A Cultural History from Reconstruction to the AIDS Crisis

Political Disappointment is
available now!

An abundant text, overflowing with Sara Marcus’s considerable gifts. She is adept at presenting history and narrative with equal clarity; her writing is urgent but also optimistic. This is a book that is sometimes painful but never sacrifices hope or beauty.” 

—Hanif Abdurraqib

Moving from the aftermath of Reconstruction through the AIDS crisis, a new cultural history of the United States shows how artists, intellectuals, and activists turned political disappointment—the unfulfilled desire for change—into a basis for solidarity.

Sara Marcus argues that the defining texts in twentieth-century American cultural history are records of political disappointment. Through insightful and often surprising readings of literature and sound, Marcus offers a new cultural history of the last century, in which creative minds observed the passing of moments of possibility, took stock of the losses sustained, and fostered intellectual revolutions and unexpected solidarities.

Political Disappointment shows how, by confronting disappointment directly, writers and artists helped to produce new political meanings and possibilities. Marcus first analyzes works by W. E. B. Du Bois, Charles Chesnutt, Pauline Hopkins, and the Fisk Jubilee Singers that expressed the anguish of the early Jim Crow era, during which white supremacy thwarted the rebuilding of the country as a multiracial democracy. In the ensuing decades, the Popular Front work songs and stories of Lead Belly and Tillie Olsen, the soundscapes of the civil rights and Black Power movements, the feminist poetry of Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich, and the queer art of Marlon Riggs and David Wojnarowicz continued building the century-long archive of disappointment. Marcus shows how defeat time and again gave rise to novel modes of protest and new forms of collective practice, keeping alive the dream of a better world.

Disappointment has proved to be a durable, perhaps even inevitable, feature of the democratic project, yet so too has the resistance it precipitates. Marcus’s unique history of the twentieth century reclaims the unrealized desire for liberation as a productive force in American literature and life.

Marcus shows the ways in which Black activists and writers, in particular, have continued to express their political desires. In doing so, she draws our attention to the centrality of disappointment in American political life....Her book also contributes to the ongoing debates over the authorship of the country’s identity. Upon whose experience do we base notions of gradual betterment? Whose experience counts? —Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, The New Yorker

Marcus’s dazzling close readings go a long way toward supporting the idea that political disappointment quite literally found form in art, literature, and music, meaning as a place for these sentiments to lodge themselves. —Lynne Feeley, The Nation

[T]here is a fundamental insight in Marcus’s book about the temporal dimensions of disappointment, which may help us navigate the racism and chauvinism her figures encountered and which are still threatening political disenchantment today.

—Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, The Yale Review

“Sara Marcus beautifully and convincingly argues that the embrace of loss is the political technique of disappointment, while the possibility for dawn’s break in concert with our kindred—chosen or inherited, living or dead—is its gift. Political Disappointment is an incredible contribution, a needed tool, and a skillful act of caretaking.” —Shana L. Redmond, author of Everything Man: The Form and Function of Paul Robeson

“In an elegant but earned reversal of conventional wisdom, Sara Marcus presents a new reading of American political culture in which disappointment, not hope, assumes its pride of place. Striking chords much deeper than most contemporary critiques of ‘toxic optimism,’ Marcus’s musical writing plays the changes on all our political losses, moving us to the wordless place beyond them.” —Tavia Nyong’o, author of Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life

“Sara Marcus captures a polyphonic chorus of disappointed voices from American radical history in order to illuminate the transformations that such disappointment made possible. In a time of frustrated grief, her work offers grounds for the kind of optimism we need now–one based in a rigorous examination of failure. —Sarah Jaffe, author of Necessary Trouble and Work Won’t Love You Back

“Disappointment haunts the American left. In this tour de force, Sara Marcus stares it down and discovers the generative possibilities that emerge from defeat. Whether it’s an Audre Lorde poem, a David Wojnarowicz painting, or the ‘sonic burrs’ in a Leadbelly song, Marcus reveals the solidarities generated by defeat and how they animated the freedom dreams of some of the twentieth century’s most enduring artists and activists. A stunning and timely cultural history.”—Alice Echols, author of Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967–1975

“In the perilous times we inhabit, both utopian and dystopian visions are resurgent in art and criticism alike. Drawing energies from both, Sara Marcus’s generous, capacious study also points beyond them, to how artistic work from Reconstruction’s failure forward spoke eloquently of disappointment—and thus of a stance able to face a moment’s limitation squarely as a means of envisioning next moves. In this book’s inspired retelling, music—both literal and literary—becomes central to U.S. political history, for its unparalleled ability to body forth expressions of the very shape of time.”—Jennifer L. Fleissner, author of Maladies of the Will: The American Novel and the Modernity Problem