Suitcase in Harlem

The Life of Langston Hughes, Vol. I, 1902–1941: I, Too, Sing America

by Arnold Rampersad
Oxford University Press, 468 pp., $9.95 (paper)

The Life of Langston Hughes, Vol. II, 1941–1967: I Dream a World

by Arnold Rampersad
Oxford University Press, 512 pp., $24.95

Langston Hughes survived the Harlem Renaissance, unlike most of his peers of the 1920s, who either died young or faded away after the stock market crashed. “A literary sharecropper,” as he called himself, Hughes sustained through four decades a career as a professional black writer, the first since Charles Chesnutt, who published his short stories and novels around the turn of the century. Hughes made do with modest advances, fees from a mostly black reading and lecture circuit, and anything in between. He produced fifteen volumes of poetry, two collections of short stories, a novel, two volumes of autobiography, fifteen plays, several librettos, scripts, essays, songs, translations, anthologies, children’s stories, biographies and histories for the young, and two decades’ worth of a weekly newspaper column. When he died in 1967, at the age of sixty-five, the “bard of Harlem,” the “Poet Laureate of the Negro People,” was as much a part of Afro-American culture as the word soul.

The black power movement of the 1960s turned Hughes off because he was not a good hater, but its message of black pride was a consolation to him, having come of age with Marcus Garvey’s black nationalism in the aftermath of World War I. Hughes dedicated his work to revealing to black people their dignity and the beauty of black folk culture. He was on a mission as a writer of social purpose: “I explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America.” He cast himself as the companion of black people, a troubadour in the folk tradition like blues singers and jazz musicians. His aim was to record the humor and wisdom of the low-down folk; to transcribe the talk he heard on the tenement stoops, on the southern road; to capture the sounds of the black neighborhood, and to honor its music. He never broke faith with this knit of identity even as he adapted it to the historical moment and the marketplace.

Yet for all his determination to make literature out of the black oral tradition, to place it in the service of the social struggle, and to “make hay” along the way, the sum of his career is greater than its parts. History is a sly boots, and for a generation of blacks that cannot identify with the frustrations of Jim Crow, and for whites who cannot understand the hard deal that faces working-class blacks, it is difficult to reconcile Hughes’s reputation as a poet-hero with his topical verse and uncomplicated prose.

Hughes’s image as the engaged black writer was a wall that never failed to protect him. Though his writing is transparent, he himself remains something of a mystery. Hughes loved to hang out, but not even a lifelong friend like Carl Van Vechten claimed to know the man behind the smoke. His extreme recessiveness drove Wallace Thurman to write of him in his roman à clef about the New Negro movement, Infants of the Spring (1932), that “the only unknown quantity was …

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Letters

Langston Hughes in the USSR June 29, 1989