Although many of the authors that we have studied
this semester saw fit to express what they considered the Modern artist’s relationship to tradition should be, two authors stand out because they explicitly say what they felt it was. These two authors Are T.S. Elliot in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, and Alain Locke in “The New Negro”. Elliot and Locke use different definitions of the word “tradition” and address a different group of people in their particular works. Elliot uses the word tradition to speak of the great body of literature that has been produced in and around Europe as he addresses critics and artists. Locke uses tradition to define how Negro Americans have been viewed by white Americans, and by themselves, as he writes his cultural manifesto to America. Elliot finds it important before discussing the Modern artist’s responsibility to tradition, to expose certain fallacies that many people hold concerning tradition. He found that most critics did not really use the word “Except in a phrase of censure. If otherwise with the implication. Of some pleasing archaeological reconstruction” (1405). Critics were in effect using tradition only to describe something quaint and archaic. The problem with this view is that it creates the misconception among the general public that good poetry is not at all related to anything that has been done before, and it must instead be something entirely new to be good.
This misconception was especially destructive because it caused people to ignore the influence of great writers of the past upon contemporary ones. Elliot states that “in critical writing we tend to look for what is original in a piece of work if we like it, so therefore do not pay attention to what elements are traditional” (ibid.). Further, he states that “One of the facts that might come to light in this process is our tendency to insist, when we praise a poet, upon those aspects of his work in which he least resembles anyone else” (ibid.). The task of the modern critic when studying a piece of a work should not be limited to finding out how a poet is different, but also in finding out how he is like the writers that came before him. By doing so it should be discovered that there is continuity in literature. As Elliot says “if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously” (ibid.).
A Modern writer, however, should not limit himself to the imitation of his predecessors. As Elliot states, “If the only form of tradition consisted in blindly following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, ‘tradition’ should positively be discouraged” (Ibid.). So, the modern writer, though not ignoring the past, should endeavor to create something new. He can only do this by acquiring a “historical sense”, or in other words, if he wants to be an important writer that can stand the test of time, he must write “not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country” (1405-1406). Thus, when he writes he can not ignore the fact that the time that he is living in, and the subject matter that he chooses to write about, did not evolve in a vacuum. There is a definite foundation that he is building upon, if indeed he is a good writer.
Elliot believes that the contemporary views of what the word “tradition” meant are incorrect. He states that “a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional” (1406). Thus, being traditional does not mean that the artist is simply parroting the past, but instead has a real understanding of it, and a facility with using it to create something new. When speaking of the true artist Elliot states, “his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists” (ibid.). The true artist is conscious of his debt to his intellectual ancestors.
Elliot reasonably sees history, and therefore the history of art, as a continuos flow. However, when something new is introduced into the body of great art, that body is necessarily changed. According to Elliot, “Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the form of European, of English Literature will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is dictated by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities” (ibid.). In other words what happens now changes the way that we view the past as a whole. This fact is observable in history, as when any new period in art began. For example, when Stravinsky premiered his masterful symphony, “The Rite of Spring”, there was pandemonium. At first critics believed it to be ridiculous because it employed the use of discordant melodies. Today however we recognize it is as part of a logical progression in music.
Elliot also gives instructions on how a poet should go about using tradition in his writing. He says that the poet should not “take the past as a lump”, nor “form himself wholly on one or two private admirations”, nor “form himself upon one preferred period” (ibid.). To explain himself he says that “the first is inadmissible”, the second “is an important experience of youth” and the third is “a pleasant highly desirable supplement” (ibid.). He means to say that the artist can not be limited by any of these views. It is impossible to consider every single piece of writing in history when constructing a new one; writing like your favorite poet is something that an immature poet does as he attempts to divine his own voice; and the study of a period of writing is a good thing when, as previously stated, it is coupled with the knowledge of the writers contemporary period, because if the artist doesn’t do that he is parroting the past.
Another important point that Elliot raises is that an artist can never make better art than what came before, only different art. Elliot says that “art never improves, but the material of art is never quite the same” (ibid.). After all, who can really say whether William Blake or e. e. cummings was the better poet? The fact of the matter is that it is impossible to do so because these two artists differ in subject matter and in style. The course of the modern poet should be to “develop or procure the consciousness of the past” (1407), and to “continue to develop this consciousness throughout his career” (ibid.). By doing so the poet will in effect be able to develop something wholly original.
The Modern poet should hold to tradition in another way as well. As Elliot states, “The business of the poet is not to find new emotions but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings that are not in actual emotions at all” (1410). When explaining abstract ideas or beliefs to people, it does not pay to confuse them. After all, the person that really is deep strives for clarity and not obscurity. Elliot is condemning the poets that try to confuse readers by using as their subject matter emotions that the common man has had absolutely no experience with. The Modern poet therefore should therefore use traditional emotions as well.
