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02/27/2005

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js

Well, it comes down to how much you think the personal experience and context of the author informs the work.
Is the fact that Stevenson was suffering from delusional fevers while writing Dr. Jeckel important to the reading of the work? Does the author, in fact, have a specific voice?
It's also dependent on how much you believe authors are a product of their times. Is the view of a minority on the majority more interesting when that minority is more forbidden to have an authentic voice?
In my personal view, I think that the amount varies from author to author and work to work. Would A Farewell To Arms be less interesting if Hemmingway had never been in war? Maybe. Would Hopscotch be less interesting if written by an Anglo? Doubtful.

wizard

I think here that we overlook something. Sure, in general, works should not gain or lose in literary value based upon the ethnicity of who did the writing. In general.

However, we cannot overlook the unique situation of blacks in American culture from their first arrival here. Most achievements, and literary ones, follow an arc... from the simple, to the truly profound.

Our four year olds in kindergarten produce truly sucky art, and yet, we hang it, because, either 1) we are their parent or 2) their work might be comparatively better than those of their peer group. It can in fact be a sign of brilliance to come, and we acknowledge it as art, even if its ultimate merit is due to collateral factors.

I see no problem with documenting and heralding the early writings of black authors, for we would not have the great black authors of today without looking at the transitions (and expansion) of literary achievement that spring from those earliest, often mediocre efforts.

The most important issue here, I think, is authenticity, not literary worth. Henry Gates and others need to be more diligent in their research, since some of these early works are important more for historical value than pure literary merit. There is a certain intellectual dishonesty that is offputting, and will serve to work at odds from the desired goals of archiving the earliest literary achievements of blacks.

Further, these early novels should be taught in literature departments, in terms of showing a timeline of literary advancement.

We don't begin teaching math at geometry, and neither do we begin teaching black literature at the doorstep of Alice Walker. Sometimes it is good to know how we got here, from there.

Origins of creativity, and its progress, are important.

Robert Nagle

In a Wired for Books audio interview he did 20 years ago, (mp3 http://wiredforbooks.org/mp3/HenryLouisGates1983.mp3 ), he addresses many of these concerns when speaking about Our Nig. Food for thought: some books which seemed remarkable for their time may seem uninteresting to contemporary readers. The sociology of reading is of interest, but the aesthetic judgments we normally make in literary criticism assume an approach to storytelling where narrative complexity and psychological depth matter more than mere engagement.

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