In response to:

Suitcase in Harlem from the February 16, 1989 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of Arnold Rampersad’s biography of Langston Hughes [NYR, February 16] Darryl Pinckney writes that after Hughes went to the Soviet Union in 1932 to work on a film about blacks in America, “the script proved inadequate and after much controversy the production was canceled.” This statement implies that there really was something wrong with Hughes’s script, and that the reasons for canceling the film were genuine. However, there may be a different explanation of this affair.

Among the people who met Hughes during his stay in the USSR was Arthur Koestler, who bumped into Hughes in Ashkhabad when both were touring Central Asia on the invitation of the Comintern.1 Koestler asserts that the real reason the film wasn’t made was that a political rapprochement had just begun between the USSR and the USA (which was the last of the great powers to recognize the revolutionary regime), and that one of the conditions the Americans set for recognition was that the USSR should cease its propaganda among American blacks. As a result, Hughes’s film about black life in America was dropped “overnight.”

Apropos of Hughes’s political beliefs, Koestler concurs with Pinckney’s opinion that Hughes did not join the Party: “Hughes at that time was deeply sympathetic towards the Soviet regime, but as far as I remember not a Party member. He was a poet with a purely humanitarian approach to politics—in fact, an innocent abroad.”2

Incidentally, Koestler adds that because of their political innocence (or gullibility), neither he nor Hughes guessed at the time the connection between the dropping of the film and the Soviet–American negotiations, which raises the question of how and when Koestler discovered it for himself, and from how reliable a source. Unfortunately he doesn’t expand on this subject. He does, however, devote many delightful pages to his tour with Hughes and a motley assortment of Soviet writers in the guise of an “International Proletarian Writers’ Brigade.”

Michael Scammell
Committee of Soviet Studies
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York

This Issue

June 29, 1989