Shadow Archives: The Lifecycles of African American Literature by Jean-Christophe Cloutier
Volume 6, Cycle 2
© 2021 Johns Hopkins University Press
A recurring dispute on Twitter in recent years revolves around claims of archival discovery. Announcements of scholars finding documents “lost in the archive” inevitably provoke exasperated reminders, often from archivists, that such documents had already been found—and perhaps even cataloged. But when Jean-Christophe Cloutier came upon Claude McKay’s last novel, Amiable with Big Teeth, few could dispute that discovery was the correct term. As a graduate student intern at Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library in 2009, Cloutier was processing the papers of literary agent and “all-around schemer” Samuel Roth when he encountered the lone copy of McKay’s unpublished manuscript, the existence of which surprised scholars and archivists alike (286). The novel’s posthumous publication, coedited with Brent Hayes Edwards, was Cloutier’s early claim to fame. Shadow Archives: The Lifecycles of African American Literature follows in the wake of that discovery as an extended meditation not only on the surprises that archival research promises, but also on the “underappreciated archival sensibility” of McKay and other midcentury Black writers (12).
The experience of authenticating McKay’s novel reshaped Cloutier’s approach to literary criticism. Questions of access, he argues, as well as the work of archivists, appraisers, and copyright lawyers, are not ancillary to criticism but rather are part of the scene that constitutes literary studies. The theoretical scaffolding of the book, then, is part modernist studies, part African American literary history, and part archival science. Cloutier pairs the term “lifecycle”—drawn from archival theory to describe the “dynamics of records: their provenance, purpose, and telos”—with the concept of “afterlives” in contemporary African American literary discourse (6). This cross-disciplinary maneuver is what Cloutier calls the “parallax of the reference desk”: a study of how literary objects and archival objects “mutually, often retroactively transform each other” (27). What results from this parallax is an indispensable guide—a veritable detective’s notebook—for how to study literary archives (plural) without succumbing to the definitional evanescence of the archive (singular).
Cloutier’s first chapter traces the midcentury rise of institutional literary collections and the “complexities of archival delay” for Black authors (18). The economy of literary manuscripts had been largely a private and antiquarian enterprise until the 1950s, when Harry Ransom of the University of Texas initiated an unprecedented buying spree for the papers of twentieth-century authors. The rising financial valuation of certain white male authors’ archives—especially the modernists D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, George Bernard Shaw, and W. B. Yeats—helped cement their canonization. Among the handful of institutions collecting African American authors were historically Black universities such as Howard and Fisk, the New York Public Library, and Yale, where the establishment by Carl Van Vechten of the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection led to intensive solicitation of Black manuscripts. Even for those writers like Ralph Ellison, who disdained Van Vechten and refused Yale’s entreaties, these solicitations changed Black literary culture: “The age of the black archive had been set into motion, and the word was out: keep your stuff” (54). And yet, that “stuff” was usually acquired through donations or at prices far below those paid for white authors’ material. Cloutier’s reading of the acquisition file for the McKay papers at Yale underscores the “depreciated value of black special collections at the time” (61). The institutional lifecycle of Black literary papers has thus been characterized by deferral: late to be valued, late to be acquired, and, often, late to be processed.
The four authors Cloutier studies—McKay, Ellison, Richard Wright, and Ann Petry—exemplify Afromodernism’s “counterarchiving” practices in the face of this deferral. All were caught up in the midcentury archival turn, which means they saved enough of their papers so that scholars like Cloutier would eventually inherit a great deal of material to mine. But they were simultaneously aware of the precarity of Black preservation (in every sense), an awareness that haunts the plotlines of their novels, which revolve around evidence, truth, authenticity, provenance, and lost histories. Key moments in McKay’s Amiable, for example, feature documents being forged, hidden, or retrieved. Turning archival sleuthing into genetic criticism, Cloutier compares these fictional documents to the actual documents in McKay’s papers—clippings McKay kept to record the “minor” histories of Black radicalism—to illustrate how McKay spun the archive into something speculative: a counterfactual narrative positing Black autonomy as a possible future (97).
