As I work toward defining my interests and nailing down the characteristics I would like to study and eventually organize a thesis around, I find that my reading history is punctuated by extreme interest in works that surprise me. I do not mean that they surprise me through their plot twists, but rather that they do not fit in with the works that typically are associated with their era of origin. I am interested in works and authors who are not part of the definition of their literary eras, which are time separations controversial in their own right. I am drawn to works by overlooked demographics, particularly members of those demographics who were not actually separate from the literary establishment during their lives, but who were forced to remain outside the prominence of their peers. Two key terms that I think define my thoughts so far are canon formulation and defying assumptions about a period through gender, race, and sexuality.
Defying assumptions in my case applies to the preconceived notions about what defines a period of literature and the women and queer individuals in eras and movements of literature who do not fit them. Though these periods and genres are very different in time and style, the individuals I am interested in are all excluded almost entirely from the accepted canon they are taught from. While their work is not included in the keywords of their periods, women and queer individuals were often present and influential in the circles that produced works, authors, and relics of their time. From the work of women in to establish literary salons in eighteenth century England whose are mostly left out of that era’s history, to the women who pioneered the novel as a genre which was only validated when men adopted it as a forum for quality narratives.
Nella Larsen’s work is read but not widely read, despite her role in the Harlem Renaissance influencer group. She worked on publications including the Opportunity, and The Brownie Book. She was friends with key influencers including Du Bois, and her first novel, Quicksand, was popular and acclaimed at its time. Despite all of this, her work was left out of curriculum and association with both Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance until very recently. Similarly, Jessie Fauset was ignored as a producer at the time, thought she was very present in the social circle where the Harlem Renaissance mission and characteristics were debated and cemented.
Something that unites many authors I am interested in is their fleeting prominence at the time they were producing. As in all things, women and minorities must reach near perfection to be acknowledged along with majority member counterparts. In the Harlem Renaissance, Larsen was accused later in her career of plagiarism. Despite being the first African American woman to receive the Guggenheim Fellowship, she was almost entirely forgotten after the scandal. She was only mentioned in regards to that stain until fairly recently when critics and readers returned in greater numbers to her work, including Quicksand and Passing.
This process of exclusion and how the definitions of sections of the literary timeline are a source of interest for me. In my discussions with professors, I have pinpointed that as the historical side of what I am looking at. As I look into the works and their creators that interest me, I find that there are usually reasons that have been used to defend their exclusion from the teaching and acclaiming body of texts. The Larsen example is one of many, including Zora Neale Hurston, whose work has surged into much greater prominence, but who was also excluded for controversial views despite her key role in the movement along with male leaders who were never rejected from the group the academy focuses on.
The keywords I have focused on are tightly twined together, and something that also interests me is that connection. As I move forward, I want to explore the three mentioned reasons that the excluded works are treated thus (race, gender, sexuality). I am interested in finding out whether the canon was defined before the works were excluded, or if part of defining literary eras has been purposefully constructing them to achieve that purpose. This is important if one wants to change the future of literary and cultural studies. Whatever cause and effect took place in early canon formation set a legacy that affected the Harlem Renaissance writers I focused on here, and that if left untouched, will continue in our current time and into the future. In the age of technology, it will become much more difficult to determine the pattern and to alter it. I think I’ll be looking at analysis of canon formation and more primary texts moving forward. While simply forcing more inclusion in literary study is an important part, the historian part of my mind leads me to believe that without focusing on what has happened, meaningful understanding and change cannot be made.