In 1956 W. E. B. Du Bois was denied a passport to attend the Présence Africaine Congress of Black Writers and Artists in Paris. So he sent the assembled a telegram. “Any Negro-American who travels abroad today must either not discuss race conditions in the United States or say the sort of thing which our State Department wishes the world to believe.” Taking seriously Du Bois’s allegation, Juliana Spahr breathes new life into age-old questions as she explores how state interests have shaped U.S. literature. What is the relationship between literature and politics? Can writing be revolutionary? Can art be autonomous, or is escape from nations and nationalisms impossible?
Du Bois’s Telegram brings together a wide range of institutional forces implicated in literary production, paying special attention to three eras of writing that sought to defy political orthodoxies by contesting linguistic conventions: avant-garde modernism of the early twentieth century; social-movement writing of the 1960s and 1970s; and, in the twenty-first century, the profusion of English-language works incorporating languages other than English. Spahr shows how these literatures attempted to assert their autonomy, only to be shut down by FBI harassment or coopted by CIA and State Department propagandists. Liberal state allies such as the Ford and Rockefeller foundations made writers complicit by funding multiculturalist works that celebrated diversity and assimilation while starving radical anti-imperial, anti-racist, anti-capitalist efforts.
Spahr does not deny the exhilarations of politically engaged art. But her study affirms a sobering reality: aesthetic resistance is easily domesticated.
Juliana Spahr is Professor of English at Mills College. She is the author of eight volumes of poetry, including The Winter the Wolf Came, Well Then There Now, and Response, winner of the National Poetry Series Award. She is also the editor, with Claudia Rankine, of American Women Poets in the 21st Century and received the O. B. Hardison Jr. Poetry Prize from the Folger Shakespeare Library.
What has been said about Du Bois’s Telegram:
“This book is thrilling. Spahr develops a truly original, even clarion, account of the relationship of social movements, avant-garde and politically charged writing, and the foreign policy arm of the U.S. A great deal of the power of Du Bois’s Telegram has to do with the way it makes totally unexpected connections among separate discourses, and makes the connections seem necessary and obvious, at a stroke. It is common to praise a book for being potentially field-changing; this book suggests the possibility of changing several fields.“—Christopher Nealon, Johns Hopkins University