WHAT a very great pity it is that this, the first comprehensive history of black Harlem's rise, heyday and decline, should turn out to be a stupendously boring book -immensely valuable because of the material it gathers in one place, but nearly unreadable because of the author's relentlessly monotonous prose style and his insistence on list-making as a primary structural device. This Was Harlem manages the depressingly noteworhty feat of taking one of the few interesting periods still largely unexplored by American historians and/or journalists, and sapping it of just about all its vitality.
Jervis Anderson's book follows by a year David Levering Lewis' When Harlem Was in Vogue , a considerably narrower study that focuses on the writers and artists of the "Harlem Renaissance" -Countee Cullen, Langston Huges, Zora Hurston, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Arna Bontemps -who came together north of 110th Street during the 1920s. Like Anderson, Lewis writes lifeless prose; but at least he makes a genuine effort to find shape and meaning in his subject, and he confronts squarely the relationship between black artists and their condescending, indifferent white patrons.
This Was Harlem , by contrast, has no shape of its own and seeks none in the story it attempts to tell. Anderson's ambition is admirably large and his good intentions are evident on just about every page, but that is not enough; This Was Harlem is a great lump of a book that never stirs from its obsessive accumulation of factoids to ask what, if anything, they mean. It is difficult to believe that the book will engage the attention of any readers save those intensely interested in its subject.
Yet what a fine, rich, provocative subject it is. Even in a study as leaden as this one, the history of Harlem in the first half of the 20th century is dramatic, exuberant, poignant and unique. Merely to mention the names of some of its leading characters is to conjure up strong, vibrant images: Marcus Garvey, Bert Williams, Mamie Smith, Florence Mills, James Weldon Johnson, W.E.B. Du Bois, A'Lelia Walker, Father Divine, Joe Louis, Paul Robeson, Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, and the Adam Clayton Powells, Senior and Junior. Harlem in these years, especially in the 1920s, was an island of black hope and accomplishment in a sea of white hostility and indifference. Consider how Arna Bontemps recalled his arrival there in 1924:
"A blue haze descended at night and with it strings of fairy lights on the broad avenues. From the window of a small room in an apartment on Fifth and 129th Street I looked over the rooftops of Negrodom and tried to believe my eyes. What a city! What a world! And what a year for a colored boy to be leaving home the first time! Twenty-one, sixtten months out of college, full of golden hopes and romantic dreams, I had come all the way from Los Angeles to find the job I wanted, to hear the music of my taste, to see serious plays and, God willing, to become a writer. The first danger I recognized that fall, however, was that Harlem would be too wonderful for words. Unless I was careful, I would be thrilled into silence."
Everywhere the newcomer looked, the electricity of Harlem crackled. The greatest black perfomers -and many of their white rivals -competed on stage at the Apollo and the Savoy. Political radicals orated on street corners and edited their short-lived journals in cramped offices. Rent parties roared into the night. Writers and artists gathered to drink and talk. Street evangelists exhorted their adoring flocks. And at the top nightclubs -Small's Paradise, Barron Wilkins' Exclusive Club, Connie's Inn and the Cotton Club -the rich and glamorous put their finery on display.
But with precious few exception, those rich and glamorous were white. This was the cruel truth that lay beneath the exuberance of Harlem in its time of prosperity and renown; that Harlem was wholly at the mercy of its white patrons, that Harlem's sense of independence from white America was almost entirely a self-delusion in which it was encouraged by the whites who amused themselves at its watering places and then left it for dead when the thrill had gone. As David Levering Lewis writes, bitterly and accurately, of the artists of the Harlem Renaissance: "They were all creatures in the margin of a rigidly divided, racist society. They knew that not to be white in America was to be something less than human, whatever their valedictorian accomplishments. . .In this dehumanized scheme of things, neither culture nor color could alter the pariah status of those whose ancestors had been African slaves."
This is a central truth about Harlem's history ever since it became a black community in the years before Wrld War I, yet it is a truth that Jervis Anderson largely ignores. He seem, on the evidence, to be far less concerned with placing Harlem within its larger American context than with assembling a comprehensive list of facts, many of which are useful and many of which are not; by and large it is p to the reader to determine which is which, for Anderson himself engages in precious little discrimination between the important and the trivial. None of the hundreds of characters who plod through these pages emerges in Anderson's depiction as a distinct, vidid individual, for he makes no effort ot bring anyone to life. This sample from his portrait of Langston Hughes is par for the curse:
"Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902, and he attended public schools in Lawrence, Kansas, and Cleveland, Ohio. In 1921, when he first came to New York, he studied at Columbia University. Something of a roamer, he also attendd Lincoln University, in Pennsylvania, and by the time he became nationally recognized he had worked as a hotel waiter in Washington, D.C., and France between jobs as a seaman."
If you think you recognize something familiar in that droning prose and that dry accumulaton of fact upon fact, you're right. Anderson is a staff writer for The New Yorker ; his book is dedicated to that magazine's editor, William Shawn, and his writing is an unconscious parody of New Yorker nonfiction at its stifling, infuriating worst. At some point in the magazine's history, someone evidently decided that endless sentences lavishly punctuated with commas, in which endless amounts of trivia are dully recited, somehow add up to an elegant, graceful prose style. That someone was wrong, and This Was Harlem is proof of it. The book doubtless will prove useful as a reference work, but reading it provides few pleasures. The difinitive history of Harlem remains unwritten -unless we count Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man , as perhaps we should. There can be no question, though, that the magic, mystery and majesty of Harlem have eluded Jervis Anderson.