March 2015

Patrick James Dunagan

nonfiction

Selected Letters of Langston Hughes by Langston Hughes, edited by Arnold Rampersad, David Roessel, and Christa Fratantoro

Langston Hughes has long been undisputedly recognized as a major figure of the Harlem Renaissance, and I would have assumed a large selection of his correspondence to already have been published. While it surprises me that this is not the case, I'm also disappointingly well aware of the abundant precedence for neglecting the historical (as well as contemporary) lives of African American cultural figures. I just would have thought Hughes, as a poet and literary figure of the first rank, had long ago launched beyond the barriers of latent, backward-looking bigotry: how foolishly naive of me. 

Then again, what am I thinking? He is primarily a poet, after all. It takes centuries rather than decades for proper literary evaluation and the accompanying recognition by way of publication to occur within our culture. Besides, everybody knows that the least recognized figures are usually the ones giving it the most straight. Anyway, as noted in the editorial preface to Selected Letters of Langston Hughes:

[Hughes's correspondence] is so vast that it could easily fill almost twenty large volumes. Given the cold realities of modern scholarly publication, it is highly unlikely that anyone will attempt in the foreseeable future a project to publish all of these letters.

Yet what a shame that the truth of that rings so loud and clear! Selected Letters demonstrates the richness of Hughes's correspondence, there's no doubt having all of it published would be endlessly rewarding. His letters contain invaluable insight and example of American society's ongoing social strife in terms of class and race while his manner of confronting these harsh realities displays decorum quite scarce today. 

Born in 1902, Hughes came of age in the 1920s as a young poet, publishing his first poem at just nineteen in 1921. Selected Letters rather appropriately begins at this year, introducing the poet as a young man in New York City writing testily to his father, then living permanently in Mexico. Hughes was making a go of it at Columbia, confronting an atmosphere merely tolerant of race (dormitories were for whites only), and, ever responsibly minded, keeping accurate account for all his expenditures, yet finding little financial or other support from his father.

Hughes soon left school to travel and write and publish and write. In 1925 his poem "The Weary Blues" won a top poetry prize granted by the magazine Opportunity and in 1926 he published his first collection of poems, The Weary Blues, making his mark as a notable poet of the Harlem Renaissance. Knopf published Weary Blues, and Blanche Knopf became his editor, remaining so for decades. Among his many notable literary correspondents developed during this period were Countee Cullen, Alain Locke, and Carl Van Vechten, with all of whom he would continue to correspond. By the end of the decade he had earned his B.A. from Lincoln University.

Hughes worked numerous low-paying jobs at hotels and restaurants, making money wherever he could in order to get by. Though often benefitting from the generosity of better-off friends and admirers, along with occasional awards, irregular financial income would plague Hughes for life. Near the end of the 1920s he did come to find a respite from money worries for a time in the form of the white high society patron Charlotte Osgood Mason. From Mason, Hughes gained not only some financial security for himself, for instance, he was able to begin to support a secretary, which he would sporadically continue to do for life, but Mason also lent support to his brother and mother on occasion when asked. However the poet and his matron had a falling out, the event of which led to a number of unsent letters that reveal Hughes's deeply immersed inner struggles from the period; namely his personal doubts and concerns over failure, not only as a poet but as a person.

In the 1930s Hughes continued successfully to pursue a peripatetic lifestyle as a socially conscious and politically active pro-socialist radical literary figure, crisscrossing not only North America but the Atlantic Ocean as well, covering the Spanish Civil War, and visiting the African continent and Russia to boot. It is no exaggeration to say he really got around. On top of this, Hughes regularly put himself on a grueling schedule of public reading and lecture tours throughout the United States, particularly in the South. On these tours he tirelessly promoted not only his own work, but the fact of its existence as an encouragement to all his audience that those among them so compelled should step forward and find their own voice by way of writing. Throughout his life he encouraged several well-known writers, such as Richard Wright and Alice Walker, among others.

From the 1940s into the 1950s, Hughes found himself having to reign in some of the notions raised by his earlier activities, especially seeking to distance himself from any apparently overt Communist allegiances in preparation for a televised grilling before the McCarthy hearings in 1953. In the 1960s he embraced the Civil Rights movement. Throughout his life, Hughes's letters make it clear how stridently he traveled the world as a witness to liberty and freedom in society through artistic endeavor. Hughes was endlessly supportive; his favor knew no bounds. He consistently made himself available. Yet as his recognition grew, the demands made upon him only increased. His 1963 letter to a white housewife in Kansas named Faith Wilson gives some idea of how busy his typical unplanned day at home would often become: 

Yesterday I thought (since I had nothing at all on my calendar) I will have a nice clear uninterrupted quiet day and do some of the things I've been putting off (but unavoidably) for weeks and answer some of the things I really want to answer (not just business) and put winter clothes down in the basement and things like that. But hardly had I awakened then (my student-secretary being out) I made the mistake of answering the phone myself. It was a foreign voice reminding me that I had agreed to an appointment weeks ago and tomorrow he was going to England and he was at that moment just around the corner from me. I couldn't say no, so I said come by for a few minutes. He stayed an hour or so -- but singing most delightful West Indian songs he had collected and wanted me to hear and help get published or on the air. In the midst of his concert, same mistake, I answered the phone again. It was another stranger, a young man the Whitney Foundation had asked me [to] see with a Fellowship in Photography, just back from the South. So I said, "Come on." He came, bringing some quite wonderful photographs of lovely children and people and trees and bits of bark and semi-abstractions and insisting on displaying them one by one against a plain background. And I phoned around a lot of folks he wanted to meet in New York who might help him in his work, and by that time the afternoon was gone (3 or 4 other assorted folks and my little after-school Puerto Rican errand boy -- "Chief Assistant Junior Grade" and the fellow who washes windows, too, had been in and out) and it was dinner time -- between 7 and eight with us. And next thing I knew it was 10 going on 11 -- and the whole day gone and not a lick of work done or letters answered or winter clothes sorted out. But by midnight, "Peace!" and that is why I find no use in trying to work, creatively or otherwise in the day time.

It's no surprise that Hughes regularly found himself accomplishing much of his writing at night. His correspondence reveals how tirelessly he pursued his work in all written forms: from radio scripts to the stage (he also tried to make a go in Hollywood as a screen writer), Hughes was always writing, nonstop, publishing work in all formats from daily newspapers to quarterly magazines and constantly seeking to collect material whenever possible into books. He also edited several anthologies. All of this is tracked through his correspondence, which is found to be genial no matter how tense the matter being handled. Not that he didn't express himself bluntly at times, as when writing to Countee Cullen in 1924 regarding Cullen's poem "Suicide Chant": "Really, I think it is the worst thing you've ever done. Most of your poems are beautiful but this one isn't." Hughes would state things plainly when needed.

Hughes's skilled decorum most particularly came into play in regard to his own feelings and allegiances. As the Editorial Preface takes note: "[A]lthough several of his poems are blisteringly radical, he rarely displayed that anger or revolutionary zeal in his correspondence." Nonetheless a sense of engaged political justice was deep-seated in him as individual:

Politics, however, presented perhaps the most dangerous threats to Hughes's career. He had been a socialist sympathizer ever since high school in Cleveland, when delirious kids at Central High, most of them of East European immigrant stock, had celebrated the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia by parading a red flag around the grounds.

Yet Hughes was never given to a one-sided point of view. Writing in 1934 concerning reception of his stories The Ways of White Folks, he expresses his sympathetic understanding for whites concerning race:

I'm sure you know I don't hate white people. And I greatly regret that some critics got that impression from the book. In the stories I wanted only to show the various forms, from the subtle to the violent, that race relations in this country very frequently take, and to indicate the difficulties that even the best of white people face under our present society in their friendships with Negroes.

The one matter Hughes's correspondence leaves most open is the question of his sexuality. This appears to be as he would have it:

Readers looking for exposure of Hughes's sexual identity and experience may also be disappointed. Hughes virtually never revealed anything of such intimate nature in his letters that have survived. We also have no evidence whatsoever that he censored or destroyed any letters that he received, or that other people destroyed or suppressed revealing letters that he sent them.

This absence of love letters is not too surprising given the reticence and decorum shown by Hughes in general. Although as the editors also note:

The absence of love letters is puzzling. Was Hughes's devotion to his work so complete that he had no time for love? Did he destroy such letters, denying them tenure at Yale? Or did he ask others to destroy them upon his death? (No one has said that he did so.) In any event, we have a paucity of love letters to women, and none to men, if Hughes ever wrote any of those.

Perhaps the closest thing to a love letter comes when Hughes is writing to dancer Sylvia Chen (who would ultimately marry the scholar Jay Leyda) in a 1934 letter from Carmel: "You know what would happen if you came over here? I would take you and keep you forever, that's what would happen." Continuing on to exclaim, "you see, I love you!" and reaffirming, "I want you, Sylvia baby, more than anyone else in the world, believe it or not. I love you." Closing with the added note: "Wish I could kiss you! Do you?" While a hint of sexual innuendo as well might be heard in his note from Paris in 1924: "I have a 'jazzy' job in a Montmartre cabaret where one gets a sort of back stage view of 'the gay life,' -- the other side of the smile, so to speak. It's interesting." Taken in total, however, there's little to clearly point one way or the other as to Hughes's romantic relationships. By and large the impression is that Hughes understood these matters were nobody's business but his own.

Selected Letters of Langston Hughes by Langston Hughes, edited by Arnold Rampersad, David Roessel, and Christa Fratantoro
Knopf
ISBN: 978-0375413797
480 pages