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.
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.
Offers a sobering historical account of various resistant movements in U.S. literature through and since the twentieth century—and how easily they were neutralized by dominant forces. What I so admire about this book, in addition to its compelling and cogent analysis, is that Spahr refuses easy answers: she is just as skeptical of poetry’s revolutionary potential as she is committed to its possibility. It’s essential reading for anyone interested in the relationship between poetry and politics.
This book is thrilling. Spahr develops a truly original, even clarion, account of the relationship of social movements, avant-garde and politically charged writing, and the foreign policy arm of the United States. A great deal of the power of Du Bois’s Telegram has to do with the way it makes totally unexpected connections among separate discourses, and makes the connections seem necessary and obvious, at a stroke. It is common to praise a book for being potentially field-changing; this book suggests the possibility of changing several fields.
An important look at the history of American literature.
- 256 pages
- 0-7/8 x 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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