MSA Conference


MLA 2008

The following sessions were held at the MLA 2008 Convention in San Francisco, December 2008.

Saturday, 27 December
Race, Modernism, and Transnationalisms
5:15–6:30 p.m., Hilton San Francisco
Presiding: Cassandra Laity, Drew Univ.

1. "The Pan–African Americanism of Melvin B. Tolson," Tyrone Williams, Xavier Univ., OH
2. "Langston Hughes, Translation, and the Flourishing of Caribbean Modernisms," Anita Haya Patterson, Boston Univ.
3. "Race and the Modernist Imagination: The Politics of Form, 1890–1930," Urmila Seshagiri, Univ. of Tennessee, Knoxville

Monday, 29 December
New Directions in Modernist Studies
8:30–9:45 a.m., Hilton San Francisco
Presiding: Susan McCabe, Univ. of Southern California

Speakers: Charles Francis Altieri, Univ. of California, Berkeley; Douglas Mao, Johns Hopkins Univ.; Cris Miller, State Univ. of New York-Buffalo; Jahan Ramazani, Univ. of Virginia; Judith L. Sensibar, Arizona State Univ. West


Tyrone Williams, "The Pan-African Americanism of Melvin B. Tolson"
The modernist poet Melvin B. Tolson, perhaps best known for his anti-and neo-Eliot epic, A Harlem Gallery: Book 1: The Curator, a work which has also – and correctly – been read as both an anti- and pro-Harlem Renaissance diatribe (in every sense of that word), encapsulates the tensions attendant to all the modernist black poets (e.g., Robert Hayden) who attempted to find their niche along or between the borders of a “new” black consciousness (signaled by the Harlem Renaissance) and a “modernism” being consolidated in academia under the cover of the New Criticism. On the one hand, Tolson’s commitment to his students at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas (e.g., his work with the debate team, recently celebrated in the Denzel Washington-produced movie, “The Great Debaters”), his “decision” not to move to NYC (unlike his Missouri-born compatriot, Langston Hughes), his belief that his poetry “alone” (a central tenet of the new criticism) constituted “the man” he had been, is laudable within the epoch of High Romanticism. On the other hand, Tolson’s belief in “black progress,” his cultivation of himself as a kind of Du Boisian “race man,” undercut, or at least hampered, the possibility of his belonging to a modernist tradition already re-envisioning itself as “internationalist” (race, gender and ethnicity reduced, like “history,” to “background” information). For Tolson imagines his poetry as part of an emerging black “nation” without borders even as it privileges certain geographical sites – Liberia, Harlem, Marshall, etc. – as “touchstones” of Alain Locke’s “New Negro” (which did not include a number of Harlem Renaissance artists, e.g., Zora Neale Hurston) and the Black Arts Movement’s notion of “black consciousness.” Tolson does not imagine his black nation as Pan-African, with its underlying anti- or non-European premises. What links Liberia, historically black colleges, black forensics and black modernist poetry, for Tolson, is precisely Pan-African-American hybridism.

Anita Patterson, “Langston Hughes, Translation, and the Flourishing of Caribbean Modernisms”
Critics have already ascertained Langston Hughes’s unique contributions to African-American modernism and the aesthetic philosophy of the Harlem Renaissance. While acknowledging this cultural uniqueness, my paper will examine Hughes’s translations of works by the Haitian Francophone writer Jacques Roumain in order to illustrate historical links and parallels among the Harlem Renaissance, the Haitian Renaissance, and avant-gardists in Europe and the USA. Scholars are generally less familiar with Hughes’s translations of Roumain’s poems – first published in a 1942 Anthology of Contemporary Latin-American Poetry edited by Dudley Fitts, and subsequently reprinted in The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1949 – than they are with his translation of Roumain’s Gouverneurs de la rosée, which Hughes did with Mercer Cook in 1945 and published two years later. Focusing on Hughes’s translation of Roumain’s poetry, I hope to show that their shared affinity with modernists such as T.S. Eliot, and with French Symbolists such as Baudelaire and Laforgue were more far-reaching and influential than has previously been shown.

Urmila Seshagiri, “Race and the Modernist Imagination: The Politics of Form, 1890-1930”
This presentation offers a comprehensive exploration of the relationships among artistic forms of British modernism, social forms of modernity, and the categories of differentiation we know as race. It demonstrates that race served as a conceptual category for metropolitan authors who sought to establish their literature as modern. Calling attention to a series of interrelated moments between 1890 and 1930 when modern artists in London staked a claim to their own revolutionary status, I argue that modernism’s consecutive proclamations of newness were formally shaped by racial discourses. Emphasizing aesthetic rather than sociopolitical aspects of race, I trace an arc of experimental authorship that encompasses literary works by Oscar Wilde, Joseph Conrad, Wyndham Lewis, Ford Madox Ford, Rebecca West, Katherine Mansfield, and Virginia Woolf, as well as non-canonical works such as Sax Rohmer’s bestselling Dr. Fu-Manchu thrillers and Vita Sackville-West’s travel writing. By recovering the foundational role of race in this spectrum of modern British fiction, I reveal a common core of race in the modern imaginary and, more broadly, establish race as a crucial concept for understanding the cultural field of modernity. Surprisingly, while race is readily acknowledged as an artistic and thematic focal point in American modernism, the Harlem Renaissance, and the literature of the “Black Atlantic,” its constitutive role in British modernism’s formal accomplishments has received far less critical attention. This is partially due to an axis of postcolonial scholarship that has confined discussions of race to the colonial fictions of Kipling, Conrad, Forster, Orwell, Rhys, Cary, and Greene. In arguing that racial aesthetics gave form to modernism’s originary moments, I join a growing number of scholars who recognize that modernism’s conceptions of race were often unrelated to the sociopolitical concerns raised by colonial contexts. My talk challenges the assumption that modernist attitudes towards race were predominantly or univocally imperialist, demonstrating instead that metropolitan modernism attained its narrative authority and aesthetic originality by conceiving of race as shifting rather than set, disordered rather than hegemonic. This approach to what Simon Gikandi has brilliantly called modernism’s “schemata of difference” – the complex aesthetic collisions of metropole and colony, Europe and Africa, Orient and Occident – establishes race as an essential category for historicizing and theorizing the modern.