When you have been thrilled by a book, and you discover that someone has written a letter about being thrilled with that same book, even if it was a hundred years ago, it invites a certain companionship.
When that letter-writer is writing to the author of that collection, you feel included in a conversation, even if you’re an eavesdropper.
Carl Van Vechten wrote to Langston Hughes about his manuscript of short stories, The Ways of White Folks, in December 1933: “I read the book through at a sitting and was THRILLED. I think it is superb from beginning to end (including the magnificent title).”
And, he goes on. Which suits me, because that was my introduction to Hughes (my brief thoughts are here).
When most people hear the name Langston Hughes, though, they think of his poems.
So, earlier in this project, I read a commemorative edition of his first collection, The Weary Blues (1926).
In Kevin Young’s introduction, he observes that Hughes “is celebrating, critiquing, and completing the American dream, that desire for equality or at least opportunity”.
Hughes had received the First Prize for Poetry for The Weary Blues, when it was still unpublished.
His first published poem was “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, published in Crisis four years prior, in 1921. Before The Weary Blues was published, Hughes also published his manifesto: “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”. There, he writes: “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.”
This debate still unfolds, whether or not Black writers should focus on complexity which leaves room for all aspects of humanity or whether they should create uniformly positive representations to counterbalance the abundance of negative—whether shallow or cruel—representations in the culture. There were as many opinions on this matter in Hughes’ day as there are today.
In this sense, the poems are political even when they do not overtly seem to be; one of my favourites, “Aunt Sue’s Stories”, is about Aunt Sue, but also about all the ways in which stories are told and shared and the power they can transmit:
“And the dark-faced child, listening,
Knows that Aunt Sue’s stories are real stories.
He knows that Aunt Sue
Never got her stories out of any book at all,
But that they came
Right out of her own life.”
Still, I remain most interested in Hughes’ prose. In his lifetime (1902-1967), he also published two novels (Not Without Laughter in 1930 and Tambourines of Glory in 1958) and three collections of short stories (The Ways of White Folks in 1934, Laughing to Keep from Crying in 1952, and Something in Common in 1963). He also published many stories in newspapers, including enough for five volumes of sketches about his recurring character Jess B. Semple “Simple”. (Who doesn’t love linked stories.)
Hughes was influenced by Guy de Maupassant’s short stories, writing in his first autobiographical volume, The Big Sea (1940), that he “made me really want to be a writer and write stories about Negroes, so true that people in far-away lands would read them—even after I was dead.”
This is quoted in Arnold Rampersad ‘s introduction to Hughes’ Short Stories (edited by Akiba Sullivan Harper, 1996) which also includes work from his school days in an appendix, as well as the early stories published in The Messenger and Harlem.
This is fascinating for readers who want to trace the development of his craft and his enduring interest in specific themes. One of the early stories is inspired by a two-line obit of a woman who “scrubbed floors and picked rags”. (But the “Simple” stories are not included.)
Later last year, I also read Arnold Rampesad’s edited collection of Langston Hughes’ letters; it includes letters by Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin, Alice Walter and Arna Bontemps, among others. And, yes, letters exchanged with Carl Van Vechten.
But the volume of letters that Emily Bernard edited in 2001 is dedicated to their correspondence: Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, 1925-1964 (Ed. Emily Bernard, 2001).
Because it’s been in my stack for months, I’ve written about this collection along the way, how skilfully Bernard offers context for readers and the inspiring list of short biographies which prefaces the volume: “Dramatis Personae”. (Beware: your TBR could be overwhelmed.) But, now that I’ve finished, I think what I truly appreciate was the sense of a complex and rewarding, loyal and enduring friendship.
The way that they sign off their letters often made me smile (with pairs of items, like holly and mistletoe, or avocadoes and Navajo jewelery from Carl, Snowballs or Easter eggs from Langston). And when Hughes telegrams van Vechten in response to the news that he’d secured publication with Knopf for that first volume of poems, I felt ridiculously pleased: “THANKS IMMENSELY THE SILVER TRUMPETS ARE BLOWING LANGSTON HUGHES”. It’s nearly a hundred years ago, and I could feel his excitement.
Ordinary details about Hughes’ work (e.g. at a hotel, on a ship), his experiences in Cuba, back-and-forth about the break in his collaborative relationship between Hurston and Hughes (and the awkwardness of CVV who was, literally, in the middle), the draining pace of touring for Negro Mother in 1932, his disgust with the handling of the Scottsboro case…all of this invites the reader to sit closer to Hughes, while he pays the bills and lives a writer’s life.
I’m no Hughes scholar, so a sentence like this is as interesting to me, in terms of voice as any other: “A piece of cheese that everybody else carries around in his hands in the kitchen needs two silver platters and six forks when it is served in the dining room.” But from a scholarly perspective it is fascinating to peer inside the relationship of a Black writer and white patron. Here, CVV writes to LH: “I hope soon to start work on my Negro novel, but I feel rather alarmed. It would be comparatively easy for me to write it before I knew as much as I know now, enough to know that I am thoroughly ignorant.”
CVV’s “Negro novel” was not universally well received, and somewhere I’ve read that Hughes did have some misgivings that he didn’t express to his white friend. Hughes has a complex understanding of racialization; he writes in 1940, that the “Irish are sometimes like colored, I reckon”. And a few years earlier, he noted that he was “living so much like white folks these days, [like] I’m washing my hair with Golden Glow”. It’s interesting to consider the power dynamics, between this privileged white writer and a working-class Black writer striving to gain recognition for his artistry.
At times, their politics are at odds. CVV did not share Hughes’ conviction about his “Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria”, a poem which ultimately severed Hughes’ relationship with his wealthy, white patron Charlotte Mason. Whereas CVV seems to think that Hughes was taking things too far, it seems as though his resistance increased Hughes’ dedication to pushing that boundary. (The poem is reprinted in an appendix, for readers’ convenience.) Sometimes, too, CVV seems to offer advice that Hughes was not necessarily soliciting (about minor details, like publication dates, whether two books would be released too close together). Whether disagreements or quibbles, these exchanges add to readers’ understanding and a respect for their friendship.
The photographs are small and nested into the letters, which creates a scrapbook-like feel: like the one from 1927 of Jessie Fauset and Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, in front of the statue of Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Institute, and the one of Hughes sitting with Wallace Thurman, near the written request to CVV for any new books or magazines that he might be able to send to Thurman, who was hospitalized for T.B. in that moment, and would soon die from it).
Curious? You can view some of these photographs, as well as manuscript pages and letters, through the online collection at the Beinecke Library, although the amount of digitized material is small, compared to what’s available at the library. Follow this link, which also hosts a one-minute long video.
As I read more of Hughes’ work, I will probably wonder whether I wouldn’t have gotten more out of this collection of letters if I’d waited until later in the project to read them. But thoughts like that can postpone a reading project indefinitely. With other projects, I’ve begun at the beginning and made regular laps in the pool, across and back again with the author’s works, but here I am wading in and splashing about, with illustrated children’s books and literary essays, with short comic stories and educational videos, a book of photographs and a shapeless artsy film.
So far, Hughes is a rewarding writer to explore. I wish that I’d grown up with as many treatments of Harlem as I did of Bloomsbury. But it’s not too late to fill the gap.