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The African American Sonnet - A Literary History

The African American Sonnet

A Literary History

By Timo Müller
Series: Margaret Walker Alexander Series in African American Studies

Hardcover : 9781496817839, 172 pages, August 2018
Paperback : 9781496828217, 184 pages, April 2020

A thoughtful survey of striking poems from the Civil War to the present


Some of the best known African American poems are sonnets: Claude McKay's "If We Must Die," Countee Cullen's "Yet Do I Marvel," Gwendolyn Brooks's "First fight. Then fiddle. " Yet few readers realize that these poems are part of a rich tradition that formed after the Civil War and comprises more than a thousand sonnets by African American poets. Paul Laurence Dunbar, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Margaret Walker, and Rita Dove all wrote sonnets.

Based on extensive archival research, The African American Sonnet: A Literary History traces this forgotten tradition from the nineteenth century to the present. Timo Müller uses sonnets to open up fresh perspectives on African American literary history. He examines the struggle over the legacy of the Civil War, the trajectories of Harlem Renaissance protest, the tensions between folk art and transnational perspectives in the thirties, the vernacular modernism of the postwar period, the cultural nationalism of the Black Arts movement, and disruptive strategies of recent experimental poetry.

In this book, Müller examines the inventive strategies African American poets devised to occupy and reshape a form overwhelmingly associated with Europe. In the tightly circumscribed space of sonnets, these poets mounted evocative challenges to the discursive and material boundaries they confronted.


"Rooted in impressive, painstaking scholarship, Müller canvasses the history of the African American sonnet and through it traces a dialectic of freedom and restraint legible in the English tradition without wholly having been shaped by it. This book will be indispensable to critics interested in African American uses of the sonnet and fixed forms more generally."

- Anthony Reed, author of Freedom Time: The Poetics and Politics of Black Experimental Writing

"A well-conceived book on an important subject that is firmly grounded in current scholarship."

- John Cullen Gruesser, senior research scholar, Sam Houston State University

"The African American sonnet tradition has been too long neglected by literary historians. Timo Müller has done impressive work recovering key works and demonstrating the importance of the sonnet to African American poetry."

- Hollis Robbins, dean, School of Arts and Humanities, Sonoma State University