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Teaching the American Twenties: Exploring the Decade through Literature and Art


Harlem Renaissance

Literature

Nella Larsen

Nella Larsen, a woman of mixed-race background who had trained as both a librarian and a nurse before turning to writing, was one of the most sophisticated novelists of the Harlem Renaissance. Her marriage to a prominent black physicist provided her entry into the Harlem literary circles that she was eager to join.

Her ironic turn of mind is evident in her first novel, Quicksand, an autobiographical work in which she portrays the foibles of people in the many communities in which she had lived: students in an all-black college, bigoted white relatives, Harlem literary types, overly religious poor black southerners, etc.

In Passing, Larsen explores life on either side of the color line by creating two light-skinned female characters—one who passes for white and one who fights for black equality—each bound up psychologically with the other's life. Larsen expressed a desire to show the "mixedness of things" in her work, and was influenced by thinkers and writers as varied as Sigmund Freud, William James, James Joyce, and Sinclair Lewis. Larsen won a Guggenheim award to research her third novel but was devastated by a false accusation of plagiarism and stopped writing by the end of the 1930s.

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes was pre-eminent among the poets of Harlem. Having come from a nationally prominent family with roots in abolitionism and traveled widely by the age of twenty-three, Hughes confidently took up Du Bois's call to create an uplifting, race-conscious literature. In his poems Hughes both affirmed the beauty and decried the injustice in black people's struggle to survive, often infusing his optimism with a detached bitterness. In The Weary Blues, a poetry collection published in 1926, Hughes uses the rhythms and improvisational flourishes of blues and jazz in poems that capture glimpses of life in Harlem.

Read more about Langston Hughes and the Harlem Hellfighters in Big Debates - After the War.

Countee Cullen

Countee Cullen was a more classically-inclined poet whose powerful lyricism was influenced by Keats, Tennyson, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Though he wrote poems that addressed racial prejudice and injustice, he saw himself as a poet who wrote about his experience-one that happened to be black. Known for the precision of his form and for his ability to speak volumes in a few words, Cullen's poems in Color convey feelings ranging from rage to admiration to wonder and awe.

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Poem "Dream Variation" from The Weary Blues
Langston Hughes

"Dream" from The Weary Blues

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