Sterling A. Brown's "Literary Chronicles"

by Hortense E. Simmons
Sterling A. Brown's "Literary Chronicles"
Hortense E. Simmons
African American Review
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SterlingA. Brown's "Literary Chronicles"

When the judges of Opportunity's first literary contest awarded Sterling A. Brown Second Prize for his essay "Roland Hayes" (first prize went to E. Franklin Frazier for "Social Equality and the Negro"), they clearly did the right thing. The essay, Brown's first publication, appeared in the historic June 1925 isssue of the journal heralding the achievements of the young writers of the "Negro Renaissance." Brown received a whopping $30 in prize money for his critical review of a concert Hayes pre- sented in Lynchburg, Virginia. To be sure, the essay was the cata- lyst that launched Brown into what more than likely proved an intellectually stimulating juncture in his professional life. For more than a decade, Brown's critical commentary appeared in Opportunity, but as a chronicle of the literary scene for Opportuniqs readers, the majority of his work appeared princi- pally, with monthly frequency, between 1931 and 1935. The chronicles included reviews and notes, as well as commentary on books, plays, movies, and musical productions. Sometimes fea- tured under the titles "Our Book Shelf," "Chronicle and Comment," or "The Literary Scene," the most consistent title for the series was "The Literary Scene: Chronicle and Comment." In the inaugural publication on Roland Hayes, Sterling Brown's readers were introduced to a young, candidly probing intellect who uncompromisingly dared to assert the aesthetic value of Black folk lives and verbal expression, and he did so in what was to become his nonconformist signature as a critic, a sig- nature that Darryl Pinckney labels "volatile, ironic, and hopeless- ly genuine" (14). In the essay, Brown expresses concern about the audience's inability appropriately to appreciate the art of Hayes's performance: "The applause is not terrific. The whites do not understand, will not, cannot. They only know that they have caught distant glimpses from lofty perilous places. The Negroes feel somehow rebuked " (174). Although whites were among Opportunity's readers, Brown addressed his commentary primarily to his Black readers. His was a not-too-delicate balancing act, for in his role as chronicler he sought to be personally instructive. "Whenever Sterling opened his mouth he taught," observes Pinckney, and his text, Black culture, was "a text he studied as no other black writer had before or since" (14). Joanne Gabbin identifies the details of Brown's text, mirroring clearly his broad literary interests and personal concerns:

Brown commented on modern developments in American literature: the trend toward regionalism, the newer traditions of realism and natu- ralism, the dominance of the lowly as subject matter, the use of dialect to achieve local color, and the rising tide of social protest in literature . . .

,,ortense E. Simmons is Professor of English and Ethnic Studies at California State University, Sacramento.

the need for a literary audience inter- ested in the genuine development of Black writers, the validity of portrayals of Black life and character regardless of their authorship, the distortion of his- torical fiction, and generally, the achievement of a high level of crafts- manship. (187)

"I have as yet, no logs to roll, and no brickbats to heaveu-an ironic, "sterling" Brown affirmation-pivots the essay "Our Literary Audience" (42).Considered among his most com- pelling early critical commentaries, this essay exposes Brown's sensitivity to the challenges that faced African American artists seeking to master their craft, as well as his belief that the writers and their Black readers shared reciprocal responsibilities in the devel- opment of the literature. His was truly a genuinely felt commitment:

I have . . . a deep concern with the development of a literature worthy of our past, and of our destiny; without which literature certainly, we can never come to much. I have a deep concern with the development of an audience worthy of such literature. (42)

Acknowledging that his essay is based on six years of study, Brown dis- cusses four chronic fallacies he believes plague Black readers:

We look upon Negro books, regardless of the author's intention, as representa- tive of all Negroes, i.e. as sociological documents. We insist that Negro books be idealistic, optimistic tracts for race advertisement. We are afraid of truth telling, of satire. We criticize from the point of view of bourgeois America, of racial apologists. (42)

He challenges his readers to recognize such critical standards for what they are-negative impediments which sti- fle writers' creativity as well as "dwarf their stature as interpreters." For Brown, the artist's responsibility is to reject a "Pollyanna philosophy of life" in favor of both a responsive and responsible interpretation of the truth, however unflattering it may appear. Likewise, he charges the audience to shed their thin skins and accept the artistic, in which truth and intelligence prevail over propaganda. Throughout the essay, Brown urges his readers to exercise their intellect and to eschew their reactionary defense of the race. An intelligent critical approach, he argues, would yield the realization and acceptance that "books about us may not be true of all of us; but that has nothing to do with their worth " (44). Having quoted Walt Whitman earlier, Brown concludes his essay by reaffirm- ing Whitman's assessment that "with- out great audiences we cannot have great literature" (61).

Exactly one year (February 1931) after the appearance of the pivotal "Our Literary Audience," Brown, in "The Literary Scene: Chronicle and Comment," began heaving brickbats- ever so subtly: "We are not as yet a reading public," he diplomatically opens, formally introducing himself as "Chronicler." Brown then delivers a mini-lecture on the power of books as tools, particularly in the Depression era, and he further describes his task as that of providing "the reader of Opportunitya list of whatever books and articles he is able to find that bear directly or indirectly upon our con- cerns" (53). He vows to include works by Black as well as other writers.

