A Change in the Weather
University of Massachusetts Press Amherst
Paperback, 185 pages
Reviewed by PQ Contributing Editor Brian Fanelli
Geoffrey Jacques issues a bold claim in A Change in the Weather, that some of the most well-known American modernist poets, including T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams, owe a debt to what Jacques labels the “African American Imaginary,” that is the influence of black culture during the late 1800s and early 1900s. While supporting his thesis, Jacques references several other theorists, including everyone from Freud to Kant, but some of Jacques’ core arguments and chapters would have been strengthened with additional analysis of literary works from authors he mentions often too briefly. Despite its flaws, A Change in the Weather begins a discussion about the influence of the “African American Imaginary” on canonized modernist writers, and at the very least, the book should spark additional discussion, critical analysis, and debate.
In the introduction, Jacques is quick to remind readers that during the late 19th Century, before sweeping Jim Crow laws, there was an “African American urban landscape,” and neighborhoods were less segregated. His introduction is one of the most compelling chapters of the book, especially his use of statistics and history to show just how blended white and black cultures were pre-modernism. He references Gertrude Stein’s description of living in Baltimore to show the blending of cultures. Stein described the city as a place where “no one is in a hurry and the voices of negroes singing as their carts go lazily by, lull you into drowsy reveries.”
By the first chapter, however, Jacques starts overreaching, especially when he again uses Stein as a reference point, claiming that some of her poems from Tender Buttons were influenced by advertising that used racial stereotypes. Jacques does not present enough evidence to make his case fully persuasive, or even the case that Stein used scatting in some of the poems, a technique common in coon songs. There are other poems Jacques easily could have used to highlight some racial undertones evident in modernist poetry, including Vachel Lindsay’s unintentionally racist poem “The Congo,” which uses the phrases “tattooed cannibals” that “danced in flies” in the first section, or Wallace Stevens’ poem “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery.”
The second and third chapters suffer some of the same flaws as the first, a lack of compelling evidence to support some of Jacques’ key claims. For instance, the author opens the chapter by referencing the birth of ragtime music, specifically the Maple Leaf Club, a venue in close proximity to St. Louis and thought to be the birthplace of ragtime. Jacques makes a point that T.S. Eliot was raised in St. Louis, but he doesn’t point out that Eliot was clearly influenced by the music style and adopted its syncopated rhythms very briefly in “A Game of Chess,” the second section of “The Waste Land.” The chapter does make a strong case, however, that some of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s techniques, specifically his use of common utterances and symbolism, make him a precursor to modernism.
Jacques’ most compelling chapter and also one of the most detailed is the fourth. Jacques takes his time to analyze a modernist poem, “Shoot It Jimmy” by William Carlos Williams, and present a sound argument that Williams co-opted jazz music in the poem, and not simply because the poem features at least two voices discussing the music. Jacques cites theorist Aldon Lynn Nielsen, who notes that Williams was “inspired by the energies and rhythms of jazz and wanted them for his own.” Furthermore, by quoting Nielsen, Jacques links the poem to an argument and theory presented earlier in the book, Freud’s “Uncanny,” or the fetishization of something exotic but familiar. Nielsen states that Williams “shared with [Ezra] Pound the tendency to employ blacks as objects of local color, as he shared with Stein and so many other modernists an intense and highly romanticized interest in the purported sexuality of black people.” Jacques doesn’t always serve his argument by referencing theorist after theorist in some of the other chapters, but his use of Nielsen’s ideas is helpful.
A Change in the Weather concludes with the author acknowledging that his theories are new and more research is needed, specifically biographies on Langston Hughes and other black writers to ensure their place in the modernist canon, and not just part of the Harlem Renaissance. Like any new theory, Jacques’ core claim that the modernists were influenced by the “African American Imaginary” does have its flaws, and at times, Jacques could have used stronger evidence, especially greater literary analysis. However, A Change in the Weather serves as the beginning of a conversation about the influence of black culture on white modernist writers, a conversation worthy of additional debate and criticism.
Brian Fanelli’s poetry has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has been published in Red Rock Review, Solstice Literary Magazine, Portland Review, Boston Literary Magazine, and elsewhere. He is the author of one chapbook, Front Man, and his first full-length collection will be out later this year through Unbound Content. Brian teaches creative writing and literature at Keystone College and is a Ph.D. student at Binghamton University.