Abstract

As Nathan Waddell (2019) has recently argued of the literary modernists whose aesthetic incorporation of the Beethovenian legend complicates the dominant view of modernism as an antitraditionalist enterprise, Ludwig van Beethoven’s music has in fact left a more significant and complicated mark on African American literature relating to the sublime properties of his musical aesthetic than has previously been recognized. As a point of departure, I apply Michael J. Shapiro’s (2018: 10) definition of the racial sublime as a confrontation with the “still vast oppressive structure that imperils black lives” to the setting of twentieth-century African American literature, where Beethoven’s Romantic sublime often stands in for the racial sublime. This transference, I argue, is not an expression of the artist’s repressed instinctual conflict, the mere sublimation of their devotion to “white” culture and the cult of genius, as Amiri Baraka ([1968] 2010: 69) once suggested. Rather, Beethoven’s music formed a persistent and powerful political allegory of the racial sublime for many prominent twentieth-century authors in their literary works, where the sublime constitutes a sublimation of direct forms of power into a range of aesthetic experiences. This can be observed in the Beethovenian ekphrasis featured in prose works by James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison—four writers whose works have also been considered indebted to blues and jazz musical influences and who approach the racial sublime not through language but by appealing to music’s nonsignifying suggestiveness, in order to capture the intensities that radiate out of these encounters. As this article reveals, their allegorical uses for Beethoven are not unitary. The forcefield of the racial sublime is registered allegorically through the performative sublime of Sonata “Pathétique” in Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912); the sublime melancholy of the “Moonlight” Sonata in Hughes’ tragic short story “Home” (1934); the spiritual sublime of Beethoven’s piano concerti and the Ninth Symphony in Baldwin’s short story “Previous Condition” (1948); and the heroic sublime of the Fifth Symphony in Ellison’s bildungsroman Invisible Man (1952).

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