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Charles T. Davis Biography - Selected works

american black university literature

1918-1981

Literary critic, scholar

Charles T. Davis made a name for himself as an influential literary critic and scholar. His early work was on American poetry of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but later in his career Davis began to focus more on black literature, culture, and history. His work boosted the study of black American literature and helped bring it to the fore as a significant part of the American literary tradition. In his role as leader of the African-American studies program at Yale University he was also an important figure in the development of African-American studies in American universities. Davis's most important books are generally considered to be Black is the Color of the Cosmos (1982) and The Slave's Narrative (1985), but his work from the 1950s onwards, covering authors such as Richard Wright and Walt Whitman, as well as his literary histories of African-American writing, rank among the most important literary scholarship of the late twentieth century.

Charles Twitchell Davis was born on April 29, 1918, in Hampton, Virginia, into a middle-class family. He attended Dartmouth College, where he was awarded a bachelor's degree in 1939. He went on to the University of Chicago, graduating with a master's degree in 1942, and became an instructor in American civilizations at New York University (NYU) in 1948. While working at NYU, Davis earned his doctorate in 1951 before moving to Princeton as an assistant professor in 1955, a post he held until 1961. He became associate professor and later full professor at Pennsylvania State University, where he founded the African American Studies program. After six years as professor of English at the University of Iowa, Davis became professor of English at Yale in 1976, where he was the first African American to be awarded tenure, and the first black master of John C. Calhoun College, eventually rising to become chair of the Afro-American studies program at the university. Eminent black scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., who worked extensively with Davis and who regards him as his mentor, told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB) that Davis landed him his first job at Yale—as a typist—while he supervised his dissertation. Davis later helped appoint Gates to the faculty.

Although he is known for his work on African-American writing, for most of his career Davis concentrated on British and American Romanticism, in particular Walt Whitman and the late nineteenth-century poet E. A. Robinson, who has been compared with Robert Frost. Reviewing Black Is the Color of the Cosmos, R. Baxter Miller wrote in Black American Literature Forum in 1984 that Davis is "among the foremost American literary scholars who happened to be black." The quality of his work and the high regard for it among the literary establishment is reflected in his rapid rise through the academic ranks at a time when blacks were still barred from studying at many American universities. Davis's passion for literature was based on his faith in literary tradition. But while he was praised by writer Ishmael Reed for his ability to be comfortable with black and white cultures, critics such as Miller worried that he was too deeply immersed in white Western culture.

In the last decade or so of his career, Davis turned increasingly towards black literature but his most important work was published after his death in 1981. Black Is the Color of the Cosmos is a collection of essays on black literature and culture spanning his entire career, from his 1942 Master's thesis to the late 1970s. Interestingly the book contains essays from the 1960s challenging the idea of the Black Power movement that art and politics should go together. Sticking to his view that literature and art should not be driven by politics Davis reaffirms his belief that they should be seen as part of a tradition, not for a political purpose. In studying black literature and culture, Davis was always interested in discussing the aspects of a piece of work that made it specifically African American, but he was also careful to acknowledge the influence of the wider American culture.

While some of the essays in Black Is the Color of the Cosmos might explain why Davis was not always popular with some members of the black intellectual community in the 1960s and 1970s, his most famous book, co-edited with Henry Louis Gates Jr., The Slave's Narrative, was more influential. Slave narratives were written in the nineteenth century by runaway or released black slaves and were used by abolitionists to highlight the plight of black slaves in the southern states. They were a key part of the American literary tradition even before the book appeared, but what Davis and Gates achieved was a re-evaluation of the whole genre. Organized in three parts, the book includes contemporary reviews of slave narratives, essays considering slave narratives as historical documents, and essays considering their literary value. What made the book so significant was partly the breadth of its scope, but mainly that it tested the narratives against late twentieth century ideas of history and literature, rather than as a "special case" or literary curiosity.

Davis is remembered as a perceptive and sensitive literary critic; through his later work, which was published after his death in 1981, he became a key figure in the expanding discipline of African-American studies. He was also a major influence on younger high-profile scholars such as Henry Louis Gates, Jr. who told CBB "I cannot imagine a better mentor or advisor for a young academic in training: Professor Davis was unfailingly generous with his time and unerringly incisive in his comments and criticism. Professor Davis was a demanding reader and critic, and he certainly made me want to work to earn his praise. He was a model scholar and gentleman, and I am indebted to him for any success I have enjoyed."

At a Glance …

Born on April 29, 1918, in Hampton, VA; died in 1981; married; children: Christopher and Anthony. Education: Dartmouth College, AB, 1939; University of Chicago, AM, 1942; New York University, PhD, 1951.

Career: New York University, 1948-55; Princeton University, assistant professor, 1955-61; Pennsylvania State University, associate professor, then professor, 1961-70; University of Iowa, professor of English, 1970-76; Yale University, professor of English and chair of Afro-American studies, 1972-81, Calhoun College, master, 1973-81.

Memberships: Senate Committee on Student Affairs, Pennsylvania State University, chair, during the 1960s; English Institute, member of supervisory committee, 1962-65; Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Science, Stanford, CA, fellow, 1976-77; Center of Independent Study in New Haven, member of advisory council, 1977-81; National Humanities Center in Research, Triangle Park, NC, member of board of trustees, 1978-81; State of Connecticut's academic awards, member of board, 1979-81; Modern Language Association of America; American Studies Association; Society for the Study of Southern Literature.

Awards: Fulbright professorship at the University of Turin, Italy, 1966-67; Rockefeller Humanities Fellowship.

Selected works

Books

(With Gay Wilson Allen), Walt Whitman's Poems: Selections with Critical Aids, New York University Press, 1955.

(Editor, with E. A. Robinson), Selected Early Poems and Letters, Holt, 1960.

(Editor, with Lucy Larcom), A New England Girlhood, Corinth Books, 1961.

(Editor, with Daniel Walden), On Being Black: Writings by Afro-Americans From Frederick Douglass to the Present, Fawcett, 1970.

(With Michel Fabre) Richard Wright: A Primary Bibliography, G. K. Hall, 1982.

Black Is the Color of the Cosmos: Essays on Afro-American Literature and Culture, 1942-1981, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., foreword by A. Barlett Giamatti, Garland Publishing, 1982.

(Editor, with Henry Louis Gates Jr.), The Slave's Narrative, Oxford University Press, 1985.

Sources

Periodicals

Black American Literature Forum, Winter 1984, pp. 178-181.

New York Times Book Review, July 7, 1985, p. BR17.

On-line

"Charles T(witchell) Davis," Biography Resource Center, http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (September 27, 2004).

Other

Additional information and commentary for this profile was generously supplied by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

—Chris Routledge

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