"Why Don't You Get Acquainted with Your Race?": "The Bookshelf", The Forgotten Readers of Chicago, and The Making of Black Middlebrow Culture in the 1920s

Ms Zoe Trodd
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"The Bookshelf", a popular book-review column and self-styled "literary club" in the Chicago Defender, is a window on black literary politics and cultural identities of the 1920s. I explore its responses to readers' literary agendas and the parallels between its "literary club" feature and the contemporaneous Book-of-the-Month Club, and I investigate its place in the cultural skirmishes as America carved out a middlebrow terrain. The Bookshelf was the by-product of debates over African American assimilation and education, and I set it alongside the book-review columns in the politically radical Harlem Renaissance periodicals, the white press, and the other black weekly newspapers. I examine the cultural agenda of the column's producers, the column's role as an agent of acculturation, the likely effect of the Great Migration and the Chicago race riots on The Bookshelf, and the realm of discourse about the black reading public's "snobbishness". The Bookshelf's middlebrow reading community represents an alternative black cultural identity that has been largely ignored by historians and literary critics, and my paper opens up a new aspect on the African American literary scene of the 1920s, usually only associated with Harlem and the high-brow.

Keywords: Harlem Renaissance, Black press, African American literature, Middlebrow
Stream: Literature, Literary Studies, History, Historiography, Ethnicity, Difference, Identity
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: "Why Don't You Get Acquainted With Your Race?"

Ms Zoe Trodd

Graduate Fellow, History of American Civilization, Harvard University

Zoe Trodd has published on American literature and history and won numerous awards for her writing and teaching. She recently published the book Meteor of War: The John Brown Story (with John Stauffer, 2004), and wrote "'Don't speak dearest it will make you worse': The Bondwoman's Narrative, The Afro-American Literary Tradition, and the Trope of the Lying Book" for In Search of Hannah Crafts (edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Hollis Robbins). Her book on American Protest Literature is forthcoming with Harvard University Press. She has a first-class BA Hons in English Literature from Cambridge University (Newnham College), where she founded and edited the nationally-recognized newspaper, The Cambridge Student. She won a Kennedy Scholarship in 2001, and is currently in the History of American Civilization PhD program at Harvard, where she is also serving as president of the graduate student council for 2004-05. She works on American literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with a focus on protest literature, the historical novel, narrative theory and approaches to time, autobiography, literary-photographic collaborations, and the visual imagination. She also researches the philosophy of history in America, and the history and theory of photography.

Ref: H05P0411