in the Age of English

The following essay is by Juliet Winters Carpenter, Doshisha Women's College of Liberal Arts, and the co-translator of The Fall of Language in the Age of English. The essay was originally published on The Conversation.

I recently stumbled upon a post that describes the process of literary translation as “soul-crushing.” That’s news to me, and I’ve been engaged in literary translation for the better part of four decades now. How would I describe it? “Humbling,” yes. “All-consuming,” definitely. But above all, “the most fun imaginable.”

Some may figure that literary translators are a dying breed, like quill pen makers, and assume that computers will eventually take over the job. Don’t hold your breath. Machine translation has a role to play – and no doubt an increasing one – but it is doomed to be literal, to merely skim the surface. Enter “Don’t hold your breath” into Google Translate and you’ll get an injunction to not stop breathing. A human touch is needed to understand layers of meaning in context and to create something pleasurable to read.

Yet the process is humbling, primarily because as a translator, you are constantly made aware of your limitations: there are all the events or interactions described in the original text that you know nothing about, or have never experienced. Or you long to reproduce the wit, rhythm, and beauty of the original, but, for a host of reasons, have to settle for less.

I also find that humility is a practical necessity. When the original makes little sense, often the first impulse is to blame the author. Humility allows you to see the original text in a new light – to appreciate it for what it is, rather than what you may think it’s supposed to be. If you approach a confusing sentence with the assumption that you’re missing something, you’re usually right. So my first rule would be: assume you are wrong, not the author.

I’ve collaborated with Japanese author Minae Mizumura on translating two of her books, including the just-released The Fall of Language in the Age of English.

The Fall of Language was first translated by Mari Yoshihara, a professor at the University of Hawaii who also found the publisher. Mizumura then asked me to review the entire book with her – to incorporate changes she made to render the text more accessible and relevant to non-Japanese readers. The book explores the importance of national literature and warns against the unchecked proliferation of English, lamenting that not only nuances, but also “truths”—accessible only in other languages—are in danger of being lost. Translating such a book into English may seem perverse, but it underscores the point that in our age, ideas can spread only if they’re communicated in English.

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Wednesday, February 11th, 2015

Four Thoughts for Academic Writers (Or Maybe All Writers) — Eric Hayot

The Elements of Academic StyleThe following advice on writing comes from Eric Hayot, author of The Elements of Academic Style: Writing for the Humanities

1. Listen first

Part of being a good writer is having a sense of what good writing feels like. That’s hard to do if you’ve never read academic writing for the writing. You probably already know whose writing you like and whose you don’t. Start, then, by rereading the work of people whose writing you admire, and try to figure out what makes it especially good. I strongly strongly recommend writing a two- or three-page imitation of that person’s style. In the long run, the goal is not to ventriloquize them, but simply to use the exercise as a form of deep engagement with another writer, and to feel what it feels like to inhabit a style. (Like imitations of voices, the first thing you have to know when you imitate a style is what makes something imitable in the first place—is it in the rhythm, the diction, the flow, the paragraphing, the relation between exemplification and idea, the style of argument, the figurative or rhetorical tropes? All of these, of course, and more, but differently each time.)

You should make listening to the writing of others part of a lifelong practice as a writer. But don’t forget, also, to listen to your own work! You have a style (you’ve been speaking in prose all along!), so you should know what it is, how it works, what you like and don’t like about it.

2. Know your genre

All writing takes place in a genre. This is true generally for academic writers—you write in a genre called “literary criticism” or “cultural studies” or “philosophy”—but it is also true in particular—you write in a subfield called Victorian Studies, or epistemology, and even within those subfields you write for specific journals or specific groups of peers. In order to be a successful writer, then, you need to know quite a bit about the discourse you’re attempting to join. You probably already do know quite a bit, implicitly. But you and a friend might agree, for instance, to read all the articles from two or three issues of the same journal, to see if you can begin to theorize a house style; or you can read four or five articles from a random journal in random year in the not-so-distant past (1983, say) and then some from the present to get a sense of the stylistic changes that have taken place. The point is simply that you need to know your genre, and you need to write within its framework.

Once you know this, of course, you can probe the edges of the genre, where the interesting outliers are, to see if you can change it. And you can also draw strength from other genres (including nonacademic genres like fiction, poetry, or essayistic prose), using ideas you gain there to breach the conventions of the genre you’re working in. That’s a good, easy way to generate stylistic force—taking something that works elsewhere and grafting it onto the genre you’re writing makes for engaging, interesting writing.

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Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

An Interview with Minae Mizumura, author of “The Fall of Language in the Age of English”

Minae Mizumura

The following is an interview with Minae Mizumura, the author of The Fall of Language in the Age of English  

Question: It is ironic that your book on preserving languages from the tidal wave of English has now been translated into English. Can you speak about the relationship between you, Mari Yoshihara, and Juliet Winters Carpenter, the translators of the book?

Minae Mizumura: Mari Yoshihara has long been an enthusiastic fan of my novels, especially of my second, autobiographical novel that traces my growing up in the United States. She has a similar background. As soon as The Fall of Language was published, she contacted me from Hawaii, where she teaches, and offered to translate it herself. I was initially taken aback; as you point out, it seemed rather perverse that a book warning about the dominance of English should be translated into English. It took me some time to realize that what she proposed underscores the whole point of the book: in our age, ideas can spread only when translated into English. After Mari finished her translation, I worked on the manuscript to make it accessible to a wider readership. I then asked Juliet Winters Carpenter to go over it and also to let me work with her at the final stage. I knew she would say yes. Julie translated my third novel, called A True Novel, and despite being one of the most highly regarded translators in the field, she had no objection to working with me closely in Kyoto where she teaches. Very flexible and open-minded. The English version of this book owes itself to two generous souls.

Q: How did you react to the controversial reviews when your book was first released in Japan?

MM: Very much bewildered, though I never actually saw those reviews. So I said nothing publicly. Like many writers, I avoid reading what people say about my books on the Internet and ask others to filter information for me. It seems that this was a particularly wise decision when this book came out. Japan lags behind in putting together quality online book reviews. As is often the case, the online controversies took place mostly among people who hadn’t read the book. The firestorm got out of control. Rumor has it that a famous blogger, the one who unwittingly initiated the controversy by declaring that my book was a “must read for all Japanese,” got so fed up that he no longer blogs or tweets. He apologized to me for having incited such vociferous reactions but was relieved to learn that I had only a vague idea of what was being said.

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