Understanding New Criticism: Blackness and the University

Understanding New Criticism establishes that the practices of black writers in the mid-twentieth century tell a different story of the American institutionalization of literary studies than the one that begins with the New Criticism and the university. Scholars in literary studies have taken it as a given that the Southern New Critics laid the foundation for today’s discipline. At the same time, there remains an oft-held, but rarely examined assumption that the racist views espoused by this group have been effectively excised from the field by subsequent methodological developments. By questioning this origin story, Understanding New Criticism: Blackness and the University uncovers a vibrant history of generative interpretive resistance enacted by writers as widely known as Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansberry as well as by those still underappreciated, such as Melvin B. Tolson and Doxey Wilkerson. These critiques of New Critical close reading were not limited to the method’s interpretive impact. Instead, black writers investigated its ramifications for the university system, African American literature, the ongoing struggle against segregation and exploitation at home, and the international campaign against the post-war expansion of American capitalism.

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 confrontation with the academy. 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.

Today when scholars, activists and students are questioning the merits and forms of inclusivity on college campuses, Understanding New Criticism: Blackness 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 constructing historical narratives built on original archival research. Ultimately, 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 their own politically and socially grounded literary criticism. In a moment of crisis for literary studies, the university, and the American liberal order, Understanding New Criticism 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.

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.