New Scholarship: James Weldon Johnson Collection

December 8, 2014

Ben Glaser recently published an article in PMLA 129 no. 3 (May 2014), “Folk Iambics: Prosody, Vestiges, and Sterling Brown’s Outline for the Study of the Poetry of American Negroes,” making use of materials in the James Weldon Johnson Collection related to Johnson’s Book of American Negro Poetry. Sterling Brown’s 1931 Outline is a companion to the second edition of Johnson’s anthology, and helps recalibrate our sense for how historical readers, and especially black readers, encountered poetic form and rethought its relation to race. The article makes particular use of letters from Brown to Johnson in JWJ MSS 49, box 4, folder 66.

Authors like Brown and Johnson, as well as Countee Cullen, were particularly and surprisingly interested in teaching students how to scan meter and recognize prosodic form. In a talk given at the Modernist Studies Association annual conference in Pittsburgh (Nov 6-9) Glaser spoke about Johnson’s courses in “Contemporary American Literature” (1933) and “Creative Literature” (1932) at Fisk University (JWJ MSS 49, box 78, folder 571-573). Arguing that attention to materials about historical criticism and education alters our sense for the relation between African-American Writing and “modernism,” the talk focused on Johnson’s unusual scansion of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sprung verse poem “Spring and All.” Here is the poem (lines 3-4 were skipped) with Hopkins’ own typographic marks, alongside Johnson’s scansion.

Inks and Pigments

Johnson recognizes that his students would struggle “making out the metrical scheme of the poem,” but the same could be said of the majority of Hopkins’ readers. Yet Johnson, by stressing the variable, difficult, creative (note line 7 has a double scansion) interpretation of rhythm, invited students to develop an extra-canonical and not apriori raced relation to a nominally white poet. For a full version of the talk please contact