Langston Hughes | Critical Essay by Arnold Rampersad

This literature criticism consists of approximately 23 pages of analysis & critique of Langston Hughes.
This section contains 6,647 words
(approx. 23 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Arnold Rampersad

Critical Essay by Arnold Rampersad

SOURCE: "Langston Hughes and Approaches to Modernism in the Harlem Renaissance," in The Harlem Renaissance: Revaluations, Garland Publishing, 1989, pp. 49-72.

In the following essay, Rampersad argues that Hughes's use of the blues form in his poetry places him in the modernist tradition.

In 1936, certainly after the end of the Harlem Renaissance, one highly literate young black student, a junior at Tuskegee Institute, saw no connection between modernism and black American verse even as he recognized a link between modernism and black culture. "Somehow in my uninstructed reading of Pound and Eliot," he later wrote, "I had recognized a relationship between modern poetry and jazz music, and this led me to wonder why I was not encountering similar devices in the work of Afro-American writers." In 1936, however, the youth came across a poem by a young black Communist based in Chicago, published in New Masses. Although the poem "was not a masterpiece," he would write, at last "I found in it traces of the modern poetic sensibility and techniques that I had been seeking."

The student was Ralph Ellison; the Communist poet, Richard Wright. The point is that Ellison, following the Harlem Renaissance, could see nothing of literary modernism in its writing, but had to depend for a glimpse of modernism in black poetry on a writer who not only had nothing to do with either Harlem or its Renaissance, but would the following year, 1937, dismiss virtually all of black writing. "Generally speaking." Wright declared (without offering an exception), "Negro writing in the past has been confined to humble novels, poems, and plays, prim and decorous ambassadors who went a-begging to white America." Wright knew well that ambassadors speak typically in archaic, sanctioned formulae; in general, they initiate nothing, make nothing new.

The writers of the Harlem Renaissance apparently had not responded to Emerson's primal dictum that "the experience of each new age requires a new confession, and the world seems always waiting for its poet." Or had they? Let us resolve modernism into a series of questions aimed at these writers. Did they sense some historic shift in the world that justified Pound's famous charge to writers to "Make it new!"? Did they perceive a crisis of expression, a need to, again in Pound's words, "resuscitate the dead art / Of poetry?" Had blacks made a pact with Walt Whitman, as Pound had done ("I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman—/ I have detested you long enough")? Did they perceive the modern dominance of science and technology as requiring a self-preserving, adaptive response by art, in order to make something, in Frost's phrase, of "a diminished thing?" Did they recognize a crisis in the loss of prestige by religion? Or were the black writers of the Harlem Renaissance merely, as Ellison and Wright would have us believe, dull and uninspired imitators of mediocre white writers?

I would argue that writers such as Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Wallace Thurman, Richard Bruce Nugent, and Zora Neale Hurston were as aware as anyone else about the pressure of the modern on their lives and their art. Of course, to be aware of a situation does not mean that one acts responsibly; to act responsibly does not guarantee success. My purpose here is to look at some of the ways in which black writers engaged or failed to engage various compelling aspects of the age in which they lived. Perhaps we can thus learn something about the Renaissance, and perhaps even about modernism itself.

The movement toward the modern in black letters began, in fact, a generation before the Harlem school, when Afro-American poetry was dominated by the work, in standard English but more popularly in dialect form, of Paul Laurence Dunbar. By 1900 (he would die six years later) Dunbar's poetry enjoyed a national vogue; as a boy, for example, William Carlos Williams read the black poet as a matter of course. To Dunbar himself, however, and to at least one other black writer, James Weldon Johnson, dialect poetry, and thus Afro-American poetry, was a dead art. In it, "darkies" most often either sang, danced, ate, and stole comically, or they mourned some minor loss pathetically. Dunbar's verse led William Dean Howells to note "a precious difference of temperament between the races which it would be a great pity to lose," and to see "the range between appetite and emotion, with certain lifts far beyond and above it," as the range of the black race. Such a reaction made Dunbar despair, without showing him a way out of his dilemma. "He sang of life, serenely sweet, / With, now and then, a deeper note," he wrote once about himself. "He of love when earth was young, / And Love, itself, was in his lays. / But ah, the world, it turned to praise / A jingle in a broken tongue."

