The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review | Editing the Harlem Renaissance

Editing the Harlem Renaissance. Edited by Joshua M. Murray and Ross K. Tangedal. Clemson University Press, 2021. xi + 256 pp. $24.71 (cloth).

Reviewed by Chris Dingwall, Wayne State University

Both the promise and limitations of Editing the Harlem Renaissance are suggested by its covering photograph. Taken by Lewis W. Hine for the Federal Works Progress Administration in 1935, the photograph shows a student operating a printing press at the Manual Training and Industrial School for Colored Youth in Bordentown, New Jersey. It might be a sign of the material conditions of this book’s publication that the publisher selected a cover photograph that depicts neither Harlem nor editing. Yet the photograph also suggests the potential of the book to stress editing as an instrumental part of the material process of producing and reproducing the Harlem Renaissance. Although primarily interested in editing as a process of textual revision undertaken by authors and editors, the volume brings focus to the labor of writing and rewriting, the business of publishing, the assembly of books and magazines, and institutions of literary publishing and scholarly dissemination that have shaped what the Renaissance was and is. Hence the book develops fresh perspectives on the Renaissance even if it makes only tantalizing steps toward elevating editing as a framework for materialist literary analysis.

Volume editors Joshua M. Murray and Ross K. Tangedal explain their approach in an efficient introduction. Rather than approach the Renaissance as a stable canon of literary texts, the editors and contributing authors offer more critical and richly detailed analysis of the “process by which the literature of the Harlem Renaissance was drafted, edited, revised, and produced” (2). Within this framework, editing is less a discrete professional role or formal activity than a contested field of collaboration that includes “magazine editors, publishing house editors, opinionated patrons, [and] disagreeable collaborators” (2). In the volume’s coda, book historians Brigitte Fielder and Jonathan Senchyne describe the editing process as an ongoing “infrastructural work” that continues to shape the reproduction and reception of the Harlem Renaissance as a literary movement (244). Both the introduction and coda emphasize the role of the editor as a key actor in the conception, writing, preservation, and dissemination of literary texts. For Murray and Tangedal, editors are “keepers and protectors” of the Harlem Renaissance (2). Because the text highlights otherwise invisible “acts of infrastructural building and maintenance,” Fielder and Senchyne place the volume among a recent wave of literary histories about editorship, librarianship, and other forms of care work that have sustained African American literary production from the age of slavery to the present day.

The book explores the labor of editing the Harlem Renaissance in three parts. In “Editing an Era,” chapters by John K. Young, Adam Nemmers, and Ross K. Tangedal foreground editing as both metaphor and mode for the emergence of the Harlem Renaissance as a literary movement across magazines, literary salons, and publishing houses. In “Writers, Editors, Readers,” chapters by Darryl Dickson-Carr, Shawn Anthony Christian, Jayne E. Marek, and Joshua M. Murray examine the editing of specific literary texts, from the plagiarism controversy surrounding Richard Bruce Nugent’s Gentleman Jigger (Dickson-Carr) to the rigorous self-editing of Langston Hughes’s memoirs (Murray). Finally, in “Editorial Frameworks,” chapters by Korey Garibaldi, Emanuela Kucik, Adam McKible, and Gary Edward Holcomb turn to the present-day efforts of literary editors, academic and trade publishers, and digital humanists to canonize and curate Harlem Renaissance texts for academic researchers and in the literary marketplace.

What emerges is an expanded historical sense of the Harlem Renaissance from the literary debates that spilled out of the bars and boarding houses of uptown Manhattan to the digitization of key texts as parts of the American and African American literary canons. Taken individually, most chapters stand on their own as exemplary studies of literary history. In “The Two Gentlemen of the Harlem Renaissance,” for instance, Dickson-Carr places Wallace Thurman and Richard Bruce Nugent within the thick social history of the Renaissance in order to illuminate a case of textual plagiarism between the two novelists. In “Jesse Fauset and Her Readership,” Meek explains the cultural power of the NAACP’s Brownie’s Book by examining Fauset’s “inclusive, inquisitive editorial aesthetic” as revealed in the magazine’s often idiosyncratic contents (138). The two chapters demonstrate the volume’s valuable and manifold contributions to the field and the potential of foregrounding editing processes in order to illuminate significant turns in African American literary history. Yet they also rely on different conceptions of what editing is as a historical process or framework of analysis.

