Jesse McCarthy presents The Blue Period: Black Writing in the Early Cold War, in conversation with Vinson Cunningham

May 28th
McNally Jackson Seaport
4 Fulton St.
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From the author of Who Will Pay Reparations on My Soul?, a new book addressing the political and aesthetic evolution of African American literature and its authors during the Cold War, an era McCarthy calls “the Blue Period.”

In the years after World War II, to be a black writer was to face a stark predicament. The contest between the Soviet Union and the United States was a global one—an ideological battle that dominated almost every aspect of the cultural agenda. On the one hand was the Soviet Union, espousing revolutionary communism that promised egalitarianism while being hostile to conceptions of personal freedom. On the other hand was the United States, a country steeped in racial prejudice and the policies of Jim Crow.

Black writers of this time were equally alienated from the left and the right, Jesse McCarthy argues, and they channeled that alienation into remarkable experiments in literary form. Embracing racial affect and interiority, they forged an aesthetic resistance premised on fierce dissent from both US racial liberalism and Soviet communism. From the end of World War II to the rise of the Black Power movement in the 1960s, authors such as Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Paule Marshall defined a distinctive moment in American literary culture that McCarthy terms the Blue Period.

In McCarthy’s hands, this notion of the Blue Period provides a fresh critical framework that challenges long-held disciplinary and archival assumptions. Black writers in the early Cold War went underground, McCarthy argues, not to depoliticize or liberalize their work, but to make it more radical—keeping alive affective commitments for a future time.

“McCarthy reckons with a generation of black writers just getting started in the 1950s who refused the partisan pressures of their Cold War context. James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Aimé Cesaire, and others, made an audacious retreat into the subtleties of the black interior, writing for a future they had no assurance would ever come.... The Blue Period demonstrates what a clear-eyed and compelling literary history can do for us today—less to explain how readers might have understood the work at the time, more to offer access into what Reinhart Kosselleck called ‘futures past.’” —Stephen Best, University of California, Berkeley

“‘Blue is the color of a flame at its hottest point,’ McCarthy reminds us, ‘but also its most focused.’ The same is true of this book. Over the course of five breathtaking, carefully argued chapters, McCarthy rereads canonical writers as well as less familiar ones, inscribing authors such as Vincent O. Carter and Paule Marshall as key figures in the black literary tradition.... In his lucid and engaging style, McCarthy combines subtle historicism with close reading and interdisciplinary insight.” —Vaughn Rasberry, Stanford University

Jesse McCarthy is assistant professor of English and African and African American studies at Harvard University. He is the editor of the Norton Library edition of W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk and the first volume of Minor Notes, an anthology of African American poetry. He is also the author of Who Will Pay Reparations on My Soul? Essays, winner of the 2022 Whiting Award for Non-Fiction, and the novel The Fugitivities.



Vinson Cunningham is a staff writer and a theatre critic at the New Yorker. His essays, reviews, and profiles have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Book Review, FADER, Vulture, The Awl, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Commonweal. In 2020, he was a finalist for a National Magazine Award for his profile of the comedian Tracy Morgan. A former White House staffer, he now teaches in the MFA Writing program at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in New York City. His debut novel, Great Expectations, was released in March by Hogarth Books.



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