The first step in the resuscitation of black poetry came late in the summer of 1900, when Dunbar's friend and admirer James Weldon Johnson at last read the work of a white writer who had died during the previous decade. "I was engulfed and submerged by the book, and set floundering again," Johnson later recalled in his autobiography, Along This Way:

I got a sudden realization of the artificiality of conventionalized Negro dialect poetry: of its exaggerated geniality, childish optimism, forced comicality and mawkish sentiment…. I could see that the poet writing in the conventionalized dialect, no matter how sincere he might be, was dominated by his audience; that his audience was a section of the white American reading public; that when he wrote he was expressing what often bore little relation, sometime no relation at all, to actual Negro life; that he was really expressing only certain conceptions about Negro life that his audience was willing to accept and ready to enjoy; that, in fact, he wrote mainly for the delectation of an audience that was an outside group. And I could discern that it was on this line that the psychological attitude of the poets writing in the dialect and that of the folk artists faced in different directions; because the latter, although working in the dialect, sought only to express themselves for themselves, and to their own group.

Thus Johnson laid bare the central dilemma facing not merely Dunbar but all black writers in America. The white poet was, of course, Walt Whitman, with whom Johnson made a pact more than a dozen years before Pound did. Neither Johnson nor Pound, however, would have been sensitive to Whitman had it not been for altering social and historical conditions that first gradually, then torrentially, made Whitman's insights into social meaning and poetic form shine forth. For Pound, the twin factors were, perhaps, science and technology, on one hand, and the Great War on the other. I suspect that in 1900, when Johnson first read Whitman, science meant relatively little to him as a threat, and the Great War was still more than a dozen years away. Or was it? For blacks, there was another great war, one that saw in the 1890s (the "nadir" of Afro-American history, as Rayford Logan has called it) racial segregation and black disfranchisement made law by the Supreme Court and enforced brutally by the Ku Klux Klan. In Along This Way, Johnson's discussion of Leaves of Grass follows immediately on his horrified recollection of the fourth major race riot in the history of blacks in New York, occurring in 1900 and capping a decade in which almost 1700 blacks had been lynched, "numbers of them with a savagery that was satiated with nothing short of torture, mutilation, and burning alive at the stake." This was for blacks the "Great War," compared to which their involvement in the later carnage in Europe was almost a form of affirmative action—affirmative action with a vengeance, if you will. Every major American war from the Revolution to Vietnam, it must be remembered, has led to a material advance in the freedom of black Americans.

That this pressure had its effect on poetic form among blacks is independently demonstrated in the sometime poetry of the scholar-turned-protagonist, W.E.B. DuBois. In DuBois's verse we see rage against racism making the tropes of traditional poetic discourse impossible, and pushing his pen, willy-nilly, toward free verse and liberated rhyme in a series of poems, such as "A Litany of Atlanta," "The Burden of Black Women," "Song of the Smoke," and "Prayers of God," published in the first two decades of this century. When the war in Europe came, it only added to the pressure toward the modern. "We darker men said," DuBois wrote in his essay "The Souls of White Folk," "This is not Europe gone mad; this is not aberration nor insanity; this is Europe; this seeming Terrible is the real soul of white culture,—stripped and visible today. This is where the world has arrived—these dark and awful depths and not the shining and ineffable heights of which it boasted."

By this time, at least one younger black writer had taken black poetry closer to the modern. In 1912 Fenton Johnson's first book of verse, A Little Dreaming, was conventional and included both a long poem in blank verse and Dunbaresque dialect verse. Within two or three years, however, he had completely renovated his sense of poetry. In Visions of Dusk (1915) and Songs of the Soil (1916) he not only adopted free verse but altered his ways of viewing civilization itself. Instead of glorifying white high culture, Fenton Johnson spurned it, as Pound would do in writing of Europe as "an old bitch gone in the teeth," and "a botched civilization." Unlike Pound, however, Fenton Johnson did so from an unmistakably racial perspective:

     I am tired of work; I am tired of building up some body else's
     Let us take a rest, M'Lissy Jane.
     I will go down to the Last Chance Saloon, drink a gallon or
      two of gin, shoot a game or two of dice and sleep the
      rest of the night on one of Mike's barrels.
     You will let the old shanty go to rot, the white people's
      clothes turn to dust, and the Cavalry Baptist Church
      sink to the bottomless pit….
     Throw the children into the river; civilization has given us
      too many. It is better to die than it is to grow up and
      find out that you are colored.
     Pluck the stars out of the heavens. The stars mark our
      destiny. The stars marked my destiny.
     I am tired of civilization.

