Langston Hughes | Critical Essay by Arnold Rampersad

This literature criticism consists of approximately 13 pages of analysis & critique of Langston Hughes.
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Critical Essay by Arnold Rampersad

SOURCE: "Langston Hughes and His Critics on the Left," in The Langston Hughes Review, Vol. 5, No. 2, Fall, 1986, pp. 34-40.

In the following essay, Rampersad argues that the Leftist critics failed Hughes.

Radicalism is one of the main points of pressure in Langston Hughes's reputation, like—for example—the question of whether or not he believed in God, or whether or not he was a communist. The matter of radicalism has left a specific wound, one never to be healed completely, on his reputation. His virtual surrender before Senator Joseph McCarthy's committee lingers uncomfortably in the mind, as well as his omission of W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robeson from certain of his writings later in his life, in the aftermath of his encounter with McCarthy. My purpose here is to look at one aspect of Hughes and radicalism between roughly the start of his adult career and 1940, the year of his autobiography The Big Sea. That aspect concerns Hughes's reception by literary critics of the left. How was he treated by them? Did this reception have an impact on his work? In trying to answer these basic questions, perhaps we can learn something more about the art of Langston Hughes, as well as something more about the practice of literary criticism among certain radicals.

If this analysis involves the adverse criticism of some literary figures on the left at one point in Hughes's career, I hope it will not be construed as an attack upon leftist critics in general, or—even more undeserved—an attack upon progressivism or radical socialism in general. Certainly that is not my purpose here.

The approval of the left was something Langston Hughes craved virtually from the start of his writing career. In The Big Sea, he claimed that he was introduced to the left by his Jewish classmates at Central High School in Cleveland between 1916 and 1920. They "lent me The Gadfly and Jean-Christophe to read, and copies of the Liberator and the Socialist Call. They were almost all interested in more than basketball and the glee club. They took me to hear Eugene Debs. And when the Russian Revolution broke out, our school almost held a celebration." What these young leftists thought of Hughes's poetry in the Central High School Monthly is impossible to say; however, the three short stories he either published in the Monthly or wrote about this time ("Those Who Have No Turkey," "Seventy-five Dollars," and "Mary Winosky") show unmistakably the influence of socialist passion and even of socialist logic. Together, they depict human beings oppressed by hunger, poverty, war, and urban impersonalism. Clearly, from the outset of his literary career Hughes identified the function of the artist with a certain socialist outlook and conscience.

Hughes remembered sending poems from Cleveland to Floyd Dell at the Liberator, which had revived Masses magazine (banned during the war and edited previously by Dell, Max Eastman, and John Reed). "I learned from [the Liberator] the revolutionary attitude toward Negroes," he said of the magazine. "Was there not a Negro on its staff?" The Negro was Claude McKay—but McKay did not join the Liberator staff until April 1921, some months after Hughes left Central High. The dates here are important. All evidence indicates that Hughes did not begin to break into predominantly white magazines until after his success with W. E. B. DuBois, Jessie Fauset, and A.G. Dill's Brownies' Book and Crisis magazine—or until after the middle of 1921. The point here is that Hughes probably did not try the Liberator before he had reached a certain proficiency as a poet. The leftists at the Liberator, however, made clear what they thought of his work by rejecting all of it; although Dell once wrote to say he liked one poem most of all, he added that "none moves us deeply." Either young Langston Hughes was offering them unusually poor verse, or the Liberator editors could not recognize good poetry that was different. In some respects, this is the recurring puzzle arising from Hughes's relationship to his critics on the left.

For whatever reason, Hughes did not publish in a socialist magazine until 1924, when his verse appeared in A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen's Messenger: The World's Greatest Negro Monthly. But when we recognize that the poetry and fiction in the Messenger, unlike its editorials and essays, were ideologically indistinguishable from, say, the Crisis or Opportunity, we see that Hughes's debut in a bona fide radical journal came only in March 1925, after four years of publishing. In March 1925, the Communist Workers Monthly brought out three of his poems, followed by others the following month. Did Hughes's poetry suddenly improve? Or was the Workers Monthly simply getting on the Hughes bandwagon? After all, March 1925 saw the appearance of Alain Locke's edition of the historic special number of the Survey Graphic that became The New Negro. From that point, Langston Hughes was a poet of some note. We come perhaps upon an unfortunate truth about so many radical socialist magazines in the twenties and thirties and perhaps always; they seem to be almost incapable, in general, of recognizing and nurturing young talent independent of the bourgeois magazines they scorn. Established names can be drawn to the leftist journals; for reasons that are probably not hard to understand, the journals themselves often seem incapable of growing their own.

