"ARGUABLY THE CENTRAL TEXT OF THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE AND BY MOST RECKONINGS ONE OF THE DOZEN KEY DOCUMENTS THAT BEST REFLECT THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE": FIRST EDITION OF JAMES WELDON JOHNSON'S ONLY NOVEL, AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF AN EX-COLORED MAN, 1912
(JOHNSON, James Weldon). The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Boston: Sherman, French, 1912. Octavo, original brown gilt-stamped cloth. $4500.
First edition of the anonymously published work that sparked the Harlem Renaissance, the only novel by Johnson, considered the father of the African American literary tradition, widely praised as the "link between 19th and 20th African American narratives… as an important revision of the slave narrative and a forerunner of black protest fiction."
A dedicated civil rights leader, Johnson was also a brilliant lyricist, novelist and poet, and a core influence on the Harlem Renaissance. "One of the exceptional figures of the 20th century… he used literature to call attention to the urgent political and social plight of black Americans. Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, published in 1912, related the life of a character of mixed ancestry who passes for white… The African American tradition in American literature has its paternity more in James Weldon Johnson than in anyone else" (Wilson, Preface to Along this Way, xii-xiii). Johnson's only novel, it is "arguably the central text of the Harlem Renaissance and by most reckonings one of the dozen key documents that best reflect the American experience."
Issued anonymously, the novel "interweaves personal experience, sociological observation and social protest… Johnson began writing Autobiography
at the end of a brief stint as a lyricist in musical theatre; he published it six years later, while serving as an American consul in Latin America… When the text was reissued as fiction in 1927—at the height of the Harlem Renaissance—it carried his name and had a cover designed by Aaron Douglas and an introduction by Van Vechten… In the 1970s critics attempting to articulate a black literary tradition considered the novel a link between 19th and 20th African American narratives. Both Houston Baker and Robert Stepto hailed it as an important revision of the slave narrative and a forerunner of black protest fiction" (Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
, 69, 88-89). As "the NAACP's first African-American secretary (its chief operating officer)… Johnson was deeply committed to exposing the injustice and brutality imposed on African Americans throughout the United States, especially in the Jim Crow South… in what has come to be called the Harlem Renaissance… he played the role of a father figure to a number of young writers, including Claude McKay and Langston Hughes" (ANB). As issued without dust jacket. See Blockson 4716-4718. Smith, Baechler, Litz, 187-200. Owner inscription.
Text quite fresh with only faint soiling to two leaves, bright gilt-stamped cloth with expert restoration.