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Critical Essay by John O. Hodges
SOURCE: "'Wondering About the Art of the Wanderer': Langston Hughes and His Critics," in The Langston Hughes Review, Vol. 5, No. 2, Fall, 1982, pp. 19-23.
In the following excerpt, Hodges explores the issue of consistency in Hughes's writing, and critical reaction to his work.
Me, I always been all tangled up in life—which ain't always as sanitary as we might like it to be …
The Sweet Flypaper of Life
One of the most prolific and versatile writers of the twentieth century, James Mercer Langston Hughes, produced, during his literary career of over forty-five years, a corpus as impressive in its range as in its sheer quantity. He experimented in all the major forms of literary art, from poetry to the novel and from autobiography to literary criticism. Perhaps it should not be at all surprising that such an enormous and multifarious body of literature would, in turn, generate a body of criticism equally as diverse and varied in its range. Countee Cullen and James Baldwin criticized Hughes for failing to exercise discipline and control in certain of his writings, while Sterling Brown and Richard Wright praised him for his versatility and range. To some of his contemporaries Hughes was "the poet laureate of the Negro people"; to a few others, "the poet low rate of Harlem."
These kind of contradictory antithetical comments on Hughes are not uncommon, and are quite often expressed by the same critic viewing his work at different times. What this reveals, it seems to me, is something about the elusiveness of an individual whose writing often exhibited a surface simplicity that belied its true complexity. In fact, the more one learns about Hughes, both through his corpus and through critics' views of his works, the more one finds how truly enigmatic and paradoxical he really was.
The elusiveness of Hughes may be attributed, at least in part, to the same reason that he has not, heretofore, enjoyed the critical success of a Richard Wright or a Ralph Ellison. It is difficult for critics to point to a single work as providing the key to Hughes's art, in the same way that we may point to Native Son or Black Boy in the case of Wright, or Invisible Man in the case of Ellison. To which work do we turn as providing the key to Langston Hughes—The Weary Blues or The Panther and the Lash, The Big Sea or I Wonder as I Wander? Nor can Hughes be identified, definitely, with any period, theme, or character—although there have been some rather interesting claims made in this regard.
Critics, of course, who make a business of attempting to find connecting threads in the fabric of an author's work, may view this as disconcerting and frustrating news. But Hughes's corpus does not lend itself to any such neat critical formulae. The comment by the narrator in DeCarava's and Hughes's The Sweet Flypaper of Life, accounting for why her house is not as clean and orderly as her neighbor's, may well have expressed Hughes's own view of his literary career: "Me, I always been all tangled up in life—which ain't always as sanitary as we might like to be." Thus, as the late George Kent once surmised: "[U]pon entering the universe of Langston Hughes, one leaves at its outer darkness that type of rationality whose herculean exertions are for absolute resolution of contradiction and external imposition of symmetry."
J. Saunders Redding, who, as Faith Berry claims in an article in this issue, was generally favorable of Hughes's work, nevertheless found, in 1951, that Hughes's penchant for experimentation seemed to be at the heart of his failure to settle on a unique idiom and voice in his writing. Thus, he says:
it seems to me that Hughes does have a too great concern for perpetuating his reputation as an 'experimenter.' That he was this cannot be denied…. But experimentation is for something: it leads to or produces a result. One would think that after twenty-five years of writing, Hughes has long since found his form, his idiom and his proper, particular tone. If he has, let him be content with the apparatus he has fashioned, and let him go on now to say the things which many readers believe he, alone of American poets, was born to say.
What Redding intends as a criticism of Hughes could be taken as a compliment. It is not so much that Hughes had not found "his own idiom or tone," as it is that he realized no one single tone or idiom could adequately portray the lives of those "up today and down tomorrow, working this week and fired the next, beaten and baffled, but determined not to be wholly beaten…." What was needed was a flexible and dynamic idiom and tone to deal with the many inconsistencies, paradoxes, and wide mood swings in the lives of the people he celebrates in his various writings.
The forty-five years plus of Hughes's literary career stretched from the Harlem Renaissance, through the Depression, the McCarthy era, and the period of Civil Rights and protest. These were years of such great change and upheaval, with a number of countervailing forces at work, that it was nigh impossible to adopt a consistent tone or voice throughout the entire period. His contribution lies, therefore, not so much in any kind of unified vision his writing may or may not evince, but, rather, in the relevance of that vision for the climate of the times. It may be said of Hughes what DuBois once said of himself: that he "flew round and round with the Zeitgeist, waving [his] pen and lifting faint voices to explain, expound and exhort…." It is precisely Hughes's attempt to fashion a special tone and idiom, in short, to adapt his art in response to the issues appropriate to the prevailing climate that presents his critics with such a challenge. How different, in tone and theme, for example, is The Weary Blues, his first published book of poetry from The Panther and The Lash, his last.
When we turn to Hughes's own literary theory, we find even less evidence of a consistent or unified vision. Although Hughes seemed certain that the Black artist needed to assume a social role, he seemed less certain about how this task was to be undertaken. As Baldwin has suggested, Hughes found "the war between his social and artistic responsibilities all but irreconcilable." There remained in Hughes's poetry and fiction as well as in his own literary theory something of what DuBois spoke of as double consciousness. He seemed to be uncertain about the role of the black writer at once as an artist and as a propagandist for social reform for his race. This has led Hughes to appear, at times, to contradict himself. In his famous manifesto of 1926, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," he could advocate a self-conscious black art in his advice to the young poet who wanted to be considered a writer, not just a Negro writer. Yet by the late 1950s, he had begun to modify his position. He would now claim that
Color had nothing to do with writing as such. So I would say, in your mind don't be a colored writer even when dealing in racial material. Be a writer first / Like an egg: egg; then an Easter egg, the color applied.
