In his famous 1917 essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” Sigmund Freud argues that mourning eventually leads to a reckoning with the past, but melancholia is like a bleeding wound that won’t heal. Freud’s essay is the centerpiece of Jermaine Singleton’s Cultural Melancholy. Singleton attempts to revise Freud’s separation of mourning and melancholy, arguing that psychoanalysis and culture (history, sociology, politics, religion, and so on) cannot be separated. Whatever demons haunt a person’s psyche are there in part because of a nation’s cultural baggage, its past and present nightmares. For instance, Singleton argues that Sonny’s music at the conclusion of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” (1957) arises out of the tension between mourning and melancholia. “This ambivalent dynamic” consists of both torment and its expression (5).

Sonny’s music, however, provides only a temporary triumph over his suffering, a theme Singleton perceptively explores in August...

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