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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Rhythms in Poetry Rhythms In Poetry – Activities

Overview Questions

  • How did World War I affect the way that Americans imagined themselves? How is this change reflected in the writings of the era?
  • How do the authors in Unit 10 question or affirm individual identity? How do race and gender complicate what it means to be an American?
  • How do these writers use the vernacular? How does the idiom of Williams, for example, differ from that of Hughes?
  • How do these authors strive to broaden our concept of what it means to be American? How do they use different strategies to imagine and address marginalized peoples?
  • What qualities are common to all the writers in this unit?
  • How does the war affect the poetry of this period? How is this poetry also influenced by popular culture?
  • How do physical spaces influence this literature? How does the American city, specifically Harlem and Chicago, shape the production of American poetry of the 1920s and 1930s? What events changed the face of American cities in the 1920s and 1930s? How are those changes reflected in the poetry?
  • Does American literature have to be written within the borders of the United States? How do we categorize the literature of expatriate writers? Does poetry have to use an American idiom to be considered American?
  • How would you describe modernism, in contrast to other literary movements you have encountered or studied? What values and questions are reflected in the poetry of this movement?
  • How does the modernism of American poets writing in America differ from the modernism of those writing abroad? How do race and gender affect the way writers interpret modernism? What assumptions about literature have we inherited from the modernist poets? Can you see the modernist legacy in contemporary writers?
  • How do the African American authors in this unit reimagine American identity? How do they challenge the way history has been told and recorded? What other myths about America are challenged by the poets in this unit?
  • How do the expatriate writers treat the question of American identity? Why does Greek mythology play a recurring role in American modernist verse?

Video Activities

What is an American? How does American literature create conceptions of the American experience and identity?
Video Comprehension Questions: What sources did the poets in this unit draw on for inspiration?
Context Questions: What is the relationship between the two strands of modernism outlined in the video? How do they overlap?
Exploratory Questions: How does William Carlos Williams’s “This Is Just to Say” compare to Li Young Lee’s “Eating Together”? What poetic strategies do the poems share?

How do place and time shape literature and our understanding of it?
Video Comprehension Questions: What kinds of historical and social events influenced art between the world wars? How did these forces shape poetry?
Context Questions: How did patronage by wealthy whites affect the African American artists in this unit? How did the Great Migration, which brought together black Americans from all over the country, lead to changes in the racial climate? How did those changes affect the poetry of the time?
Exploratory Questions: What comparison can you make between William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” and other poems you have read this semester? What is distinctive about Williams’s poem especially in terms of style and language?

What characteristics of a work have made it influential over time?
Video Comprehension Questions: What is imagism? What are the features of this movement? How did it influence other poets besides Pound and Eliot?
Context Questions: What are the aesthetic differences between the two strands of modernism covered in this unit? How have changing race and class politics affected the reception of these aesthetic innovations by subsequent generations of writers?
Exploratory Questions: How can you define American poetry? What other American literary figures might have been influenced by Williams, Eliot, and Hughes? What characteristics of their work do you see being continued in American poetry today?

Creative Response

  1. Journal: Try to imagine what it might have been like for a black person moving from a small town to Harlem in the 1920s. What would they have encountered? What would the atmosphere have been? What might they have done for fun on a weekend night? What kinds of frustrations might they have met with? What might have surprised or pleased them?
  2. Poet’s Corner: Reread William Carlos Williams’s “This Is Just to Say.” Choose a topic of your own and write a poem that imitates his style. Think about what kind of subject matter Williams writes about. What does his language sound like? What are the features of his verse? After you’ve written your poem, write a short paragraph analyzing what you wrote. What characteristics of Williams’s work were you trying to capture?
  3. Poet’s Corner: Read Kenneth Koch’s hilarious imitation of Williams’s “This Is Just to Say”: “Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams” (Thank You, and Other Poems [New York: Grove Press, 1962]). Ask your students to write their own parody of one of the modernist poems they have read.
  4. Doing History: For the ancient Greeks, the Trojan War (c. 1200 b.c.e.) marked an important turning point in their collective identity. For the modernists, World War I functioned as an earth-shattering moment that signaled the end of the Victorian era and the beginning of the modern age. Reread some of H.D.’s poems that rely on classical mythology. Do some research on a myth that particularly interests you. How is H.D.’s telling of modern history enhanced by her use of past histories? What is added to her poetry when she uses histories steeped in myth rather than factual historical allusions?
  5. Multimedia: Many of the artists in this unit looked to the visual arts and music for inspiration. Look at the paintings in the archive by Aaron Douglas and Jacob Lawrence, as well as items that reflect the primitivist and orientalist orientations of many modernist poets. In addition, listen to some jazz. How do the formal and aesthetic characteristics of these works relate to the poetry featured in this unit? What are specifically American images, sounds, or verses? What, if any, authentic national identity can be forged from these many sources?

