Saturday, April 5, 2014

How Margaret Walker Disrupts Periodization in the Norton

Editors for each section of the third edition of The Norton Anthology of African American Literature are careful to note that selected dates are "the arbitrary and largely artificial work of literary historians," as Deborah E. McDowell and Hortense Spillers note in the introduction to the section on "Realism, Naturalism, Modernism, 1940 - 1960." The publication records of several of the writers included in The Norton move beyond those historical markers and confirm the difficulty of placing  some writers in a single moment.

The works of Margaret Walker (1915 - 1998) demonstrate how a writer's publishing career disrupts conventional periodization. Although Walker is placed in the 1940 - 1960 section, her signature poem "For My People" was first published in Poetry in 1937. In The Norton, the dates 1937 and 1942 are placed beneath the poem, as the latter year was when Walker's book For My People appeared. It was not until the late 1960s and 1970s, however, that the poem "For My People" became especially canonical as a result of the expanded production of anthologies.

Walker's other most known work was Jubilee (1966), a novel that anticipated the production of several other neo-slave narratives or modern-day narratives looking back at enslavement and struggles for liberation such as Ishamel Reed's Flight to Canada (1976), Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987), Charles Johnson's Middle Passage (1990), to name a few. Walker's volumes Prophet for a New Day (1970) and October Journey (1973) appeared even later.

In some respects, it makes sense to associate Walker with her generational cohort, including Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, Melvin Tolson, and Richard Wright. At the same time, it is hard to ignore the fact that important Walker publication dates -- 1937, 1966, 1970, and 1973 -- occur beyond the 1940 - 1960, time-period where she is situated in the anthology.

A Notebook on The Norton Anthology of African American Literature  

1 comment:

jward said...

Thanks for highlighting that "periods" are artificial.

J. W. Ward, Jr.