A Poet Turns to Fiction
Langston Hughes was already an accomplished poet when he began writing short stories. Though he had previously published several stories in a Harlem magazine, it was not until 1933 (while sitting in a hotel room in Moscow, after having read D. H. Lawrence’s The Lovely Lady) that he decided the short story was another genre he could master. Hughes became proficient in such a short time that his first collection of stories, The Ways of White Folks, was published in 1934. Despite this initial success, there was a delay of sixteen years before another collection appeared, though after the drought came seven extensive volumes of short stories published between 1950 and 1965. Five of these feature Hughes’s most famous fictional character, Harlem “folk” philosopher Jesse B. Semple, who holds forth on subjects ranging from his landladies to former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Hughes’s short stories in general can be divided into two categories: early ones that follow Hughes’s adapted version of a traditional Aristotelian short-story form, and later ones, most of which utilize a more flexible and generally more entertaining dialogue form. Both categories feature Hughes’s incisive commentary on race relations and demonstrate his career-long search for a form flexible enough to accommodate both his high aesthetic principles and his political interests.
The title of Hughes’s first book of short stories, The Ways of White Folks (1934), is a homage to W. E. B. Du Bois’s classic of African American sociology, The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Du Bois’s work makes the bold claim that the history of the twentieth century will be the history of the color line; Hughes’s work investigates the psychological and sometimes physical consequences of an individual character’s relationship to the color line. Two stories, “Little Dog” and “Father and Son,” show, respectively, the white and black sides of customary and legal segregation. In “Little Dog,” the protagonist, Miss Clara Briggs, a forty-five-year-old Manhattan-dwelling spinster, suddenly decides to adopt a pet. Miss Briggs chooses a little white dog that she names Flips, only to find that her decision brings her into daily contact with Joe, the broad-shouldered African American janitor of her building. Miss Briggs soon becomes enamored of Joe and organizes her schedule around his daily delivery of dog bones. She will not, however, allow her emotions to take any public form; she represses her feelings for Joe and eventually moves to another apartment building in an attempt to escape her socially unacceptable desires. The structure of the story, as in much of Hughes’s best work, reinforces spatially the structure of Miss Briggs’s emotions. Joe and his family are kept down in the basement, just as Miss Briggs’s feelings for him and sympathy for his family are denied. Her “white flight” becomes an emblem of the connection between spatial relationships and her inability to control the color line in her own mind.
In the concluding story of the collection, “Father and Son,” Hughes offers some of his most trenchant criticism of southern race relations. “Father and Son” is the story of Colonel Thomas Norwood, a wealthy Georgia planter, and his illegitimate multiracial son, Bert Lewis. Colonel Norwood obviously overcame the customary problem of sexual relations between the races, having fathered several children by his servant Cora Lewis. He also has some affection for these children, for he is willing to pay for their education (if they agree to go to Atlanta). Like Miss Briggs, however, the colonel is unwilling or unable to cross the color line and admit that Bert is his son. Where Miss Briggs can literally move away from her problems, Colonel Lewis cannot avoid seeing his son when Bert returns from a year at the “Negro college” to visit his mother and family who remain on the plantation. Bert, who is said to have inherited his father’s stubborn character,...
(The entire section is 2,730 words.)