Problem-Based Learning Projects

“”How can I get my students to think?” is a question asked by many faculty, regardless of their disciplines. Problem-based learning (PBL) is an instructional method that challenges students to “learn to learn,” working cooperatively in groups to seek solutions to real world problems. These problems are used to engage students’ curiosity and initiate learning the subject matter. PBL prepares students to think critically and analytically, and to find and use appropriate learning resources.” — Barbara Duch, University of Delaware

  1. You have been asked to illustrate a collection of poetry from the Harlem Renaissance using archival footage, photographs, artwork, newspaper articles, and manifestos from the era. Which poems will you choose and why? How will you order them? How will you help bring these poems to life for your readers?
  2. You are an art critic for The New York Times, and you’ve been asked to write a column on the influence of oriental art on modernist culture, drawing on poetry, paintings, architecture, and music. Which works will you choose? What historical events are key for understanding Asia’s influence? What works of oriental art most influenced the modernists?
  3. Using the video archive, prepare a slide show on “primitivism” during the modern era for schoolchildren in which you explain the relationship between the historical events and art of the time. As well as choosing the pictures, you should also write a script that you will deliver to your young audience.
  4. You have been asked to do a poetry reading for National Public Radio. Make a list of the poems you would choose to read. Why have you chosen these particular works? Then, practice reading the poems aloud, paying particular attention to how you’re reading. How do you know where to breathe, pause, or stop? What words do you emphasize? Analyze the other performance choices you make as you practice the broadcast.

Harlem in the 1920s: The Cultural Heart of America

[5496] Harry Olsen, Jazzin’ the Cotton Town Blues (1920), courtesy of Duke University.

At its peak in the 1920s, Harlem was the cultural and artistic heart of America. Stretching north of Central Park from Park Avenue in the east to St. Nicholas Avenue in the west and all the way up to 155th Street, Harlem was a city within a city, where black businessmen like Phillip Payton owned huge apartment buildings and rented them to black families and where black families could buy from black merchants. Harlem pulsed with promise and expectation for black America. From 1913 through the end of World War II in 1945, hundreds of thousands of African Americans relocated from the South to the urban North. Known as the Great Migration, this dramatic resettlement changed the face of American cities as blacks arrived by the thousands in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and especially New York City. With renewed racism fueled by Jim Crow laws (legalized segregation in the South) and a nationwide resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, African Americans looked to the urban North, where the world wars had created jobs and a hope of escape from rural poverty. As the most famous and vibrant cultural center of black American life, Harlem was transformed by this influx of people and talent. New arrivals like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston would become renowned artists. The move north was difficult, though. In Harlem, the South Side of Chicago, and other neighborhoods experiencing this sudden migration, housing conditions were often abysmal.

Artists and intellectuals also flocked to the cities. Some, like W. E. B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, and Marcus Garvey, were already famous, and some, like Langston Hughes, Aaron Douglas, and Zora Neale Hurston, hovered on the verge of fame. Harlem became such an important center of cultural vitality that it attracted many whites. The great photographer Alfred Stieglitz and bibliophile Arthur Schomburg were among the many nonblacks who mingled socially and intellectually with black artists and intellectuals, usually at parties hosted by people like Madam C. J. Walker, the first black woman millionaire, and Carl Van Vechten, a white patron of the arts. By the mid-1920s, the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing.

Harlem became a hub of American popular culture, and thousands of people flooded to this small section of New York City to catch a glimpse of the nightlife, characterized by speakeasies, jazz clubs, and cabarets. As Langston Hughes wrote in 1926, “Harlem was in vogue.” In these Harlem clubs, institutionalized racism took a peculiar form: although most of them, including the famous Cotton Club, featured black performers on stage, they banned blacks from the audience for fear of driving away white patrons. The injustice and irony of the situation was not lost on the artists of the period. In poems like “The Harlem Dancer,” “He Was a Man,” and “Visitors to the Black Belt,” McKay, Brown, and Hughes criticize the veiled racism that made all things black-from jazz, dance, and variety shows-popular across America but unavailable to African American audiences.

On the other hand, African American artists gained respect and critical acclaim outside their own communities. The first all-black musical, Shuffle Along, opened at the 62nd Street Theater in midtown Manhattan in 1921, and African American performers like Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson became celebrities in Europe as well as in the United States. Jazz became a sensation in London, in Paris, even in Stalinist Russia, and many musicologists regard it as America’s greatest musical contribution. From the black American experience in New Orleans, Chicago, and Harlem, jazz affirmed internationally the coming of age of African American culture.

Led by W. E. B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, Charles S. Johnson, and others, the Harlem Renaissance had specific political aims. These leaders believed that art could help African Americans achieve social, political, and economic equality in America. The movement placed great faith in the Talented Tenth, Du Bois’s term for an educated class of African Americans empowered to improve the situation for all. If African Americans could prove themselves as writers and artists, Du Bois reasoned, then the rest of society would ultimately acknowledge their importance, and their right to equality under the law and in social arenas. Du Bois’s ideas conflicted with those of Booker T. Washington, who championed economic independence through vocational education; and they also caused bitter controversy among Harlem Renaissance writers, especially Brown, Hurston, and Hughes, because their art did not always portray blacks in a positive light. But controversy became a source of vitality, and the Harlem Renaissance produced some of the most vibrant and powerful American art of the twentieth century.