Although the editors should be commended for showcasing “broad and inclusive” approaches to editing (5), they could have offered more commentary about the differences among these approaches and the stakes of recognizing or resolving those differences. In “Editing the Harlem Renaissance Text,” for instance, Tangedal focuses on how several generations of editors misread the beguiling final passages of Nella Larsen’s Passing in relation to the available historical evidence; in a different section of the book, Kucik’s chapter also focuses on Passing in relation to current classroom instruction. Tangedal’s exacting analysis shows several editors flattening the “instability” of a text whose “correct” ending can likely never be known given the historical evidence at hand (72). “The only way to edit Passing,” Tangedal writes, “is to inform readers that authorial intention (as it relates to endings) is impossible to determine given the textual, historical record” (72). In her chapter, however, Kucik lauds those same introductions precisely because they open up room for speculation beyond authorial intention and the historical record. Thanks to the “introductory frameworks” in recent editions of Passing, “students are performing expansive, emancipatory readings” of the novel and thus gain a deeper sense of Larsen’s “robust, flexible, and liberating imaginings of Black womanhood” (186). Between Tangedal and Kucik, in other words, the editorial introduction reveals different dimensions of editing as a social process: a work of scholarship that imposes meaning on a text; and a work of interpretation that opens up meaning in the text. What ties these different dimensions together? Does Tangedal’s critique of Passing’s editorial interlocuters matter to Kucik’s imaginative students? How might our understanding of “editing” change when seen from the very different points of view of bibliographic research, literary publishing, and classroom instruction?

Across the chapters, conceptions of editing as a “process” range from conventional definitions of textual revision to more expansive treatments that blur into literary marketing, design, and pedagogy—a conceptual elasticity that risks occluding the volume’s potential contributions to the field. Missing is a clear statement that distinguishes editing from other approaches to African American literary studies that seek to answer questions about the labor and “care” behind the production and preservation of texts. In his chapter on the publication of Renaissance texts in modernist magazines, Young comes the closest to advancing materiality as an organizing principle of the editing framework, and he makes an especially strong case for editing theory and descriptive bibliography as allied modes of literary historical analysis. But few chapters bring us close to the texture of the page, the color of corrective ink, the tenor of correspondence, or the personality of professional editors that governed the editing process—let alone to the skilled labor, printing technology, and educational institutions that generated not only authors and editors but also readers for the Harlem Renaissance. Although descriptive bibliography, particularly as advocated for by the Black Bibliography Project, likewise embraces the materiality of texts to frame critical analysis of literary production, it is unclear how or whether a focus on editing—however conceived—extends, complements, or challenges that method.

Rather than present their chapters as case studies of “editing” from several perspectives, the editors might have staged more pointed debates to illuminate the historical and political claims at stake for the field—beyond correcting an absence in the scholarship of the Harlem Renaissance. Indeed, implicit through much of the book is an argument about the historical conditions that shaped the movement we now confidently call the Harlem Renaissance. Yet for all the attention paid to periodization in the volume, neither editors nor authors engage Kenneth Warren’s What Was African American Literature? (2018), which argues that African American literature was an elite and temporary cultural formation that only gained its coherence in negative relation to Jim Crow segregation. But while chapters in Editing the Harlem Renaissance illustrate the complex desires and labors that continue to reproduce African American literature as an aesthetic and commercial enterprise, the volume editors might have made a bolder statement about how editing as a process can help answer larger questions facing the field. What does editing reveal about the economic and social dynamics shaping the Harlem Renaissance? How does editing during the Renaissance—often an interracial affair—challenge or expand our categories for what counts as African American literature? It is a missed opportunity, not only because it might have given the introduction a sharper argumentative edge. Chapters by Nemmers on white patrons and Garibaldi on the segregation of the digital humanities differently reconsider, respectively, the interracial dynamics that shaped the writing and revision of African American literary texts as well as the legacy of Jim Crow that impedes our current efforts to achieve a “more inclusive digital future” (167).

Nevertheless, Editing the Harlem Renaissance deserves a careful hearing from scholars of the Harlem Renaissance beyond literary studies—and of African American culture beyond Harlem. By proposing editing as a dynamic social process, the volume joins recent works in art history, musicology, and material culture studies that reconsider cultural artifacts in light of the work it took to make them, the commercial networks they circulated in, and the sensory environment they belonged to. The cover image of the typesetter and his machine evokes a promise for new directions for the study of African American literature in which the labors of authors, editors, and printers can be seen as part of a whole.

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