“I am completely enchanted by The Big Sea and certainly it is the best thing you have done,” Carl Van Vechten wrote to Langston Hughes in November 1939. He had stayed up late to finish reading:

“Not feeling very well I stayed in night before last and started reading it with the intention of going to bed after reading a few of the opening pages, but I couldn’t lay it down and I read on until 12.15 by which hour I had finished it.”

It’s true—for an autobiography, The Big Sea (1940) is an exceptionally conversational book. Though divided into three longer parts (Twenty-one, Big Sea, and Black Renaissance), there are so many short segments that readers are invited to read “just one more”, particularly because Hughes’ style is amicable and vibrant. It’s easy to imagine the scenes he presents.

This autobiography (or the collection of letters, Remember Me to Harlem, which contains Carl Van Vechten’s enthusiasm for it) would make an excellent starting place for anyone interested in Hughes’ writing life. But it’s also true that there are plenty of other pathways into his work.

Even accidental ones. While reading Rebecca Carroll’s Surviving the White Gaze (2021), I smiled when I came upon this passage: “One night early on in our relationship, Michael read the Langston Hughes poem ‘I Play it Cool’ to me over the phone, and I thought he could lift my body with the sheer timbre of his voice, so potent and full.”

The film directed by Isaac Julien for instance: Looking for Langston (1989). Langston Hughes’ homosexuality was a “widely shared secret”; this film has an intimate speakeasy-nightclub kind of feel, and even though that sounds impossible, that’s it exactly. Set pieces are mixed with archival footage, there are long narrated passages of poetry and on screen viewers witness a sensual and skin-soaked fictional love story.

The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955) came to life during the late 1940s and early 1950s. When Langston Hughes met Roy DeCarava on an uptown New York City corner, Hughes was struck by DeCarava’s series of silver gelatin photographs which captured the African American community that Hughes knew so well: “No matter which way you look, up or down, somebody is always headed somewhere, something is happening.” Hughes took the photographs to his own publisher, Simon and Schuster, and they proposed that Hughes write text to accompany the images: “Yes, you can set in your window anywhere in Harlem and see plenty. Of course, some windows is better to set in than others mainly because it’s better inside, not that you can necessarily see any more.”

Visiting Langston by Willie Perdomo and illustrated by Bryan Collier, with watercolours and collage, (2002) is the kind of storybook that rewards the returning reader. There are so many fine and rich textures that support the scenes, say, of Langston Hughes at his typewriter on one page and, on the facing, a jazz quintet, each creator looking downward at their art, the textures pulling the reader into their creative flow. Hughes’ words pepper the story, which centres around a young girl in Harlem who longs to write. Even a board leaning against a stack of mismatched furniture in a second-hand shop features small reproductions of famous photos of the poet.

Tony Medina’s illustrated biography in verse, Love to Langston (2002) is a concise and colourful introduction to the poet’s life and legacy. Hughes’ poetry was foundational for Tony Medina and that brown face on the cover was the first face like his that he had seen on a book. Illustrator R. Gregory Christie had won a couple of Coretta Scott King Awards before working on this project and he’s won six more since. The imagery is simple and bright, the poems clear and direct: for an adult reader, the paragraphs for each poem, at the back of the book, are interesting and useful. “Harlem is the capital of my world / black and beautiful and bruised /       like me,” Medina writes.

The final passage of The Big Sea also suits this stage of my Langston Hughes reading project:

“Literature is a big sea full of many fish. I let down my nets and pulled. I’m still pulling.”

[Note: Looking for the first post in The Writing Life: Langston Hughes series? Or, the project page?]