The Indignant Generation:
A Narrative History of African American Writers and Critics, 1934-1960
by Lawrence P. Jackson
Princeton University Press
Dallas Morning News
9 January 2011
Lawrence Jackson's The Indignant Generation is a thoroughly comprehensive and exciting historical narrative about 20th- century African-American intellectuals and literary writers. Focusing on the period between 1934 and 1960, Jackson narrates the great migration of black writers and critics from their segregated artistic sectors into the cultural mainstream.
Though the cadre of writers populating Jackson's thick book includes white and Jewish artists, The Indignant Generation's concentration is on the black writers who were part of the massive black population shift from the rural south to the urban north. Among those many figures, Richard Wright is the most important migrant-insurgent to the cultural center.
With his first three works, Uncle Tom's Children (stories, 1938), Native Son (novel, 1940), and Black Boy (autobiography, 1945), Wright announced that black writers could produce literary art as best-selling social protest. As a paterfamilias, Wright generated or extended several branches of the black literary family tree: He shepherded into print younger writers such as Margaret Walker and Ralph Ellison, and his works elongate the lineage of Harlem Renaissance artists such as Zora Neale Hurston and Sterling Brown.
Jackson charts Wright's knifing entrance to the mainstream beginning with his participation in the Communist Party's literary society, the John Reed Club, in the 1930s and his stewardship of Marxist journals such as New Masses in the 1940s. Eventually Wright dropped both leftist and liberal literary theories, developing instead a personal brew of politicized existentialism.
Using Wright's ideological and philosophical changes like a slide rule, Jackson marks the political positions and intellectual shifts of writers such as J. Saunders Redding, Ann Petry, Chester Himes, Gwendolyn Brooks and James Baldwin, charting their self-fashioned, individual aesthetic perspectives against their struggles with radical ideologies, white liberalism and black political agendas.
Studying an array of books and pamphlets, unpublished manuscripts, and personal and publishing correspondence, Jackson converts complex textual research into illustrated geographies of literary Chicago and New York, and color-coded intellectual genealogies of American liberalism and the left-wing political tributaries – Communist, socialist and Marxist included.
Jackson's remarkable critical acumen allows him to marshal thousands of poetic, novelistic, biographical and theoretical shards into a smooth, coherent, accessible history. He articulates clearly, as few American intellectual historians have before, the taut linkages and political divergences among African-American artists, leftist-radical journals, Jewish intellectuals, New York publishers, the Southern Agrarian literary contingent, the American academy and black literary criticism.
Reminiscent of both Louis Menand's exceptional The Metaphysical Club (2001) and Isabel Wilkerson's brilliant The Warmth of Other Suns (2010), Jackson's elegantly scribed cultural history deserves the kind of wide critical attention and large audiences those works have received.
Jackson's literary, intellectual and cultural documentary helps readers of our contemporary literature understand how literature's influence on American sociopolitical reform has been muted and realize that central cultural questions about literary art, social change and racial identity are still significant to defining our national identity.