During the Black Revolution, LeRoi Jones used a radical adaptation of Dante to express a new militant identity, turning him into a new man with a new name, Amiri Baraka, whose experimental literary project culminated in The System of Dante’s Hell in 1965. Dante’s poem (specifically, John Sinclair’s translation) provides a grid for the narrative of Baraka’s autobiographical novel; at the same time, the Italian poet’s description of hell functions for Baraka as a gloss on many of his own experiences. Whereas for Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, Dante marks a way into the world of European culture, Baraka uses Dante first to measure the growing distance between himself and European literature and then, paradoxically, to separate himself totally from it. Baraka’s response to the poet at once confirms and belies Edward Said’s claim that Dante’s Divine Comedy is essentially an imperial text that is foundational to the imperial discipline of comparative literature. That Baraka can found his struggle against imperialist culture, as he sees it, on none other than this specific poem suggests the extent to which it is a richer and more complex text than even Said imagined. To see exactly how Baraka does this, I propose to read several extended passages from The System of Dante’s Hell to take stock of its allusiveness to the Italian model. For all the critical attention to Baraka, surprisingly no one has undertaken the necessary work of sorting out his allusions to Dante in any systematic way.
Keywords: Alighieri, Dante – Divina Commedia – Inferno; productive reception; African American literature; Black Arts movement; Jones, LeRoi; Baraka, Imamu Amiri – The System of Dante’s Hell
Title
Literary Heresy
Subtitle
The Dantesque Metamorphosis of LeRoi Jones into Amiri Baraka
Author(s)
Dennis Looney
Identifier
DOI Target
Description
During the Black Revolution, LeRoi Jones used a radical adaptation of Dante to express a new militant identity, turning him into a new man with a new name, Amiri Baraka, whose experimental literary project culminated in The System of Dante’s Hell in 1965. Dante’s poem (specifically, John Sinclair’s translation) provides a grid for the narrative of Baraka’s autobiographical novel; at the same time, the Italian poet’s description of hell functions for Baraka as a gloss on many of his own experiences. Whereas for Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, Dante marks a way into the world of European culture, Baraka uses Dante first to measure the growing distance between himself and European literature and then, paradoxically, to separate himself totally from it. Baraka’s response to the poet at once confirms and belies Edward Said’s claim that Dante’s Divine Comedy is essentially an imperial text that is foundational to the imperial discipline of comparative literature. That Baraka can found his struggle against imperialist culture, as he sees it, on none other than this specific poem suggests the extent to which it is a richer and more complex text than even Said imagined. To see exactly how Baraka does this, I propose to read several extended passages from The System of Dante’s Hell to take stock of its allusiveness to the Italian model. For all the critical attention to Baraka, surprisingly no one has undertaken the necessary work of sorting out his allusions to Dante in any systematic way.
Is Part Of
Place
Vienna
Publisher
Turia + Kant
Date
2011
Subject
Alighieri, Dante – Divina Commedia – Inferno
productive reception
African American literature
Black Arts movement
Jones, LeRoi
Baraka, Imamu Amiri – The System of Dante’s Hell
Rights
© by the author(s)
This version is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Language
en-GB
short title
Literary Heresy
page start
305
page end
322
Source
Metamorphosing Dante: Appropriations, Manipulations, and Rewritings in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, ed. by Manuele Gragnolati, Fabio Camilletti, and Fabian Lampart, Cultural Inquiry, 2 (Vienna: Turia + Kant, 2011), pp. 305–22
Bibliographic Citation
Dennis Looney, ‘Literary Heresy: The Dantesque Metamorphosis of LeRoi Jones into Amiri Baraka’, in Metamorphosing Dante: Appropriations, Manipulations, and Rewritings in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, ed. by Manuele Gragnolati, Fabio Camilletti, and Fabian Lampart, Cultural Inquiry, 2 (Vienna: Turia + Kant, 2011), pp. 305–22 <https://doi.org/10.25620/ci-02_18>
Format
application/pdf

References

  • Alighieri, Dante, Inferno, trans. by John D. Sinclair (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961)
  • Baraka, Amiri, The Fiction of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2000
  • Baraka, Amiri, Home: Social Essays (New York: William Morrow, 1966)
  • Baraka, Amiri, Kawaida Studies: The New Nationalism (Chicago: Third World Press, 1972)
  • Baraka, Amiri, The Dead Lecturer, in Three Books by Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) (New York: Grove Press, 1975)
  • Baraka, Amiri, The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones (New York: Freundlich Books, 1984)
  • Cogan, Marc, The Design in the Wax: The Structure of the ‘Divine Comedy’ and Its Meaning (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999) <https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvpj7dm5>
  • Fles, John, ed., The Trembling Lamb (New York: Harry Gantt for the Phoenix Book Shop, 1959)
  • Harris, William J., ed., The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1991)
  • Hill, Herbert, Soon One Morning: New Writing by American Negroes, 19401962 (New York: Knopf, 1963).
  • Hudson, Theodore R., From LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka: The Literary Works (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1973)
  • Jones, LeRoi, The Moderns: An Anthology of New Writing in America (New York: Corinth Books, 1963)
  • Jones, LeRoi, ‘A Dark Bag’, Poetry, 103.6 (March 1964), pp. 394–401.
  • Jones, LeRoi, The System of Dante’s Hell (New York: Grove Press, 1965)
  • Pound, Ezra, The Cantos (London: Faber and Faber, 1964)
  • Reilly, Charlie, Conversations with Amiri Baraka (Jackson, Miss.: University of Mississippi Press, 1994)
  • Said, Edward W., Culture and Imperialism (London: Vintage, 1993)
  • Watts, Jerry Gafio, Amiri Baraka: The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual (New York: New York University Press, 2001)
  • di Prima, Diane, Recollections of My Life as a Woman: The New York Years (New York: Viking, 2001)
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Cite as: Dennis Looney, ‘Literary Heresy: The Dantesque Metamorphosis of LeRoi Jones into Amiri Baraka’, in Metamorphosing Dante: Appropriations, Manipulations, and Rewritings in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, ed. by Manuele Gragnolati, Fabio Camilletti, and Fabian Lampart, Cultural Inquiry, 2 (Vienna: Turia + Kant, 2011), pp. 305–22 <https://doi.org/10.25620/ci-02_18>

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