English professor J.C. Cloutier’s latest book sheds new light on African American literature

“Shadow Archives: The Lifecycles of African American Literature” explores discovered texts and the dynamics of archival practice.

J.C. Cloutier standing in front of a picture of Batman.
Jean-Christophe Cloutier, an assistant professor of English at Penn, has written a book that uncovers his discoveries in archives over the past decade and explains his theories on why African American literary collections are often undervalued. (Image: Shira Yudkoff)

Like a literary detective, Jean-Christophe Cloutier sifts through library archives searching for pages written by African American authors that are often hidden, uncatalogued, misfiled, or forgotten. 

In his new book, “Shadow Archives: The Lifecycles of African American Literature,” Cloutier uncovers his discoveries during the past decade and explains his theories on why African American literary archives are often undervalued. 

Cloutier is an assistant professor of English at Penn, known for his popular class on comics and graphic novels, which he will be teaching in the spring semester. He is also an archivist, having worked in libraries for years. 

Cover of book Amiable With Big Teeth a newly discovered novel edited by Jean-Christophe Cloutier and Brent Hayes Edwards author Claude McKay Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition
The manuscript J.C. Cloutier discovered while working in the Columbia University library was published in 2017, co-edited with his academic adviser. 

As a graduate student working in the rare book and manuscript library at Columbia University in 2009, he discovered a never-published 1941 novel by the celebrated Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay. After years of research to authenticate the author, Cloutier and his advisor at Columbia, Brent Hayes Edwards, published that novel, “Amiable with Big Teeth,” in 2017 as co-editors. The work was met with great fanfare and with coverage in national publications, including The New York Times, Time, and The Atlantic

“That was the first stone in the foundation of this book,” says Cloutier, who joined Penn’s faculty in 2013. “It will always be special because it launched everything.”

A chapter of “Shadow Archives” describes the twists and turns during years of research to find the undeniable proof required by the Claude McKay estate that the manuscript was in fact written by McKay, and how it ended up in the papers of publisher Samuel Roth. Cloutier also includes an “artifact biography” that traces each step of the manuscript’s journey. 

It was not only the discovery of the manuscript but the experience of working behind the desk with the archivists in special collections that became critical to Cloutier’s career. “That was a paradigm-shifting, formative experience for me, just to see how collections live, the process of acquisition, and then what resources it takes for collections to start to get processed,” he says.

The value given by archivists to work by African American writers has evolved over time, and that has had a great impact on what has been preserved and what has not in collections, Cloutier says.

“I kept encountering how these writers and artists and intellectuals had to build their own archives and ascribe their own value to them because the society at large was not at a place where they were doing that yet,” he says. “Shadow Archives” looks at Cloutier’s work involving several authors in addition to McKay, including Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and Ann Petry. 

“When we handle literary artifacts, we may never know how many lives they have already had,” he writes. “Nor can we know how many they may have again.”

His expertise and discoveries in the archives are integrated into his work helping students with research, as well as the material he teaches in the School of Arts and Sciences, including two courses last academic year: Literary Papers and Beyond: The Archive in Theory & Practice and Contemporary Literature and Film.

“In addition to being a brilliant scholar, J.C. is a gifted storyteller. Whether he’s relating his pursuit of a single manuscript or a century-long narrative about the fate of African American literary papers, he’s just spellbinding,” says Paul Saint-Amour, Department of English chair and professor. 

“For lots of people, the word “archive” connotes a badly lit repository of inert, forgotten documents. J.C. makes you see archives as dynamic places where the intentions of the dead can meet with consecration or shameful erasure,” Saint-Amour says. “As places where curiosity, persistence, and a dash of luck can produce explosive rediscovery. And he does that for his students, his colleagues, and his readers.”

J.C. Cloutier standing by shelves full of books holding open a book with drawings of comics.
J.C. Cloutier teaches an English course on comics and graphic novels. (Image: Eric Sucar) 

Investigative path 

One of Cloutier’s most fantastic discoveries while researching his book involves the work of Petry, whose first book, “The Street,” published in 1946, became the first novel authored by a black woman to sell more than a million copies. He went on a quest to find the original manuscript.

“It led me down this kind of investigative, exciting path,” Cloutier says.  

