In the first half of the twentieth century, the Harlem Renaissance resulted in an array of outstanding and groundbreaking art, literature, and music that still resonates with audiences today. A number of prominent black artists and intellectuals congregated in Harlem, leading to one of the most significant creative scenes in American cultural history. Some of the writers affiliated with this milieu, including Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, remain widely read by a variety of readers today.
A recently-discovered manuscript by Claude McKay is being published decades after it was first written. Here’s a look at that book and several others from some of McKay’s contemporaries. Those looking to learn more or delve deeper into this period of literary (and cultural) history may be interested in the Library of Congress’s archive of materials related to the Harlem Renaissance. The Academy of American Poets also has an overview of the movement’s impact on poetry.
It’s not often that a finished novel by a major literary figure is discovered in archives more than half a century after his death. But that’s precisely what happened with this rich, finely-written novel by Claude McKay. Political conflicts drive the book forward: the novel’s full title is Amiable With Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem. It’s set in the mid-1930s, during a time when Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia has captured the attention of many in Harlem, and political clashes stemming from Communist infighting play themselves out in a corner of New York society.
It can be argued that Jean Toomer’s Cane was ahead of its time: it boldly shifted between literary forms in a single work, incorporating prose, poetry, and drama into an overall narrative showing different aspects of black life in the southern United States. The work itself is a fascinating array of styles and characters, and the life of its author was also fascinating: a 2010 New York Times article called Toomer “perhaps the most enigmatic writer associated with the Harlem Renaissance.”
Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston’s bibliography encompassed acclaimed works of fiction and nonfiction. Her 1935 book Mules and Men is an ethnographic narrative, in which Hurston gathered stories and folktales from residents of Florida and Louisiana. It’s a book that continues to influence writers today. In 2015, novelist Angela Flournoy spoke about its impact on the process of writing her own novel The Turner House in an interview with The Atlantic.
Seven Negro Sermons in Verse
James Weldon Johnson
James Weldon Johnson’s influence on culture and society was vast: in addition to being an acclaimed writer, he was also a leader of the NAACP, and worked as a diplomat in the early years of the 20th century. One of his major literary works is God’s Trombones, in which the literary traditions of the sermon and poetry converge in innovative and groundbreaking ways. In more recent decades, a stage adaptation has added another permutation to Johnson’s work.
Langston Hughes’s written works include acclaimed collections of poetry, novels, and short stories. His first book of poetry was 1926’s The Weary Blues, in which some of his most acclaimed works were collected. In a recent piece on The Weary Blues, poet and essayist Kevin Young wrote about how Hughes adapted aspects of the blues into poetry, and noted that it was “one of the high points of modernism and of what has come to be called the Harlem Renaissance.”
Nella Larsen’s autobiographical first novel Quicksand dealt with the emotional and familial conflicts experienced by a young biracial woman early in the 20th century. The novel’s protagonist travels throughout the United States and Denmark in search of a place where she feels at home. This was one of two novels that Larsen wrote in her lifetime; after a period when her work was largely out of print, her books received newfound attention in the late 20th century.
(American Poets Project #32)
Countee Cullen’s poetry addressed urgent personal and societal concerns while simultaneously utilizing formal techniques. Some of his works remain widely anthologized to this day; others are more obscure. This collection brings together his body of work as a poet, though he also occasionally worked in prose. And, as an editor, Cullen also assembled the poetry anthology Caroling Dusk, in which the work of several of his contemporaries appears.