Monday, April 3, 2017

Steve Pinkerton's "Blasphemous Modernism"

Steve Pinkerton is a Lecturer in English at Case Western Reserve University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Blasphemous Modernism: The 20th-Century Word Made Flesh, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book arrives about two-thirds of the way into chapter 3, “Blasphemy and the New Negro.” Keen-eyed readers will here discern, hovering behind my workaday prose, the faint contours of an image that bleeds through from the reverse (page 100): a drawing by Harlem Renaissance artist Richard Bruce Nugent [inset below left; click to enlarge]. In stark black-and-white, this 1928 picture depicts a lynched black body hanging from two intersecting tree limbs that together form a conspicuously cruciform shape. The victim, we infer, is a modern Christ, his lynching a modern-day Crucifixion. Nugent’s illustration thus speaks to a key concern of this third chapter, which explores how he and other black artists sought to combat the sanitized racial politics of Alain Locke’s landmark anthology The New Negro (1925)—a book that has often, and suggestively, been called “the Bible of the Harlem Renaissance.” Locke had contrived, for instance, to exclude any mention of lynching from that volume’s 450 pages. In response, Nugent and company weaponized the black-Christ trope as one of several blasphemous strategies for voicing their opposition to Locke’s “Bible” and, more generally, to the Harlem Renaissance orthodoxy of racial uplift.

Hence my discussion, on page 99, of three “black Christ” poems by Countee Cullen, and of the Nugent illustration that’s reproduced overleaf. The page then terminates with a discussion of Nugent’s friend Langston Hughes and of his harrowing poem “Christ in Alabama” (1931):
Unlike Cullen’s more diffuse Crucifixion poetry, Hughes’s poem aims for a blunt economy of diction and of the poetic line, driving its conceit home with alliterative associations (“Mary”/“Mammy”/“Master”) and using twice the controversial word “nigger.” Here is no idealized black Christ but rather a [“Nigger Christ / On the cross of the South”].
For the most part, Blasphemous Modernism attends to the often ingeniously sportive blasphemies of modernist writers such as James Joyce, Mina Loy, and Djuna Barnes. (Not to mention the unintended comedy of D. H. Lawrence, who at one point has a sexually aroused Christ announce, in deadly earnest, “I am risen!”) But chapter 3 testifies to the more sober and often riskier forms that blasphemy could take in the hands of a politically radical writer like Hughes. Much as Nugent’s illustration looms spectrally behind the words of page 99, then, Hughes’s bluntly uncompromising irreverence haunts the more playful varieties of blasphemy that both inspired and shaped so many modernist works.
Learn more about Blasphemous Modernism at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue