By Jeffery Renard Allen
In an illuminating essay written not long before his death, the celebrated German novelist W. G. Sebald traces his origins as fiction writer to a time when he visited the studio of a German painter and saw a quite peculiar painting. At the time, Sebald was a German immigrant living and teaching in England, a scholar and academic in search of a literary form that would allow him to explore the wide range of his intellectual interests in a highly personal way that others would recognize as art, literature, as opposed to traditional philosophy and intellectual inquiry or the accepted forms of scholarship such as history, biography, and art criticism. That day in the painter’s studio, Sebald found the form he had been looking for in a canvas depicting a spider perched atop a man’s brain. “Yes,” Sebald thought, “that’s how the imagination operates, like a spider crawling about from this to that.” Sebald began to write novels that did just that, that scrambled from one disparate subject or “character” to another, usually narrated by a Sebald-like protagonist who wanders from one location to another in England or continental Europe.
Sebald’s spider is an excellent trope for understanding how his work operates, for understanding the block paragraphs that go on for numerous pages, for getting a handle on his novels’ circular structures and illusive narrators, their scrambling search for subject and story, the way Sebald’s narrators introduce one topic or person only to take up another topic or person through some associational link, Sebald’s hybrid mixing of fact and fiction and genres (biography and travelogue), and his use of both pastiche and parody, summary and invention—all of this somehow informed by and responding to a tradition of German Romanticism dating back to the early nineteenth century, but a type of twentieth century German Romanticism that is responding to and seeking to make sense of the German atrocities of WWII. However, when one thinks about it carefully, Sebald’s spider is a synecdoche for the artistic imagination in general, most especially the imaginative process that any writer undergoes in creating a literary novel.
Before Sebald could know how to write a novel, he had to first survey the tradition of the novel. In his famous essay “Tradition and the Literary Talent,” T. S. Eliot makes the crucial point that writers read early generations of writers, the tradition, to learn how to write themselves into that tradition. That is, in reading and learning from the already-said, we in turn write in response to it, engage it in dialogue, and in entering in such dialogue we change the tradition, extend it, continue the conversation. Eliot points out that a crucial aspect of reading is value. Each writer decides what they value in literary tradition, what speaks to them, what interests them, and what doesn’t. Another way of thinking about value is subject matter. Unlike the Romantics who claimed direct inspiration from God and other otherworldly external forces—including some good opium, mushroom, or absinthe—Eliot teaches us that a writer must seek out their subject.
Some twenty-five years ago, I chanced upon the subject for my novel, Song of the Shank, in neurologist Oliver Sacks’s wonderful book An Anthropologist on Mars, a collection of unusual case studies about people who suffer from neurological disorders, all depicted in Sacks’s fine New Journalistic style. One chapter in the book concerns an autistic savant, an Afro-British boy who displays a remarkable talent for drawing. In a footnote to the chapter, Sacks briefly mentions another black person whom he believes shares the classic traits of another savant, a nineteenth century pianist and composer named Thomas Greene Wiggins, who performed under the stage name Blind Tom.
I immediately began to research Blind Tom, a difficult prospect given the scant sources. Only one serious twentieth century scholar has written about Blind Tom, the late musicologist Geneva Southall, who essentially devoted her entire professional career to unearthing Tom’s life, to getting the facts straight, and hopefully giving him his rightful place in music history. Over a period extending more than twenty years, she wrote a three-volume biography of Tom, the first two volumes published by small Minnesota presses that have long since folded, rendering the books out of print. In many ways, Tom was Southall’s synecdoche for the small but significant number of nineteenth century African American classical musicians and composers who have been almost totally ignored by white and black scholars alike. While African American scholars are interested in African American musical idioms of the time—the spirituals and secular songs, ragtime, early blues, etc.—most white scholars apparently just don’t give a damn. Tom has been written out of history—know that he is still out, despite Southall’s painstaking work—for two reasons. First, he was black. (Same ole, same ole.) Second, because the press and public of his time dismissed his musical abilities by suggesting that they derived from either God or the Devil. (Take your pick.)
Southall never entertains the possibility that Tom was savant or that he was mentally incapacitated in any way. Instead, she argues that Tom was a musical genius who, at the urging of his greedy owners and managers, was forced to wear the mask of the untrained idiot. This is a twice-told tale for us as black people in this country. Still, we need to know Tom for some other very important cultural and historical reasons. Through Southall and others, I was surprised to learn that Blind Tom was the highest paid pianist of the nineteenth century, earning his managers as much as $100,000 annually at a time when the average work made less than $300 a year. As well, not only was it rare for any black person period to play the piano when Tom first started performing publicly in the late 1850s, it was even rarer to find a black virtuoso of the piano. With his classical program, Tom existed fully in the tradition of other musical virtuosos of his era, such as Russian pianist Anton Rubinstein or the New Orleans mulatto pianist and composer Louis Gottschalk. Tom’s piano playing far surpassed these players. And his vocal abilities were incomparable, considering his incredible range from bass to soprano—only Elizabeth Greenfield, the so-called Black Swan, coming close to his range—and his skill at imitating other voices, both male and female, in pitch and intonation. Lastly, Tom composed and published hundreds of compositions, but they have never been either properly catalogued or collected in a single volume. In his book Music and Some Highly Musical People, noted writer and activist Monroe Trotter, who saw Tom perform, argues that he was perhaps the greatest musician in all the history of music. However, Tom rarely appears in books of musical scholarship and history, only to find his place in medical studies such as Oliver Sacks’s as one of medicine’s most perplexing case studies. Tom is not even a footnote in musical history.
As a novelist, the question for me became, “How do I write Tom?” One thing my research showed me: Blind Tom is a slippery figure, breaking boundaries in the same way that he elided the barrier between stage and audience, between male and female, how as an interpreter of Bach who explored notions of voices, multiplicity of rendering—my Tom as an African American who would defy easy categorizations of classical versus folk music, black and white, and sane versus savant, imitation versus creation, improvisation versus composition, etc. As Sonny Rollins would do a century later, Blind Tom absorbed everything he heard and played all that he absorbed.
To write Tom, I knew that I would have to find novelists who had created works and worlds that speak to multiplicity and which deny easy oppositions. I sought structural models in the novels of Richard Powers. I knew that I could learn something from Don DeLillo in his approach to American history in novels such as Libra and Underworld. And, of course, Sebald’s handling of disparate sources and the hybrid structures would be crucial. Just as I knew that Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days, perhaps the single novel by an African American writer that is aesthetically closest to Sebald, would offer much instruction. As well, since this was a novel about music and a musician, I set out to read or reread every novel with a musician as protagonist, starting with James Weldon Johnson’s critically neglected 1914 novel, Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, which might be both the first technically accomplished African American novel—despite is flaws and limitations—and the first good American novel about a musician, preceding Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark by several years. I read the novels of Austrian Thomas Bernhard, including The Loser, Bernhard’s weird take on the life of pianist Glenn Gould. I looked at the stories of E. T. A. Hoffmann involving his Kapellmeister Kreisler, a character who inspired composer Robert Schumann. I found additional sources in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” and Another Country, not to mention the jazz-inspired novels of Albert Murray and Xam Wilson Cartier. At John Edgar Wideman’s suggestion, I reread Michael Ondaatje’s Coming through Slaughter, a riff on the life of jazz legend Buddy Bolden. The list goes on and on. In fact, the research for Song of the Shank, the reading, the watching and the listening—articles, books of fiction and nonfiction, recordings, and movies—came to involve easily a thousand texts in whole or part.
I discuss the process of writing Song of the Shank to underscore the process that any serious writer undergoes to tackle that monster known as the novel, a process of cross-fertilization, cross-pollination. Sebald’s scrambling spider. However, I have almost never read any literary criticism that accounts for and addresses the long and complicated and complex and convoluted and messy and heart-rending and head-shattering and gut-busting process that gives birth to a literary novel. Instead, too many scholars specializing in one area of literary or another tend to think only about how texts within a given tradition speak to other texts in that same tradition.
Let’s bring this home. African American literary and cultural scholars often put forward the assumption that African American novels respond to other African American novels, that the tradition of the African American novel and that African American literature exists as something wholly separate and apart from literary tradition as a whole. The various vernacular theories that take their models from African American folk idioms lead critics in the search for tropes to examine ways in which African American writers and musicians influence one another. But here is the problem with such paradigms. They usually stand as rigid intellectual and aesthetic molds that a scholar will force a given novel to fit into, by any possible means. Once a critic knows that an African American has authored a particular text, the critic immediately begins trying to define that text in terms of an African American tradition, and the assumptions that come with such canon formation. Interestingly enough, whenever I begin a conversation with someone about Song of the Shank, I find myself leading with the question, “I don’t know if you’ve heard of this guy Blind Tom.” Inevitably, the person will respond by saying, “A blues singer, right?” How ironic that both Blind Tom and his somewhat later and younger contemporary Blind Boone bore the “blind” moniker eighty years before male blues singers began to use it in the nineteen twenties.
Again, assumption is the culprit here. Let us not forget that labels such as “African American woman’s novel,” the “jazz novel,” “blues aesthetic,” “signifying monkey,” “speaking in tongues,” “Afrofuturism,” etc., are all arbitrary and have little if anything to do with the actual practice of how we novelists go about what we do. Writers don’t read in isolation. Any competent novelist will read everything and everybody. Writers are often asked, “Who are your influences?” or “Who are your favorite writers?” A truthful novelist can answer this only one way, “Everything.” Everything we read influences us, impacts our mind as it impacts our work. Influence, of course, is far different from conscious use of allusion. As well, many novelists often closely study the work of some key novelists or favorite writers.
Faulkner stated that Don Quixote was, decisively, his favorite novel, a novel he claimed to reread every year for both inspiration and guidance. I find it interesting how some critics have compared the work of Faulkner and Toni Morrison—I would go so far as to say that in structure and approach Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom is the aesthetic model for Beloved—but few scholars consider the full implications of all the actual literary history that influence suggests. Knowing Faulkner’s love for Don Quixote, do we now see the figures of the Cervantes novel weaving their way through Morrison’s pages, finding their way into Sethe’s kitchen and Paul D.’s tobacco box? And what of all those writers who Cervantes entered into dialogue with?
To take another example, scholars have often characterized some of Morrison’s novels as magical realist, especially Beloved and Song of Solomon. Fair to say that magical realism is a slippery term, that it most accurately defines García Márquez’s work in some of his early short fiction up to and including his celebrated novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. However, García Márquez read himself into literary tradition by studying the works of Faulkner, Kafka, and Juan Rulfo, among many other writers. So do we now find the ghost of Kafka and Rulfo fleeting through Morrison’s pages?
One, in fact, has only to look at African American musical idioms and dance to see how aesthetic traditions never exist in isolation. Allow me to return to Blind Tom. My friend Jen Shyu, who sings for the great jazz alto saxophonist and composer Steve Coleman, asked me, “I wonder if Art Tatum every heard Blind Tom play. No, of course not,” she said. In fact, Blind Tom died in 1908, while Tatum was born in 1909. But the dates and Jen’s question got me to thinking. We can see Blind Tom in Tatum, as we can see Tatum in Tom. As pianists both were musical pioneers. On the one hand, Tatum developed and extended the jazz piano technique and approach of Fats Waller. At the same time, the harmonies and melodies of popular American song became his primary material for reinvention. However, to define Tatum musically, we need to remember a third element. He existed alongside other great piano virtuosos of his time, namely Vladmir Horowitz, Rachmaninov, and Arthur Rubinstein. In fact, classical virtuosos like Horowitz and Rachmaninov often visited Tatum’s performances as fellow pianists who admired both his playing and his technique. And Tatum studied both classical piano music and its players. Seen in this light, we understand how Tatum responded to numerous musical traditions in his process of reading himself into the tradition.
Jazz and all African music and dance have been characterized by appropriation of other instruments and other sources. Tap dancing was a transplanted African response to the Irish jig. Ragtime made a combining of classical motifs and early jazz ideas. Or think of a Sonny Rollins solo and how Rollins will incorporate dozens of allusions to other songs, or pastiches of riffs and melodies across the musical spectrum. The best musicians don’t play in isolation, the same way the best writers don’t read in isolation. Nor do they learn the craft that way. This is especially true today with easily ninety-five percent of our literary writers, fiction writers and poets alike, receiving their training, undergoing their apprenticeship, as writers in MFA programs across the country. (True also for jazz musicians in similar settings.) Most of our future authors are trained in integrated classrooms, most likely under the direction of white professor who is a published writer. At the present time, I believe only one black university in the country, Chicago State University, has an all-black MFA writing program. And even there, instructors don’t only include black writers on their syllabi.
What I’m ultimately suggesting is that the scholar, or any reader for that matter, should view a novel on its own and develop a critical approach that seems organic to the text. I am in no way suggesting we should completely abandon our critical vocabulary—well, in all honesty, some of it is quite pompous and useless—but that we should use it as needed to help us understand a text in relation to other texts, or in isolation for that novel. Yes, this novel is part of a tradition. However, know that it is part of many traditions.
While we now recognize that race is a false biological construction, we don’t recognize that our critical approaches and terminology derive from nineteenth century notions of nationalism, where nation was equivalent to race. In the end, vernacular theories and theories about influence only prove that terms like “African American Novel,” “African American Literature,” and “Afrofuturism” are problematic, limited, and reductive, serving only to ghettoize creative production. What we need is scholarship that attempts to understand African American literature in the broader context of American literature, and, perhaps more importantly, literature internationally.
In recognizing the narrow focus of African American literary criticism, we further recognize that American literary scholarship has a far too limited focus in our globally connected world.
Jeffery Renard Allen is the award-winning author of five books of fiction and poetry, including the celebrated novel Song of the Shank, which was a front-page review in both The New York Times Book Review and The San Francisco Chronicle. Allen’s other accolades include The Chicago Tribune's Heartland Prize for Fiction, The Chicago Public Library’s Twenty-First Century Award, the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, a grant in Innovative Literature from Creative Capital, a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, residencies at the Bellagio Center and Jentel Arts, and fellowships at The Center for Scholars and Writers, the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Studies, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Allen is the founder and editor of Taint Taint Taint magazine. His short story collection Fat Time will be published next year. He makes his home in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he is at work on the memoir Mother-Wit and the book Radar Country: Four Novellas.