Annapolis Alum Whit Frazier on Canons and Context

July 21, 2020 | By Les Poling

Whit Frazier (A98)

When he graduated from high school, Whit Frazier (A98) wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about college. The idea of attending a university, studying a specific subject, and pipelining into the appropriate job market sounded boring and rote; it felt, to Frazier, like the opposite of intellectual fulfilment. “I was interested in moving to New York and becoming a writer,” he admits. The St. John’s College admissions brochure he picked up one day didn’t necessarily promise a writer’s life in New York—that being said, Frazier recalls, “it just looked interesting. I was like, ‘okay, I could do this. You read books, you discuss books; that’s what I like to do anyway.’” Four years later, he graduated from St. John’s, liberal arts degree in hand.

These days, Frazier lives across the Atlantic, far from both Annapolis and New York; he’s a lecturer, professor, and PhD candidate at the University of Stuttgart. But in our current moment of uprisings against racial injustice and police brutality—a moment he characterizes as a “civil rights movement moment” in a statement of solidarity posted to his website—he feels as connected to the U.S. as ever.

Since graduating in 1998, Frazier has lived a full and varied life in the arts. He’s published two novels, edited a literary review zine, worked on experimental theater projects—including a collaboration with acclaimed director Josh Fox, best known for the documentary Gasland—and much more. His writing includes academic research, poetry, short fiction, and critical essays; in the off-Broadway world, he’s worked with groups including the Blue Coyote Theater and International WOW company. Glancing at his CV, which includes everything from an essay on Afrofuturism and Star Trek: Discovery to a review of Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, it’s tempting to think of Frazier as a modern-day renaissance man, casting his writer’s eye on any subject that piques his curiosity. But a closer look reveals a consistent dialogue with ideas of literary history, tradition, and theory.

One example is his first novel, 2012’s Harlem Mosaics. Described in Publisher’s Weekly as a “witty, fresh fictionalization of the Harlem Renaissance,” Frazier wrote Harlem Mosaics from the perspectives of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, following the two literary luminaries through Harlem and across America as they work on a folktale-based African American opera; an opera which eventually becomes a play, Mule Bone, and leads to the dissolution of their friendship.

With his imaginative exploration of the relationship between two iconic figures in American literary history—and the subsequent recontextualized look at the Harlem Renaissance, an extraordinarily influential cultural movement that still doesn’t get the widespread attention it deserves—Frazier engages directly with foundational writers and works that certainly belong in the canon of 20th century American thought. He amplifies the “characters” of Hughes and Hurston in a way that’s often reserved for artists and writers like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Picasso (think 2012’s Midnight in Paris). And, of course, he’s in dialogue with the voices of foundational thinkers and texts. “Probably the best biography of [Hurston] is her collected letters, [compiled by] Carla Kaplan,” Frazier says. “It’s amazing to ‘hear’ her voice in an 800-page book of letters, and it’s infectious. And then you just have her voice in your head.”

In contrast, his early 2000s literary review zine, Strawberry Press Magazine, represented a direct counter to mainstream literature. A monthly review of fiction and experimental writing with a very DIY ethic—“we ran about 200 copies a month, which I printed and stapled at home,” Frazier notes—Strawberry Press offered a sampling of modern writing that pushed back against the idea of a contemporary “canon.” “We operated in the mindset that much of the current literary fiction we were encountering in the early 2000s was uninspired and uninspiring, and there must be a lot of unheard, weird, wonderful voices out there,” the zine’s website reads. “The big name back then was Jonathan Franzen,” Frazier adds. “All respect to Jonathan Franzen—I have nothing against him—but that sort of fiction was what we were rebelling against.”

And finally, there’s the topic of his dissertation. “Ironically, or probably not ironically at all, it’s on canon theory,” Frazier says, laughing. “I’m looking at literary anthologies, specifically coterie literary anthologies, not academic ones.” As part of his research, he’s been delving into the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Arts Movement, and the rise of Imagism, examining those profoundly impactful movements through the lens of canon formation.