  1. Comprehension: What were some of the historical and social developments that contributed to the cultural prominence of Harlem?
  2. Comprehension: How did the physical space of Harlem contribute to an artistic renaissance?
  3. Context: Renaissance leaders like W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke held distinct views about how black Americans could attain social equality in the United States. They believed that by demonstrating artistic ability and talent, African Americans could gain respect and acceptance for the race. They held that black artists should portray only positive attributes and dignified experiences of black Americans. However, many Harlem Renaissance authors and artists resisted that imperative. How do the authors in this unit reflect or challenge the values set forth by leaders of the Harlem Renaissance?
  4. Context: Compare Aaron Douglas’s Study for Aspects of Negro Life, in the archive, to Langston Hughes’s poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” What is the relationship between Africa and the “New Negro” in each?
  5. Exploration: Modernist poetry relies on the city as a symbol of modern culture and the human condition. How do Eliot’s London, Sandburg’s Chicago, and Hughes’s Harlem all represent particular interpretations of the city and the modern condition?
  6. Exploration: What do you think of Du Bois’s concept of the Talented Tenth? What problems might this idea give rise to?


[3548] Anonymous, Louis Armstrong Conducting Band, NBC Microphone in Foreground (1937), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-118977]. 
Louis Armstrong was one of the best-known jazz musicians of the 1930s. Jazz had an important influence in modernist writing and visual art.

[4553] James Allen, Nella Larsen (1928), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress. 
Portrait of Nella Larsen. The author of Quicksand, Larsen wrote novels and short stories that dealt with race, class, and gender. She was associated with the Harlem Renaissance.

[5289] Aaron Douglas, Study for Aspects of Negro Life: The Negro Man in an African Setting (1934), 
courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago: Aaron Douglas, American, 1899-1979, Study for Aspects of Negro Life: the Negro in an African setting, before 1934, gouache on Whatman artist’s board, 37.5 x 41 cm, Estate of Solomon Byron Smith; Margaret Fisher Fund, 1990.416. 
Sketch of Africans dancing and playing music. This became part of a Harlem mural sponsored by the Works Progress Administration chronicling African American history, from freedom in Africa to life in the contemporary United States. Africa and ancestry were themes of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” by Langston Hughes, and “Africa,” by Claude McKay.

[5479] Winold Reiss, Drawing in Two Colors (c. 1920), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-5687]. 
Offset lithograph of African American man dancing; also titled Interpretation of Harlem Jazz I. Poets, novelists, and painters incorporated the imagery and rhythms of jazz in their art.

[5496] Harry Olsen, Jazzin’ the Cotton Town Blues (1920), 
courtesy of Duke University. Sheet-music cover showing an African American band and couples dancing in formal attire. 
The New Negro Movement held that positive artistic representations of African Americans would lead to the acquisition of civil rights.

[7134] Anonymous, Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel (n.d.), 
courtesy of The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925), by James Weldon Johnson, Viking Press. 
Like many Sorrow Songs, these lyrics speak of the hope for delivery from sin and slavery. Compiler James Weldon Johnson, a major Harlem Renaissance intellectual and poet, self-consciously claimed slave ancestors and their creations as sources of cultural pride.

[7406] Staff photographer, Duke Ellington, Half-Length Portrait, Seated at Piano, Facing Right (1965), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-123232]. 
Photograph of jazz musician Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington playing the piano. Black musicians such as Ellington were a major force in the development of jazz, arguably the first truly American art form. The rhythms and images of the jazz aesthetic deeply influenced the writers and visual artists of the Harlem Renaissance.

Orientalism: Looking East

[7126] Eisen, Asakusa Temple in Winter (c. 1810), courtesy of the print collection of Connecticut College, New London.

Although Japan had been opened up to the West in 1853, for modern Americans the Orient remained a place of great mystery, reverence, and intrigue. American readers reveled in the exotic paraphernalia of Japanese daily life described in works such as Matthew Calbraith Perry’s The Americans in Japan: An Abridgement of the Government Narrative of the U.S. Expedition to Japan, and fascination with the Orient spilled over into U.S. architecture. While many American architects were producing classical styles, Frank Lloyd Wright was inspired by Japanese architecture, from which he borrowed the concept of the tokonama. Defined as the use of a permanent element in the home as a focus for contemplation and ceremony, tokonama can be seen in Wright’s use of the hearth as the vertical axis from which the horizontal floors radiate.

The modernist fascination with the art and aesthetics of ancient Japan and China is also reflected in the writings of modernist poets. Overall, American culture was primed for orientalism; between 1870 and 1882, the Chinese population in America rose dramatically, fueled by a fourfold increase in new immigrants, chiefly from Canton. Wealthy collectors took an interest in traditional East Asian art, which began appearing in newly constructed museums in Boston, New York, Chicago, and other major cities. Japan modernized rapidly and emerged as a formidable military power, defeating Russia decisively in modern naval engagements that attracted the attention of the world. Moreover, the opulent, busy, literary and decorative styles of Victorian England and Belle Époque France were growing tiresome and predictable to young, independent thinkers, who hungered for aesthetic refreshment, for the austerity that the Japanese Zen tradition and the art of Imperial China seemed to embody.

Many modernist poets, artists, and architects, particularly Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, H.D., William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, William Butler Yeats, Marianne Moore, Georgia O’Keefe, and Frank Lloyd Wright, expressed their own personal fascination with the Far East. Late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century translations of Chinese poets like Qu Yuan, Tao Qian, Li Bo, Wang Wei, and Bo Juyi gained popularity in Western literary circles, helping to fuel this interest. For writers like Pound and Williams, the Orient did not represent a strange otherness, but rather an unexpected similarity in basic values. In 1913, Pound wrote that he felt “older and wiser” when looking at Japanese art, a sentiment shared by many of the modernist poets. When Wright set out to invent a “Prairie Style,” an architectural vernacular expressive of the landscape and values of the American Midwest, he turned for inspiration to the temples and palaces of ancient Japan.

One of the leading thinkers and mentors of his time, Pound did much to shape modernism and its theoretical underpinnings. Pound’s affinity for the Orient is conspicuous in his haiku-like poems, such as “In a Station of the Metro.” He came to favor the poetry of China over that of Japan, and he spent much of his career studying and translating Chinese poetry. “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter,” one of his most anthologized poems, is a moving translation of a Chinese poem that depicts a lonely teenage wife longing for her husband with simplicity and emotion. Pound admired in Chinese poetry the impulse toward an economic, concrete verse, tendencies that became central to modernist poetry. Although his interest in China surfaces in a host of poems, The Cantos perhaps best illustrates his appropriation of techniques, themes, and allusions suggestive of Chinese poetry. The 1915 publication of Cathay, a collection of translated Chinese poems based partly on the writings of experts on the Orient, caught the interest of other modernist authors. Yeats experimented with the austerity and elegance of Japanese Noh drama, and the poetry of Wallace Stevens began to resonate with rhythms and images adapted from Chinese and Japanese poetry. Although Williams never discussed the place of the Orient in his own work, his early poetry also bears the mark of its influence.

Many characteristics that we associate with modernist poetry, including the use of ellipsis, allusion, and juxtaposition, have their roots in English translations of Chinese poetry. The Chinese ideogram, and the related concept that a concise visual experience can suggest philosophical and psychological meaning, became a central idea in imagism and early modernism.


  1. Comprehension: What cultural forces combined to make the Orient popular in the West? What characteristics does Asian poetry, in English translation, share with early modernist poetry?
  2. Comprehension: What role did Pound play in bringing the Orient into Western modernism?
  3. Context: Reread William Carlos Williams’s “Willow Poem” and “The Widow’s Lament in Springtime.” How do the content and style of these poems suggest oriental motifs and aesthetics?
  4. Context: How do Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” and “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” show the influence of Chinese and Japanese poetry? How do these poems differ from Williams’s poetry discussed in the previous question?
  5. Exploration: For American poetry, what are the advantages and complications of drawing inspiration from Chinese and Japanese literature and art?
  6. Exploration: Pound challenged modern poets to “make it [poetry] new,” but he also appropriates much from ancient Chinese poets. How do we reconcile his call for newness with his search into the past?


[6176] Anonymous, Some Designs and Executed Buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect (1917), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-4297]. 
Cover of a Japanese journal highlighting Frank Lloyd Wright’s work. Wright’s architecture drew on Japanese art and design. Wright designed projects in both the United States and Japan, including the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo.

[6662] Mary Cassatt, The Fitting (1891), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress. 
In the 1890s, an exhibition of Japanese prints influenced Mary Cassatt to make her style more emphatic and to use bolder and more defined colors. Cassatt, like Henry James and Edith Wharton, was interested in realistically capturing the lives of America’s upper class.

[7119] Shoshan, Monkey Reaching for the Moon (c. 1910), 
courtesy of the print collection of Connecticut College, New London. 
Japanese print showing a monkey hanging from a tree. Asian art became increasingly popular in the early twentieth century. Many modernist poets used Japanese and Chinese themes.

[7126] Eisen, Asakusa Temple in Winter (c. 1810), 
courtesy of the print collection of Connecticut College, New London. 
Japanese woodcut of temple in winter scene. Modernist poets used Asian reli-gious and artistic themes, particularly emphasizing simplicity and nature.

[7128] Anonymous, Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio (c. 1933), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [HABS, ILL, 16-OAKPA,5-2]. 
Photograph of entrance to Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio, looking southeast, near Chicago; an example of how Wright used orientalism in his architecture.

[7982] Ando Hiroshige, Minakuchi, #51 of the Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road, Tate-E Edition (1855), 
courtesy of the print collection of Connecticut College, New London. 
Hiroshige produced many editions of this series of scenes from the highway between Kyoto and his native Edo (now Tokyo). Many modernist poets were drawn to the objectivity, precision, and connection with nature that characterize this art.

