BMCR 2010.08.63

African American Writers and Classical Tradition

, , African American Writers and Classical Tradition. Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 2010. 454. ISBN 9780226789965. $45.00.


The beginning must be uncertain, a note half-heard. For here is a story of the edges of memory – unquiet, Protean, astonishing. In their exploration of the richness of African-American engagements with the ancient world – from the poetry of Phyllis Wheatley to the satire of Fran Ross – Cook and Tatum have produced one of the most important and enchanting books ever written in the field of classical reception.

(And if that has the heavy finality of conclusion, it still must serve as opening gambit – such is the scope of this work.)

Wisely, the authors have not attempted an all-encompassing narrative. Instead, each of the book’s eight chapters is focused around one complex, suggestive figure, or literary strategy. The Ciceronian speech of Frederick Douglass – seized from his self-proclaimed ‘betters’ – leads into the troubled Odyssey of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, where the Cyclops lies in wait in an American psychiatric ward, and the allusive, quicksilver verse of Melvin Tolson, the ‘Pindar of Harlem.’ The chapters’ progression is broadly chronological – beginning in eighteenth-century Boston, ending in the present day and a glance, half-longing, towards times to come.

Grand narrative this is not, in any conventional sense. The past is fragile, here – hard to reach, harder still to make one’s own. While still a slave, Douglass had to ‘steal knowledge’ (58) from under the nose of his master, by persuading his white childhood friends to give him lessons. Wheatley’s antiquity is structured by loss (46). Even when past and present do meet on solid ground, the result – as in W.E.B. Du Bois’s Quest for the Silver Fleece – is often far from triumphant; ‘just because you start interpreting everything allegorically,’ as the authors remark, ‘[it] doesn’t mean you’ll be any better off’ (134). These are discourses which many conventional approaches to reception would be hard-pressed to narrate – where remembrance becomes ‘a dream as frail as those of ancient time’ (Tennyson, quoted 229).

Yet this fragmentary past is as powerfully adhered to, as ambitiously wielded, as ever the ancient world has been. There is ‘epic-sized ambition’ (346) behind many African-American invocations of antiquity. When Du Bois came to rural Tennessee, determined to help local children find a wider world through education, he came bearing Cicero’s Pro Archia Poeta. That great defense of the power of knowledge accompanied him day by dispiriting day, as he struggled to maintain his classes in the midst of grim economic realities. And when the children drifted away, he picked up his Cicero once more, and went to visit his pupils’ parents, ‘and so, toiling up the hill, and getting as far into the cabin as possible, I put Cicero’s “Pro Archia Poeta” into the simplest English with local applications, and usually convinced them – for a week or so’ (Du Bois, quoted 113).

Procrustes’ bed was, famously, the perfect fit for every sleeper: if it was not quite the right size, Procrustes would adjust his guest accordingly, chopping off extremities such as feet and necks, or stretching the unfortunate visitor until the bed was filled. At times, narratives of the reception of antiquity can lean towards the Procrustean: heaving or chopping at patterns of influence to lessen the ambiguity of echoes, the uncertainty of the presence of the past. One wants the ancient world to matter – without a doubt, here and now. Cook and Tatum have adopted a very different strategy. Theirs is an account of the difficulty of recollection, where the past is often a ‘hidden model’ (162), which issues ‘forth in confusing and deliberately unfaithful memories’ (185).

It is a jazzman’s reading – fluid, suggestive, ambivalent – written to a high sweet note that breaks just as one comprehends it. Such an approach is both fitting and indispensable. For rarely was the ancient world a single guiding light for these writers – rather, in a polyphony of traditions, amidst multiple competing pasts, it was one of many voices. Thus in the adventures of Fran Ross’s Oreo, ‘a Theseus from Philadelphia’ (294), Oreo’s battle against the monstrous sow Phaea ends when a New York taxi collides with the pig, ‘which tottered a few feet, then fell dead in front of Temple Shaaray Tefila, directly across from the pork store’ (Ross, quoted 306). In this world – sprinkled with Yiddish banter and solemn French and the smoke of New York – ‘that hashed rasher of bacon defiling the temple sidewalk’ (Ross, quoted 306) strikes another ancient quest from Oreo’s list.

In Melvin Tolson’s difficult, suggestive poetry, antiquity is still harder to grasp – and deliberately so. ‘Tolson’s whole aim is to lose the reader in a maze of allusions and references’ (246); these are texts which do not respond to confident untangling. Cook and Tatum give full measure to this ambiguity in their reading of his verse, where echoes of the past are balanced with spaces of absence, in a powerful analysis of the uncertainty of memory; the ancient world is forever half-seen, half-received – a picture glimpsed in twilight.

This is perhaps the most sophisticated literary criticism – and careful close reading – that I have ever come across in the field of classical reception. And it remains an utter pleasure to read – for one of the reasons why the authors are so good at taking language to pieces is the wondrous way with words which they themselves have. There is a bewitching lilt to the style – wry and sophisticated – and the prose is over-spilling, abundant, glorious. Yiddish jokes jostle with delicious turns of phrase – that big pig Phaea becomes a ‘supersow’ (298), Frederick Douglass’s prose is ‘the rhetorical equivalent of a Beethoven symphony at full volume’ (86) – and language rich enough to make one laugh out loud with delight. General reader or specialist, all comers will be left enchanted.

They are jazzmen themselves, Cook and Tatum. (And the words were Cook’s, the piano Tatum’s, when once they came to play in New Hope, Pennsylvania, all unknowing that they had been booked as ‘the entr’acte for a drag show, “The Male Misstique.”’ [2]) At the end of this glorious book, something rare and precious, I longed to hear them play again.