T.S. Elliot sums up his essay most eloquently:
The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done. And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what are not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but what is already living (1410).
He is definitely not asking authors to stop innovating. On the contrary he believes that innovation is essential for something to be a true work of art. On the other hand the Modern artist can not ignore his relation to the past, as had become the practice of many of his contemporary critics. Instead a balance between the two needs to be found, and by finding that balance the artist is able to build upon the foundation of tradition. The essential duty of a true artist is to be the unique, and previously unheard, voice of his generation. By being that he acknowledges the past without being completely subject to it
Alain Locke on the other hand writes a cultural manifesto that attempts to explain why African Americans need to abandon tradition. He begins by asking a rhetorical question, that being should America be surprised about the emergence of the New Negro? “The answer is no, not because the New Negro is not here, but because the Old Negro had long become more of a myth than a man” (1584). The fact was that up until his period African Americans were believed to be many things, such as good, humble, faithful servants, lazy do-nothings, and animals among many other misconceptions. What they were almost never considered to be, even by them, were regular people. The consciousness that was emerging during this period was that black people were just that: people with a different skin color than white people.
Locke believed that “The popular melodrama has played itself out, and it is time to scrap the fictions, garret the bogeys and settle down to a realistic facing of facts” (ibid.). He notices that his people no longer think, nor do they live according to traditional images of black men. For him tradition takes on the form of misconceptions that need to be abandoned and replaced with a realistic view of black Americans. In fact, they never have. The traditional view of African Americans came about through white American fear and prejudice. Because of the is prejudice Minstrel shows were able to gain popularity. Further, most of the depictions of Black people in literature up until this time were of ignorant savages and dim half-wits. Locke is calling America, and especially black America, to abandon this tradition that has no basis in reality.
Locke cites several things that have made this tradition obsolete, but all of them concern the migration of black people to urban centers during the period between the Civil War and World War I. He says, ” the shifting of the Negro population which has made the Negro problem no longer exclusively or even predominantly Southern” (1585). Up until this point in time the problem of “what to do with the Black Man now that Lincoln freed the slaves” was considered to be a problem that only concerned the South. Locke points out that that is no longer the case. The freed slaves and their descendents have diffused themselves throughout the white American population. As a result their problems and concerns affect the whole of America. For the most part white America was unaware of these facts, and that is one of the reasons that Locke chose to write this essay.
Further, the task that now faces the Negro is not the one that tradition had stated that it was. Locke says, “the problems of adjustment are new, practical, local and not peculiarly racial” (1585). Thus, many of the problems facing black people are also the problems facing white people. Some of these problems are industrial working conditions, affordable housing, and rampant inflation. Further, because of increasing class differentiation “if it ever was warrantable to regard and treat the Negro en masse it is becoming with every day less possible, more unjust and more ridiculous” (1586). The traditional view of African Americans according to Locke needs to be abandoned, and replaced with one that is contemporary and accurate.
The Modern man, according to Locke, must realize that the great migration of African Americans is and was more significant than people give it credit for. He states that “the movement of the Negro becomes more and more a movement toward the larger and more democratic chance-in the Negro’s case a deliberate flight not only from countryside to city, but from medieval America to modern” (ibid.). The Negro man is stepping into the Modern world, and because he is doing so, his consciousness as a race is changing as well.
The relationship of the New Negro to what passed for tradition should not exist at all. What Locke is calling for is the complete repudiation of the tradition that has served to shackle black Americans. However, in relation to the Negro’s cultural achievements Locke feels that both white and black Americans need to give the Negro his due. As he states, “the Negro has already made very substantial contributions, not only in his folk-art, music especially, which has always found appreciation, but in larger, though humbler and less acknowledged ways””(1591). Locke wishes to acknowledge past Negro contributions to America. He finds it necessary to point out that the black man was never merely the sum of his stereotypes. It follows then that the New Negroes must replace the old false tradition with one that is accurate and acknowledges their contributions and achievements.
Elliot and Locke differ in several ways. First of all, their definition of tradition is different. Elliot is talking about the European literary tradition, while Locke talks about the traditional views that blacks were held in. Elliot admonishes his contemporary artists to realize what their relationship to the past should be, that is a balance between tradition and innovation. Locke encourages both black and white Americans to abandon the false tradition that masquerade black stereotypes as truth. They both, however, call their readers to re-evaluate their relationship to the past, which is never bad advice.
Elliot, T.S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent” Heath Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Paul Lauter. 3rd ed. New York: Houghton Mifflin 1998. 1405-1410
Locke, Alain “The New Negro” Heath Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Paul Lauter. 3rd ed. New York: Houghton Mifflin 1998. 1582-1592