Cloutier then turns to the photo-reportage of Wright and Ellison, each of whom collaborated with photographers in the 1940s to document the Lafargue Clinic, the first institution providing psychiatric care in Harlem. While Wright relied on photography to depict the “reality” of the “Negro problem” and its antidotes, Ellison hoped to use photography in an expressionist vein to capture the “unreality” that “haunts Harlem as it haunts the world” (quoted in Cloutier, 147). Like the chapter on Amiable, this chapter, too, depends on a story of “lost” objects that Cloutier helped bring to light. Never published in their intended form, Ellison’s essay and the dream-like photographs created by Gordon Parks to accompany it were left stranded when ’48: The Magazine of the Year declared bankruptcy. While Ellison eventually revamped his text as the now-famous “Harlem is Nowhere,” Parks’s images were thought to be lost. Recently rediscovered by archivists at the Gordon Parks Foundation, they were reunited, via Cloutier, with Ellison’s original captions, preserved in his papers at the Library of Congress. Archivally reconstructed, the Ellison-Parks collaboration becomes visible as the blueprint for Invisible Man, revealing the “photographic origins” of Ellison’s novelistic craft (199).
Not all lost archives get found—at least not in time for a publisher’s deadline. In a short chapter Cloutier calls an “interlude,” he narrates the twists and turns of his effort to find the “vanishing” manuscripts of Petry, an author famous for her desire for privacy (209). In spite of her attention to the way paper suffuses everyday life—her novel The Street opens with a “meticulous inventory” of the swirling bits of garbage that “practically attack the protagonist, Lutie Johnson, as she walks in Harlem”—Petry was comparatively unsure about the value of saving her own papers (22). Although Cloutier would have liked to consider this paradox by examining drafts of The Street in tandem with Petry’s ambivalent record-keeping practices, he could not do so, for there was no manuscript of The Street. Or so it seemed: Cloutier kept finding clues that Petry gave the manuscript and other materials to Yale in the 1950s—in spite of there being no record of such a collection. In lieu of a close reading, then, the chapter becomes a detective story, following Cloutier’s footsteps as he accumulates “an overabundance of evidence” to prove there was, or had been, a Petry collection at Yale (234). The case is solved when the archivist, presented with Cloutier’s case file, realizes to her own surprise that Petry’s manuscripts were languishing in the repository’s backlog—a resolution that is equal parts bureaucracy and bombshell, given the scarcity of Black women writers’ archives.
If the preceding chapters revolve around the “vagabond itineraries” of objects safely housed in venerable archives, Cloutier’s final chapter concerns archival sensibilities that elude institutional capture (305). Returning to Invisible Man, Cloutier argues that comics—ephemeral objects with “fraught ethics”—are central to the novel’s arc (283). The narrator’s epiphany, for example, arrives as he observes a trio of young zoot-suiters absorbed in their comic books. Street literature that has something in common with the trash swirling around Lutie in the opening scene of Petry’s novel, comics are transformed by Ellison into a counterarchive that “thrived on the periphery, on the burning sidewalks of history’s main thoroughfares” (251). Ellison suggests that the true heroes of Harlem—and indeed perhaps its “fleeting, invisible archivists” as well—are not those enshrined at the Beinecke or the Library of Congress (271).
Or are they? This last chapter raises a question that hovers around Cloutier’s analysis: the difference, or kinship, between counterarchives and shadow archives. The “archivescape of African American literature,” Cloutier argues, is marked by what Kevin Young calls the “shadow book”—the “unwritten, the removed, and the lost” (2). If McKay’s Amiable manuscript narrowly escaped this realm of shadow literature, its unlikely rescue only underscores how much of African American cultural history was not archived at all. And yet, in insisting on the Library of Congress as the rightful place for his papers, Ellison engaged in the covert action of counterarchiving, gaining entry not only for his own legacy, but also for his bulging files of ephemera on “those outside the realm of history” (Ellison quoted in Cloutier, 272). The archons of Black literature, Cloutier suggests, anticipated the shadows and thus created counterarchives: unsure of their future fate in the handsome boxes of Ivy League archives, they wove into novel form the “wastepaper, cigarette butts, [and] pink ticket stubs” of Harlem’s street scenes (Petry quoted in Cloutier, 222).