If at the heart of this disturbing thought is the attitude of many radical critics to the artist, then Hughes's experience with his first book, The Weary Blues, is a case in point. New Masses, the successor to Masses and the Liberator, appeared on the scene in 1926, only months after the publication of The Weary Blues. Reviewing the book in October, the radical poet James Rorty opened his essay by reviling the "white, death-house silence" of greedy capitalistic New York, a silence "that aches to be filled." As blacks poured into Harlem, "the sharp Jews and Nordics who run the cabarets have found a new decoy—painted black—and how it does pay!" Blacks are Broadway, there is a "Negro renaissance," and "New York is amused. But how about the Negro in all this? I, for one, am sick of black-face comedians, whether high-brow or low-brow. I am sick of the manumitted slave psychology…. I want the Negroes to stop entertaining the whites and begin to speak for themselves. I am waiting for a Negro poet to stand up and say 'I—I am not amused.'"

Langston Hughes doesn't say anything like this. Nothing as bitter, nothing as masterful, nothing as savage. Why not?… Are Negroes really savages? One hopes so, but one doubts…. Nevertheless, Hughes is a poet, with a curiously firm and supple style, half naive and half sophisticated, which is on the whole more convincing than anything which has yet appeared in Negro poetry.

Quoting "When Sue Wears Red" in its entirety, Rorty called it startlingly effective. However, when the persona in another poem mourns, "I am afraid of this civilization—/ So hard, / So strong, / So cold," Rorty attacked: "I hope and trust Hughes doesn't mean this. If he does, I'd rather have Garvey, who may not be intelligent, but who at least seems more angry than afraid." We see in Rorty's review certain admirable traits of the radical reviewer, especially its decisive penetration of dishonesty in the national culture. However, there are other, less admirable aspects to note. In poetry, the quiet voice is mistrusted; irony is almost treasonable. "I am afraid of this civilization," the poem says—so Rorty deduces that the poet himself must be afraid. Mood and tone must exist not subtly but under a glaring political spotlight, because—apparently—the reader cannot be trusted to notice their deviant aspects. And no matter how radical the author is, seldom is he or she radical enough. The reviewer's radicalism overwhelms the poet—and often overwhelms poetry itself. Rorty's review takes up two columns of equal length, but one is finished and the other in its tenth line before the name Langston Hughes is mentioned. We are past line thirty of the second column before the first word of poetry is quoted; and the last comment is a reprimand. One wonders how, under such harsh conditions, any poetry gets written.

As far as I know, Fine Clothes to the Jew, published the following year, was not reviewed immediately in the radical press. Considering the drubbing that Hughes received in the black press for the volume, perhaps that is well. (Later, however, the book was reviewed by the left; we shall see how.)

Published in 1930, Not Without Laughter drew one private response from the left on which I would like to concentrate here. On March 14, 1931, an American radical, Agnes Smedley, wrote to Hughes from Shanghai about his novel. To Smedley, Not Without Laughter was a good book, but one with a central failing: "It still does not picture the existence of your people." Hughes must "show us the fate of the Negro masses. Such a fate is not happy—but is beaten and debased by [the] condition of beastly subjection. Try to show us in the life of Negro proletarians … men who work … and are defeated and must be defeated until they organise and fight on a revolutionary basis." In Hughes's depictions of blacks singing and dancing, "I feel too much technique of writing, too much colour photography shown on a broad screen. The picture has value only if shot through with something that explains the cause. I cannot get my hands on you and explain what I mean—but your book lacks intensity…. There was great suffering, perhaps hopes, dreams that were smashed,—and we get but a faint idea of it. If Not Without Laughter is partly autobiographical, she continued, then it is clear that "you were always on the outer edge of your class—of the working class. In other words, of petty bourgeois up-bringing, and later, an intellectual."

It is obvious that Smedley, who had never met Hughes, evidently could tell something startlingly accurate about his background through a radical Marxist analysis of his fiction; the radical critique certainly can be penetrating. And her criticism, like most radical criticism, was linked to genuine political problems. For example, Smedley's last words in her letter were not about literary theory, but about life and death: "Ten days ago the Chinese authorities arrested 23 more Communists, among them 4 more left writers; they made them dig their own graves, and then mowed them down with machine guns." Still we must ask, was her criticism of Hughes and Not Without Laughter justified? How does it jibe with the tremendous groundswell of applause from all the black reviewers, who hailed the book as a landmark in its representation of the ordinary truths of black life. These reviewers may have been bourgeois, but even the most bourgeois of blacks have been hypersensitive about the depiction of the race and politics, of accommodationism and resistance.

