Deep River: Music and Memory in Harlem Renaissance Thought. . - Reviews - book review
Paul Allen Anderson, Deep River: Music and Memory in Harlem Renaissance Thought. Durham: Duke UP, 2001, 335 pp. $19.95.
In this important book, Paul Allen Anderson explores the development of ideas about black music during a period that witnessed its growing visibility and impact on American culture and society. As the title makes clear, Anderson is also interested in how conversations about music often address the past. Indeed, the question of how memory and attendant notions of cultural continuity and distinctiveness might be employed in light of the modernization of African American life is of interest to black and non-black commentators alike. In interesting ways, this book is a consideration of the possibilities and pitfalls of "African American musical cosmopolitanism," as well as of some of the complicated processes by which this vision works, sometimes against, and often in coordination with, black nationalist aspirations.
Organized as a set of "intellectual portraits," Anderson's book begins by analyzing W. E. B. Du Bois's writings on black music and folk culture in The Souls of Black Folk (2903), taking care to point out Du Bois's synthesis of black nationalism and cosmopolitanism and the wide range of thinkers who influenced him. Chapter two is conceived more broadly, covering Jean Toomer's less optimistic portrayal of black folks' entry into modernity and debates surrounding black concert hall performances in the 1920s, while surveying some of the issues that arose around the problematic concept of black difference in music criticism. Anderson next explores Alain Locke's aesthetic vision, which, in somewhat paradoxical terms, synthesized cosmopolitan and pluralist perspectives as it championed "racial vindication" through elite cultural forms. The fourth chapter examines the work of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, who broke ranks from Du Bois, Locke, and others seeking vindication on the concert stage, and celebrate d instead versions of black life expressed in the blues and other vernacular arts. The final chapter uses a "comparative perspective" to show how the swing-era criticism of white writers John Hammond and Roger Pryor Dodge resonated with, though in most cases diverged from, the ideas of New Negro thinkers. An epilogue explores how Duke Ellington's longer compositions and comments about music revised the "folk nationalist ideal" put forth by Du Bois and Locke.
Anderson's book is well-researched, carefully documented, and reads well- even in the dense sections detailing Du Bois's and Locke's intellectual roots. While the challenge various forms of black music posed to aesthetic and political visions during the Harlem Renaissance is not unfamiliar territory in African American studies, what is striking about this book is how deeply and systematically it explores the particulars of this conversation. Similarly impressive is the way Anderson shows how various thinkers responded to the imperatives of forging a liberating cultural politics and to the parameters of the scholarly and philosophical traditions in which they were immersed. Du Bois's blending of cosmopolitan and black nationalist ideals in his discussion of the form and function of the spirituals, we learn, speaks of a race man's attempt to counter African American exclusion and critical denigration as well as a balance of a Herderian folk romanticism with a Hegelian will to self-consciousness.
Anderson's study also resists the tendency to reduce debates within African American intellectual circles to neat dichotomies. Characterizing them simply as conflicts between assimilationism and black nationalism, elitism and anti-elitism, or even cosmopolitanism and pluralism would not do them justice. Elements of these and other dyads existed simultaneously in the thought of vanous figures discussed in the book, and their differences were more complex than such models allow. Ever the pluralist, Hurston rejected Locke's and Du Bois's elitism and validation of urbane hybridization, yet her work on black music ultimately points to an alternative synthesis of pluralism and cosmopolitanism--one that rejected the ideal of musical progress and remained rooted in rural, vernacular forms. Moreover, her rejection of Locke's and Du Bois's musical cosmopolitanism was also a product of her intense individualism that remained suspicious of group-uplift projects regardless of how they were cast politically.
At its best, Anderson's book provides a balanced treatment of the intellectual antecedents of New Negro thought with an attention to the social and cultural context in which it emerged. The chapters on Du Bois and swing criticism are both strong examples of this balance. Yet this level of synthesis is not entirely consistent. Anderson might have benefitted from more systematically discussing the development, social function, and marketing of jazz and blues in the 1920s and 1930s as a means of giving further insight into Hughes's and Hurston's celebrations of this music and Locke's vexed relationship to it. We only get glimpses of this story in the analyses of these thinkers. There is a fuller treatment in the final chapter, but it comes a little late.
Readers might also question the effectiveness of Anderson's comparative approach in chapter five. Although he provides a very strong account of jazz criticism in the 1930s, he might have done a more thorough job of detailing how the work of Hammond and Dodge diverged from or was similar to the cosmopolitan musical visions of Du Bois, Locke, and other black aestheticians. One wonders whether foregrounding Ellington's music and New Negro ideals in this chapter instead of saving them for the epilogue would have been a more effective means of showing how conundrums around musical cosmopolitanism resonated in different interpretive and performing communities in the 1930s and beyond.
Still, Anderson's book remains an excellent study of this critical moment in African American intellectual history. His discussion of music in Harlem Renaissance thought is illuminating, and he moves us well beyond the level of analysis that has previously been brought to bear on these conversations. Ultimately, this book identifies a point of origin for many vexing questions that continue to drive research on music today, while simultaneously providing a point of departure for what we can only hope will be equally sophisticated work on other moments in the development of black music criticism.