In "The Banjo Player," the speaker wanders the land playing "the music of the peasant people." He is a favorite in saloons and with little children. "But I fear that I am a failure. Last night a woman called me a troubadour. What is a troubadour?" "The Scarlet Woman," who possesses "a white girl's education and a face that enchanted the men of both races," spurns classical mythic language and enters a bordello for white men: "Now I can drink more gin than any man for miles around. Gin is better than all the water in Lethe."

Fenton Johnson was so close to the center of the Chicago manifestation of modernism, which is to say the center of literary modernism except for wherever Ezra Pound happened to be at the moment, that it is unclear how much he owes to the more famous poets he resembles in his work—Carl Sandburg, whose groundbreaking Chicago and Other Poems appeared in 1916, and Edgar Lee Masters in his Spoon River Anthology (1915). Johnson published in Harriet Monroe's Poetry magazine and at least one other important modernist outlet, Others. One point must be noted, however, about the work thus far of Fenton Johnson, James Weldon Johnson, and DuBois. For all its incipient modernism, their verse betrays no sign of any specific innovative formal influence by the culture, or subculture, they championed. Indignation at the treatment of blacks moved them to change as poets; black culture itself did not. This was the crucial hurdle facing would-be black modernists.

Yet another poet to balk at the highest fence was Claude McKay, the Jamaican-born writer who first gained notice in the United States in 1917, when he published two sonnets in Seven Arts magazine. Subsequent publications in Pearson's, Max Eastman's Liberator (where he would serve as an associate editor), and the leading black journals, such as the radical socialist Messenger and DuBois's Crisis, as well as in prestigious English publications, such as C.K. Ogden's Cambridge Magazine, made him for a while the most respected of Afro-American versifiers. Two volumes of verse, Spring in New Hampshire (London, 1920), with an introduction by I.A. Richards, and Harlem Shadows (Harcourt, Brace, 1922) anchored his reputation. For black Americans, however, McKay's single most impressive publication was not one of his lyric evocations of nature but a sonnet published in 1919, following perhaps the bloodiest summer of anti-black riots since the end of the Civil War. In "If We Must Die," McKay implored his readers not to die "like hogs / Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot" but to "nobly die, / So that our precious blood may not be shed / In vain." Even if death is certain, "Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack, / Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back."

With McKay and "If We Must Die," we come not only directed to the Harlem school but also to one of its principal tensions—that between radicalism of political and racial thought, on the one hand, and, on the other, a bone-deep commitment to conservatism of form. As a poet, McKay was absolutely ensnared by the sonnet, which—for all the variety possible within its lines—is perhaps the most telling sign of formal conservatism in the writing of poetry in English. Perhaps no greater tension exists in a brief Afro-American text than that between the rage of "If We Must Die" and the sonnet form. McKay used the form again and again to write some of the most hostile verse in Afro-American letters, as in "To the White Fiends" ("Think you I am not a fiend and savage too? / Think you I could not arm me with a gun / And shoot down ten of you for every one / Of my black brothers murdered, burnt by you?" and in "The White House," or "Tiger," where "The white man is a tiger at my throat, / Drinking my blood as my life ebbs away, / And muttering that his terrible striped coat / Is Freedom's."