In any event, by the time Smedley wrote her letter in 1931 Hughes was at the start of a tremendous swing to the left, one that would result in the composition of some of the most radical pieces of verse ever penned by an American. So complete was his transformation that when he received in 1933 his most thorough literary examination from a leftist point of view, by Lydia Filatova in an article in International Literature, "LANGSTON HUGHES: American Writer," he came away, in her final analysis, with flying colors—but not before sharp rebukes for his previous work. So sharp, in fact, that one wonders about Lydia Filatova's candor, for want of a better word—not the first or last time one is forced to ask this question about radical socialist critics. In the Harlem Renaissance, and in particular in his landmark essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," Hughes had advanced "a theory of bourgeois estheticism, the right of the artist to hold aloof from social themes, to be indifferent to the day's racial and social problems." This is a bizarre reading of an essay that asserts the power of racial feeling in the face of the black and the white bourgeoisie. To facilitate her reading, however, Filatova cites as its title not "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," which was how it was called from its first appearance in the Nation in 1926, but simply "The Negro Artist."

In The Weary Blues, according to Filatova, Hughes "almost ignores the question of racial oppression." When he acknowledges racial oppression, he fails to understand it from a class point of view. More often, however, he "shuns reality and varnishes it with romantic illusions. Tomorrow is to bring liberation; but the poet's dreams about the better future are hazy and nebulous. His protest against the surrounding realities is an abstract one. It resolves itself into a vague striving toward sunshine, toward the exotic." In Fine Clothes to the Jew, Hughes is not yet "a revolutionary artist," but gives promise of "future growth." One should notice the five poems quoted or mentioned by Filatova. Not one poem is in the blues form; in fact, in reviewing a book defined by the blues, the word "blues" is never even mentioned. Yet we note that the black reading public took deeply to heart certain racial poems in The Weary Blues and what Hughes did there and in Fine Clothes with the blues form was certainly revolutionary from an artistic and social—and political—point of view. As for the poems about religion in the latter volume, Filatova writes inexplicably: "The soporific action of religion, with its gospel of non-resistance, largely accounts for the difficulty of spreading Communism among the masses of Negro toilers. Hughes in religious ecstasy complains to heaven, sings about white wings of angels, and seeks solace in prayer."

In Not Without Laughter, Hughes "breaks with the Harlem tradition. He now becomes a realistic writer." But he is "still swayed by the theory that the Negroes can attain social equality only through education, through demonstrating the creative abilities of the Negro people. Hughes still fails to see the illusory nature of such theories, that the real cause of racial inequality is capitalism, and that only through revolutionary struggle against the capitalist system will the Negro gain complete emancipation. Culture and talent will not solve the problem." He also fails to see whites as other than "an undifferentiated hostile mass," and ignores the class issue.

Needless to say, Filatova took Hughes's most recent poetry (for example, "Good Morning Revolution," "Goodbye Christ," "Letter to the Academy," "An Open Letter to the South," and "Tom Mooney") as evidence of his emancipation as a writer. "His new poetical credo is the total negation of his former creative position." There was, however, one "blot" on Hughes's recent revolutionary record—Popo and Fifina, the children's book set in Haiti and written with Arna Bontemps. "Does this soothing syrup," Filatova asks, "represent the author's conception of children's literature? Does the method of the complete elimination of contradictions of life, such varnishing of reality, help to forge fighters for communism, to increase the membership of the Negro Komsomol? Works of this kind detract from the revolutionary value and importance of Hughes's creative work."

Hughes evidently accepted, at this point in his career, Filatova's analysis of his work. To his friend and collaborator Prentiss Taylor, he sent home a solemn pledge: "Never must mysticism or beauty be gotten into any religious motive when used as a proletarian weapon." When he sent his poems home to his publisher Blanche Knopf and her advisor, Carl Van Vechten, he assured them that the verse had been vetted in Moscow—and presumably found radically kosher. Blanche Knopf refused to publish the collection, and Van Vechten concurred: "The revolutionary poems seem very weak to me: I mean very weak on the lyric side. I think in ten years, whatever the social outcome, you will be ashamed of these." He did not like Diego Rivera's radical politics, he insisted, but he admired Rivera's revolutionary murals. Hughes's radical verses, however, were "lacking in any of the elementary requisites of a work of art."

I do not believe that Hughes was ever ashamed of having written those poems, but it is at least interesting that his Selected Poems, which he chose himself, would contain not one of the poems in the radical collection.

The year 1938 saw two significant efforts by Hughes in radical literature. The first was Don't You Want to be Free?, a play produced by the Harlem Suitcase Theatre, which he founded that year, and the second was the appearance of a collection of radical poems, A New Song. In a review of the play, at least one leftist critic showed not only broad understanding of the nature of literature, but also a degree of sympathetic insight into Hughes's aims and ability as an artist.

