Work in Progress: Langston Hughes

July 22, 2020

By Nancy Kuhl

Work in Progress: Case Study #2

Langston Hughes: “Harlem”

The poet Langston Hughes had a dynamic writing process that included making many interconnected drafts.

What follows is a representative sample selected from drafts in the Langston Hughes Papers; the poem “Harlem” was written as part of a longer piece, “Montage of a Dream Deferred” and additional works from that piece appear among these draft pages.

This selection is NOT meant to be read as a complete record of Hughes’s process writing this poem; the pages here provide windows on this work as it developed across a great many drafts written and revised over time.

All extant drafts associated with Montage of Dream Deferred appear in Boxes 316 and 316a, folders 5155-5172 of the Langston Hughes Papers - JWJ MSS 26.


READ the published text: “Harlem” as it appears in The Collected Works of Langston Hughes, 2002

COMPARE drafts of the text:

DRAFT GROUP 1: The title “Harlem” first appears on a typescript draft of a poem, “New York.”

The final lines of the handwritten text continue on the back on the page: “…to Harlem; Brook- / lyn; Bronx; San Juan; Hell. / (over) Montage of a dream deferred”– these words have been struck by the poet. At the bottom of this page, the poet writes: “A dream within a dream – / our dream deferred.”

The text continues on small pieces of note paper printed with the word, “Memorandum.” Here we begin to see the development of the very famous lines that make up the second stanza of the published poem.

Hughes uses a series of improvised and idiosyncratic symbols to help organize his work – including stars, letters, and numbers. When he writes “end?” on a draft, he may be referring to its possible arrangement in the larger suite of poems that make up Montage of A Dream Deferred.

DRAFT GROUP 2: An annotated typescript draft. Though we know this is not, strictly speaking, the first draft, note Hughes’s writing at the top of the page: “1st” and “Clip / Keep together.” These notes may have been added some time after the draft was written and may refer to ongoing rewriting and rearrangement of pages and sections. The date, then, may refer to when the draft was written or when the poet rearranged and clipped a group of pages.

Here Hughes further develops his vocabulary of symbols, adding the mark we call a hashtag (or pound sign) to indicate the addition of space on the page.

The “dream deferred” passage starts on the bottom third of the page. Hughes extends the motif across the next two pages.

DRAFT GROUP 3: This draft group (including two pages from a longer typescript) begins with the first typescript draft of the poem; compare with the handwritten and typescript drafts above. What has been added or removed? How do these changes help reveal the development of the text across various drafts?

DRAFT GROUP 4: Three annotated typescript pages making up two drafts combining text from all previous handwritten and typed pages (including the typescript poem “New York” in draft group 1).

The poet has written “2nd draft / Recopy” in the top left corner of the page. The “dream deferred” passage appears on the bottom of the 1st page; in the second draft it begins at the bottom of the first page and continues on the second.

DRAFT GROUP 5: Two later typescript pages incorporating many previous changes and edits.

DRAFT GROUP 6: A partial typescript carbon page including a dramatically edited and nearer-to-final draft of “Harlem.”