McKay was not alone in his commitment to conservative forms even in the postwar modernist heyday. If the work of Countee Cullen, a far younger writer, was more varied than McKay's, his formal conservatism was as powerful. Cullen's idols were John Keats ("I cannot hold my peace, John Keats; / There never was a spring like this"), and A.E. Housman, still alive but moribund surely when one considers the distance between his blue remembered hills and the steamy streets of Harlem. And unlike McKay, who wrote of both race and "universal" topics without a sense of contradiction, Cullen resented the inspiration that came from racial outrage. In a novel, One Way to Heaven (1932), he satirized a black woman who insists upon teaching her students verse by Langston Hughes. "While her pupils could recite like small bronze Ciceros, 'I Too Sing America'," the narrator jibes, "they never had heard of 'Old Ironsides,' "The Blue and the Gray,' or 'The Wreck of the Hesperides.' They could identify lines from Hughes, Dunbar, Cotter, and the multitudinous Johnsons, but were unaware of the contributions of Longfellow, Whittier, and Holmes to American literature." Elsewhere he ridicules a poem by a so-called "Negro poet." "Taken in a nutshell," a character explains scornfully, "it means that niggers have a hell of a time in this God-damned country. That's all Negro poets write about." In perhaps his best-known couplet, Cullen lamented "this curious thing: / To make a poet black, and bid him sing!"

Exactly why McKay and Cullen stuck by conservative forms in the midst of a decade of change is too complicated a question to answer here. But we might take note of one or two points. If McKay was a radical socialist and an anti-modernist, he was in line with a tradition of taste among great radicals from Marx to Lenin, who fomented revolution but clung to the classics like bourgeois intellectuals. "I am unable to consider the productions of futurism, cubism, expressionism and other isms," Lenin wrote privately somewhere. "I do not understand them. I get no joy from them." In addition, McKay was in line with the very philosophy of Marxism, which defines the world in a way diametrically opposed to modernism; Marxism and modernism are poles apart.

Langston Hughes, in opening his Nation essay in 1926, "The Negro and the Racial Mountain," bluntly attacked Cullen's dilemma without naming him. He wrote about a black friend, a writer, who wished to be known not as a Negro poet, but as a poet. "Meaning subconsciously," Hughes wrote, "'I would like to be white.'" Cullen might have defended himself by quoting T.S. Eliot on tradition—or, if you permit an anachronism—by quoting Ralph Ellison, who would distinguish between (on one hand) his ancestors—T.S. Eliot and Hemingway, above all, who strongly influenced him, and (on the other) his family, such as Richard Wright and Langston Hughes, who apparently influenced him not at all. But Cullen was not Eliot nor could ever be. Eliot spoke up for the power of dead poets on aesthetic grounds, but the choice of white ancestors over black relatives cannot ever be, to say the least, a purely aesthetic matter. In addition, one must be wary of the motives of anyone, of any color, who exalts his ancestors at the expense of his family.

Let us turn from the most conservative members of the Harlem school to probably the least conservative according to modernist standards—Jean Toomer and Richard Bruce Nugent. Toomer's Cane, a pastiche of fiction, poetry, drama, and hieroglyphics published in 1923, has been hailed almost invariably as the greatest single document of the Renaissance. Bruce Nugent's published work in the 1920s was scant but very striking, especially the hallucinogenic, stream-of-consciousness story "Smoke, Lilies and Jade," which was too quickly compared by at least one review of FIRE!! magazine, where it first appeared in 1926, to Ulysses. Is it significant that Toomer and Nugent, the most modernist of the black writers, were also probably the least racial either personally or in their writing? From the start, Nugent seemed to consider race a great irrelevancy. And while Jean Toomer's Cane is saturated with a concern for race and the complex fate of being black in America, even as his book was appearing the extremely light-skinned Toomer was vehemently denying that he was a Negro—an attitude that only intensified over the years as his writing became more modernist and purged of the racial theme. Bruce Nugent, one black modernist, says that race doesn't matter; Toomer, another, says that race doesn't matter as long as nobody calls him black. Are we to conclude, then, that modernism and black racial feeling, with its political consequences, are incompatible?

