Langston Hughes: Critical Perspectives Past and Present.

Langston Hughes: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. – book reviews

Nicholas M. Evans

Edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and K.A. Appiah. New York: Amistad Press, 1993. xii + 255 pages. $24.95 hardcover, $14.95 paper.

This collection, one of the six inaugural volumes of the Amistad Literary Series devoted to African American writers, bears the hallmark of its distinguished editors. Gates and Appiah reprint valuable selections from two strains of Hughes criticism: contemporary reviews of original publications and more recent critical essays. The reviews are diverse; many are written by Hughes’s contemporaries and provocatively expose artistic tensions between reviewer and author. Included are Countee Cullen on Hughes’s first volume of poetry, The Weary Blues (1926); Sterling Brown on his first novel, Not Without Laughter (1930); Sherwood Anderson on the short-story collection The Ways of White Folks (1934); Richard Wright on Hughes’s first autobiography, The Big Sea (1940); and James Baldwin on Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (1959). The critical essays, ranging from 1967 to 1991, have all been published previously, except for the final contribution by Maryemma Graham. Included are selected chapters from monographs on Hughes by James A. Emanuel, Onwuchekwa Jemie, and R. Baxter Miller. A biographical essay by Arnold Rampersad and one on the blues by Steven C. Tracy similarly derive from their respective books on Hughes.

In providing such an array of material, this collection is rivaled only by Critical Essays on Langston Hughes, edited by Edward J. Mullen (1986). The latter offers a similar mixture of reviews and essays, and the two volumes’ contents overlap measurably. However, Mullen’s work provides a more comprehensive array of material, especially reviews, pointing to some shortcomings of Gates and Appiah’s collection. For example, Mullen includes several important reviews by “New Negro” godfather Alain Locke, while the current volume surprisingly offers none. Nevertheless, such omissions may be outweighed by the fact that Langston Hughes is much more affordable than Mullen’s work (currently available only in hardcover).

In any case, the publication of Gates and Appiah’s collection provides an opportunity to evaluate the “state” of Hughes criticism. It is fascinating that both reviewers and essayists often evaluate Hughes in similar terms. Many consider Hughes an artistic representative of and spokesperson for the “black masses,” a faithful interpreter of their experience for reading audiences. (In this usage the category of the “masses,” or synonymous “folk,” is undifferentiated and homogeneous, subsuming regional and historical distinctions in favor of a selectively general racial/cultural identity.) Proponents of this view include Brown, Wright, Rampersad, and Graham, among others. That these writers perceive Hughes so similarly at widely varying historical moments invites investigation. Through what historical processes did Hughes attain and preserve his reputation as an “accurate” interpreter of African American life?

Biographical evidence often underlies these claims about Hughes’s status. He lived among the “masses” in Kansas, Washington, D.C., and Harlem. In his younger years he worked alongside them in menial jobs. Yet social proximity in and of itself does not provide the ability to perceive the “true” meaning of cultural experience. Nor does it ensure that the meanings a writer finds will cohere with audiences’ modes of reception, leading to reader authentication of the writer’s representation. Rather, specific cultural and historically contingent conditions shape both elements of the reputation-building process: the spokesperson, influenced by contemporary conventions of representation, constructs certain meanings about cultural experience, while audiences evaluate the “truth” of the meanings according to similar conventions. The value assigned to a writer’s work depends upon the definitions of value to which audiences subscribe at the historical moment(s) of reception.

Few if any critics, in this volume or elsewhere, explore the process through which Hughes’s reputation was initially built and later maintained. Maryemma Graham’s essay, “The Practice of a Social Art,” is a welcome, though only partial exception. Graham generally accepts the notion of Hughes as a spokesperson, but at points her analysis contextualizes his work historically. For example, she intimates that Hughes’s reputation sprouted in the 1920s because his work harmonized with the goals of other prominent African American spokespersons, such as Locke, W.E.B. DuBois, and James Weldon Johnson. These men “acknowledged the distinctive racial character of black folk art and viewed it as an essential ingredient in the development of a formal American literary and cultural expression”; they “predicted that social equality would result from the recognition of the cultural uniqueness and greatness of black people.” Hughes’s early poetry cohered with this perspective, as it emphasized the idea of racial greatness (e.g., “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” “I, Too, Sing America”) and often represented black “folk art” in a selectively laudatory manner (“The Weary Blues,” “Jazzonia”). “Jazzonia” in particular associated Hughes with the “masses.” It is no coincidence, then, that Du Bois assisted Hughes’s career significantly by publishing his poems in Crisis as early as 1921 and by giving him poetry awards bearing that journal’s name in 1925. Locke, of course, also sponsored Hughes, including his poems in the 1925 volume The New Negro and dubbing him the “spokesman [of] the Negro masses” in a 1926 review of The Weary Blues. Hughes’s original reputation as an accurate interpreter of the “black masses” grew out of these figures’ positive reception of his work.

Graham also points out that Hughes regained prominence in the 1960s because some of his writing in the 1920s and 1930s “successfully fused the black folk heritage with what was considered a revolutionary consciousness.” Figures in the “black nationalist-oriented” Black Arts Movement interpreted his work as dovetailing with their own cultural and political agenda, one combining explicit class politics with a concern for divining the “black aesthetic.” Again, the value assigned to Hughes’s work depended on the orientation of a particular audience at a particular moment. Acknowledging such a point is important not only for historical reasons, but also in order to examine current analytical approaches. Past critical agendas influence our own. The orientations that led earlier black intellectuals (especially those of the 1960s) to authenticate Hughes’s cultural representations as “accurate” and Hughes himself as a racial spokesperson contribute to tendencies among writers like Rampersad, and even Graham, to reach the same conclusions.

Investigating the process through which Hughes’s reputation and status was constructed and maintained is a project that needs further development. Langston Hughes: Critical Perspectives Past and Present will invaluably assist in pursuing this and other studies. The reviews it collects revisit areas of historical significance, and the essays provide an opportunity to survey and re-examine contemporary critical positions.

COPYRIGHT 1997 The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnics Literature of the United States

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