With his prodigious and magisterial biography, The New Negro - The Life of Alain Locke (Oxford University Press, 2019), Jeffrey C. Stewart can take his place alongside David Levering Lewis, Arnold Rampersad and a few other living scholars who have delivered powerful summaries of extraordinary, iconic Americans, Du Bois in Lewis’s case and Rampersad’s study of Langston Hughes.
The book earned Stewart a Pulitzer Prize in biography this year, which is among several awards he has accumulated in an outstanding academic career. Currently, he is a professor and chair of the Department of Black Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. While he is the author of numerous books, reviews, and essays, his study of Locke may be his crowning achievement.
What Lewis and Rampersad did in two volumes, Stewart accomplishes in one and the insight and stamina is no less promethean as he harnesses Locke’s boundless intellectual prowess.
In more than 930 pages, 44 chapters and a cast of thousands, Stewart’s approach is meticulous, shadowing his subject as he darts across literary terrain, academic circles, European retreats, homosexual rendezvous, and institutional entanglements too numerous to count.
Many of the presumptions about Locke, particularly his gay proclivities are thoroughly discussed, mainly through letters, notes, and other marginalia. Stewart has thoughtfully amassed a long literary concerto, a bountiful life replete with an assortment of enthralling movements. In fact, Locke’s correspondences are the touchstone of Stewart’s research, and they not only offer an intimate reflection of Locke’s seemingly indefatigable desire to communicate with friends and frenemies, but also the social and political intrigue between some of the movers and shakers of his era.
After navigating my way through Stewart’s opus—and it was beginning to feel like it would take me as long to read it as it took him to write it—I had several conversations with others who had made the trek, most notably and rewardingly with Eugene Holley, Jr., whose article appears in Publishers Weekly. Holley, a prolific writer and a jazz buff of considerable depth, shared some of his opinions on Stewart’s book and suggested I check out his interview with him, which I did.
Several things leap from Holley’s exchanges with him, and one line Stewart gave him is pregnant with guidance: “The black tradition always meant that intellectuals write in a language that people can understand,” Stewart told him.
Stewart follows this preachment unequivocally, which can be a daunting task when he must explain the daunting aspects of Locke’s value theory that wind its way through the text like a leitmotif.
Each of the chapters is laden with complexities, and Stewart deftly unravels them, delineating and then counterpoising Locke’s ideas and conclusions against a coterie of fascinating colleagues and adversaries, many of them icons of the Harlem Renaissance. His relationship with Langston Hughes is a recurring theme—I was curious to see if Stewart would provide information that Rampersad may have missed in his definitive two volumes on the great poet’s life.
While the letters they exchanged are full of passionate titillation, there is no clear indication of sexual consummation, and thus Stewart’s conclusions are not at all dissimilar to Rampersad’s, particularly about Hughes’ supposed homosexuality that in the end amounts to no more than a kind of asexuality.
Interestingly, for all the shared commonalities between Locke and Hughes, the two artistic and intellectual giants, according to Stewart, differed on what the artist did to folk art to make it art. “Hughes believed the black writer should listen to the life, speech and pronunciation of the working class, and try to reproduce it, at least, its thought,” Stewart posits.
“For Locke, culture was a theory of progress, of movement upward from the specificity of the folk experience to artistic forms of great complexity and greater universality.”
Integral to the Locke-Hughes coupling were two other formidable personalities of the period—Zora Neale Hurston and Charlotte Osgood Mason, the white patron of the Renaissance artists, and Stewart captures the ins and outs, ups and downs that characterized their doings, particularly as they pertained to financial affairs and the artistic limitations.
Another tidbit Holley shared with me which is included in his article was the other writings that Stewart has done on Locke that perhaps made it easier for him to come to grips with some of the more challenging issues of a biography.
Along with the extensive study Stewart had done prior to undertaking The New Negro, he had, again according to Holley, followed David Levering Lewis’s advice and read George Painter’s book on Marcel Proust, the great French author. From reading Painter, he discovered the blueprint of how to make the transposition from the personal to the public in discussing Locke’s phenomenal journey.
And that journey was often a global one, especially the trips to Europe, and none more revelatory than those to Paris, Italy, and to Greece, where the possibility of experiencing great art was ineluctably linked with sexual liaisons. Each European location had a special attraction for Locke—Berlin and Germany’s music and intense intellectual vitality; the romantic pulse of Rome and Florence; and of course, there was London and Oxford that presented him with all the academic promise that in the end fell short of completion.
From Locke’s “Victorian childhood” to the Epilogue, my copy of the book has not an unmarked page of highlights. For example, “Black Victorianism boiled down to three things: culture, education and commitment to the race.” Locke believed that race was essentially a performance.” “Locke was a hustler at Harvard…” and, “It is through art and through Art only that we can realize our perfection.”
Much in the same way Stewart was induced to read Painter, his summations led me back to Locke’s tome and the putative bible of the Harlem Renaissance—The New Negro: An Interpretation. Then, zipping back even further to the original iteration there’s Survey Graphic, where Locke assembled a talented ensemble of artists that to a great degree is exemplary of his own aesthetic impulses.
Of course, a good portion of The New Negro is about the old New Negro, and I am still trying to figure out who the Mr. Rogers is Professor Stewart references toward the end of the book. Could this be J.A. Rogers, the esteemed historian who authored “Jazz at Home” in the first New Negro? This is just one of several moments in need of clarity in a remarkable book on an incomparable man of letters, art critic, scholar, and bon vivant who straddled so many significant realms—and worlds.
Stewart has woven a compelling tapestry, a work of art that is more than the life of a mere mortal but of a large and terrifically glorious swath of Black, no, American history. What he did so wonderfully for Paul Robeson and to some extent for Henry Ossawa Tanner, Stewart has now performed magnificently on Locke.
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