[7984] Ando Hiroshige, Temple in the Park near Osaka (n.d.), 
courtesy of the print collection of Connecticut College, New London. 
Painting from the 100 Views of Edo series. Although early-twentieth-century Westerners saw the Orient as shrouded in exoticism, many modernist poets saw similarities between Eastern and Western culture.

[7987] Ohara Shoson, Five Egrets (c. 1927), 
courtesy of the print collection of Connecticut College, New London. 
These elegant birds are frequent subjects of oriental art. The style, forms, and content of Japanese and Chinese art were of great interest to a number of modernist poets.

Primitivism: An Antidote for the Modern

[7170] Alfred Stieglitz, Negro Art Exhibition, November, 1914 (1916), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-100177].

Perhaps only a few times has a piece of music changed the course of history. On March 29, 1913, at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, composer Igor Stravinsky conducted his ballet The Rite of Spring. The choreography seemed unnatural, the costumes outrageous, and the musical innovations ear-shattering; the ballet tells of pagan sacrifice, and many in the audience were repelled or elated by it. Riots erupted as the performance ended. The performance was a decisive historical moment, affirming that European and American modernism would need to reckon with primitivism, a fascination with art from cultures that nineteenth-century intellectuals and politicians had regarded with condescension and scorn.

Part of the continuing importance of the Harlem Renaissance was the complex way in which it engaged with the “primitive” art of the marginalized African cultures which African Americans recognized as a collective past but which the Middle Passage and three hundred years in North America had made distant. In looking to “primitive” cultures for inspiration, writers were trying to recover a lost fundamental identity, perhaps a purer form of language, and a more graceful and personal way of representing experience.

While many white Americans visiting Harlem or other black neighborhoods expected African American artists to portray what were really little more than stereotypes, many black artists, like Claude McKay and Langston Hughes, sought deeper and richer connections with Africa; they experimented with primitivism, and their work shows a tension between their European intellectual heritage and their African lineage. This struggle to represent a split identity left many African American writers feeling conflicted. Many of the Harlem Renaissance poets explored the notion of the black American not only as a part of American history, but also as an indispensable foundation for the building of the country. Their poetry often suggested that the black person was more American than many of the country’s white citizens.

This interest in African culture and tradition was not confined to Harlem. Indeed, Paris became known as the “Negro Colony” because so many African American artists moved there. As they mingled with other expatriates, they formed a network of learning and influence. Many of the artists studied formally at Parisian art schools, and their presence fostered an artistic exchange that changed modern art. The work of these black artists was recognized by French salons, publications, and exhibition spaces and contributed to modernist ferment on the Continent. Indeed, the connections between cubism and Africa are immediately recognizable in the angular lines, perspective, and subject matter of cubist paintings by Picasso and Braque.

Perhaps the best-known African American artist of the period was Aaron Douglas (1898-1979), who arrived in Harlem in 1924. An avid reader of African American journals like OpportunityCrisis, and Survey, he was an active force on the art scene. Douglas soon adopted an abstract “African” style that borrowed much from African culture and Cubism. His flat, stylized figures were immediately recognizable, and Douglas went on to illustrate the books of thirteen Harlem Renaissance writers, including Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, and James Weldon Johnson. Douglas’s art, along with that of many of his contemporaries, was exhibited around the country by The Harmon Foundation, which was set up to expose white Americans to African American art. It remains one of the leading collections of African American visual art.

Many of the Harlem Renaissance writers and artists, including Douglas, Hughes, and Hurston, relied on white patrons for financial support. White Americans like Paul Kellogg, Albert C. Barnes, Carl Van Vechten, and Charlotte Osgood Mason were instrumental in making it possible for these artists to create and display their work. Although the patrons had good intentions, their patronage raised complicated questions. Some believed that black art was compromised by white patronage because the African American artists felt it necessary to please their benefactors. The patronage relationship also underscored the perception that most of these artists never broke the connection to the larger culture. Indeed, according to Harlem Renaissance expert Nathan Huggins, much of the art was ultimately created for white audiences. Some critics have also observed that the patrons were so interested in encouraging black art that they did so without due regard for skill and talent, and that the real genius of the Harlem Renaissance was overwhelmed by mediocre work. African American painter Romare Bearden (1911-1988), for example, complained that too much African American art was unoriginal and uninspired.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt assumed office in 1933 and initiated a host of governmental programs to recharge the American economy, artists and writers were recruited and paid to produce murals and sculpture for public places, books about American places and history, and literary works for a broad and dispirited populace, eventually turning out over 100,000 paintings, 18,000 sculptures, and 2,500 murals for post offices, courthouses, schools, and other public buildings. The arts in the United States were saved from insolvency by massive federal support. Along with the opportunity, however, some artists felt a pressure to adapt the imagination to government service, to become, in a sense, public employees. Though the American artist never experienced the regimentation and thought-control which overwhelmed the arts in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and the Soviet Union under Stalin, the freewheeling bohemianism down in Greenwich Village and up in Harlem gave way to production that was more predictable in intention and style.

