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.