research

On the Outside of Literary Studies: Black Criticism and the University

This book shows how black writers in the mid-twentieth century challenged the New Criticism and accounts for why these interpretive and institutional critiques have been ignored until now. Scholars in literary studies have taken it as a given that the Southern New Critics laid the foundation for today’s literary studies. At the same time, there remains an oft-held, but rarely examined assumption that the racist views held by those critics have been effectively excised from the discipline by subsequent methodological developments. Rather than taking this origin story for granted, On the Outside of Literary Studies probes its depths to discover a vibrant history of interpretive resistance by writers as widely known as Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansberry and by those still underappreciated, such as Melvin Tolson and Doxey Wilkerson. These black writers saw the New Criticism as a university-based marketing program for racial exclusion under the guise of academic literary study, an effort that supported broader efforts for liberal statecraft. That is, the African American critique of the New New Critical close reading was not limited to its interpretive impact. Instead, they investigated its ramifications for the university system, African American literature, the ongoing struggle against segregation and exploitation at home and the international struggles against the post-war expansion of American capitalism.

Tracing this story, On the Outside of Literary Studies reveals how narratives about the New Criticism’s influence and the assumptions on which those narratives are based are precisely the reason for the extended suppression of black critical perspectives. In an innovative methodological turn, I look beyond predominantly white universities to analyze the history of literary studies. Black writers levied their critique in venues thought-to-be acritical until now: behind the closed doors of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee of Investigations, in the classroom at a Communist labor school under F.B.I. surveillance, and in an imagined expose of academic criticism’s implicit racial logics on the pages of The Sewanee Review. These sites were not only a place to excoriate the unspoken racist assumptions of the New Criticism; they also became a place for black writers to define black literature and black interpretive practice on their own terms and to imagine literary institutions otherwise.

In addition to outlining how mid-century black writers defined black literature, this book is among the first to show explicitly that black literary production was a crucial element of a social and political struggle against the academy and the state. Works such as John O’ Killens’s Youngblood, Ann Petry’s The Narrows, and Melvin B. Tolson’s Libretto for the Republic of Liberia position an anti-racist critical practice as a direct challenge to institutionalized forms of anti-black racism. In my readings of these texts, I show that mid-century black literature problematizes the perennial assumption that black literature is political first and literary second. Instead, On the Outside of Literary Studies shows that black literature presents aesthetic and political solutions to ongoing exploitations and expropriations.

Many of these solutions were expressed through terms, forms, and institutions supported by the Communist Party U.S.A. The book follows black writers as they turned to the increasingly isolated political left to combat the reactionary consolidation of conservatism and liberalism that occurred at the onset of the Cold War. The codification of New Critical interpretation as a democratic tenet became a means by which universities and the U.S. federal government enclosed and dispossessed the black cultural commons for the purpose of ensuring U.S. cultural ascendancy. I show that in the face of this emerging global order many black writers turned to Communism and its institutions, like the Jefferson School of Social Science in New York City, as a means to challenge the false equality and prosperity promised by American capitalism. These institutions and the ideas developed within them have not been previously part of the disciplinary history of literary studies, despite the fact that their existence can be directly traced to the purge of left-leaning and anti-racist faculty from American universities during the rise of the New Critics.

Identifying mid-century black literary critical practice as crucial to the development of social and political resistance towards the university and the political economy it reproduced, On the Outside of Literary Studies offers a new context for the student-led rise of black studies, ethnic studies, and feminist studies programs in the late 1960s, not to mention the campus protests of our present. In a moment when scholars, activists and students are questioning the merits and forms of inclusivity on college campuses, On the Outside of Literary Studies: Black Criticism and the University fulfills a dire disciplinary need by providing a theoretically-informed cultural history that emphasizes how literary study’s institutionalization created epistemological and material boundaries for black culture, as well as for black people. My manuscript marries theoretical inquiries into the possibilities opened (and closed) by literary criticism with careful attention to the material conditions of literary study, while engaging historical narratives built on original archival research. This book illustrates how ideas about literature and blackness solidified into academic practices; how black critics have actively resisted such practices; and how in that struggle black writers established a politically and socially grounded literary criticism. In a moment of crisis for literary studies, the university, and the American liberal order, On the Outside of Literary Studies delivers a necessary reflection of the discipline’s anti-black racism and its persistence in our present.

A part of this project on Melvin B. Tolson and Allen Tate appears as an article in Criticism. Also I have explored my interests in extant forms of disciplinary history in two essays for Public Books, one of which was translated into Italian.

The University Fix: The Political Economy of the American University since 1945

My second book project investigates the post-World War II history of the university’s role in reinforcing, perpetuating, and benefiting from the seizure and appropriation of land and labor, a set of legal conditions Cheryl Harris has famously termed “whiteness as property.” Through case studies—informed by critical race theory and black critical geography, fiction by John Wideman, Paul Beatty, and Octavia Butler, and the demands of social movements, such as #HUResist and Black Lives Matter—I show that the post-war expansion of the American university has consistently expropriated black land and labor via urban renewal, gentrification, the professionalization of campus police, and diversity programs. These technologies of accumulation by dispossession mark an extension of, rather than a break from American higher education’s entanglement with the projects of settler colonialism and slavery. The project, therefore, situates the university’s recent restructuring of its labor organization, its reliance on massive student debt regimes, and its continued expansion in physical plant within broader historical and theoretical inquiries in critical ethnic studies, urban studies, and critical university studies.

An article from this project is forthcoming in American Quarterly. I have previously written on the entanglement of the production and orientation of space, the violence of enclosure, and narrative form in an article for English Language Notes.