Wilson Moses, writing in the Spring 1985 issue of The Langston Hughes Review, speaks to the matter of inconsistency between Hughes's thought and his actions, when he says that, "at times, like most artists, Hughes did not heed his own advice. Like the very artists he had criticized, Hughes could stumble into some of the pitfalls of Western artistic consciousness." And Aaron Gresson, writing in the same issue, speaks more pointedly of seemingly contradictions in Hughes's critical theory:
Hughes … sometimes talked as if race were primary and, at others, as if it were secondary. Hence, he writes, "Be a writer first, colored second." And further: "Step outside yourself, then look back and you will see how human, yet how beautiful and black you are. How very black—even when you're integrated."
How can we account for this apparent about face? Could it be that in the years between 1926 and 1960, the time between these two statements, Hughes had become much more aware of the white audience's influence on black art?
More and more, Hughes seemed to have realized the pressure of racial prejudice at work in the literary marketplace. But, to his credit, it was a position that he came to only after his own financial situation had begun to deteriorate. (Hughes, for example, depended wholly on his publications and lectures for his livelihood.) So, the latter statement comes more as a concession than as a deeply felt aesthetic principle. He noted, for instance, that in the late 1950s there was no black publishing company. When Johnson Publications began to publish works on black American life, Hughes would see this as a step in the right direction that would ultimately lead to greater freedom for the black artist.
But the impact of Hughes's financial problems on the quantity and quantity of works produced from the 1930s on is an issue to which critics need to give even greater consideration. If, indeed, there is a decline in his artistic vision during this period, as some have claimed, to what extent could this be attributed to Hughes's concern with achieving commercial success? There is little doubt that during the decades of the 1940s and 1950s, Hughes kept at least one eye focused squarely on the literary marketplace, as is revealed in the interesting exchange of letters with his life-long friend and confidant, Arna Bontemps. In his letter to Bontemps of July 17, 1954, for example, Hughes notes, in regard to his second autobiography, I Wonder, that "if publishers want a really documented book, they ought to advance some documented money—enough to do nothing else for two or three years." Here, as elsewhere in the Letters, he reiterates his determination not to become a "literary sharecropper for short rations."
We know, of course, that throughout Hughes's career, he, not unlike any other professional writer, was called upon to make concessions to publishers and agents. Concessions are not unusual in the publishing business. But one wonders, in Hughes's case, if the extra-literary considerations—whether financial, as with the production of the play Mulatto (1935), or political, as with the publication of First Book of Negroes (1952)—seriously impaired his vision or weakened his voice as a writer with an avowed strong social commitment. Though the issue is still open for debate, Faith Berry's publication of Hughes's uncollected protest writings has gone a long way toward resolving the issue in his favor.
The point I am making here is that Hughes's works, perhaps more so than those of any other writer, must be examined in their proper historical context. I take it that Richard Barksdale has something of this in mind when he observes that Hughes's "was a poet who immersed himself in the contemporary and current and often wrote poems to explicate social and emotional reactions." Whether or not this characteristic was a major failing in Hughes's writing is a question on which there is not likely to be any unanimity of opinion. But Hughes's voice was strongest, it seems to me, when he not only reported on the issues of his day but also attempted to analyze and shape them. This is why I think his social protest writings should be given greater consideration.
As I stated above, critics themselves often speak of his work with a certain ambivalence, offering different interpretations depending on their own perspective and on the historical climate at the time. To this, the articles in this issue by Berry, Harper, and Rampersad give powerful testimony, though it may or may not be a claim that any of them is prepared to make.
Faith Berry points out that Saunders Redding was one of Hughes's most consistent critics and often praised his writings in the pages of the Afro-American and other publications. But, as Berry goes on to say, this did not mean that Redding could applaud all of Hughes's efforts. He found, for example, that Hughes could, at times, be "jejune and iterative," as in his volume of poetry, One Way Ticket. Certainly, much of Reddings' ambivalence toward Montage is evident when he says that Hughes's "images are again quick, vibrant and probing, but they no longer educate. They probe into old emotions and experiences with fine sensitiveness … but they reveal nothing new." It is this kind of thoroughgoing criticism of Hughes, by one who had long carefully charted his growth and development, that lends valuable insights into the man and his art.
Akiba Harper focuses on the interesting relationship between Hughes, the spokesman for the common man, and DuBois, the apostle of high culture. Indeed, that these two individuals, so different in outlook and temperament, could meet on mutual terms of admiration is a credit to the magnanimity of both. Harper argues that DuBois praised much of Hughes's poetry and was willing to defend him, as he did at least on one occasion, in the pages of the Crisis. And Hughes's own high regard for DuBois and his book The Souls of Black Folk is clearly stated in The Big Sea. She is careful, however, to focus her discussion on the years from 1923 to 1933, for some years later there seems to be some evidence, according to Rampersad and others, of a rift in their relationship.
Rampersad treats what is perhaps the most problematic aspect of Hughes's literary career: "socialist" writings and his relationship to left-wing critics. His relationship with these critics was a puzzling one. Originally, Rampersad observes, The Liberator rejected all of Hughes's works, and they did not appear in any major white leftist publication until his reputation was firmly established. This reveals more about those critics than about Hughes himself. It seems clear that they had their own axes to grind. But what is even more puzzling and disturbing is Hughes's reaction to their criticism of his work. Why, for example, did he not include some of the pieces in his Selected Poems? And why did he omit Robeson and DuBois from his First Book of Negroes (1952)?
These and other similar questions are raised in these papers. Indeed, the best works of criticism on Hughes will seek answers to certain questions while posing a number of others. But it is only in this way that we may begin to approach an understanding of an individual for whom wondering while wandering was both act and art.
This section contains 2,441 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)