The liberalism and populism of the Roosevelt administration and the New Deal intensified the interest in American folk culture, fostering a home-grown variation on the “primitive.” As early as 1901, W. E. B. Du Bois had praised the power of Negro spirituals in The Souls of Black Folk. Decades later, African American authors like Zora Neale Hurston, who traveled to the black villages of Florida collecting folk tales, Langston Hughes, who wrote children’s stories that drew on the folk tradition, and Jacob Lawrence, who painted ordinary African Americans in rural and urban settings and chronicled the Great Migration, contributed to a revival of interest in the culture of the common man and woman. Many poets, including Sterling Brown, experimented with writing exclusively in dialect-a move that not only recognized the importance of a black idiom, but also portrayed its vibrancy.

Ordinary American life colors the poetry of William Carlos Williams and Robert Frost. Frost revealed an enormous psychological and moral complexity behind the simple, austere surfaces of the New England backcountry; Williams found beauty in the most ordinary of urban places. Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, and Genevieve Taggard carried Whitman’s legacy into the twentieth century, celebrating the sound of spontaneous vernacular voices and finding wonder in ordinary language and the pace of American speech.

Even so, an interest in the ancient, the primitive, and folk traditions could carry artists in very different directions. Modernist poets like H.D., T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound unearthed and alluded to arcane texts, near-forgotten medieval ballads, classical verse, and primordial myths that seem to transcend cultures.



  1. Comprehension: What were some of the manifestations and characteristics of primitivism in the literature of the 1920s and 1930s?
  2. Context: H.D. draws on ancient mythology frequently in her poetry, often retelling the myths with a focus on female protagonists. Some of her favorite heroines are Helen of Troy, Leda (the mother of Helen), and Eurydice, the wife of Orpheus. Why do you think she chooses the particular stories and figures that she does? How does her use of mythology differ from that of Pound and Eliot?
  3. Context: Would you make a distinction between “primitive” and “folk” in American poetry? Which poems suggest such a difference?
  4. Exploration: Imagine a debate between Sterling Brown and Robert Frost about the use of primitivism or folk traditions in American literature. What might be the key differences in their perspectives?


[2944] Anonymous, Aaron Douglas with Arthur Schomburg and the Song of Towers Mural (1934), 
courtesy of Arthur Schomburg Photograph Collection, Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations. 
Douglas was commissioned to paint murals for the New York Public Library under the Works Progress Administration. This mural represents African American migration from the South to the urban North.

[4410] Anonymous, Ernest Hemingway on Safari in Africa (1933), 
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administrations, JFK Library. 
Photograph of Hemingway with elephant carcass and gun. Hemingway traveled extensively and based his novels in various locales.

[4766] Aaron Douglas, The Judgement Day (1927), 
courtesy of The Walter O. Evans Collection of African American Art. Aaron Douglas, American (1899-1979). Gouache on paper; 11 3/4″ x 9″.
Douglas’s painting incorporates images from jazz and African traditions and can be compared to “Harlem Shadows,” by Claude McKay, and “The Weary Blues,” by Langston Hughes.

[5289] Aaron Douglas, Study for Aspects of Negro Life: The Negro Man in an African Setting (1934), 
courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago: Aaron Douglas, American, 1899-1979, Study for Aspects of Negro Life: the Negro in an African setting, before 1934, gouache on Whatman artist’s board, 37.5 x 41 cm, Estate of Solomon Byron Smith; Margaret Fisher Fund, 1990.416. 
Sketch of Africans dancing and playing music. This became part of a Harlem mural sponsored by the Works Progress Administration chronicling African American history, from freedom in Africa to life in the contemporary United States. Africa and ancestry were themes of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” by Langston Hughes, and “Africa,” by Claude McKay.

[7170] Alfred Stieglitz, Negro Art Exhibition, November, 1914. Brancusi sculpture, March 1914 (1916), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62- 100177]. 
These photographs of two art exhibits illustrate the popularity of African American art and show how primitivism and African images influenced white artists such as Constantin Brancusi.

[7408] Carl Van Vechten, Portrait of Bessie Smith Holding Feathers (1936), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-94955]. 
Writers and musicians of the Harlem Renaissance debated how best to depict African Americans, especially in terms of gender. Bessie Smith was a New Negro artist who embraced primitivism and the use of African images.

Broadcasting Modernization: Radio and the Battle over Poetry

[2360] Anonymous, Listening to the Radio at Home (1920), courtesy of the George H. Clark Radioana Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

With the creation of nationwide radio networks and the drop in the cost of home equipment, poetry, jazz, symphonic music, and fresh commentary on the news and the arts became available to a vastly expanded audience, including people who could not read. The immediacy of radio and the increased access to the arts that radio gave people of all classes revolutionized American culture.

