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.
Some years ago, I came across a hadith, attributed to Mohammed, that I so loved that I painted a poster of it: “Acquire knowledge. It enables its possessor to distinguish right from wrong. It lights the way to Heaven. It is our friend in the desert, our society in solitude, our companion when friendless. It sustains us in misery. It is an ornament among friends and an armor against enemies.”
Many a time I have found its message to be true, and I believe the women writers featured in Lyndall Gordon’s book, Outsiders, would agree.
These five women writers are Mary Shelley (1797-1851, author of Frankenstein), Emily Brontë (1818-1848, Wuthering Heights), George Eliot (1819 -1880, Mill on the Floss, Middlemarch), Olive Schreiner (1855-1920, The Story of an African Farm) and Virginia Woolf (1882-1941, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, A Room of One’s Own). They all lived in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Perhaps notable is that only one of these five who wasn’t British was Olive Schreiner, who was born in South Africa.
Ms. Gordon writes, “In a period when a woman’s reputation was her treasured security, each of these five lost it. Each endured the darkness of social exclusion.” When, for example Mary Shelley was left friendless in London, “She read night and day. The worse her situation socially or emotionally, the more completely she aligned herself with the greatest minds. To turn to books was her way of restoring or renewing herself. Call it self-education or call it the resource of women with no access to institutions of learning. Mary Shelly, the Brontës, George Eliot, Olive Schreiner, Virginia Woolf—all were on the margins or outside society in one way or another, and all were readers (italics mine). Books were their companions across time, seeding a new kind of woman. And their freedom from contact made reading and writing more sustained than for other middle-class women caught up in social duties.” (I could perhaps add my own name to this list.)
But each paid a price for being on the margins or outside society.
Mary Shelley’s mother was an early feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, and her father was political philosopher, William Godwin. Her mother died shortly after giving birth to her, so she was raised by her father, who encouraged her intellectual development. At the age of 16 she eloped with the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Although he was otherwise married, the two of them traipsed about Europe with the likes of Lord Byron. They were the original hippies, living out “free love” and sitting up late into the night drinking wine and discussing politics and literature. From this soup, Mary drew forth her great masterpiece, Frankenstein, at the age of 19. Frankenstein, as all know, was a scientist who put together a large-than-life man. Eventually, the havoc was appalling, perhaps a warning to our own times and its highly developed technology. Mary bore four children, three of whom died in childbirth or shortly after. She was 54 when she died.
Emily Brontë was a rather strange duck, a woman of such extreme sensitivity she could not bear the society of others and sought only the company of her own family, who, as luck would have, were also writers. Best know of her siblings was the eldest, Charlotte Brontë, famous for writing Jane Eyre, and Wide Saragossa Sea.
Wuthering Heights is the story of an all-consuming, death-defying, and ultimately self-destructive love, and, despite its overwrought drama, is considered a classic. Contrasting the capacity to love is the ability to hate, and Heathcliff, one of the novel’s main characters, hates with a vengeance. The moors are featured as place of morose embodiment.
At the age off 22 Emily wrote the following poem, which best describes her attitude:
Riches I hold in light esteem
And Love I laugh to scorn
And lust of fame was but a dream
That vanished with the morn—
And if I pray, the only prayer
That moves my lips for me
Is— ‘Leave the heart that now I bear
And give me liberty.’
Yes, as my swift days near their goal,
Tis all that I implore—
Through life and death, a chainless soul,
With courage to endure!
George Eliot is a synonym for Marianne Evans, a woman who took on a man’s name in a time when women writers were not readily accepted. She lived most of her life in the second half of the 19th Century. was an English novelist, poet, journalist, translator, and one of the leading writers of the Victorian era. She wrote seven novels, including Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner and Middlemarch, most of which are set in provincial England and known for their realism and psychological insight.
Olive Schreiner was a South African author, anti-war campaigner and intellectual. She is best remembered today for her novel The Story of an African Farm, which deals boldly with agnosticism, existential independence, individualism, the professional aspirations of women, and the elemental nature of life on the colonial frontier.
