Lawrence P. Jackson, The Indignant Generation: A Narrative History of African American Writers and Critics, 1934-1960

(Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2011.)

Gavan Lennon

University of Nottingham

Lawrence P. Jackson’s The Indignant Generation provides a vital incursion into a period in African-American literary history which has already been thoroughly investigated.  The book interrogates the commonplace amalgamation of black writers in this period into “the Richard Wright School” by suggesting that Wright’s position of importance in the era should be counterbalanced by the experiences and professional frustrations of the utterly neglected J. Saunders Redding (9).  So much the locus of the narrative is Redding that he becomes, in Jackson’s own description of the book, its defining figure: “The Indignant Generation is a synthetic social movement history that charts the overlooked achievement of J. Saunders Redding’s generation in mostly three year chunks” (10).  Structure, as the above quotation suggests, is an extremely important element in this study.  The narrative that Jackson composes plays the famous – especially Wright – against and alongside the obscure – especially Redding – in order to create a compelling and convincing narrative of an exciting era in African American history.  Jackson convincingly integrates into a “generation” of literary thinkers the enormous list of black writers that he considers and, through this synthesis, produces a work which provides a very useful basis for any academic consideration of American writing in the mid-twentieth century.  By introducing Redding as a force to take note of, Jackson creates a new lens through which to view a plethora of texts and their authors and, in the process, resurrects several very interesting neglected works produced in “an era of overt, palpable bigotry” (10).

Jackson is by no means reluctant to include in his study landmarks of American writing.  Critically and popularly famous texts such as Native Son, Invisible Man, A Raisin in the Sun and The Bean Eaters are read in a manner which allows their study to coalesce seamlessly with that of critically neglected works of significance such as Redding’sStranger and Alone and William Attaway’s Blood on the Forge.  As a result, The Indignant Generation manages at once to show deference to prevalent contemporary formulations of African-American canonicity while – almost iconoclastically – insinuating new works and authors into such canons.

Native Son by Richard Wright “dramatically reshaped the twentieth-century American cultural sensibility” (108).  Jackson figures the novel as significant as much for its popularity and economic success as for its treatment of urban African-American identity: it was “a blockbuster novel that set sales records” (117).  Indeed, because The Indignant Generation is very much concerned with the public emergence of literary works (Jackson frequently accents the significance of the fact that these works emerge into a cultural marketplace and assesses the works in part by assessing their reception in that marketplace), texts which have received a great deal of critical notice can be approached with the same freshness as those works which have retained no secure place in the popular public imagination.  The structural and critical technique of pairing Wright and Redding as the narrative’s twin protagonists elucidates the fact that none of these authors were creating in a vacuum.  The generation which Jackson constructs is one which is in constant dialogue with itself and with the public milieu in which it finds itself, and that milieu was one in which sales and readers counted a very great deal.  Jackson is very sensitive to the implications of popularity on the act of composition.  For instance, Jackson suggests that the relative financial failure of William Attaway’s 1944 novel Blood on the Forge was the direct result of the immense popularity of Native Son four years earlier.  Attaway, Jackson suggests, was writing within an aesthetic paradigm – that of urban realism and protest fiction – which had been exhausted by the success of its landmark exemplar.

Such consideration of social and financial context makes The Indignant Generation as much a work of history as of literary criticism.  Jackson places readings of key texts alongside historical readings of their positions within historical and political narrative.  As an example of this technique, Gwendolyn Brooks (who Jackson describes as “the foremost black modernist poet of the 1940s and 1950s”) is considered relevant and revolutionary, as much for her interventions into contemporary affairs as for her innovations in the realm of aesthetic praxis.  The poem “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi.  Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon” is used as a means of discussing the impact of the murder of Emmett Till on African-American cultural awareness.

As well as introducing neglected authors to the study of this period in African-American literary history, Jackson intervenes in long-established, contentious debates on some of the period’s time-honoured figureheads.  Jackson re-negotiates discussions of the infamous clash between Wright and Zora Neal Hurston as less a debate between a feminist and a misogynist as a disagreement on fiction and aesthetics.  Jackson cites each author’s formal predilections – rather than their sexual politics – as the source of professional animosity.  In so doing, Jackson strengthens his thesis that African-American writing in the twentieth century should be viewed as a narrative of competing, clashing, and developing aesthetic forms.  Jackson cites each author’s formal predilections – rather than their sexual politics – as the source of professional animosity.

One of the book’s greatest strengths is its implementation of a firm narrative logic in its treatment of the period.  Each chapter leads thematically to the next in a way which seems almost to make the progression of the narrative a necessary one.  Toward the book’s close, Jackson pinpoints the last of several paradigmatic shifts.  He views the emergence of figures such as Lorraine Hansberry and Malcolm X as turning points in the way African Americans wrote.  While noting the importance of such a shift, Jackson is careful to connect it thoroughly to earlier points in his narrative’s trajectory.  He writes, “In a sense, A Raisin in the Sun was a sequel to Wright’s Native Son for a different era” (488).  Although Hansberry was to die only six years after her successful debut, there remains a sense in Jackson’s narrative that her work constitutes a progression of the narrative that his book traces.  Similarly, LeRoi Jones’s aesthetic move away from the Beat generation is figured as integral to the progression into a new generation of black American writers. By concluding his narrative with considerations of the emergences of Hansberry and Jones, Jackson successfully endows it with a structurally coherent endpoint without neglecting the fact of continuity.  The trajectory of African American literary history is treated here as contingent upon reaction to earlier cultural moments.  As such, Jackson suggests that the modernist formal innovations of authors such as Ellison are direct results of Native Son’s exhaustion of the possibilities of the genre of protest realism.  Similarly, the suggestions of Pan-Africanism and new forms of political radicalism found in the writing by Hansberry and Jones in the late 1950s signals the inauguration of the “different era”, which Jackson’s closing chapters allude to and celebrate. It is because of this near circularity of historical narrative that Jackson is able to describe his book as one which sets out to chart “the shift in publishing taste to protest writing and back again” (7).

The book’s scope is remarkable and deftly handled.  Jackson maintains the intricacy of detail which characterises his close readings across twenty six years and multiple genres.  His analyses of poetic, dramatic,and prose fiction texts are uniformly skilfully conducted.  His attention to close textual analysis alongside historical analysis prevents the book from becoming a work of social history rather than of literary criticism.  As a result, The Indignant Generation becomes an exemplary companion and guide to the era and its authors.