Literature

Literature of the Harlem Renaissance Era

Who supported the literary developments of the Harlem Renaissance?

During this cultural movement, the benevolence of a handful of individuals ensured the success of the writers, poets, and artists who emerged and achieved lasting literary success. One of them, Charlotte Osgood Mason (or Charlotte Vandervere Quick), an enormously wealthy and influential white woman, became known as “Godmother” of the Harlem Renaissance. Among her “subjects,” or those she supported, were Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, and Alain Leroy Locke. At one time Hughes, who according to esteemed historian David Levering Lewis was her “most precious child,” received the equivalent of a “blank check” from Mason to sustain himself while writing and studying at Lincoln University.

Further, Lewis identified what he called “The Six,” (six artists who led the Renaissance) including three that Langston Hughes named and three more that Lewis added. Hughes saw Jessie Redmon Fauset at The Crisis, Charles S. Johnson at Opportunity, and Alain Locke, a Howard University professor who helped to shape the movement. Charles S. Johnson, editor of Opportunity, the official organ of the National Urban League, also gave the new writers a chance to showcase their poems, short stories, and novels in that journal. He and the journal also sponsored annual literary contests and offered awards to those whose works were considered especially noteworthy during a particular year. Lewis named Walter White, an NAACP officer and writer, who was also influential among powerful people in America; Caspar Holstein, wealthy numbers king; and James Weldon Johnson, sometimes called “Godfather of the Harlem Renaissance.” Despite the work of influential W.E B. Du Bois, Lewis (who won two Pulitzer Prizes for biographies on Du Bois) declared that Du Bois “would never join The Six.” As literary editor of the NAACP’s The Crisis magazine, however, Du Bois published works by the emerging writers and artists. Without these influential contributors, there would have been a much shorter list of what Lewis identified as “twenty-six novels, ten volumes of poetry, five Broadway plays, innumerable essays and short stories, two or three performed ballets and concerti, and the large output on canvas and sculpture.” In 1926, the magazine Survey Graphic showcased the work of these artists in its special issue on Harlem. The influential white patron and lesser benefactor was Carl Van Vechten, who helped to underwrite the literary prizes given to black cultural artists in 1926. Publisher Boni and Liveright announced a $1,000 prize that year for the best novel on black life written by a black author. Prizes were also funded by donations from black banks, black insurance companies, Amy Spingarn, and elsewhere.



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