Radiclani Clytus, assistant professor of English and American studies, pursues things he will never possess: ephemera — handbills, posters, printed items, stuff people throw away, the bits and pieces of American material culture that no longer exist.
“For example, I look at the American Anti-Slavery Society’s postal campaign of 1835,” he said. “Although the society launched this propaganda initiative to abolitionize the entire country, the anti-abolitionists in the South burned a lot of it, which meant that a large swath of the United States never had a chance to read it. To some extent, then, I’m interested in an initiative that never was, so to speak.”
It’s not just the text and arguments that interest Clytus. Nineteenth-century pamphleteers exploited the power of images in ways that are a 21st-century commonplace. As his research makes clear, “the American Anti-Slavery Society had members on its board who were former executives of the American Tract Society, and they were the first group to successfully harness mass-media in order to manipulate American culture. So American abolitionists knew that reason was not the way to rally people around a moral cause. You had to excite their emotions. We think of ourselves as creatures of Western logic, but even Thomas Jefferson was convinced that the heart should lead the head — the enlightened man of morals was essentially a sensiblist.”
Clytus is particularly interested in the work of William Wells Brown, the first man of African-American letters. Brown, an ex-slave, produced the first African-American travel narrative (Three Years In Europe: Places I Have Seen And People I Have Met, London, 1852), the first novel (Clotel, 1853), the first drama (The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom, 1858), and, of greatest interest to Clytus, the first panorama of slavery (William Wells Brown’s Original Panoramic Views of the Scenes in the Life of an American Slave, 1850). The panorama — a series of large images on a massive cylindrical device, unrolled before audiences — no longer exists, but its ephemera can provide clues. While conducting research on Brown in England, Clytus became aware of two broadsides that will go a long way toward contextualizing Brown’s descriptive catalog and his no-longer-extant panorama. As Clytus points out, there is a great deal more that can be discerned about Brown’s career as an abolitionist and showman by considering these documents together.
Clytus is also working with 21st-century images. After a year and a half, he’s about midway through a documentary project on Jason Moran, the jazz pianist and 2010 MacArthur Award winner. “[Jason] seems to routinely play in spaces that are not canonical institutions for American music,” he said. By filming Moran in museums and art galleries and by exploring his collaborations with other artists through their shared language of creative expression, Clytus believes that the cultural definition we have for jazz can be transformed to meet the needs of contemporary audiences and musicians. In his film, tentatively titled Grammar [excerpt], Clytus makes the claim that “Jason isn’t a jazz musician in the conventional sense. Jason is as interested in languages and words and the visual and performing arts as is he is in continuing the legacy of jazz master musicians.” For Clytus, Moran is the ultimate interdisciplinary subject.
“Old Media, New Artists,” one of the two classes Clytus will be teaching this semester, picks up on that theme. He plans to examine the idea of newness in African American culture by drawing from and repurposing existing materials, as a jazz musician would. Jason Moran has agreed to visit the class, as has the 2010 National Book Award winning poet Terrance Hayes; others may follow. His students, Clytus said, “will experiment with effective ways to produce sophisticated online content. In our emerging internet era, you simply can’t manufacture text as you would for a conventional college composition, then add images and hope for success.”
In his own efforts to produce research for peer-reviewed online scholarly journals, Clytus is searching for the appropriate scholarly voice for analyzing audio-visual media. “I want to find the right balance without sacrificing academic integrity,” he said, “and that’s something I have to experiment with out in the open sometimes. But everyone has to consider the possibility that the future of personal, public, and professional writing will most likely be Internet-based. It’s only reasonable to lean toward this emerging reality. How else are we supposed to remain viable to our disciplines or to our students’ postgraduate needs?”
Clytus has had Brown in his sights since graduate school at Indiana University–Bloomington (M.A., English literature, 1997) and Yale (Ph.D., African-American studies and American studies, 2007). “During the ’90s when Brown’s American studies department was called American civilization, I knew a number of graduate students and became friends with Kevin Young, a poet who got his M.F.A. here. So my relationship with Brown has some history although primarily in the humanities. It’s always been on my radar as a site for serious scholarship and really brilliant people.
“I’m a 19th-century American literary historian. There are colleagues here that I have known for almost a decade. It’s almost like a homecoming.”