It might be useful here to look at the work of Melvin B. Tolson, who began writing at the tail end of the Renaissance with a limited sense of the modern, but grew to be acclaimed as the first authentic black modernist poet. Tolson was the author of A Gallery of Harlem Portraits, posthumously published but in manuscript form by 1931; the Marxist-influenced Rendezvous with America (1944); and a deeply modernist Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (1953), among other works. Beginning with the sense of the modern derived from Edwin Arlington Robinson and Carl Sandburg, Tolson repudiated their blending of free verse, highly accessible language, and folk references in order to master the most complex version of modernism. The result was poetry beyond the ability of all but a few readers to understand, let alone enjoy. This new poetry, however, tremendously excited those privileged few, including the reformed racist Allen Tate, who in 1931 refused to attend a dinner for Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson in Nashville because they were black, but lived to write an introduction in 1953 to Librello for the Republic of Liberia. Tolson not only showed a "first rate intelligence at work from first to last," Tate marveled, but for "the first time, it seems to me, a Negro poet has assimilated completely the full poetic language of his time, and by implication, the language of the Anglo-American tradition." As if that were not praise enough, William Carlos Williams found a place of honor for Tolson, and Allen Tate, in the fourth book of Paterson:

     —and to Tolson and to his ode
     and to Liberia and to Allen Tate
     (give him credit)
     and to the South generally

Thus encouraged, Tolson deepened his commitment to modernism with Harlem Gallery: Book I. The Curator (1965). In his introduction to the book, however, Karl Shapiro questioned Tate's statement that Tolson was indebted to white modernist masters and their special language. "Tolson writes in Negro," Shapiro declared. Let me quote some lines from the first stanza of the book:

     Lord of the House of Flies,
      jaundiced-eyed, synapses purled,
     wries before the tumultuous canvas,
                  The Second of May
                        by Goya:
                  the dagger of Madrid
                  the scimitar of Murat.
     In Africa, in Asia, on the Day
     of Barricades, alarm birds bedevil the Great White
     World, a Burdian's ass—not Balaam's—between oats
     and hay.

Any Negro who speaks naturally like this is probably wearing a straightjacket. In its stated themes, the poem justifies Tolson's continuing sense of himself as a champion of his fellow blacks and their history; in its full language, it repudiates that sense. A while ago, Toomer and Nugent led me to ask whether modernism can be compatible with strong racial feeling. Tolson leads me to understand that complex modernism cannot be so compatible. Racial feeling, which is spurious unless accompanied by a deep sense of political wrong, demands an accessible art; the more pervasive the political wrong, the more accessible must be the art. Melvin Tolson may be on his way to Mount Olympus, but only at the expense of his people and their common poets, washed up on the shores of oblivion while the mighty modernist river rolls by.

When we drive by the scene of an accident, we feel the pain of broken bones and flowing blood. We tremble, but we drive on, unscathed and unstained. Are all of us integral victims of the accident of modernism (which followed the accident of World War I)? Or are some of us only rubbernecking? Must we assume that what is modern for the white goose is also modern for the black gander, that the dominant quality of white life in the twentieth century, as perceived by certain great white poets, is the same as the dominant temper for black? Or that the white quality is something to which blacks should have aspired (a tragic attitude, but one to which Jean Toomer, I think, succumbed)? Nor is this a matter of black and white alone. Robert Frost, to my mind, achieved unquestioned greatness swimming against the tide of modernism, ridiculing free verse, gentrifying run-down forms, forging out of a mixture, in which New England regionalism played a very strong part, both a critique of modernism and a body of work beyond easy category.

The major meditative poem by a black writer of the decade, Arna Bontemps's "Nocturne at Bethesda," reveals a black poet "flying low, / I thought I saw the flicker of a wing / Above the mulberry trees; but not again. / Bethesda sleeps. This ancient pool that healed / A host of bearded Jews does not awake…." "Nocturne at Bethesda" is the black counterpart to Wallace Stevens's magnificent "Sunday Morning," in which Stevens dwells on the crisis of spirituality but denies transcendent religion in favor of a future of hedonism: "Supple and turbulent, a ring of men / Shall chant in orgy on a summer morn / Their boisterous devotion to the sun, / Not as a god, but as a god might be, / Naked among them, like a savage source," In "Nocturne at Bethesda," Arna Bontemps, who never outgrew completely the lugubriousness of his Seventh Day Adventism, nevertheless also looks to a new day beyond religion: "Yet I hope, still I long to live. / If there can be returning after death / I shall come back. But it will not be here; / If you want me you must search for me / Beneath the palms of Africa."

