African American literary studies was built on the practice of archival recovery. In order to write about African American literature, critics had to (re)discover them. Today, in the wake of the field's institutionalization through the 1990s, it is typical to announce the significance of a recovered literary text based on canon-conserving knowledge. Intellectual legitimacy is presumed to be found in and distributed by the academic field formation. This essay explains why that presumption is a mistake, and it models how a different kind of recovery narrative might be told. Drawing from the archived papers of a defunct African American publisher, it considers the brief but intense reception of The Negotiations: A Novel of Tomorrow (1983). The book provided readers with an imaginative conduit through which they could speculate about black political culture that very year. Despite the publisher's best efforts, however, the book failed to cross over into the mainstream, remained in its expensive hardcover binding, and thereby eventually descended into obscurity. Undeterred by that narrative of failure, the essay argues that the true value of The Negotiations lies not with canonical legitimacy but in its historical "lostness" - the fact that it spoke to African American readers' experience of a moment when it seemed anything was possible. In order to reconstruct a meaningful sense of lostness, the critic should attend to the archive on its own rather than seek intellectual legitimacy from the academic field formation.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Cultural Studies
- Literature and Literary Theory