The landscape of Brown's premier official chronicle is expansive, and Brown the maturing critic becomes an active participant in creating respon- sive and responsible literary criticism: An essay from Ebony and Topaz entitled "The Prospects of the Black Bourgeosie" he considers "provoca- tive"; a book, The Black Worker, he asserts is "an acute, thorough, ably written study of the Negro in his rela- tionships to the American labor move- ment," and he further encourages his readers to embrace this work since it "is preeminently one of those that :ould be used as 'tools' " (53); a play, Tohn Ferguson, performed by the newly organized Repertory Players of Washington, D.C., he calls "an excel- lent presentation"; the show Abraham Lincoln, most likely "sparsely attend- 2d" because of its direct competition


risque fare, includes "rathGr warm love stories, wrestling matches according to the posters, with not even 'strangle- holds' barred"; George Schuyler's soon-off-press Black No More, he teas- es his readers, "promises a few shocks" (54).Particularly telling is a classic "sterling" quip expressing displeasure with a comment allegedly made by Paul Robeson to a New Herald Tribune reporter-in an interview, Robeson was supposed to have stated that he planned to "penetrate the bush of Africa eventually and drink his fill of savage emotionsu-to which Brown replies, "All of this is interesting, although, why one needs to go to Africa for savage emotions puzzles the chronicler" (54).

Throughout his tenure as chroni- cler, Brown continued to "teach" and no doubt to derive satisfaction from his efforts. But in all likelihood, nothing delighted him more than his central role in the logrolling and brick- bat-heaving controversy resulting from his March 1935 review of a movie based on Fannie Hurst's popular novel Imitation of Life. In the review, "Imitation of Life: Once a Pancake," Brown panned both the book and the movie, instigating a volley of letters to the editor in the subsequent April and May issues of the journal (all with the exception of one supporting Brown's critical stance). Breaking ranks with Negro American officialdom, which lauded the reigning queen of pulp fiction, was no small feat, suggests David Levering Lewis, and "only Sterling Brown had the courage to break ranks and deeply anger Hurst" (297). A reviewer in at least one major newspaper, Boston Transcript,shared Brown's views about Hurst's book: "Delilah is a joy, of course, yet one is ready to contend that Miss Hurst has overcolored her por- trait a little. Delilah is just not quite


overwritten" (2).

For Brown, Delilah's characteriza- tion in the movie is undeniably straight out of Southern fiction: The welfare of Delilah's mistress's daughter Jessie fig- ures more prominently among her con- cerns than that of her own daughter Peola. He cites many unbelievable episodes. In one she emerges as the old slave refusing freedom (satirized in Dunbar's "Chrismus on the Plantation," in which the newly freed slave proclaims: "Well, ef dat's de way dis freedom acts on people white er black / You kin jes' tell Mistah Lincum fu' to tek his freedom back). She refuses to accept twenty percent of the business profit and live independently of Miss Bea: "My own house? You


gonna send me away? How I gonna take care of you and Miss Jessie if I's away? 1's yo' cook. You kin have it; I make you a present of it" (88). Other references to hard-to-believe events include some of the passing incidents, as well as Delilah's canniness regard- ing male and female relationships but ignorance and/or nayvet6 of her daughter Peola's desire to enjoy parties and his original argument and deflates her comments-logs roll and brickbats heave. Direct and unrelentless in his response, he reiterates his position: "I believe, and have stated time and time again that 'outsiders' have contributed some of the very best interpretations of Negro life. But I do not consider Miss

Hurst's book, or the picture,

to belong with these" (121).

Among his most poignant

music. Brown observes that Brown in his comments: "My review was an especially illuminating, a decided failure if it did


symbolic moment in the not reveal the book and pic- film, capturing the social chronicles ture were uppermost in realities of the two races, is my-let us call it thinking."


a scene in which Miss Bea He caustically rejects any ascends thestairswhile Opporf~nify notionofsocialvalueinthe Delilah descends them: movie:


It is symbolic of many things. Pity is not enough; sentimen-

remainS the

One is, that in Imitation of tality is not enough. The pic- Life, where Claudette Colbert teacher par ture breaks no new ground. has a role to bring out all The beloved mammy is a long there is in her, both Miss excellence. familiar darling in the

Beavers and Miss Washing- ton have, so to speak, to go downstairs; Miss Beavers to a much greater childishness, and Miss Washington to a much greater bewil- derment than they would recognize in real life. But so Hollywood would have it; and so Hollywood gets some- thing less artistic and less true. (88)

The following month, an outraged and stunned Fannie Hurst replied to Brown's review. Paternalistically, she takes issue with his "carping, petty angles of criticism" and reprimands him for being neither grateful for her efforts on behalf of Black people nor intelligent in his review. Accusing him of not seeing the woods for the trees, of concerning himself too much "with the superficialities of idiom, and the shape of the cook's cap" rather than "the larg- er social values" of the picture, Hurst praises the film for having made a sig- nificant contribution to humanizing Black people: "The important social value of this picture is that it practical- ly inaugurates into the important medium of the motion picture, a con- sideration of the Negro as part of the social pattern of American life" (121).

