Jazz in the Time of the Novel

The Temporal Politics of American Race and Culture by Bruce Evan Barnhart


Jazz in the Time of the Novel argues that a culture’s understanding of the concept of time plays a central role in its economic, social, and aesthetic affairs and that a culture arrives at its conception of time through its artistic practices.

Bruce Barnhart, in Jazz in the Time of the Novel, shows that American culture of the first three decades of the twentieth century was shaped by the kindred rhythms and movements of two particular art forms: jazz and fiction. At the beginning of the twentieth century, widespread changes in America’s social, demographic, and economic norms threatened longstanding faith in a unified and inevitable movement towards a better future. As Barnhart shows both jazz and novels of the period address these temporal uncertainties, inserting themselves into arguments about the proper unfolding of an affirmative American future. Barnhart proposes that these two aesthetic forms can be viewed as co-participants in an ongoing discussion about the way in which the future should be imagined and experienced—a discussion symptomatic of the broader exchanges taking place within the many trajectories comprising early twentieth-century American culture.

This book includes in-depth approaches to numerous examples of jazz and the novel, including performances by James P. Johnson, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, and Ethel Waters, and novels by James Weldon Johnson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and Nella Larsen, among others. In addition to the details of specific musical and literary works, Jazz in the Time of the Novel offers careful consideration as to how these works impact their social context.


Bruce Barnhart is the author of articles on race, music, and American literature that have appeared in the journals Callaloo, Novel, African American Review, American Literature, and American Quarterly.


“What makes the book newsworthy is the emphasis on time, timing, the adjustment of a new experience of ‘industrial’ time that influenced not just labor, but also music, art in general, and left the a notion of life that would never be the same as before industrialization.”
—Jive Talk

“Barnhart explores more closely than any prior critic the various explicit and implicit roles jazz and African-American aesthetics had on white and black novelists as they reconfigured temporality as both a structural and thematic concern in the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s. [ . . . .] Modernist and Harlem Renaissance scholars will learn much from its [Jazz in the Time of the Novel] artful blend of close reading, high-altitude theorizing, and jazz-shaped invention.”—ALH Online Review

“Beyond the entirely admirable and necessary work of correcting previous understandings and misunderstandings of the relation between jazz and literature, Barnhart ventures into territory that very few others have even begun to explore by raising the question of a certain tension that must exist when jazz is understood as both episteme and form. He deploys theoretically sophisticated social and historical analysis in order to reopen fundamental ontological questions about jazz, the novel, and time. Barnhart has made a very important contribution to the field of 20th Century American and Afro-American literary and cultural studies. Anyone interested in those fields will have to, and should want to, study his work.” —Frederick C. Moten, author of In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition


2011 Winner of the Elizabeth Agee Prize in American Literature


About The Author

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