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Literature as historic document. Tracing a half-century of racial themes in American writings

The Ethnic Image in Modern American Literature 1900-1950, edited by Philip Butcher. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press. Volume I: 403 pp.; Volume Two: 416 pp. $19.95 each. Philip Butcher, professor emeritus at Morgan College, has created an unusually significant anthology, which includes some of the most important and best-known writers of the 20th century. He has selected nearly 200 examples of prose, poetry, drama, and nonfiction, and arranged them chronologically and thematically into a two-volume panorama of American life.

Volume I takes up themes such as the immigrant's initial encounter with American life; contradictions between promise and reality; minorities' encounters with bigotry; ethnic ghettos and the difficulties of living therein; cultural and racial assimilation.

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The section entitled ``Servant and Master'' illustrates many of these themes through narratives of slaves and working domestics. ``A Sequence of Servants,'' a James Thurber memoir, offers a range of personalities, from the young serving girl who shoots a lover in her room, to the domestic who sets the house on fire. Thurber's characters are both black and white, and his interest is in who they are and what they do. His working people are rich creations from his past, and he never patronizes his readers.

Gertrude Stein's ``The Gentle Lena'' is comparatively more focused and somber. Her domestic never understands the language well enough to realize that people do not respect her, but she is a hard worker and enjoys life nonetheless. In a few skillful words, Stein writes of Lena's life in Germany, her voyage to America, and her life with the people of the household.

An excerpt from Carson McCullers's ``Member of the Wedding'' is about a relationship between a Southern white girl and a black woman who is the family cook. McCullers writes about them in terms of race relations in the South and the role of the domestic in the family.

Karl Shapiro's poem ``Jew'' examines the Jewish experience and self-definition. Robert Hayden's poem ``Frederick Douglass'' is less about Douglass, the 19th-century statesman, than it is about the white world Douglass sought to enter, although both Shapiro and Hayden use poetry to illustrate self-identity rather than racial anguish.

Volume II covers the Great Depression and World War II, with themes of racial injustice and the move away from ethnic ghettos. Selections include ``An Afternoon Miracle,'' an O. Henry story using racist clich'es common to popular fiction at that time.

Ellen Glasgow and Walter Von Tilburg Clark write about the historical West and South, and James A. Michener's ``Our Heroine'' (from ``Tales of the South Pacific'') is about a woman encountering her own prejudices during World War II. Other themes are blacks passing for whites and other ethnic Americans forsaking heritage, language, and community for social and economic advantage.

One nearly forgotten era is the home front during World War II, with problems of liberty and fascism such as the Japanese imprisonment in concentration camps. Some famous 20th-century writers included are: Carl Sandburg, James Agee, William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Norman Mailer. Novel excerpts include John Dos Passos' ``USA,'' W. E. B. DuBois's ``The Souls of Black Folk,'' Willa Cather's ``My Anton'ia,'' and Budd Shulberg's ``What Makes Sammy Run?''

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Mr. Butcher's selections do omit certain groups such as the Vietnamese and Chicanos -- perhaps due to the difficulty of finding material because of their more recent emergence on the literary scene. The selections are chronological and literary, for those who wish to read a representative selection of some of the most important writing of this era. But because Butcher has chosen some early works which are racist in content and point of view, we can see how ideas change, giving us perspective on the progress and development of contemporary thought.

Anthologies can be disjointed, and quality often varies from one selection to the next. Unlike the Norton anthologies, for instance, ``Ethnic Image'' has both variety and a point of view. Although it might be regarded as a textbook or collection of social writings, its success is in the readability, literary quality, and individual cohesiveness of the writings.

``Ethnic Image'' reads like an American epic -- united in themes, language, and style -- a fine example of employing literature as a document.

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