Reviews — From the March 2015 issue

A Sage in Harlem

Langston Hughes in letters

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Discussed in this essay:

The Selected Letters of Langston Hughes, edited by Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel. Knopf. 480 pages. $35.

Did you ever see peaches
Growin’ on a watermelon vine?
Did you ever see peaches
On a watermelon vine?
Did you ever seen a woman
I couldn’t take for mine?

My first-grade and fourth-grade sons are fully embarrassed by Langston Hughes’s poetry, which is often in the mild dialect Paul Laurence Dunbar once called “a jingle in a broken tongue.” But for my generation, sympathy with Hughes was immediate; his poems were anthems of our childhood. “Mother to Son,” “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” “I, Too, Sing America”: our teachers and parents, who had gone to elementary school in the 1930s and 1940s and had seen Hughes recite, knew these poems by heart, and that history imbued our own recitations with a poignant heft. When I won a scholarship to prep school, I received a paperback edition of the Hughes-edited The Poetry of the Negro from an intellectual family friend in the same way that a soldier was given a Bible before heading off to combat. Hughes was our foundation, the bedrock of our common identity, completely intertwined with our shag haircuts, David Thompson sneakers, and Swedish knits. It was impossible to separate him from twentieth-century black cultural totems, even those he had nothing to do with, like “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and Kwanzaa.

Hughes cultivated his image as the “Negro poet laureate,” as he was often referred to, as a business ploy and worked hard to nurture his career among black Americans. “I want to help build up a public (I mean a Negro public) for Negro books,” he wrote to James Weldon Johnson in 1931, while planning an expedition to black schools, churches, and lodges, “and, if I can, to carry to the young people of the South interest in, and aspiration toward, true artistic expression, and a fearless use of racial material.” During that year, Hughes found that he could indeed make a living with a primarily black audience, which was good, because he was never successful on white American terms, either aesthetically or financially (“a major career on a minor income” was his own description). He recognized early that he would probably have to live and die enmeshed in his racial identity.

“Langston Hughes,” 1942, by Carl Van Vechten © The Carl Van Vechten Trust. Courtesy Carl Van Vechten Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

“Langston Hughes,” 1942, by Carl Van Vechten © The Carl Van Vechten Trust. Courtesy Carl Van Vechten Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Hughes got a significant boost in prestige across the color line nearly thirty years ago, when The Life of Langston Hughes, a two-volume biography, was published. The book revealed in vivid detail his extraordinary life and artistic struggles; it also had the collateral effect of elevating biographical treatments accorded African-American subjects more broadly. The author, Arnold Rampersad, and his research assistant, David Roessel, have now compiled a tasteful and well-annotated selection of Hughes’s letters. Two books of Hughes’s remarkable correspondence precede this collection: in 1990, Charles Nichols published a significant block of the letters between Hughes and his close friend Arna Bontemps, a novelist and librarian, and in 2002, Emily Bernard edited a shrewd chronicle of the literary friendship between Hughes and his patron Carl Van Vechten. The 254 letters included in Rampersad and Roessel’s The Selected Letters of Langston Hughes start in September 1921 and end in April 1967. For the most part they are addressed to only a handful of correspondents; nearly 10 percent are written to the wealthy Californian Noël Sullivan, another friend and patron. (Hughes, describing the unusual bond, told Sullivan that “to say what your friendship has meant to me would take more pages than I have ever written in any of my books.”) Together, the letters chosen by Rampersad and Roessel present a marvelous record of the euphonic as well as the discordant notes of Hughes’s twentieth-century America.

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is a professor at Emory University. His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “The Vampire,” appeared in the April 2014 issue.

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