For many American poets, including William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, and Robert Frost, this change was welcome. Their search for an American idiom and more accessible subject matter complemented this modern medium. For Sandburg and Taggard, the ability to reach a cross-section of the public increased the reach and influence of their words. The immediacy of radio created an intimacy between poet and audience, and the medium played a crucial role in turning the poet into a celebrity figure.

Other poets, including Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, regarded the popularization of art as a threat. They prided themselves on writing poetry that was allusive and difficult. For them, poetry was not meant to be mainstream. Broadcasting poetry seemed a degrading form of commercialization, a mass-consumer approach to art (although Eliot did present his work on the radio). To these artists, radio meant that art would become the territory of middlebrow taste.



  1. Comprehension: How would you describe elitism in art? Where do you find it? Why did some modernists seek to be elite or obscure? Why did some poets resist the popularization of poetry through radio broadcast?
  2. Context: Read Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” aloud. How does hearing the poem (as opposed to reading it) affect your interpretation and appreciation? What do you gain from hearing the poem read aloud? Are some possibilities lost in the process?
  3. Context: Reread the poems of Carl Sandburg and T. S. Eliot. Which works do you think would work best on radio? What would be gained (or lost) by listening to these poems rather than reading them?
  4. Context: We are often described as living in the “Information Age” in which access to all kinds of information, from instant news and sports to online texts of rare books, is instantly available to anyone with an Internet connection. Many American homes have multiple televisions. How have TV and the Internet affected the distribution and consumption of literature? Are there negative consequences of making art widely available to the public via radio, TV, and the Internet? How do these costs compare to the benefits? Do you think radio, TV, and the Internet have had a positive effect on the arts? How have these media affected the way the public appreciates or doesn’t appreciate highbrow culture, specifically poetry?


[2360] Anonymous, Listening to the Radio at Home (1920), 
courtesy of the George H. Clark Radioana Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. 
Family seated around their radio in the early 1920s. Radio was the first affordable mass media entertainment to enter the homes of nearly all Americans. A powerful tool for rapid communication of news, radio helped advertise products and spread music like jazz and swing around the country.

[2363] Anonymous, “Radiotron” Vacuum Tube Display (1927), 
courtesy of the George H. Clark Radioana Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. 
Department store display of vacuum tubes for radios. The advent of the radio allowed people from all walks of life to have access to poetry and classical music and set the stage for what was to become “pop culture.”

[5177] Russell Lee, Radio with Ornaments and Decorations (1938), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF33-011602-M2 DLC]. 
Radio with photographs and knickknacks on top, in the home of a Farm Security Administration client near Caruthersville, Missouri. Radios made art and news accessible to a larger audience.

[5225] Russell Lee, John Frost and Daughter Listening to Radio in Their Home (1940), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-037961-D DLC]. 
Father and daughter inside a farm home in Tehama County, California, listen to the radio together. Radio was an important source of art, entertainment, and information for many families.

[5226] Marion Post Wolcott, A More Well-to-Do Miner Listening to the Radio When He Returns Home in the Morning After Working on the Night Shift (1938), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-050293-E]. 
Family seated around radio. Many poets, among them Genevieve Taggard, were excited about the advent of radio, especially because they were able to broadcast their poetry to a wide range of people.

[5594] Anonymous, It Was Common Practice for Small Town and Country Dealers to Bring Radios Directly to Prospects and Customers Alike (1925), 
courtesy of the George H. Clark Radioana Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. 
Photograph of dealers delivering radios from vehicle. Increased geographical mobility and mass culture were intertwined. As travel became easier, small towns became less culturally isolated.

[6137] Doubleday, Page and Company, Radio Broadcast (1926), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress. 
Promotional material for radio broadcasting technology. Technological developments made art more accessible to larger audiences and contributed to a sense of breaking with the Victorian era.

The New Negro and the Reconstruction of African American Identity

[4766] Aaron Douglas, The Judgement Day (1927), courtesy of The Walter O. Evans Collection of African American Art. Aaron Douglas, American (1899-1979). Gouache on paper; 11 3/4″ x 9″.

The term “New Negro” came into use at the end of the nineteenth century, as a way of summarizing the various efforts of black Americans to put the culture of slavery behind them. By the 1920s, however, the term signified racial pride, economic independence, the struggle for social equality, and courageous expression in literature and the arts. When Alain Locke published his landmark anthology The New Negro, the term gained strong connections with the Harlem Renaissance. Small literary magazines abounded in Harlem during this period, and Locke’s anthology had its origins in the March 1925 issue of Survey Graphic, a journal devoted to publishing young writers. The issue on Harlem was conceived by Survey editor Paul Kellogg, at a Civic Club dinner in November 1924, hosted by Charles S. Johnson, editor of Opportunity, a journal affiliated with the NAACP. Locke’s collection of essays, poetry, and fiction quickly became landmark in the movement. Illustrated by Aaron Douglas, the book also included a bibliography of important artists, thinkers, and events of the Harlem Renaissance.

