Scott McLemee: The resurrection of a pioneering cultural journalist





Book reviewers for newspapers write the first draft of cultural history. Or so we tell ourselves, at times, to lift our spirits. Of late this is not so easy. All signs now point to a future in which the news hole for cultural coverage will be budgeted strictly for updates on celebrity pregnancies. Authors are going to keep on writing books, of course, but exposure will involve coordinating the efforts of a publicist and a fertility expert.

To some of us, it seems obvious that newspapers should respect, and even foster, the activity of reading as such—obvious and yet, given the circumstances, also mildly subversive. So perhaps it is a fitting time to rediscover Hubert Harrison (1883-1927), a left-wing “community organizer,” as we say nowadays, who once jokingly proclaimed himself “the only ‘certified’ Negro book-reviewer in captivity.”

His public debut came in 1907 with a letter to The New York Times complaining about its books coverage—arguably rendering him a literary blogger avant la lettre. By the early 1920s, Harrison edited what he called “the first regular book-review section known to Negro newspaperdom.” He had passed through the ranks of the Socialist Party and Marcus Garvey’s early black nationalist organization, and his commentary on books naturally tended to have a polemical edge. But his sense of mission went beyond using reviews as a format for social criticism. He also saw reviewing as a way to consolidate an audience that took pride in its own seriousness about reading.

Prominent in his own day, Harrison was all but completely forgotten until his excavation by Jeffrey B. Perry, a retired postal worker, whose Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918 was published in December by Columbia University Press. For a brief look at Harrison’s life and accomplishments, let me point the reader to my piece on the book, and also mention this sketch of how Perry came to excavate his hero’s literary remains....


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