The Life of Langston Hughes
In the first volume of his biography of Langston Hughes, (subtitled I, Too, Sing America, 1986), Arnold Rampersad traced Hughes’s boyhood roots in Kansas, Illinois, and Ohio, through his early career in the 1920’s (as a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, along with other black writers such as Claude McKay and Countee Cullen), into the 1930’s and his travels to the Soviet Union and his work as a correspondent during the Spanish Civil War.
Volume 2 picks up this story in a crucial year, 1941. Hughes had been writing and publishing for twenty years, but at thirty-nine he had reached a crossroads in his career. Increasingly hounded by the political Right, Hughes had just renounced his earlier radicalism (in particular, his 1932 poem on religious hypocrisy, “Goodbye Christ”) and moved closer to the political center. For the last quarter century of his life, Hughes would attempt to hold on to what was essentially an untenable position. While it is true, as Rampersad wrote in volume 1, that “Hughes’s art seemed to decline in his most radical years,” it is equally true, as he writes here, that “the essence of Hughes’s career as a writer had been from the start an interplay between art and social conscience, with a need to defy.” The artist with a social conscience has never found life easy in America, and neither would Hughes, even after he renounced his radical thirties. As the epigraph to this volume, Rampersad quotes from Hughes in 1964: “Politics can be the graveyard of the poet. And only poetry can be his resurrection.” Hughes would die and be reborn a number of times in his career.
His last twenty-five years, however, would also be his most productive. Few writers in the twentieth century have accomplished so much—or worked so hard. Especially after he established himself in a house at 20 East 127th Street in Harlem (“Harlem is home”), with his surrogate parents, the Harpers, Hughes was “running a literary factory,” or, as he also described himself, was “a literary sharecropper.” He appeared to have dozens of projects going at any one moment; at times, he would even use different-colored paper for his different projects, so that if pages got mixed up he always knew which papers belonged to which job.
He was not only extremely active but active in the widest range of genres. Hughes worked in just about every literary and musical form: not only poetry, fiction, journalism, and drama, but also children’s books, musicals (Tambourines to Glory, 1958), and books on jazz, on Africa, on Harlem, on black history (A Pictorial History of the Negro in America, 1956, with Milton Meltzer). If there is a criticism of Hughes the artist it is that he too often had to sacrifice artistic quality in his rush to produce still more work to survive.
Hughes’s prodigious activity was not only by choice. Like many other writers in America—and particularly writers of color—Hughes was always struggling to make ends meet: “to live by his writing (as no black had ever done), and to make black America not only the major raw material of his art but also . . . his main audience.” He was not completely successful (unless one counts the many gifts from friends and patrons as literary income). His numerous collaborations (on the musical Street Scene, 1947, for example, with Kurt Weill and Elmer Rice) often ended in squabbles over money. Hughes’s hard scramble for money also meant that throughout his career he was forced to embark on the lecture circuit as a quick (but draining) way to raise the money necessary to give him the time to write. He probably gave thousands of talks in his lifetime, as well as introducing readings by other writers, reciting his poetry to jazz, and doing other public performances, as long as he needed money.
Fortunately, Hughes lived long enough to reap some of the rewards of his long and productive life. Never a wealthy man, he was able at the end of his life—he died in 1967 at sixty-five—to travel extensively, especially to Africa and to France, two countries that had come to have the most meaning for him outside his own. He was the recipient of a number of literary and honorary awards that capped his fruitful and committed career.
He had paid his dues. Aside from other difficulties, Hughes would be hounded constantly for his radical past. J. Edgar Hoover denounced the writer in 1944, rightwing groups would pressure sponsoring organizations to drop his speaking engagements throughout his career, and his talks were often disrupted by hecklers or pickets. Investigation by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the Senate Permanent Sub-Committee on Investigations meant that Hughes’s books would be dropped from American libraries abroad. Hughes recognized that much of this harassment occurred because he was a black writer with a radical past. His radicalism had never been especially political, but like a great number of writers with social consciences in the...
(The entire section is 2046 words.)