Selected Letters of Langston Hughes

Edited by Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel with Christa Fratantoro

Alfred A. Knopf | 2015 | 442 pages | $35.00

Reviewed by Robert Fleming

Arnold Rampersad

Like master writers James Weldon Johnson and James Baldwin, Langston Hughes was one of the most influential forces in African American letters of the last century, keeping his finger on the pulse of the black community through good and bad times. Not only did Hughes’s work serve as a window to this exotic, soulful culture for the curiosity of whites, but he deepened and redefined that experience with his poetry, short fiction, travel pieces, the “Simple” newspaper columns, and plays in his campaign against racism and economic injustice

A few years ago, there appeared another Knopf offering, Remember Me To Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten – 1925-1964, that provided clues to the mystique of the writer in one of his more significant relationships with the celebrated white novelist, photographer and Harlem Renaissance patron, who penned the 1926 controversial novel, Nigger Heaven.

Hughes remained an enigma in that compilation as he does in this new collection, Selected Letters of Langston Hughes, always on the move and never a stationary target.

Although Hughes was considered a relic of a bygone era by the time of the Black Arts Movement, there are several clues to the riddle to be found in the new book on many fronts – personal, political, and literary. Veteran Hughes biographer Arnold Rampersad, with assistance from Roessel and Fratantoro, displays his love of words and correspondence to his family, friends, editors, patrons, and fledgling scribes. Hughes could be witty, funny, sarcastic, bitter, informative, infuriating, and petty. Sometimes he could be all of these things.

Often fans and friends wanted the old Langston Hughes back when he was just starting to make his mark in the literary world, when he wrote his famous 1926 manifesto, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.”  It stated: “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.”  With his head held high, Hughes refused to buy into the popular clichés or stereotypes. Not more bucks, sambos, pickaninnies or blackface.

The collected letters in the new book show the versatile scribe at the center of a funhouse mirror, giving different personas to various friends and associates.

But who was this man? James Mercer Langston Hughes was born in February 1, 1902 in Joplin, Missouri. He was very young when his parents divorced, and it was decided that he was going to live with his grandmother. After thirteen, he moved to Lincoln, Illinois to live with his mother, but soon they settled in Cleveland, Ohio where he graduated from high school.

Following graduation, he spent a year with his father in Mexico, in a relationship that was tense, leading him to go to New York where he attended a year at Columbia University. At this time, he held a number of odd jobs, and eventually traveled as a seaman to Africa and Europe. The well-traveled youth returned to the States where he published his first poetry book, “The Weary Blues” in 1926. In 1930, he published his first novel, “Not Without Laughter,” the year after his graduation from Lincoln University. 

Like many black writers and artists, Hughes was attracted to communism, which he saw as a cure to Jim Crow. In fact, he traveled to the Soviet Union with a group hoping to make a film. It was never finished. He was politically aware, supporting the campaign to free the Scottsboro Boys, even traveling to Spain in 1937 to cover its civil war for a group of black newspapers. He steered clear of the war effort during the World War II but he later changed his mind, hoping military participation would end segregation at home.

Due to his political writings and publishing in various communist periodicals during the 1930s, Hughes was labeled a Red and called before Senator McCarthy’s HUAC committee in 1953. He never joined the Communist Party, but he was a sympathizer. In 1960s, he was as creative as ever, and hailed as a historic literary icon at the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal.

Hughes published a large body of poetry with twenty books, two novels, six works of non-fiction, nine collections of short fictions, ten books for juvenile readers, eleven plays, numerous librettos, and edited nine books including The Book of Negro Folklore (1958), and Best Short Stories By Negro Writers (1967). His “Simple” series was published in black newspapers and was quite popular in the 1950s and 1960s. Hughes died of prostate cancer on May 22, 1967 in New York City.

Returning to the letters, Hughes read and answered his letters, as a part of his day. He loved the give and take of correspondence, often choosing to make a sharp political point or throw some literary shade or bargain for a better advance with a publisher. While some writers and artists became bitter and petty, he always looked ahead to tomorrow, upbeat and optimistic. One will notice that there are no love letters or anything of a private nature in this collection or other assemblages. He was a private man, very private.

The exchanges in the mail include some of his friends: Blanche Knopf, Carl Van Vechten, Zora Neale Hurston, Walter White, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Arna Bontemps, Charlotte (Godmother) Mason,  Ezra Pound, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Martin Luther King Jr., Alice Walker, Kurt Weill, Muhammad Ali, and Amiri Baraka. Along with the photographs accompanying the letters, Hughes covered a great deal of topics, including the greatness of Bessie Smith, French style, “cullud” critics, voodoo items like “Follow Me Powder” or “Confusion Dust” or “Black Cats’ Blood,” the tyranny of landladies, lynching, the creative urge, the need for traveling, money and deadlines, Broadway, soul food, Jim Crow, Hemingway, Faulkner, Negro rage, Dorothy Parker, jazz, white Broadway, and the need to embrace the soul of blackness.

Overall, these letters both enlighten and conceal the man. He could often be writing one thing and thinking another. He thought of him as “a literary sharecropper,” always working and writing, always planning the next project. He was generous to a fault. Some say he squandered his literary gifts but who in his time did more with them under the oppression of the glass ceiling of prejudice. Those who will scour the missives for any kind of hint that he was gay or involved in the dark arts will be disappointed. 

But what a fascinating man Langston Hughes was! This quote sums him up, for when the NAACP gave him its supreme honor, the Spingarn Medal in 1960, the writer said: “I can accept it only in the name of the Negro people who have given me the materials out of which my poems, stories, plays and songs, have come.”  That was his credo. That was the life of Langston Hughes.

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