Since the late 20th century, scholars have also credited Schreiner as an advocate for the Afrikaners, and other South African groups who were excluded from political power for decades, such as indigenous Blacks, Jews and Indians. Her published works and other surviving writings promote implicit values such as moderation, friendship, and understanding amongst all peoples, and avoid the pitfalls of political radicalism, which she consciously eschewed. Called a lifelong freethinker, she also continued to adhere to the spirit of the Christian Bible but developed a secular version of the worldview of her missionary parents, with mystical elements.
Lastly, the book devotes a chapter to Virginia Woolf, who, despite severe bouts with depression that finally claimed her life, was surely one of greatest novelists of the 20th Century.
Following her 1912 marriage to Leonard Woolf, the couple founded the Hogarth Press in 1917, which published much of her work. The couple rented a home in Sussex and moved there permanently in 1940. Throughout her life, Woolf was troubled by her mental illness. She was institutionalized several times and attempted suicide at least twice. Her illness is considered to have been bipolar disorder, for which there was no effective intervention during her lifetime. At age 59, Woolf committed suicide in 1941 by putting rocks in her coat pockets and drowning herself in the River Ouse.
Best known of her works are Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando and A Room of One’s Own, in which she wrote the much-quoted dictum, "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction."
Outsiders is a survey of the lives of these five brilliant women writers, who paved the way for others to follow and to whom we owe a great debt.
We live in paradox. It’s a "truth," universally recognized and universally denied in contemporary American society, that democracy is dying. Recognition that this "truth" is not a "false-truth" can be enhanced by reading Lynch's book in tandem with Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987) in order to behold what prism refracts conservative and liberal ideologies simultaneously. What Lynch explores at length in Know-It-All Society is illuminated with greater brevity in Peter Pomerantsev's The Info War of All Against All.
The prism is constituted by use of language and some consequences of speech acts which reconfigure ideologies.
The prism is digital technology, the powerful impact of the Internet and our commerce with social media. It is necessary for some thinkers, or at least thinkers who have the luxury to be philosophical, to compare Bloom's conclusion with Lynch's and to recover memory. Recovery is necessary but not sufficient, unless the gesture is transformed from enthralling theory into pragmatic actions.
Behold the conclusions.
Bloom: "This is the American moment in world history, the one for which we shall forever be judged. Just as in politics the responsibility for the fate of freedom in the world has devolved upon our regime, so the fate of philosophy in the world has devolved upon our universities, and the two are related as they have never been before. The gravity of our given task is great, and it is very much in doubt how the future will judge our stewardship."
Lynch: "This very reason [you can't speak truth to power if power speaks truth by definition] is why it is crucial to slow down the spread of tribal arrogance—especially among those of us convinced we wear the armor of righteousness. It is also why we should not give up on truth and humility, and why neither information pollution nor polarization should make us abandon them. When we own what we don't know and remain open to what others do, we exemplify a basic respect for our fellow citizens that is demanded by democracy. We may never completely realize the ideal of respect—the ideal of living in a society that treats people equally, that achieves social justice, that values truth and reasons, and that rejects arrogance and dogmatism. But these are goals worth striving for, and it would be perverse to give up on them just when they are under threat. It is precisely then that democratic ideals matter most."
Bloom's arrogance was imperial and tinged with what is currently identified as the American dream of white superiority, and the neo-fascist contours of the dream may be alarming. Lynch, who is not immune to the arrogance of righteousness, is nuanced; he is also stymied by the philosophical optimism of the moral capacity of most American citizens, the kind of optimism from which Bloom distanced himself. He is subject to the consolation of philosophy in a nation where many citizens might proclaim that philosophy is a cuspidor of fake nonsense. Arrogance wears many errant guises.
Should we want to up the ante by way of optimistic conclusions, we might observe how Marilynne Robinson ends her essay, "Which Way to the City on a Hill?", published in New York Review of Books, July 18, 2019, an essay occupying a middle ground between Lynch and Bloom.
