Signs and Cities: Black Literary Postmodernism

University of Chicago Press
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Signs and Cities is the first book to consider what it means to speak of a postmodern moment in African-American literature. Dubey argues that for African-American studies, postmodernity best names a period, beginning in the early 1970s, marked by acute disenchantment with the promises of urban modernity and of print literacy.

Dubey shows how black novelists from the last three decades have reconsidered the modern urban legacy and thus articulated a distinctly African-American strain of postmodernism. She argues that novelists such as Octavia Butler, Samuel Delany, Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Ishmael Reed, Sapphire, and John Edgar Wideman probe the disillusionment of urban modernity through repeated recourse to tropes of the book and scenes of reading and writing. Ultimately, she demonstrates that these writers view the book with profound ambivalence, construing it as an urban medium that cannot recapture the face-to-face communities assumed by oral and folk forms of expression.
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About the author

Madhu Dubey is a professor of English and Afro-American Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is the author of Black Women Novelists and the Nationalist Aesthetic.
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Additional Information

Publisher
University of Chicago Press
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Published on
Nov 1, 2007
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Pages
293
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ISBN
9780226167282
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Best For
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Language
English
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Genres
Literary Criticism / American / African American
Social Science / Ethnic Studies / African American Studies
Social Science / General
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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With The Tempest's Caliban, Shakespeare created an archetype in the modern era depicting black men as slaves and savages who threaten civilization. As contemporary black male fiction writers have tried to free their subjects and themselves from this legacy to tell a story of liberation, they often unconsciously retell the story, making their heroes into modern-day Calibans.

Coleman analyzes the modern and postmodern novels of John Edgar Wideman, Clarence Major, Charles Johnson, William Melvin Kelley, Trey Ellis, David Bradley, and Wesley Brown. He traces the Caliban legacy to early literary influences, primarily Ralph Ellison, and then deftly demonstrates its contemporary manifestations. This engaging study challenges those who argue for the liberating possibilities of the postmodern narrative, as Coleman reveals the pervasiveness and influence of Calibanic discourse.

At the heart of James Coleman's study is the perceived history of the black male in Western culture and the traditional racist stereotypes indigenous to the language. Calibanic discourse, Coleman argues, so deeply and subconsciously influences the texts of black male writers that they are unable to cast off the oppression inherent in this discourse. Coleman wants to change the perception of black male writers' struggle with oppression by showing that it is their special struggle with language. Black Male Fiction and the Legacy of Caliban is the first book to analyze a substantial body of black male fiction from a central perspective.

Everybody’s America reassesses Pynchon’s literary career in order to explain the central role played by the racialization of American culture in the postmodernist deconstruction of subjectivity and literary authority and in the crisis in white liberal culture. It charts the evolution of both these cultural transformations from Pynchon’s early short stories, composed in the late 1950s, through Gravity’s Rainbow, published in 1973. This book demonstrates that Pynchon deploys techniques associated with the decentering of the linguistic sign and the fragmentation of narrative in order to work through the anxieties of white male subjects in their encounter with racial otherness. It also charts Pynchon’s attention to non-white and non-Euro-American voices and cultural forms, which imply an awareness of and interest in processes of transculturation occurring both within U.S. borders and between the U.S. and the Third World. In these ways, his novels attempt to acknowledge the implicit racism in many elements of white American culture and to grapple with the psychological and sociopolitical effects of that racism on both white and black Americans. The argument of Everybody’s America, however, also considers the limits of Pynchon’s implicit commitment to hybridity as a social ideal, identifying attitudes expressed in his work that suggest a residual attraction to the mainstream liberalism of the fifties and early sixties. Pynchon’s fiction dramatizes the conflict between the discourses and values of such liberalism and those of an emergent multiculturalist ethos that names and valorizes social difference and hybridity. In identifying the competition between residual liberalism and an emergent multiculturalism, Everybody’s America makes its contribution to the broader understanding of postmodern culture.

This dramatic rereading of postmodernism seeks to broaden current theoretical conceptions of the movement as both a social-philosophical condition and a literary and cultural phenomenon. Phil Harper contends that the fragmentation considered to be characteristic of the postmodern age can in fact be traced to the status of marginalized groups in the United States since long before the contemporary era. This status is reflected in the work of American writers from the thirties through the fifties whom Harper addresses in this study, including Nathanael West, Anaïs Nin, Djuna Barnes, Ralph Ellison, and Gwendolyn Brooks. Treating groups that are disadvantaged or disempowered whether by circumstance of gender, race, or sexual orientation, the writers profiled here occupy the cusp between the modern and the postmodern; between the recognizably modernist aesthetic of alienation and the fragmented, disordered sensibility of postmodernism. Proceeding through close readings of these literary texts in relation to various mass-cultural productions, Harper examines the social placement of the texts in the scope of literary history while analyzing more minutely the interior effects of marginalization implied by the fictional characters enacting these narratives. In particular, he demonstrates how these works represent the experience of social marginality as highly fractured and fracturing, and indicates how such experience is implicated in the phenomenon of postmodernist fragmentation. Harper thus accomplishes the vital task of recentering cultural focus on issues and groups that are decentered by very definition, and thereby specifies the sociopolitical significance of postmodernism in a way that has not yet been done.
Robert Pack is one of America’s most eminent nature poets, and his virtuoso talents are on glorious display in Still Here, Still Now, his nineteenth volume of verse. With styles ranging from lyric to narrative, and themes stretching from biblical concerns to meditations on contemporary science, Pack’s poetry is composed in strongly rhythmic cadences and a diction that is direct and accessible. In four different sections of thematically and stylistically divergent verse, Still Here, Still Now delivers many of the elements of Pack’s poetry readers have come to admire and expect—both the humorous and the elegiac.

The first section of the book contains traditional lyrics that celebrate family ties and seek consolations for the passing of personal and evolutionary time. The poems in this group address a named or unnamed auditor in a voice of intimate engagement. Featuring the most narrative selections in the book, the second section consists of fable-like stories, rich with innuendo and implication. The characters in these poems make choices that press against the events and circumstances that challenge and define them. Embodying what Harold Bloom has called Pack’s “courage to surmount suffering,” the poems of the third section are largely devoted to biblical themes and philosophical speculations on the meaning of happiness and the uses of suffering. Here, Pack’s empathy for the human condition as well as his forebodings about the prospect of human survival are on poignant display. The final section of the book turns to Pack's abiding interest in landscape and the ways in which the place one inhabits contains and animates our individual lives.

Ripe with many years, Pack remains a vital presence in American letters. Still Here, Still Now is an affecting and graceful addition to the oeuvre of a poet whose compelling and distinct voice will continue to resonate among his loyal readers.
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