“The Ivory Tower, or The Soap Box?”: The Place of Propaganda in Literature
May 5, 1939
Perhaps because I belong to a race about whom the written word has been very stereotyped, discussion by me of “ivory tower” and “soap-box” is largely academic. So fixed have the patterns become of treatment of the Negro in fiction and drama that whenever any of us attempts to break those patterns, he is promptly labeled as a propagandist or he is accused of being a soap-boxer. Most fiction about the Negro has portrayed him as a buffoon, a beast or as a none-too-bright and slavishly meek servant. Hollywood, for example, has not yet discovered that there are any Negroes extant who do not fit such types. Only a few years ago one of the great American publishing firms asked me to re-write a novel because, they said, “You don’t write about Negroes as the book-buying public is accustomed to think of them.” Thus, those of us who want to write about Negro life have had little opportunity for refuge in ivory towers.
But passing beyond the restrictions imposed by racial theories and prejudices, it is impossible, it seems to me, for any writer nowadays to dwell in an ivory tower. The world seems so hell-bent on destroying itself and the forces which sweep the world today are so ephemeral and strong that it is becoming increasingly impossible for any creative artist to ignore what is going on about him. This does not mean, of course, that the creative artist must immediately rush to the other extreme and spend all of his time and energy propagandizing for some pet theory or philosophy or government. Even in times like these each writer must continue to choose for himself the nature and extent of his participation in this chaotic world.
This brings me to the observation that it has become, for me, increasingly difficult to define the thin line between “propaganda” and “art.” When Flaubert wrote Madam Bovary he was a propagandist against dullness in a provincial French town. When James Joyce propagandizes for the use of words most of us neither know nor use he too is a “propagandist.” So too it seems to me that, try as hard as we might, we cannot strip our words of social or other significance. Consciously or unconsciously we are either for or against something, whether it be rigid patterns of language or the philosophies of the jitney Fuehrers and the strutting Duces who now plague the world. Probably most of us will in the long run refuse to perch in either ivory tower or soap-box, and will continue to try as best we can to picture life as we see it and as it affects us.