There may be no clearer embod­i­ment of that ide­alism than the Misses Anne of Carla Kaplan’s intriguing new book: the white women who in one fashion or another decided to make the Harlem Renais­sance their own. Kaplan, the Davis dis­tin­guished pro­fessor of Amer­ican lit­er­a­ture at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, admits that it was a minus­cule group, largely hidden in the shadows of Harlem’s out­size per­son­ages. She makes it smaller still by building her book around six of its mem­bers, selected not because they were par­tic­u­larly influ­en­tial — some were, some weren’t — but because for the most part they exem­pli­fied the Renaissance’s promise, finding in it new per­spec­tives on the nation’s racial dynamics, new under­stand­ings of what it meant to be black and white, and new alle­giances and com­mit­ments, just as the activists hoped they would.

The six came to the Renais­sance with decid­edly mixed motives. Josephine Cogdell and Nancy Cunard were rebelling against their wealthy fam­i­lies. Annie Nathan Meyer and Fannie Hurst were looking for lit­erary inspi­ra­tion. Char­lotte Osgood Mason wanted to tap into the “prim­i­tive” art she believed would heal a wounded world. And Lil­lian Wood — Kaplan’s oddest choice, since she never set foot in Harlem — wanted to cel­e­brate the com­mu­nity at Tennessee’s tiny Mor­ris­town Col­lege, which had given her a home.

 

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