The finest black poet of the decade, Langston Hughes, rejected metaphysics and superstition altogether; loyal to perhaps the essential modernist criterion, Hughes for the most part looked not before and after, but at what is. Hughes went in the only direction a black poet could go and still be great in the 1920s: he had to lead blacks, in at least one corner of their lives—in his case, through poetry—into the modern world. His genius lay in his uncanny ability to lead by following (one is tempted to invoke Eliot's image of the poet's mind as a platinum filament), to identify the black modern, recognize that it was not the same as the white modern, and to structure his art (not completely, to be sure, but to a sufficient extent for it to be historic) along the lines of that black modernism.

Modernism began for Hughes on January 1919, a month short of his seventeenth birthday, when the Cleveland Central High School Monthly, in which he had been publishing undistinguished verse for more than a year, announced a long poem "in free verse"—apparently the first in the history of the magazine. "A Song of the Soul of Central" ("Children of all people and all creeds / Come to you and you make them welcome") indicates that Hughes had made his individual pact with Walt Whitman. With Whitman's influence came a break with the genteel tyranny of rhyme and the pieties of the Fireside poets and the majority of black versifiers. Already conscious of himself as a black, however, Hughes could not accept, much less internalize, a vision of the modern defined largely by the fate of Europe after the war. Sharing little or nothing of J. Alfred Prufrock's sense of an incurably diseased world, Hughes looked with indifference on the ruined splendors of the waste land. In practice, modernism for him would mean not Pound, Eliot, or Stevens, but Whitman, Vachel Lindsay, and, above all, Sandburg. The last became "my guiding star." Hughes, however, did not remain star-struck for long; within a year or so he had emancipated himself from direct influence. In one instance, where the well-meaning Sandburg had written: "I am the nigger / Singer of Songs, / Dancer," Hughes had responded with the more dignified (though not superior) "Negro": "I am the Negro: / Black as the night is black, / Black like the depths of my Africa."

The key to his release as a poet was his discovery of the significance of race, as well as other psychological factors (beyond our scope here) that amount to a final admission of his aloneness in the world, with both factors combining to make Hughes dependent on the regard of his race as practically no other black poet has been. He responded by consciously accepting the challenge of Whitman and Sandburg but also by accepting as his own special task, within the exploration of modern democratic vistas in the United States, the search for a genuinely Afro-American poetic form. At the center of his poetic consciousness stood the black masses,

     Dream-singers all,
     Loud laughers in the hands of Fate—
     My people.

Or, as he soon more calmly, and yet more passionately, would express his admiration and love:

     The night is beautiful,
     So the faces of my people.
     The stars are beautiful,
     So the eyes of my people.
     Beautiful, also, is the sun
     Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.

Before he was nineteen, Hughes had written at least three of the poems on which his revered position among black readers would rest. The most important was "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" ("I've known rivers: / I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins. / My soul has grown deep like the rivers.") "When Sue Wears Red" drew on the ecstatic cries of the black church to express a tribute to black woman unprecedented in the literature of the race.

     When Susanna Jones wears red
     Her face is like an ancient cameo
     Turned brown by the ages.
     Come with a blast of trumpets,

The third major poem of this first phase of Hughes's adult creativity was "Mother to Son," a dramatic monologue that reclaimed dialect (Dunbar's "jingle in a broken tongue") for the black poet ("Well, son, I'll tell you: / Life for me ain't been no crystal stair. / It's had tacks in it, / And splinters"). With this poem and the resuscitation of dialect, Hughes came closer than any of the poets before him to what I have identified as the great hurdle facing the committed black poet-how to allow the race to infuse and inspire the very form of a poem, and not merely its surface contentions. Until this step could be taken, black poetry would remain antiquarian, anti-modern.

To a degree greater than that of any other young black poet, however, Hughes trained himself to be a modern poet—I am conscious here of Pound's words on the general subject, and on Eliot in particular. His high school, dominated by the children of east European immigrants, and where he was class poet and editor of the yearbook, was a training ground in cosmopolitanism. Mainly from Jewish classmates, "who were mostly interested in more than basketball and the glee club," he was introduced to basic texts of radical socialism. Although at 21 he began his first ocean voyage by dumping overboard a box of his books, the detritus of his year at Columbia (he saved only one book—Leaves of Grass: "That one I could not throw away"), it was not out of ignorance of what they might contain. "Have you read or tried to read," he wrote in 1923 to a friend, "Joyce's much discussed 'Ulysses'?" By the age of 23 he could speak both French and Spanish. In 1923 he was writing poems about Pierrot (a black Pierrot, to be sure), after Jules Laforgue, like Edna St. Vincent Millay in Aria da Capo, and another young man who would soon concede that he was a poet manqué and turn to fiction to confront the gap between lowly provincialism and modernism—William Faulkner. If Hughes went to Paris and Italy without finding the Lost Generation, at least he was able in 1932 to assure Ezra Pound (who had written to him from Rappallo to complain about the lack of instruction in African culture in America) that "Many of your poems insist on remaining in my head, not the words, but the mood and the meaning, which, after all, is the heart of a poem."

Hughes also shared with white modernists, to a degree far greater than might be inferred from his most popular poems, an instinct toward existentialism in its more pessimistic form. One poem, written just before his first book of poems appeared in 1926, suggests the relative case with which he could have taken to "raceless" modernist idioms. From "A House in Toas":

     Thunder of the Rain God
      And we three
      Smitten by beauty.
     Thunder of the Rain God:
      And we three
     Weary, weary.
     Thunder of the Rain God
      And you, she and I
      Waiting for the nothingness….

Hughes, however, had already committed himself to a very different vision of poetry and the modern world, a vision rooted in the modern black experience and expressed most powerfully and definitively in the music called blues. What is the blues? Although W.C. Handy was the first musician to popularize it, notably with St. Louis Blues, the form is so deeply based in the chants of Afro-American slave labor, field hollers, and sorrow songs as to be ancient and comprises perhaps the greatest art of Africans in North America. Oral and improvisational by definition, the blues nevertheless has a classical regimen. Its most consistent form finds a three-line stanza, in which the second line restates the first, and the third provides a contrasting response to both. "The blues speak to us simultaneously of the tragic and the comic aspects of the human condition," Ralph Ellison has written; they must be seen "first as poetry and as ritual," and thus as "a transcendence of those conditions created within the Negro community by the denial of social justice." "It was a language," Samuel Charters asserts in The Legacy of the Blues, "a rich, vital, expressive language that stripped away the misconception that the black society in the United States was simply a poor, discouraged version of the white. It was impossible not to hear the differences. No one could listen to the blues without realizing that there were two Americas."

A long brooding on the psychology of his people, and a Whitmanesque predisposition to make the native languages of America guide his art, led Hughes early in 1923 to begin his greatest single literary endeavor: his attempt to resuscitate the dead art of an American poetry and culture by invoking the blues (exactly as George Gershwin, the following year, would try to elevate American music in his Rhapsody in Blue). If Pound had looked in a similar way, at one point, to the authority of the Provincial lyric of the middle ages, Hughes could still hear the blues in night clubs and on street corners, as blacks responded in art to the modern world. At the very least, Pound and Hughes (and Whitman) shared a sense that poetry and music were intimately related. To Hughes, black music at its best was the infallible metronome of racial grace: "Like the waves of the sea coming one after another, always one after another, like the earth moving around the sun, night, day—night, day—night, day—forever, so is the undertow of black music with its rhythm that never betrays you, its rooted power." In the blues, in its mixture of pain and laughter, its lean affirmation of humanity in the face of circumstance, all in a secular mode (no "shantih, shantih" here; no brand plucked from the "burning!"), he found the tone, the texture, the basic language of true black modernism. A line from the epigraphic note to the volume says it all: "The mood of the Blues is almost always despondency, but when they are sung people laugh."

Over a period of five years, starting some time around 1922, he slowly engaged the blues as a literary poet, first describing the blues from a distance, then enclosing the blues within a traditional poem, as he did in the prizewinning "The Weary Blues" ("Droning a drowsy syncopated tune, / Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon, / I heard a Negro play"), until, at last, in his most important collection, Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), he proposed the blues exclusively on its own terms by writing in the form itself, alone. Thus he acknowledge at last the full dignity of the people who had invented it.

