Tuesday, April 8, 2014
April 8, 2014: New AmericanStudies Books: The Negro in Illinois
[A couple weeks back, I had the chance to attend the 2014 Narrative conference at MIT. While there, I spent some time browsing the book tables, and realizing how many interesting new AmericanStudies works are constantly joining the conversation. So I thought I’d dedicate a series to highlighting a handful of the books I discovered there. Share your own new favorites (or classics!) for a bibliophiliac crowd-sourced weekend post, please!]
On the book that provides much-needed closure—and opens up so much more.
In the late 1930s, the Illinois’ Writers Project, a section of the Roosevelt administration’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Federal Writers’ Project, teamed with a number of Harlem Renaissance authors and artists on a multi-year research and writing effort entitled The Negro in Illinois. Utilizing the talents of numerous writers centered in Chicago, including Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, and many others, the project was intended to produce a comprehensive history of African American experiences and communities in the state, one both historical (dating back to the earliest records of slavery) and contemporary (based on oral histories and other research). It would have resulted in a publication unlike any other in American culture—but when the project was canceled in 1942, most of what had been produced was simply shelved.
Until July 2013, when the University of Illinois Press and editor Brian Dolinar (working with Chicago Public Library archivist Michael Flug) released The Negro in Illinois, an edited volume that collects and annotates the majority of the project’s efforts. The fact that this book has been produced at all, more than 70 years after the project’s cancellation, is in and of itself a hugely inspiring story, one of those very rare moments when unfinished histories, the kinds seemingly inevitably lost to the march of time, can receive this kind of renewed attention and closure. But for any scholar and American not able to travel to Illinois to view the original papers and interested in the histories and stories, the lives and communities, captured in those papers—which should be all Americans interested in our history and culture and identity—that closure also opens up many doors, avenues for reading and research that can and will lead to many more discoveries and projects.
To cite one specific and compelling example: the collection includes a good deal of previously unpublished writing by Richard Wright, one of the 20th century’s most unique and impressive writers and voices. While literary discoveries are always possible, of course, I would imagine that most literary AmericanStudiers have shared my own feeling that all of Wright’s signficant writing had already been found and published in one form or another, that we had all we were going to get from this complex, singular talent. And then here comes this book, and this body of (for most of us) unread material by Wright (and many others). I have no idea what it will include, whether it will feel as individually and literarily meaningful as it is unquestionably historically and socially and culturally vital. I can’t wait to find out!
Next new book tomorrow,
BenPS. New (or classic) AmericanStudies books you’d highlight? Share for the weekend post!