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Shadow Archives

The Lifecycles of African American Literature

Columbia University Press


Winner, Matei Calinescu Prize, Modern Language Association (MLA) 2020

Winner, MSA 2019 First Book Prize, Modernist Studies Association

Winner, Waldo Gifford Leland Award, Society of American Archivists, 2020

Shortlisted, 2020 ASAP Book Prize, Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present 


Recasting the history of African American literature, Shadow Archives brings to life a slew of newly discovered texts--including Claude McKay's Amiable with Big Teeth--to tell the stories of black special collections and their struggle for institutional recognition. Jean-Christophe Cloutier offers revelatory readings of major African American writers including McKay, Richard Wright, Ann Petry, and Ralph Ellison and provides a nuanced view of how archival methodology, access, and the power dynamics of acquisitions shape literary history.

Shadow Archives argues that the notion of the archive is crucial to our understanding of postwar African American literary history. Cloutier combines his own experiences as a researcher and archivist with a theoretically rich account of the archive to offer a pioneering study of the importance of African American authors' archival practices and how these shaped their writing. Such archivism manifests in the work of these authors through evolving lifecycles where documents undergo repurposing, revision, insertion, falsification, tranformation, and fictionalization, sometimes across decades. Given the lack of institutions dedicated to the black experience, the novel became an alternative site of historical preservation, a means to ensure both individual legacy and group survival. An innovative interdisciplinary consideration of literary papers, Shadow Archives proposes new ways for literary scholars to engage with the archive.


"In this fascinating book, Jean-Christophe Cloutier, an expert archivist and researcher, presents an original and compelling approach to the history of African American literature through what he terms “archival sensibility.” Grounded in Cloutier’s astute and nuanced discussion of the troubled history of black literary collections, Shadow Archives reads a variety of African American novels as alternative repositories for the black experience. This thought-provoking book provides an important new lens to view the works of Claude McKay, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Ann Petry; Shadow Archives is a welcome addition to literary criticism." - Henry Louis Gates Jr., Harvard University

"Shadow Archives is a page-turner in which Cloutier follows a trail of mistakes, misplaced manuscripts, and missed opportunities that came to define much of twentieth-century African American cultural production. With scholarly ease and writerly grace, he has produced a new and essential story of how our most famous black writers—Claude McKay, Richard Wright, Ann Petry, and Ralph Ellison—actively negotiated their relationship to the past. For them, archives were never dead, but sites of political necessity, historic urgency, and, as Cloutier compellingly shows, a space through which they could reinvent themselves and American culture writ large." - Salamishah Tillet, author of Sites of Slavery: Citizenship and Racial Democracy in the Post-Civil Rights Imagination

"No novel in hiding is safe from Jean-Christophe Cloutier. He is—hands and laptops down—one of the very best literary detectives and literary historians of his talented generation. In Shadow Archives, he offers a genuinely fresh look at twentieth-century African American writing focused on the rise of black special collections and on the archival entanglements of a who’s who of modern black novelists. It will be one of the best academic books of the year, a memorable contribution to African American studies and a fruitful redirection of the archival turn in American literary scholarship." - William J. Maxwell, Washington University in St. Louis

"As much a tour de force of archival sleuthing as an indispensable theoretical recalibration, Shadow Archives demonstrates that mid-twentieth-century black literature was indelibly molded by the “archival sensibility” of black writers. Tracking the peculiar fate and promise of African American literary papers in the midst of the boom in special collections libraries, Cloutier’s book is literary history in the guise of a boomerang—an exhilarating reminder of the “belated timeliness” and lurking potential of even the neglected and the obsolete." - Brent Hayes Edwards, author of The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism