‘I think my métier is protesting against something,” Langston Hughes wrote to a friend in California in October 1934. He was 32, had already taken a central role in the Harlem Renaissance and was lately returned to the U.S. from the Soviet Union. While there, he had concluded that art by itself, underpinned by the friendship of a few well-meaning people, was not going to bring about the changes in U.S. economic and race relations he hoped to see.
Put one more Sin the U.S.A.
To make it Soviet. . . .
The U.S.A. when we take control
Will be the U.S.S.A. then.
Such lines, which appeared in the Daily Worker that same year, probably seem more startling now than they did at the time.
Hughes told his Californian friend Noël Sullivan, one of several wealthy whites who helped the young poet, that “writers in the Soviet Union are highly regarded . . . the best cared for literary people in the world.” The claim reads like an ugly joke today—one need only recall the names Osip Mandelstam and Isaac Babel—but in Hughes’s experience a black writer in Russia was treated the same as any other, something he could not say of his own country. He planned to write a book that would contrast the opposing systems, “From Harlem to Samarkand,” as he told Sullivan: “I now begin the first chapter by protesting about Paul Robeson’s lawyer living in a hotel that doesn’t want Negroes to use the front door.”
The book was never published, and the revolution did not take place, but there was one “S” that Hughes forever longed to subtract from the U.S.A.: It stood for “segregation,” and while he was neither a marcher nor a speechmaker in the mold of Martin Luther King or even James Baldwin, Hughes could claim to have helped banish it. Known above all for his poetry—his publishers now call him “iconic and beloved,” backhanded compliments both—Hughes was also a novelist, short-story writer, journalist, playwright and librettist. Not least, he was that invaluable literary figure, the enabler—clearing a path for others to step on. Hughes encouraged Gwendolyn Brooks to continue writing when she sent him her first poems in the 1940s; he introduced Ralph Ellison to Richard Wright and, when the novel “Invisible Man” was published in 1952, claimed Ellison as “my protégé!” Years later, he told a friend that “Little Alice Walker” was “ ‘cute as a button’ and real bright.” Hughes published her first short story in 1967, in one of his many anthologies.
“Selected Letters of Langston Hughes” tracks the writer’s activities, both in and out of the study, over the course of 46 years, starting with a polite letter to his estranged father in 1921 (“I hated my father,” he wrote later) and ending with one to his best friend, the poet Arna Bontemps, written shortly before his death in 1967. Born in Missouri in 1902, Hughes moved to New York at the age of 19, having already published what remains his most famous poem. From its opening line, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” sounds a bold tone, adapting Walt Whitman’s American cadence to a soulful rhythm suggestive of the pulpit:
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world
and older than the flow of human
blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
It didn’t take long for Hughes to recognize that the ferment of Harlem had the makings of an artistic scene. “You are right that we have enough talent now to begin a movement,” he wrote in 1923 to Alain Locke, a professor at Howard University and soon to be the editor of the influential anthology “The New Negro” (1925). “I wish we had some gathering place of our artists,—some little Greenwich Village of our own.”
The gatherings would take place in Harlem itself, and as the broader public relished the writing, music, art and dance produced uptown, so the appetite of publishers and others grew proportionately. Chief among them was Blanche Knopf, of the famous publishing firm, who brought out Hughes’s first collection of poems, “The Weary Blues,” in 1926 and who remained a loyal if not uncritical ally to the last. “The Panther and the Lash”—a book of poems that Arnold Rampersad, in his introduction to “Selected Letters,” calls “snarling”—was in preparation at the time of Hughes’s death.
In letters to Knopf, Hughes is frank and free from deference, bubbling with projects, many of which failed to get beyond the writer’s desk, while others, like “From Harlem to Samarkand,” were blocked at the publisher’s end. Knopf found that idea dull: “charming and pleasant but . . . not fresh and new.” She should have advised him against calling his second collection of poems “Fine Clothes to the Jew” (1927)—a more pernicious insult than that invoked by Carl Van Vechten’s contemporaneous novel “Nigger Heaven.” When declining Hughes’s “Good Morning, Revolution”—his “Soviet” poems—in 1933, Knopf might also have taken a stronger line in steering him from the path marked “Protest.” The rivers “ancient as the world” had dried up. The task of constructive criticism was left to Van Vechten, whose friendship with Hughes was to last a lifetime and, for a literary man, was of the best kind. “I am going to be frank with you,” he wrote after reading the manuscript, “and tell you that I don’t like [it] at all. . . . I think in ten years, whatever the social outcome, you will be ashamed of these.”
“Swell of you to write me so frankly about my poems,” Hughes responded from Moscow, employing the gracious tone that the reader of the letters soon recognizes as a shield for wounded feelings. (Later, he relied on it to address the new phenomenon of James Baldwin.) Some of the revolutionary poems were “not,” Hughes wrote, “as lyrical as they might be”—not as lyrical as the poems in “The Weary Blues,” in the publication of which Van Vechten had been instrumental—but in the end it was “my taste against yours.” He suffered equally when Knopf turned the manuscript down—“Blanche bases her note to me on your reactions”—but all three, writer, publisher and intermediary, remained friendly and mutually respectful. Later the same year, Hughes brought together a collection of his “black and white short stories” and sent the typescript to both Knopf and Van Vechten. The latter gave it “a ringing endorsement,” as the editors of “Selected Letters” note, and Knopf published the book in 1934 as “The Ways of White Folks.”
This is how literary partnerships ought to work. For Hughes, it was not always so smooth—it hardly ever is, but in his case there was the added hurdle of race to overcome. The story of his work in the theater and Hollywood is particularly dismal. Judging by the letters, he was at work on one dramatic project after another from the mid-1930s onward, and we see him chasing accreditation, equal billing and, most often, payment. To Elmer Rice, a white playwright who was compiling a dossier on blacklisting in theater and broadcast media in the politically tense year of 1952, Hughes stated bluntly: “Negro writers, being black, have always been blacklisted.” He continued:
My personal experience has been that in my 25 years of writing, I have not been asked to do more than four or five commercial one-shot scripts. These were performed on major national hook-ups, but produced for me no immediate additional jobs. . . . My agents stated flatly, ‘It is just about impossible to sell a Negro writer to Hollywood or radio, and they use Negro subject matter very rarely.’ Even the ‘Negro’ shows like ‘Amos and Andy’ and ‘Beulah’ are written largely by white writers—the better to preserve the stereotypes, I imagine.
The quarrels—and they seem interminable—were not only with whites. Hughes’s first copyright battle was against Zora Neale Hurston, with whom he collaborated on a “folk comedy,” “Mule Bone,” in 1930. The framework derived from Hurston’s short story “The Bone of Contention,” and, though there can be little doubt that Hughes helped to adapt it for the stage, she copyrighted the work in her name only. Lawyers were consulted. Hughes’s mentor Alain Locke took Hurston’s side. The dispute was never resolved, and “Mule Bone” was staged only in 1991, by which time it appeared as a novelty from a different era. As late as 1955, the ever-decorous Hughes mentioned Hurston in a letter to Bontemps as “Zora for example!X&%$#!”
Hughes was a vigorous letter writer, and “Selected Letters” represents only a small proportion of a correspondence “so vast that it could easily fill almost twenty large volumes,” according to the editors, who have done an impeccable job. The annotation at times gives as much pleasure as the correspondence itself. Nevertheless, there is a gap in the story where the personal life ought to be. Hughes repressed his intimate feelings in dealings with friends, and probably in dealings with himself as well. In the years since his death it has become an accepted fact in some quarters that he was gay, but there is no evidence of it here—nor, apparently, elsewhere. In his superb two-volume “Life of Langston Hughes” (1986-88), Mr. Rampersad concluded that Hughes was “a sexual blank.”
In this respect, it is a pity that more letters were not included from Hughes to Sylvia Chen, the beautiful Afro-Chinese dancer whom he met in Moscow in 1933 and to whom he declared love on more than one occasion. Supplemented with some of Chen’s replies, they would have enriched the volume with the nearest thing there was in Hughes’s life to a love story. Sylvia waited for him after he returned from Moscow to the U.S. When weeks or months elapsed between communications, however, she wrote some pointed letters to him: “I find I can’t be natural with you, because you treat me and most people . . . so artificially.” In a subsequent letter, she continued: “I know you—and, I may add . . . like you in spite of knowing you!” These and other extracts may be found in volume one of Mr. Rampersad’s biography.
There is no question about Hughes’s central place in African-American literature, but is he more important for what he made possible than for what he wrote himself? “The Weary Blues,” reissued to coincide with the publication of “Selected Letters,” contains a lot of verse driven by pained feeling, but the feeling is on the whole more impressive than the verse. “Young Prostitute” is typical of Hughes’s observational mode:
Her dark brown face
Is like a withered flower
On a broken stem
Those kind come cheap in Harlem
So they say.
In a new introduction to “The Weary Blues,” the poet Kevin Young states that the collection is “one of the high points of modernism,” but the claim is hard to support. Hughes’s racial poems read better than his radical ones, yet too many leave the sympathetic reader with no stronger reaction than “How true,” a confirmation of fine feeling. “The Weary Blues” must have seemed modern in its day, but scarcely Modernist. Like the poems, the letters reveal little interest in the experimentalism in language and form that was all around—indeed, the letters provide next to no evidence of intellectual engagement with literature or art at all. The writing is correspondingly low-wattage. “My week in Nigeria was exciting, and my day in Rome restful,” he told one of his theatrical collaborators on Dec. 8, 1960. “Paris and London both lovely. Paris I found the same as ever—such an endearing city.” Is that all? Did nothing of note take place?
As it happens, something momentous did happen in the “endearing city,” and Hughes had a minor part in it. “I was Richard Wright’s last visitor at home and as I left, he left to go to the hospital, seemingly not very ill. But three days later while I was in London, he died.” It seems he had no more to say about the death of the author of “Native Son” and “Black Boy,” despite being the last person to see him at large. Hughes was proud of his long residency in Harlem, once remarking that it was “congested with people. All kinds. And I’m lucky enough to call a great many of them my friends,” but of those friends, their oddities and eccentricities, we learn little from his letters, which are on the whole self-focused.
“Selected Letters of Langston Hughes” nonetheless bears witness to a life lived in the shadows of American literary culture and a man who frequently felt himself to be, like Ellison’s hero, invisible. If the ostracized poet is more visible today than ever, and the culture no longer exclusive in the same way, it is thanks in part to Hughes’s determination to broadcast from on high his weary blues.
Mr. Campbell is the author of “Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin” and the editor of the “Picador Book of Blues and Jazz.”
Image: Langston Hughes photographed by Carl Van Vechten // From the WSJ: During the 1930s, Carl Van Vechten took hundreds of photographs of the Harlem Renaissance’s leading lights, from Marian Anderson to Langston Hughes (above, in 1939) and Richard Wright. Some 50 of these portraits were published in a museum-quality edition in 1983 by the Eakins Press. The press has now reissued ‘O, Write My Name’ (133 pages, $50) in a mass-market edition, and the beautifully produced portfolio perfectly captures the ferment that was Harlem.