The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism
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The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism

3.77 of 5 stars 3.77  ·  rating details  ·  203 ratings  ·  10 reviews
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s original, groundbreaking study explores the relationship between the African and African-American vernacular traditions and black literature, elaborating a new critical approach located within this tradition that allows the black voice to speak for itself.
Examining the ancient poetry and myths found in African, Latin American, and Caribbean cultur...more
Paperback, 320 pages
Published December 14th 1989 by Oxford University Press, USA (first published 1988)
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The central idea that Henry Louis Gates, Jr., provides in this text is to be found in his analysis of black literature's emphasis on and use of Signification. Signifyin(g) is a technique that essentially amounts to repetition with a crucial difference, a way of commenting on other writers and their ideas through various sorts of parody and pastiche. This idea sheds new light on the seeming repetition in some black artists' work and on the literary evolution of black writers. Frequently accused o...more
I read a select few essays from this book junior year in college, but recently felt the urge to finish it in its entirety. Wow, stunning clarity, compelling arguments, and a vast array of knowledgeable texts. HLG definitely reshaped a few lenses here.
It's a cliche to refer to books as "important" when you can't honestly call them "good". So The Signifying Monkey is important. This is Henry Louis Gates' most famous academic text, and is still one of the classics of African-American literary theory. I suppose it's one of those texts that makes you reassess the way you think about literature, but the arguments are very flawed.

First, some historical context: before The Signifying Monkey, many scholars of literature denied that the black literary...more
It's impossible to understate the influence of Skip Gates on the American humanities. He kind of established what the African-American canon was, and then had enough clout to get it taught in schools. You can't make it through a freshman lit seminar without reading Olaudah Equiano, Phyllis Wheatley, and Zora Neale Hurston, and we can thank Mr. Gates for that. But a whole lot more people namecheck him than actually read him... I'm pretty sure the vast majority of pundits, scholars, and commentato...more
Nov 29, 2008 Becka rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: English Grad Students
So, as difficult as this highly technical piece of literary criticism was to get through, I found it extremely fascinating. Now, as I sit in grad class and we discuss aspects of African-American writings, I feel that much more educated and "clued in" to various tropes and contexts! Plus, this has proved to be an awesome resource for further research I have been doing. Three cheers for the Signifying Monkey!
Dec 14, 2013 Matt rated it 5 of 5 stars
Shelves: school
Fascinating. An alternative canon, and an introduction to the historical and sociological complexities in the emergence of a new type of literature. If you're a student and you're looking at any African-American literature or any trickster stories, this is a Must Read.
Steven Salaita
This is by far the best work Gates has produced, and it's still not very good.
i have found the signifyin' concept to come up a lot, since reading this book.
Julie Bowerman
Fascinating literary critique that is decidedly not easy to read.
invaluable literary criticism.
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Henry Louis Gates Jr. is a Professor of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University and Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. He is well-known as a literary critic, an editor of literature, and a proponent of black literature and black cultural studies.
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