The discussion around canon theory can be tied directly to the St. John’s Program, as well as the current discussion raging in academia about what books belong in a “Great Books” lineage. Frazier believes that the St. John’s reading list provides a vital underpinning for further study; for him personally, it served as a phenomenal foundation for exploring literary theory, from figures like Jacques Derrida to contemporary literary movements like Afrofuturism.

“Literary theory builds very heavily off of philosophy, the history of Western philosophy,” he says. “Having a strong basis in Western philosophy [from St. John’s] was really helpful going into literary theory. Once you start studying people like Derrida, who references Hegel all the time—if you have that background, you’re like ‘okay, I actually know what he’s talking about here.’”

That being said, Frazier suggests, the current moment indicates that St. John’s may benefit from additions to its own “canon.” He counts himself among those St. John’s alumni and students who have called on the college to take concrete actions to combat racism and discrimination, from adding more books and authors to the Program to something Frazier considers especially important: hiring more Black tutors and tutors of color. He describes feeling alienated, at times, as a Black student at St. John’s; the lack of diversity and representation on the reading list, he recalls, was immediately striking. Additionally, he points out, there simply weren’t many Black students or faculty on campus. And perhaps most impactful was the experience of engaging with authors and texts without any additional context—even when the writers or works espoused racist ideologies.

“There are books that are deeply uncomfortable for African American students to discuss without any kind of contextualization, Huck Finn being the obvious example,” Frazier explains. “If the only context you have is ‘these are the Great Books,’ I can imagine an African American student thinking, ‘but this is kind of racist, isn’t it?’ That creates a sort of cognitive dissonance.”

In Frazier’s view, bringing context to such texts can only enhance the classroom experience. Acknowledging the presence of problematic rhetoric doesn’t mean categorically condemning the work—Frazier points to Toni Morrison’s famous, ultimately admiring introductory essay on Huckleberry Finn. But it does mean students and tutors alike can acknowledge a book’s very real flaws while still discussing it as a foundational work. Plus, he suggests, engaging with the reading list in that way—and considering works by writers who are Black, of color, female, and LGBTQ+—might naturally help with other ongoing efforts to recruit and support a diverse range of voices.

“I think that would make [the Program] more interesting and appealing to a broader spectrum of people,” says Frazier. When it comes to the question of expanding the St. John’s curriculum, he says: “it’s a difficult question, but I think it can be done.”

In recent weeks, the worldwide calls for racial justice and equality have grown louder than ever. The American Black Lives Matter protests have been tentatively analyzed as the largest civil rights mobilization in history by the New York Times; even in Stuttgart, Frazier says, there have been demonstrations, demands for change, and calls for a reckoning, both in terms of German history and within the German academic community. It’s a time during which institutions are being asked to play a much greater role in the fight against injustice. That means confronting the traditional line of thought that separates activism and academia. No one knows the path forward for colleges and universities looking to affect social good. But, Frazier contends, “it’s a question St. John’s should be asking itself. What should we be doing to work in an active manner and engage with the things that drive today’s world?”

In discussing the challenges and concerns surrounding higher education, he makes it clear that he believes in the value of the St. John’s educational method. “It is a good curriculum,” he notes. “My teaching style is very heavily influenced by St. John’s.” That’s precisely why he believes it’s so important to bring more voices to the Johnnie experience. “St. John’s really systematically looks at the history of Western thought. And if you can sort of critique that along the way, it becomes an even more interesting education.”

In between considering such heavy subject matter and teaching classes from home, Frazier has been chipping away at his dissertation and working on another book, this one described tantalizingly as “a historical novel set in the future.” That line seems to indicate that his forthcoming work will bear similarities to the rest of his oeuvre: exploratory, imaginative, boundary-breaking prose that brings pioneering elements of literary theory to a historical lens.

Whether or not that ends up being the case, only time will tell. But it seems certain that, one way or another, Frazier will find a way to critically engage with the traditions we take for granted.