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Du Bois’s Telegram

Du Bois’s Telegram

Literary Resistance and State Containment

Juliana Spahr

ISBN 9780674986961

Publication date: 10/23/2018

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In 1956 W. E. B. Du Bois was denied a passport to attend the Présence Africaine Congress of Black Writers and Artists in Paris. So he sent the assembled a telegram. “Any Negro-American who travels abroad today must either not discuss race conditions in the United States or say the sort of thing which our State Department wishes the world to believe.” Taking seriously Du Bois’s allegation, Juliana Spahr breathes new life into age-old questions as she explores how state interests have shaped U.S. literature. What is the relationship between literature and politics? Can writing be revolutionary? Can art be autonomous, or is escape from nations and nationalisms impossible?

Du Bois’s Telegram brings together a wide range of institutional forces implicated in literary production, paying special attention to three eras of writing that sought to defy political orthodoxies by contesting linguistic conventions: avant-garde modernism of the early twentieth century; social-movement writing of the 1960s and 1970s; and, in the twenty-first century, the profusion of English-language works incorporating languages other than English. Spahr shows how these literatures attempted to assert their autonomy, only to be shut down by FBI harassment or coopted by CIA and State Department propagandists. Liberal state allies such as the Ford and Rockefeller foundations made writers complicit by funding multiculturalist works that celebrated diversity and assimilation while starving radical anti-imperial, anti-racist, anti-capitalist efforts.

Spahr does not deny the exhilarations of politically engaged art. But her study affirms a sobering reality: aesthetic resistance is easily domesticated.

Praise

  • Du Bois’s Telegram is a brilliant inquiry into the institutions—from the CIA to the foundations and literary magazines it funded—that inform and shape literary production. The promoted, the funded and heralded, from Richard Wright to Gertrude Stein to James Baldwin, do the work of the nation state under the umbrella of culture. Our complicit freedoms are brought out in the open in this thought-provoking and erudite book. This is not a book to agree or disagree with, but rather a compelling argument that brings relevant facts forward for clear-eyed consideration. One would be remiss to pass on such essential research and analysis.

    —Claudia Rankine

Author

  • Juliana Spahr is Professor of English at Mills College. She is the author of eight volumes of poetry, including The Winter the Wolf Came, Well Then There Now, and Response, winner of the National Poetry Series Award. She is also the editor, with Claudia Rankine, of American Women Poets in the 21st Century and received the O. B. Hardison Jr. Poetry Prize from the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Book Details

  • 256 pages
  • 0-7/8 x 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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