Savagely attacked in black newspapers as "about 100 pages of trash [reeking] of the gutter and sewer," containing "poems that are insanitary, insipid, and repulsing," this book nevertheless was Hughes's greatest achievement in poetry, and remarkable by almost any American standard, as the literary historian Howard Mumford Jones recognized in a 1927 review. "In a sense," Jones wrote of Hughes, "he has contributed a really new verse form to the English language."

More important, blues offered, in a real sense, a new mode of feeling to the world (Eudora Welty has reminded us that literature teaches us how to feel) and a new life to art. To probe this point we would have to make a fresh reading of art and culture in the 1920s, for which I do not have the time or, truly, the skills. But instead of dismissively talking about the jazz age we would have to see that 1920, when the first commercial recording of a black singer, Mamie Smith's Crazy Blues, appeared, was perhaps as important a year for some people (certainly the millions of blacks who bought blues records in the decade, and the millions of whites down to our day who would thereafter sing and dance to the blues and its kindred forms) as was 1922, the year of Eliot's The Waste Land, for other people. We would see Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, premiered at Paul Whiteman's concert "An Experiment in Modern Music" in New York in 1924, as a modern American landmark that is in fact an alternative to the spirit of European modernism. We might go further, not simply to the work of other musicians such as Stravinsky and Bartok and Aaron Copeland but also to the work of writers like Faulkner, whose genius was emancipated in The Sound and the Fury, I would suggest, by a balance between the modernism of Joyce, which dominates the first section of the novel, and the counter-modernism of the blues, which dominates the last in spite of the religious overtones there, and in spite of Faulkner's ultimate unwillingness to take on the consciousness of a black character whose life is informed by the blues. To me, it is instructive that Joycean technique facilitates the utterance of the idiot, Benjy, but that the blues temper informs the most affirmative section of the book, that dominated by black Dilsey Gibson and her people ("they endured").

Far from suggesting that only Langston Hughes in the Harlem Renaissance discovered the black modern, I see the whole Harlem movement as struggling toward its uncovering. Why? Because it was inescapable; it was what the masses lived. In one sense, reductive no doubt, the Harlem Renaissance was simply an attempt by the artists to understand blues values and to communicate them to the wider modern world.

Finally, I would suggest that this question of modernism, and Hughes's place in it, needs to be seen in the context not merely of Harlem but of international cultural change in the twentieth century. By the age of twenty-one, he belonged already to an advanced guard of writers, largely from the yet unspoken world outside Europe and North America, that would eventually include Neruda of Chile, the young Borges of Argentina (who translated "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" in 1931), Garcia Lorca of Spain (see his "El Rey de Harlem"), Jacques Roumain of Haiti (see his poem "Langston Hughes"), Senghor of Senegal (who would hail Hughes in 1966 as the greatest poetic influence on the Negritude movement), Césaire of Martinique, Damas of French Guyana, and Guillen of Cuba (who freely asserted in 1930 that his first authentically Cuban or "Negro" poems, the eight pieces of Molivos de Son, were inspired by Hughes's visit to Havana that year). To these names should be added painters such as Diego Rivera, following his return from Paris in 1923, and his friends Orozco and Siquieros.

The collective aim of these writers and artists was to develop, even as they composed in the languages and styles of Europe and faced the challenge of European modernism, an aesthetic tied to a sense of myth, geography, history, and culture that was truly indigenous to their countries, rather than merely reflective of European trends, whether conservative or avant-garde. Finally, let me suggest that Hughes's virtual precedence of place among them has less to do with his date of birth or his individual talent than with the fact that he was the poetic fruition of the Afro-American intellectual tradition, where these questions of race and culture and this challenge to civilization had long been debated, and under the harshest social conditions. In 1910, after all, when DuBois founded Crisis magazine, he gave it a challenging subtitle—but one he had already used for an even earlier publication. He called it "A Record of the Darker Races."

(read more)

This section contains 6,647 words
(approx. 23 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Arnold Rampersad