11:00 a.m. - 12:00 noon

English Language & Literature

Jacqueline Goldsby

A Salon for the Masses: Black Chicago's Book Review and Lecture Forum, 1933-53

Mandell Hall, 1135 East 57th Street

One of the hallmarks that distinguish African American literature's "Chicago Renaissance" of the 1930s-1950s from Harlem's canon-making movement of the 1920s was the degree of broad-based community involvement in the literary arts. Though any number of "stars" emerged from Chicago--Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Lorraine Hansberry, to name a few--they often apprenticed themselves in neighborhood-based collectives that nearly always included "amateur" poets, novelists, dramatists, critics, and painters.

One important such group was the Book Review and Lecture Forum, anchored at the Chicago Public Library's George Cleveland Hall Branch. Spearheaded by Vivian G. Harsh, the first African American to head a branch library in the Chicago system, this series began in 1933 and ran strong for two decades in the heart of Chicago's famed Bronzeville district. These gatherings drew Black authors--local and national, well-established and emerging--into face-to-face dialogue with Chicago's Black reading public. Based on my research in the Hall Branch Library's archives (supplemented by Chicago-based news coverage of the Forums), my talk will pose the following questions:

What books and ideas did these authors and their readers discuss? As a member of the city's Black elite, how did Vivian Harsh's "old settler" values shape the reading interests of the Hall Branch's working class patrons? Conversely, did the readers' literary preferences influence the Forum's taste-making power? Likewise, since scholars agree that the "Chicago School of Sociology" left an indelible imprint on African American literature during the mid-20th century can we trace a comparable influence of the University of Chicago on the Book Review and Lecture Forum? If so, what forms did that influence take? Finally, though it may seem a stretch to connect the salonnieres of pre-Revolutionary France or the Bluestockings of 18th-century England to Vivian Harsh in 1930s Black Chicago, what literary history can we tell-and should we tell-by placing the Book Review and Lecture Forum in the European salon tradition?

By addressing these questions, my talk will recover this little-known group to shed light on the creative scope and consequences of writing the histories of "renaissance" movements in African American (and, indeed, American) literary history.