I was just reading Stanley Crouch’s introduction to a 2005 edition of The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual and it is a very strange document. It professes the importance of Cruses’ work while tearing apart all the ideas presented in it as either wrong or rather silly. For example:
The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual seemed to assume that there was a substantial intellectual tradition among American Negroes. That was neither true forty years ago nor is it true now. Very little arrived that would challenge the depth of thought found in the works of men like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edmund Wilson, T.S. Eliot, Gilbert Seldes, Lincoln Kirstein, Malcolm Cowley, Alfred Kazin, and so on. There has never been a substantial body of thought on any Afro-American subject that was formed of deep studies, original theories, probing cultural examination, complex religious assessment, and schools of philosophical concern that raised questions about essences as opposed to superstitions, hearsay, and propaganda. There have been attempts here and there, usually caught up in Negro politics or Negro art movements based more in exotica than the kinds of challenges to convention that jazz brought to the table of Western music. No serious gathering of ideas, as full of yea as of nay, has appeared that was so well conceived and so eloquently expressed that it would add something of value to either American thinking or the larger and more formidable fact of life we call Western thought.
In the Salon, Amy Alexander explains that this is typical Crouch.
Armed with an elephant’s memory and a passionate knowledge of and engagement with art (blues and jazz especially, though not exclusively) and history (American, though not exclusively), Crouch delights in slaying the dragons of convention — particularly those that guard the sometimes-insular world of black intellectuals.
But also argues that there is more to him than his contrariness:
Underneath the mask of Crouch the Grouch is a down-to-earth individual who would rather engage you in debate than cut you dead with pretensions of writerly superiority. He is one of the rare top-echelon literary figures who not only welcomes conversation with unknown young writers (he gives out his home office phone number and usually picks up when it rings), but is also wont to commandeer them for marathon swirls through his downtown universe of smoldering jazz clubs, big-portion restaurants and Runyonesque watering holes.
Although routinely and incorrectly described as a black conservative, Crouch calls himself a “radical pragmatist.” To the uninitiated, his philosophy might best be described as rigidly humanist. It centers on an unsentimental vision wherein we must fight the siren temptation to obsess about our (mostly superficial) differences, lest we miss the chance to embrace our (very real and very numerous) commonalities.
Of all the things that could be said of Crouch, one cannot deny that he is a very intelligent man and an excellent jazz critic. Why, then, would he claim that there was no black intellectual tradition? Why would a publisher, New York Reviews Books Classic, put him at the beginning of the reprint of Cruse, generally acknowledged as a major contribution to black intellectual history? What can we take seriously in Crouch’s critique and what can we dismiss as his famous “grouchiness?”
I think this might be more interesting as a discussion than simply me offering an opinion, though I will point out that Du Bois’ interpretation of the Reconstruction, published in the 1930s, is now the staple interpretation (minus some of Du Bois’ Marxism).