Lost Writer Wednesday

Bertram Lewis

Filed under: Blog |

This post is part of our Lost Writer Wednesdays blog series, an eight-week series and companion to NETNebraska’s Lost Writers of the Plains radio programming. Each week, we’ll spotlight long-forgotten writers once published in the early days of Prairie Schooner. For the full multi-media experience, download the iBook in the iTunes store.

by Sean Stewart

Bertram Austin Lewis spent his undergraduate years at Wiley College, a historically black university. His transition to the then predominantly white environment at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln must have had a dramatic effect on him. He soon began working to address the disparity between the races in the scholarly community of the 1930s.

At Nebraska, Lewis quickly began to attempt to bridge the gap. His thesis focused on “Four Negro Poets”: Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, and Countee Cullen. Beyond just analyzing their poetry, Lewis's thesis addressed problems in contemporary criticism of African American literature. A section of his thesis, entitled "The Envied Ones" was published as an essay in Prairie Schooner. In the essay, Lewis wrote about a white critic who "envies" his black poet friend for having access to such vibrant cultural history and legacy of suffering. Lewis was quick to attack this obviously flawed way of viewing African American poetry. Writing about Claude McCay's poetry, Lewis says, "[it] reveals him as one of those simple-hearted souls who accept themselves and believe in themselves for what they are."

Bertram Lewis produced some creative prose of his own, publishing a story in the NAACP's literary journal The Crisis in 1933. The story references the biblical story of Jesus healing a blind man. In the story a black man heals a blind man and declares, "God is in men like me, black and dirty as I am!"

Lewis's dissertation was titled "A Critical Anthology of Negro Literature." Though he aspired to eventually turn the work into a book, his goal never came to fruition. He continued teaching at universities, including City College of San Francisco, Southern University in Baton Rouge, and Eastern Washington University. It seems the demands of academia subverted some of his own scholarly interests, but his limited output is nonetheless an important body of work. Bertram Austin Lewis addressed problems in contemporary scholarship on African American work at the time and began a conversation about black poetry that few were yet engaged in. His efforts made a wealth of successive scholarship on African American work possible.

Hear our editor-in-chief, Kwame Dawes, talk on what's changed and what remains the same for black writers today here.

Lost Writers of the Plains is a collaboration between Prairie Schooner, the Center for Great Plains Studies, and NET Nebraska. For more on Bertram Lewis and his life, click here. To read the excerpt of his dissertation, "The Envied Ones," originally published in Prairie Schooner, click here. To view the entire Lost Writers of the Plains project, visit the NET Nebraska website.