By Tony Lindsay
The Indignant Generation
By Lawrence P. Jackson
Princeton University Press, 2011, $35 (Cloth).
African American writers are not monolithic in thought, ideology, or in the themes of their works. This is a stark motif in Lawrence P. Jackson’s The Indignant Generation.
The divisions and squabbles among Black writers based on class, skin tone, geography, education, politics, and economics are well covered in the text; the reader quickly finds out “who shot John” in African-American literary circles during the Indignant Generation’s era, 1934-1960.
An indignant individual is defined as one who is angered due to a cause. The Black writers of this generation had several causes to spark their ire: limited publishing opportunity, misrepresentation in literature, and forced directives on themes from the publishing industry and other Black writers.
The Indignant Generation’s era was hit hard economically. The Great Depression ended the Harlem Renaissance (the most celebrated period of African American Literature) and changed the financial environment for Black writers.
Renaissance artists were well compensated for their art prior to the Great Depression: fellowships, grants, and patrons were all available. After the Great Depression, however, if a Black writer wanted to get published he or she had to associate with the Communist Party.
This was true even of writers who had Renaissance fame, such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Less famous writers certainly picked up the Communist Party line and for a young unknown writer from Mississippi, the Party line proved to be a lifeline.
Jackson credits Richard Wright with being the leader of the Indignant Generation. His stances, his views, and his abilities, are what writers of the movement aspired to.
Wright followed the directives of the Communist Party in his early works, but he also answered the call of his community.
He created Bigger Thomas, a realistic character in the novel Native Son, which changed America’s literary world by adding clarity to the misrepresentation of African Americans.
Wright’s Bigger Thomas illustrated that all Blacks were not Faulkner or Stowe creations, and that the injustice of society had affected its people.
Largely, Indignant Generation writers were social realists who wrote of Jim Crow and of urban segregation as equal attacks on the Blacks.
Being social realists, they wrote about what was witnessed in society. Although not monolithic, there was a combining thought or message among the writers –– this message stated that African Americans were still being unjustly treated within American society.
If an Indignant Generation writer’s work did not convey this common message, their work was not reviewed by the elite critics of the generation: Sterling Brown, J. Saunders Redding, and Horace Clayton.
In addition, the writer who did not pick up the call of the Generation also ran the risk of not being published in the Black press (magazines and journals) of the time: Negro Quarterly, New Challenge, and the Negro Story.
Even though critics and the Black press affected the published work of the Indignant Generation, the mainstream publishing houses had more of an impact on produced work during the late 1940s.
Jackson states, “Publishers wanted to acquire trendy new books, but no publishers wanted the label of house to activist Negro writers, whether the protest was made by Bigger Thomas or Ralph Bunche.”
This desire not to be labeled the house of activist Negros allowed for an opportunity. An opportunity that promised the backing of mainstream publishing, and it offered an Indignant Generation writer a chance to be viewed as more than a Negro writer, which was a common quest for many of the Ivy Leaguers, despite their race issue themes.
This desire of the publishing industry changed the direction of the literary movement. So Frank Yerby stepped forward with the Foxes of Harrow and quickly became the best selling African-American writer of the era by using a White protagonist to discuss the race issue.
Mainstream publishing was perfectly okay with reading about the race issue as Yerby wrote about it; no activism, merely a good story with a White protagonist that placed the race issue in the background.
As the mainstream began critiquing more of the Indignant Generation’s work, the liberalism that was present in Yerby’s writing began to replace the social realism that Wright and others brought to the movement.
Other writers of the Indignant Generation followed Yerby’s lead, and thus, the movement grew and changed focus as more Whites read and reviewed the writers in their publications.
From this growth, James Baldwin rose to the attention of the Indignant Generation critics and writers. Not one of the group initially, he was brought into the circle because White socialist critics were recognizing his talent. But once in, Baldwin settled comfortable among the elite.
Perhaps by not coming up through the ranks, he did not have the same consideration for the message of the Indignant Generation while critiquing the work of the generation.
And his literary critiques did not make him any friends among the Indignant Generation. But his essays did…because, within his essays, the indignation of the generation was revitalized.
Lawrence P. Jackson’s The Indignant Generation is a narrative history of African-American writers and critics.
The work is significant to the study of American literature and culture and yet very interesting for the non-historian.
But, for the historian, Jackson breaks the chapters down by years that can easily be referenced. This work is a great addition to any library.