"A world of secret affinities": African American novelist Oscar Micheaux and the frontiers of American popular fiction, 1913--1947

Date of Completion

January 2004


Literature, Modern|Black Studies|Literature, American|Cinema




Oscar Micheaux (1884–1951), the African American homesteader, author, and pioneer filmmaker, self-published seven novels between 1913 and 1947. Although Micheaux's films have attracted a great deal of scholarly attention in the last twenty years, his novels routinely have been dismissed as historical curiosities without literary merit. In order to reclaim Micheaux's novels from obscurity and critical neglect, I argue for their place in twentieth century American and African American literature and culture. I place four of Micheaux's seven novels in a literary context by examining Micheaux's relationship to other African American writers such as Charles W. Chesnutt, with whom he corresponded in the early 1920s in order to secure the film rights to Chesnutt's The House Behind the Cedars. I also explore the connections between Micheaux's novels and the various forms of popular fiction he employed as literary models including the sentimental magazine fiction of white novelist Maude Radford Warren and the pulp fiction of the 1930s and 1940s. To provide a more complete picture of Micheaux the novelist and his relationship to Micheaux the filmmaker, I examine his newspaper articles, correspondence, and self-penned advertisements for his films and his books. These primary documents reveal a man with a keen sense of his audience, both the white homesteaders for whom he wrote his first novel, The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer (1913), and the urban blacks he depicts in later novels such as The Case of Mrs. Wingate (1945), which doubles as a meditation on the state of Black/Jewish relations in Harlem in the early 1940s. While many critics have rejected Micheaux as a reactionary, conservative disciple of Booker T. Washington, I argue for a more complex and multifaceted reading of his novels and the significant ways in which they challenged stereotypical depictions of African Americans in American popular culture of the first half of the twentieth century. ^