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Juliana Spahr: If We Must Die and the Development of Literary Philanthropy

Date and Time: 
2021
Meeting Location: 
Zoom
Workshop: 
Workshop in Poetics
Meeting Description: 

Professor Juliana Spahr (Mills College) will workshop a paper titled “McKay's ‘If We Must Die’ and the Development of Literary Philanthropy.” Casey Patterson (English) will offer a response, followed by questions and group discussion.

Literary grants have historically waxed and waned in response to moments of militancy and unrest. And this has in turn pressured the political concerns of US literature in various ways. While these grant cycles helped to produce significant literary movements and often went to major American writers, they also placed intense pressure on writers to produce less radical literature, to write for presumed white audiences, and to separate the place of production from resistance movements and to locate it within various institutions. This process begins in 1919. And this paper too begins there, with the example of Claude McKay, a writer who began his career writing militant poems such as “If We Must Die” in response to the events of 1919 and ended it writing more liberal novels and memoirs as he chased grant funding from white philanthropists. The paper uses “If We Must Die” as a sort of lodestone. In its time, it was an important poem, beloved by militants and vilified by both Congress and philanthropists. As Spahr follows the twisted history of reprints of “If We Must Die,” she tells the story of early 20th century philanthropy and the role it played in incentivizing the production of more liberal forms of literature, often using “If We Must Die” as an example of the “Negro problem” that this sort of literature might avoid perpetuating.

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