In "Salvation" by Langston Hughes, why does Hughes not tell the story in present tense, and how would doing so change the story?

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The story is told in the past tense because Hughes is remembering an event that happened in his childhood. More than that, however, the use of past tense suggests that the narrator, who is remembering this event, somehow knows better. That is, when we get to the end of the story, and little Langston is crying in bed because Jesus didn't come, the narrator's distance from the story is such that we are meant to understand the experience at the revival as a pivotal moment in Langston's life. Langston's lie in church changed his whole perspective on religion, a change that has resulted in the way Langston the writer, remembers the experience and writes about it.

A shift to present tense, of course, would change everything. In that case, the story would be told by 12 year old Langston; the story would become about his crisis of faith, or his stubbornness in church; the tone of the story would be more fraught. The emphasis would be on the drama at the temple, instead of the lesson Langston learned.

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In “Salvation”, Langston Hughes is looking back to a defining moment in his life when he is confronted by his own beliefs and faith in religion.  He writes the story in past tense to show that he is now an adult but is still affected by the incident when he claims to see Jesus but actually doesn’t.  The pressure to be saved in church that day has a profound effect on him.  The disappointment he feels when he doesn’t see Jesus, like his Aunt and other parishioners expect, changes his religious beliefs as an adult.  He is naive as a child and doesn’t understand the concept of being born again, and the expectations for him are too extreme and hard for him to grasp.  So, as Hughes reminisces about this pivotal moment in his life, he is also understanding its lasting effects.  If he had written the story in present tense, as a child experiencing his failure at the moment, he may not have had the epiphany he does about his relationship with God and faith.  As an adult, he can sort out his feelings of guilt and disappointment as he looks back at the event and can come to grips with how it impacts him.

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