Writing in the Crisis (no radical journal!) about Don't You Want to be Free?, the white leftist poet Norman Macleod went to the heart of the dilemma—as he saw it—facing Hughes as a black writer who wanted to speak at one and the same time on behalf of his race and on behalf of the left. Citing two lines in which blacks say, "Let the black boy swing / But the white folks die," and contrasting the statement to Hughes's more universal socialist aims expressed forcefully elsewhere in the play, Macleod saw it as exemplifying "the unresolved conflict in Langston Hughes's writing. He feels the Negro as his race, but only thinks himself (at least, in this work) a member of a white and black working class. And because of this, the scenes which are treated poetically and which deal primarily with the problems that are purely 'race' are moving and good entertainment as well. In the later scenes which introduce argument he is not as good."

Perhaps because he was writing for the Crisis, perhaps because his own attitude toward the left was changing, Macleod concluded that Hughes should stick more to writing that derived from his "feeling," rather than to writing that derived from his "thinking." Hughes, he declared, "is essentially a poet—a very fine poet with an ear for racial rhythms and folk speech—and it is as a poet we like him most—whether or not his poetry appears in a novel or in a play or in a poem makes little difference."

The same year, 1938, Hughes's A New Song appeared. The poems were published by the International Workers Order, the well-organized and widely influential Communist-organized benevolent association which had also sponsored the Harlem Suitcase Theatre. Like the play, the appearance of A New Song followed a sharp revival of Hughes's own radicalism after months in war-torn Spain. Obviously Hughes was not yet "ashamed" of the poems, as Van Vechten had said he would be. Mike Gold, a lion of the literary far left in America, wrote an introduction to this collection of radical verse. In these poems, which were the fruit of a decade of experiment and radical experience, Gold saw no "unresolved conflict" (to quote Macleod). "Many young writers have lost their way in this period, mistaking some dazzling skyrocket of a aesthetic theory for a star," Gold declared. But not Langston Hughes. "He has expressed the hopes, the dreams, and the awakening of the Negro people. He has done it naturally, like a bird in the woods; but in choosing this theme, he has been led on and on, until he has also become a voice crying for justice for all humanity. The Negroes are enslaved, but so are the white workers, and the two are brothers in suffering and struggle. This is his message today."

Written hardly one year later, however, Hughes's autobiography The Big Sea documents a strange turn of events—strange even if one considers the demands of bourgeois is publishers. Walt Carmon, once an editor at New Masses and a friend to Hughes in Moscow, was shocked to notice "not a single mention of a radical publication you've written for or a single radical you have met or has meant anything to you." In The New Republic, the black radical Richard Wright praised Hughes as a "cultural ambassador" and for having carried on "a manly tradition" when other writers "have gone to sleep at their posts." But in using the term "ambassador," Wright invited recollection of the opening of his "Blueprint for Negro Writing," where he had scorned past black writers as the "prim and decorous ambassadors," The "artistic ambassadors" of the race, "who went a-begging to white America … in the knee-pants of servility." And in the Negro Quarterly, Ralph Ellison, then also a radical, complained that "too much attention is apt to be given to the aesthetic aspects of experience at the expense of its deeper meanings," and questioned whether the style was appropriate to "the autobiography of a Negro writer of Hughes's importance."

Why did the bottom fall out, as it were, of Hughes's radical aesthetic? For possibly many reasons, including events on the international scene, notably the disastrous (certainly for the American left) Nazi-Soviet pact of non-aggression. One thing is clear, however; Hughes owed very little or nothing to literary critics from the left. Scholar-critics, either as writers or in teaching, should never forget that they perform a vital function in the literary process, even if artists sometimes ungratefully regard us as parasites. In this case, on the other hand, the leftist critics in general performed weakly where Hughes was concerned because their reviews were generally poor in quality—reductive, intolerant, and philistine. I need only add here the obvious: Marxist criticism has come a long way since the twenties and thirties; as a reminder of what Hughes experienced, however, if one looks at much Soviet literary criticism today, one would probably conclude that, at least in some quarters, it has not yet come far enough.

Under the communist aesthetic as interpreted by these reviewers, the greatest of Hughes's poems, which all have to do with race—"The Negro Speaks of Rivers," or "Mother to Son," or "The Weary Blues," or "Jazzonia," or "Dream Variation"—could not have been written. What the left took to be petty bourgeois ambivalence was Hughes's continual attempt to arbitrate between rage at racism, on one hand, and the uncontaminated love of his people, on the other. In the most radical work, the process of arbitration is shortcircuited; rage is shaped according to ideology, and what often results is not a poem but ideology tempered and sharpened into slogans. In the process, much is lost, including Hughes's essential identity. Only Hughes could have written "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" but—given the right mixture of radical rage and literary adroitness on the part of a writer—"Good Morning Revolution" could have been written by almost anyone. Many literary radicals, especially those who are also back or who are interested in recruiting blacks, have not learned how to deal with the theoretical problem behind this last statement. The problem, however, is mainly theirs, and not Langston Hughes's.

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