“Retrieving something from the shadows this way is always a pleasure, but that was one of my favorite moments of research of all time, to get confirmation that that the manuscript still exists,” he says. “We can look at it. You can see her hand edits. It still gives me goose bumps.” 

Cover of book Shadow Archives The Lifecycles of African American Literature Jean-Christophe Cloutier
J. C. Cloutier's book, "Shadow Archives," was published in September 2019 by Columbia University Press. 

“Shadow Archives” is an academic work for those interested in African American literature and literary papers in general, and anyone interested in archival research. Through his storytelling, Cloutier explains his methodology, how to navigate contemporary collections, and the realities that researchers encounter. 

“It is the same process as a forensic investigation; you are trying to find these traces, and that’s what I really love about it,” he says. “They’re all cold cases, but I enjoy being on the case.” 

Cloutier is a Québécois who started learning English when he was 11 while growing up in Canada. It was in high school that he read Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” his favorite novel to this day. He was also part of an exchange program with Jamaican students, spending four months there, much of it working in the Linstead municipal library, which is where he first encountered McKay by reading his first book of poems, “Songs of Jamaica.” 

Cloutier decided to investigate a sudden mid-20th-century increase in acquisitions by universities and libraries of the collections of living writers or contemporary writers who had recently died. But he came at it from the perspective of African American writers to understand how the literary market worked, who was given value, and who wasn’t and as a result, how these writers decide to preserve and curate their own material. 

“I thought that I needed to tell the story of literary history from the point of view of the writers who were struggling to have their voices preserved and acquired, in terms of financial and cultural value,” Cloutier says. “They could not expect in most cases to sell their archive. It had to be a donation. Which is a huge difference from white writers.”

Even donation became less lucrative as the result of a tax-law change in 1969 which made their manuscripts not worth their market value but only the price of the materials—essentially the paper and the ink. That law had a tremendous impact on the preservation of African American literature. 

Invisible to the archivists

Finding Petry’s original manuscript of “The Street” became an “obsession” for Cloutier. He details the story of his quest for the first time in a “Shadow Archives” chapter. 

The largest Ann Petry collection in the world, at only 19 boxes, is at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University. But at the time of his research, the finding aid was only visible on site, and it took days to request and access the material. Petry donated that material before the tax-law change and didn’t donate again. She sought to safeguard her privacy, which also extended to her archive, leading her to destroy much of her own writing.

Ann Petry standing holding a cigarette with her right hand and holding paper in a typewriter with her left.
Ann Petry pictured in "Ebony"magazine, April 1, 1946. Original caption: Listening to her own writing helps Ann Petry get the feel of her characters. In the midst of composition, she lights a cigarette and reads a passage aloud to herself. (Image: Skippy Adelman)


While sifting through the Petry materials at BU, Cloutier read copious correspondence from Carl Van Vechten urging Petry to donate the original manuscript of “The Street” to Yale University for their James Weldon Johnson Collection. There was even a letter from Yale’s library acknowledging its receipt. 

Cloutier says he was incredulous. “I thought this can’t possibly be because Yale does not have any Ann Petry. That’s not listed anywhere at Yale,” he says. “This is a really important piece of American literary history, and so the mere possibility that the manuscript could still exist somewhere became a kind of obsession of mine.” 

After months of research, he eventually uncovered evidence that Yale was supposed to have the manuscripts for Petry’s first two novels, “Country Place” and “The Street.” He sent his findings to the library’s curator. 

Yale discovered it did indeed have an uncatalogued collection of Petry’s work. “This was a huge relief in the sense that so many archival stories end in sadness and loss, especially for minority authors,” says Cloutier.

The tale of Petry’s collection highlights what Cloutier calls archival delay, which seems to be a “built-in architecture of how archives function, how they seep back into our culture and the culture of circulation,” he says. “There are small collections in so many of our institutions, but they don’t have any listings anywhere. There is no way for people to know that they are there. Sometimes they are even invisible to the archivists themselves.”

Yale has since catalogued Petry’s collection, and it is now available for request. Cloutier considers himself lucky to have been able to work with the manuscripts for the past few months. 

“This one has a special place for me because it happened late in my research for the book and I was not expecting to actually find it. I initially didn’t even know that it was possible that someone had kept those manuscripts,” Cloutier says. “African American voices and female voices in the archive are that much more rare, so to find that was huge for me because it’s such a needed contribution to literary history.”