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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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This post forms part of my ‘aspects of the novel’ collection. Please do note that these entries, which may appear basic, are simply my own notes on the subject. They implicitly or explicitly describe a canon not of my own making or choosing and replicate this from various sources. The original encyclopaedia articles are far more comprehensive, nuanced and worth consulting. I am especially conscious in articles such as this, which work with complex and detailed racial histories, that the summary here is reductive and incomplete; but nonetheless a starting point. I am also cognizant that some of the living writers here may not even wish to be categorized under this racial rubric. However, as I am summarizing various facts from encyclopaedic sources, I present this as-is, nonetheless.

The African-American novel is generally traced back to William Wells Brown’s Clotel; or The President’s Daughter (1853). Other early contenders include Frank J. Webb’s The Garies and their Friends (1857), Hannah Crafts’s The Bondwoman’s Narrative (c. 1853-61), Harriet E. Wilson’s Our Nig (1859), Martin R. Delaney’s Blake; or the Huts of America (1859), and Julia C. Collins’s The Curse of Caste (1865). Many of these narratives draw on autobiographical publications of former slaves, such as Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. There was also intertexutal resonance to be found with the sentimental social criticism of popular white American writers, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851-2).

The postbellum years until the 1910s saw a new social context for the African-American novel. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Charles W. Chestnutt, Pauline E. Hopkins, Sutton E Griggs, W.E.B. Dubois, and James Weldone Johnson all form important touchstones for this period. Harper’s novels form the first known body of novelistic fiction written by and for African Americans. Also from this period came Hopkins’s Contentind Forces (1900), Paul Dunbar’s The Sport of the Gods (1902), Griggs’s The Hindered Hand (1905), Du Bois’s The Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911) and Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912).

The Harlem Renaissance period is typically used to refer to the flourishing artistic scene of 1920s and 1930s Harlem. This period was known for works by Langston Hughes such as Not Without Laughter (1930), Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923), Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929), George Schulyer’s Black No More (1931), Countee Cullen’s One Way to Heaven (1932), and Zora Neale Hurston’s Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934) and Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Valkeakari gives many more works from this period on p. 14.

The 1940s and 1950s were dominated by the writings of Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin. Wright’s Native Son (1940) was a highly controversial text and Baldwin publicly criticized the work, falling out with Wright over it. Percival Everett’s Erasure (2001) also appears to contain a swipe at Native Son. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) is a complex, Modernist work exploring individuality and collectivity in civil rights era America. James Baldwin’s Go Tell it On the Mountain (1953) is a bildungsroman about growing up in Harlem under a strict father figure. Other figures in this era include Ann Petry, Dorthy West, Gwenolyn Brooks, John Oliver Killens, Paule Marshall, William Attaway, Chester Himes, Curtis Lucas, Alden Bland, Willard Motley, William Gardner Smith, and Willard Savoy.

The profusion of African-American writing from the 1960s onwards defies even the basic synopsis and high-level overview that I am here presenting. Suffice it to say that Toni Morrison is a dominating figure in this area, as a winner of the Nobel Prize. Other novelists include Margaret Walker, Ernest J. Gaines, Clarence Major, Leon Forest, Ishmael Reed, John Edgar Wideman, Colson Whitehead, Percival Everett, Octavia Butler, Charles Johnson, Sherley Anne Williams, J. California Cooper, Louise Meriweather, Alice Walker, Samuel R. Delany , Jr., Barbara Neely, Wlter Mosley, and Terry McMillan.

Further reading: Valkeakari, Tuire, ‘African American Novel’, in The Encyclopedia of the Novel, ed. by Peter Melville Logan, Olakunle George, Susan Hegeman, and Efraín Kristal (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), pp. 9–18