Robinson: "We know our penal system is unfair and inhumane, that our treatment of immigrants threatens the ideal of a just nation. Why are we paralyzed in the face of these issues of freedom and humanity? Why are we alienated from a history that could help us find a deep root in liberality and shared and mutual happiness? Those who control the word "American" control the sense of the possible. Our public is far more liberal than our politics. Our politics must change if there is to be any future for representative democracy."
Robinson is ironic, in a fashion that Bloom and Lynch are not, as she invokes a history authorized and even in 2019 authored by what Charles Mills aptly named the racial contract, by what Lynch urges us to admit is implacable enslavement to overvaluing what pretends to be knowledge, what in actually is an ocean of ideas governed by algorithms. Perhaps Lynch dealt in greater detail with artificial intelligence and the panoptical in his earlier book The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data (2017), because a more trenchant analysis is needed than his noting that algorithms are use to curate online and offline lives.
The gravity of having a fuller analysis can be appreciated by dealing with the dialectic between individual and group decision-making, one topic that Jared Diamond explored among many others in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005), that Gustave Le Bon alerted the Western world in The Crowd (1895). Navigating among the ideas of Bloom, Mills, Le Bon, Robinson, Diamond, and Lynch is an excruciating journey. It is, nevertheless, essential for reckoning with a family of militant and tragic insanities which seek to hold all Americans hostage in the Age of Trump.
It can be argued to some degree that many Americans follow their leader just as the eponymous character in Melville's Benito Cereno followed his into a virtually terminal illness. In other words, many Americans are playing dangerous games of political suicide as they condone aspects of violence that can boomerang.
Lynch has much to say about the current habits of the American mind, the Internet as a source of information, and political discord. Know-It-All Society: Truth and Arrogance in Political Culture is divided into six parts: 1) Montaigne's Warning, 2) The Outrage Factory, 3) Where the Spade Turns, 4) Ideologies of Arrogance and the American Right, 5) Liberalism and the Philosophy of Identity Politics, and 6) Truth and Humility as Democratic Values.
Lynch rightly begins with Montaigne's skepticism, moves oddly forward with arguments which swerve toward European philosophers and away from American thinkers. His strategy avoids engaging the dialectic of the concrete which demands a certain coming to grips with a complex national history; he concentrates on abstractions in an effort to inspire transcendence.
It’s admirable that Lynch identifies the primal elements of political ideology as desire for status, loyalty to the tribe at all costs, the hierarchal locating of us over them, and deceptive perspectives on the idea of truth. He enables consideration that the elements are at once born-white and bone-white, thus acknowledging to which one of multiple races in the USA it is just to attribute the dying of democracy.
It could indeed be argued that Lynch's philosophical exploration of political culture is a classic example of creating airy hopes for a future, hopes that ultimately fail to deal with the historical specificity, let us say, of Ira Katznelson's Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time. It could be argued that Lynch illuminates a loss of historical consciousness and a descent into socio-political romanticism.
Know-It-All Society is a timely warning that the power of long-term exposure to the digital may be irreversibly altering how our brains function and how we make choices of all kinds. We can be reasonably certain that such power is more than a bio-cultural accident. It quickens desire to know how effectively cognitive science might help us to comprehend the primary reasons for the dying of American democracy.
As many of my Mississippi fore-parents would put it, democracy is in “low cotton.” It would be foolhardy to believe the audacity of hope and the arrogance of optimism will create an escape from barbarism or willful forms of domestic and foreign terrorism or provide any relief from our endless, existential struggles against the cosmic Siamese twins named totalitarianism and capitalism. We shall never know it all. We are not equipped to know everything. But as our nation drifts slowly toward its fated ending, what we are equipped to know is how reprehensible, abject stupidity can hasten passage into concentration camps and early graves.
;©Copyright - Website Designs by rdobrien.com, 2016.