~iown'srebuttal, three times the length of Hurst's letter, both reinforces

American consciousness . . . .

moving pictures and novels have placed her there. The tragic mulatto . . . is likewise a fixture. She is so woebegone that she is a walking argument against miscegenation. . . . Like her mammy, she contributes to Anglo-Saxon self esteem. It is not easy to see any "social value" in perpetuat- ing these stock characters. . . . To me the social value is still suggested by the subtitle of the review: "Once a pan- cake, always a pancake." (122)

Regarding Hurst's questioning of his intelligence, Brown responds coolly, "Far be it from me to dispute such a trivial point with a lady." And his final quip about the matter of showing gratefulness to Hurst is characteristi- cally "sterling": "Concerning my ungratefulness, let me cheerfully acknowledge this degree of unintelli- gence: that I cannot imagine what in the world I would have to be grateful for, either to Universal Pictures or to Miss Hurst" (122).

Sterling Brown in his literary chronicles for Opportunityindisputably remains the teacher par excel- lence. His curriculum is brilliantly sim- ple, consistent. The foundation he laid more than half a century ago was solid, and the fruit of his labor is manifest


both at home and abroad. He was priv-worthy of our past; and without a ileged to have witnessed the fruition of doubt, evidence abounds that an audihis life's work: Ours is, and will contin-ence worthy of that literature has ue to be, as he envisioned, a literature emerged.

Boston Transcript 4 Feb. 1933: 2. Works Brown, Sterling A. "Imitation of Life: Once a Pancake." Opportunity 13 (1935): 87-88. Cited -. "The Literary Scene: Chronicle and Comment." Opportunity 9 (1931): 53-54. -. "The Literary Scene: Chronicle and Comment." Opportunity 13 (1935): 121-22. -. "Our Literary Audience." Opportunity 8 (1930): 42-46, 61. -. "Roland Hayes." Opportunity 3 (1925): 173-74. Gabbin, Joanne V. Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition. Westport: Greenwood,

1985. Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Oxford UP, 1989. Pinckney, Darryl. "The Last New Negro." New York Review of Books 16 Mar. 1989: 14+.

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athering of~eaders,writers, and chohrs #rBery colegeMount Beruy, Geo~ia 2~rili6sf rg,igg8 3ft


Featured speakers to include Thadious Davis (keynote speaker), Mary Hood, and Judith Ortiz Cofer.

The Southern Women Writers Conference is devoted to showcasing the writings of well-known and emerging southern women writers, expanding the literary canon, and developing critical and theoretical understandings of the tradition of southern women's writing.

The themefor the 2998 conference will be "Staking Claim to the South." Proposals for papers and panels should address ways in which southern women writers have expanded the canon of southern literature to include a diversity of perspectives and experiences, particularly those of groups marginalized by race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, religion, and gender. To coincidc with planned conference events, proposals exploring this theme as it appears in mystery novels by southern women writers are especially welcome.

AJina2 cal2forpapers will be forthcoming in late summer/early fall. For more information contact: Emily Wright, Berry College English Department, P. 0. Box 495010, Mount Berry, Georgia 30 149. Phone: (706) 233-408 1. E-mail:

Berry College is located near Rome, Ga., midway between Atlanta and Chattanooga, Enn.

Emerging WritersContest:In an effort to encourage and promote new southern women writers, we will award $500 each for the best work of fiction and poetry by an emerging southern woman writer. The top three selections will be presented in readings at the conference. Fiction judge: Mary Hood. Poetry judge: Sandra Meek. Creative writers are encouraged to send for submission guidelines.


Among Brown's objections to the movie is that, though the film's plot differs from that in the book, no sub- stantive change exists in the characteri- zations and the social ideas set forth. While singling out the superb acting talent of Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington, Brown insists that his readers reject the characterization and ideas reinforcing images of the stereo- typed contented mammy and tragic mulatto. Of particular offense to Brown was "the inebriation of [Delilah's] lan- guage, too designedly picturesque, her unintelligible character, now infantile, now mature, now cataloguing folk beliefs of the Southern Negro, and now cracking contemporary witticisms. Her baby talk to the white child partakes too much of maple sugar; to her own, too much of mustard." Citing the book's and movie's ideas that Delilah's contentment results from her natural comfort with being "completely black," Brown quotes several passages, one of which especially grates: " 'It's de white horses dat's wild, a swimmin' in de blood of mah chile. . . . I wants to drown dem white horses plungin' in mah baby's blood.' " He retorts acidly, "Can one reader be forgiven, if during such passages, there runs into his mind something unmistakably like a wild horse laugh?" (87).

African American Review, Volume 31, Number 3 0 1997 Hortense E. Simmons

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