Lately, there has been a fascinating trend in publishing circles. More and more firms are showing an interest in releasing the collected letters of famous writers. Possibly, it is due only to a feeling that presently this is good business, since the public recently has shown so much interest in the confessional side of the arts. One can hope, however, that there is more behind the trend. Perhaps it is not out of the question that there does now exist a growing reading public which has discovered how much their understanding of an artist and his work may be enriched through this kind of book.
Of the current group of such books, the one which contains the letters exchanged between Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes may be the most significant. Not only can it enrich one’s understanding of two of the foremost Afro-American writers, but it also can provide one with new insights into both the hostile social and political background against which they had to struggle in the United States, and the rich cultural tradition which they exemplified and encouraged both here in their country and in other parts of the world. In other words, their letters ultimately come to represent not only their personal legacy but also that of an oppressed minority fighting for a distinctive and free voice.
When these two men first met in 1924, they were struck by their common desires. As a result, they began to correspond soon thereafter, and this correspoondence did not stop until Langston Hughes died in 1967. By then, the two had written approximately twenty-three hundred letters to each other. Charles H. Nichols, the editor of this book, has selected five hundred of these, and although one has to be curious about the letters that have been left out, it is easy to recognize the value of the ones which are presented.
Through them, the reader certainly gets a feeling for the authors which they might not otherwise have. Both Bontemps and Hughes, like so many writers, had various personae which they employed for different audiences. In most of their letters, they still appear to be restrained by the awareness of an audience, particularly after they agree that their letters would eventually be collected and housed at the Yale University library. Nevertheless, once in a while, they let some of their more private feelings through; and, because this is not very often, such moments appear that much more intense and moving. Perhaps the most affecting examples of these come early in their careers when, as they are forced to face the great odds of establishing themselves as black voices in a white society, they occasionally give in to feelings of despair and, in turn, encourage each other to continue the struggle.
While they work to fulfill their personal and racial missions of artistic freedom, they often record the most significant literary, social, and political events that were occurring around them. Since they often do this merely in passing, this book should not be perceived as more than it is. It is not a history of ideas or world events. On the other hand, it can serve as a barometer of the turmoil of half a century. Thus, for example, as one reads the letters written during World War II, one gets glimpses of exactly what effect this upheaval had on promoting the race struggle in the United States. After the war, and prior to the revolutionary period of the 1960’s, there are absorbing references to such issues as the Negro press, black athletes, birth control, film as an educational tool, the need for black consciousness, and the oppressive climate of the racist South. Then, during the 1960’s occasional comments on the Civil Rights Movement give one an impression of what it was like for a black person, and more specifically a black intellectual, to live in that explosive period.
Being literary men, it was literature that was of primary interest to Bontemps and Hughes. Consequently, their letters are packed with comments on fellow writers and literary trends. Often, again, these comments are only in passing. Once in a while, however, the opinions which they exchange have critical value. Both Bontemps and Hughes, belonging to a generation of writers identified with the Harlem Renaissance, were, first of all, deeply interested in the career of anyone who stemmed from that tradition. Thus, frequently they exchange information and concerns about such writers as Claude McKay and Jean Toomer. In the case of the latter, Bontemps at one point throws out the intriguing view that Toomer might have failed in his desperate attempt fo follow up on the success of his experimental work, Cane, because he decided to write no longer as a black.
Although both writers may have had a stake in the preservation of the older Afro-American literary tradition, they were very much aware of whatever was new. In fact, they both encouraged new black talent wherever they found it. It may still be...
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