Leaders of the Harlem Renaissance believed that art should portray African Americans in a positive light, emphasizing literacy, artistic sophistication, and other qualities that could win respect among the dominant American majority. African American photographers, working in Harlem and across America, played an important role in conveying that ideal. The photographs of James Van Der Zee emphasize values and concepts central to the New Negro and the aspirations of the race. With images of black war veterans, dignified parades, and “Striver’s Row,” he portrayed the pride, accomplishment, and patriotism associated with the New Negro.

Small circulation magazines, like SurveyOpportunityFire, and Crisis, helped to fuel the movement by providing forums for new poetry, fiction, and art. The annual prizes offered by Opportunity helped young writers like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston gain acceptance in New York literary circles. In turn, the editors of these magazines gained influence as discoverers of talent-and some of their choices sparked controversy, especially narratives and poems that portrayed African Americans talking in dialect, drinking in bars, or straying from the New Negro role model. There were also controversies when these publications engaged directly with racism, lynchings, miscegenation, and other unresolved dilemmas in black and white American life. The courage of these writers and their editors in representing life honestly and with dignity in works like “The Weary Blues” or Cane reflects the spirit of the New Negro and the Harlem Renaissance.



  1. Comprehension: What does the “New Negro” signify, and how did the term become popular?
  2. Comprehension: What social and cultural developments supported the flourishing of African American art?
  3. Comprehension: Describe some of the debates that arose between leaders and artists of the Harlem Renaissance.
  4. Context: How do the African American authors in this unit either fulfill or reject the concept of the New Negro? Does the poetry follow Alain Locke’s aesthetic guidelines? What stereotypes does the art of this period embrace or deny?
  5. Exploration: When Alain Locke published his article “The New Negro” in the 1925 publication of the same name, he ignited a wave of excitement and debate throughout the African American community. What was new about the concept of the New Negro? What political and social responsibilities did the New Negro artist have? What kinds of conflicts arose from these duties? Do you think that art can bring about political change? How do you think the concept of the New Negro has influenced African American identity today? Has it influenced current artists?
  6. Exploration: Many of the authors in this unit interacted closely with powerful and wealthy white patrons. To some critics, these relationships lessened the integrity of the art. On the other hand, many argue that without the white support, much of the art of this period would not have been produced. What were some of the possible advantages and disadvantages of white patronage for these African American artists?


[3012] Austin Hansen, Count Basie and the Nicholas Brothers (c. 1940s), 
courtesy of Joyce Hansen and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library. 
Count Basie (pictured with Fayard and Harold Nicholas, internationally renowned tap dancers) was a leading figure in twentieth-century music, helping to define the style and nature of jazz and swing. Amiri Baraka and Michael Harper show jazz influences in their poetry.

[3939] Underwood and Underwood, Famous New York African American Soldiers Return Home (1917), 
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration. 
The 369th (former 15th New York City) regiment marches in Harlem, including Lieutenant James Reese Europe, a well-known musician. African American veterans advocated for civil rights. Home to Harlem (1928), by Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay, tells the story of an African American soldier’s life after his return from the war.

[4012] Carl Van Vechten, Portrait of James Baldwin (1955), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-42481]. 
James Baldwin is remembered as a civil rights activist and the author of plays, poetry, short stories, and novels, including Go Tell It on the Mountain.

[4565] Prentiss Taylor, Zora Neale Hurston (n.d.), 
courtesy of Yale University Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. 
Used with the permission of the Estate of Zora Neale Hurston. Photograph of Hurston dancing on couch. Known for her flamboyance and charisma, Hurston was sometimes urged by other artists to represent African Americans in more “dignified” ways.

[4566] Anonymous, Their Eyes Were Watching God dustcover (1937), 
courtesy of Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale Collection of American Literature. 
Zora Neale Hurston’s best-known book, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was criticized by some African American authors and leaders because it did not emphasize racial oppression.

[4766] Aaron Douglas, The Judgement Day (1927), 
courtesy of The Walter O. Evans Collection of African American Art. Aaron Douglas, American (1899-1979). Gouache on paper; 11 3/4″ x 9″.
Douglas’s painting incorporates images from jazz and African traditions and can be compared to “Harlem Shadows,” by Claude McKay, and “The Weary Blues,” by Langston Hughes.

[5183] Valerie Wilmer, Langston Hughes in Front of Harlem Apartment (1962), 
courtesy of Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the Langston Hughes Estate. 
Like William Carlos Williams and Carl Sandburg, Langston Hughes admired Walt Whitman and created literary personas that spoke to more than his own experience. In particular, Hughes was committed to portraying everyday African American life in his poetry.

[8083] Jacob Lawrence, Rampart Street (aka Harlem Street) (1941), 
courtesy of the Estate of Jacob Lawrence, Collection of the Portland Art Museum, Oregon. Gift of Jan de Graaff. 
Jacob Lawrence, known for his visual dramatizations of African American life, often painted series on subjects like Harlem, events and figures in black history, and even Hiroshima. A number of critics have likened Lawrence’s style to African American music, including jazz and boogie woogie. Lawrence’s paintings can be viewed in light of the poems of Langston Hughes and contrasted with the work of later African American artist Romare Bearden.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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