Selected Letters of Langston Hughes
The letters in this volume extend from one to his estranged father on March 5, 1921 to a final letter to his good friend Arna Bontemps on April 22, 1967, exactly one month before his death. Perhaps 325 letters are presented here; the editors estimate that all his letters would require nearly 20 volumes. The editors’ goal was to present an “epistolary companion to the life story Hughes tells in his autobiographical works” even though these do not cover the last three decades of his life.
There are three avenues to reading this excellent examination of Hughes’s life. One may read straight through, of course, simply “hearing” his voice. One can skip about through the years trying to catch how he changed over the years. Or, one can choose a particular recipient and follow his letters across the years. Following either avenue, one may simply read and catch the flavor or supplement the reading by studying the copious footnotes that identify people, places, literary magazines, and a host of other interesting tidbits.
Hughes was a peripatetic traveler. Usually, working on a variety of freighters, he visited Europe and Africa frequently. Descriptions are literate and thoughtful. He took time to compose his correspondence. He often refers to stacks of letters waiting to be answered. From a ship off Sierra Leone, he wrote to Countee Cullen in October 1923 that he had “seen more of Africa than I ever expected to see. And tonight the sunset! Gleaming copper and gold and the tropical soft green after-glow of twilight and now stars in the water and luminous phosphorescent foam on the little waves about the ship and ahead the light of Freetown toward which we are steering through the soft darkness.”
In March 1924 he has re-crossed the Atlantic on a different freighter. Having left the ship due to a disagreement with the cook over a piece of chicken (Apparently, chicken was reserved for the officers.), he settles in Paris and writes Cullen that she should stay in Harlem! “The French are the most sou-clutching, hard-faced, hard-worked, cold and half-starved set of people I’ve ever seen in life. Heat—unknown. Hot water—what is it?…And do they like Americans of any color? They do not!!!” Yet, two months later he wrote to Alain Locke that he is “beginning to like the city a little.” There had been a couple of days of sunshine that had brightened his spirits.
Hughes sometimes wrote terse literary criticism. In another letter to Locke, he wrote, “I have just finished Madam Bovary, and think the best thing Emma did was to kill herself. She should have done it before.” Nor was he averse to commentary on the state of race relations. In a March 1943 letter to Carl Van Doren, he spoke about the Red Cross and its “outrageous segregation of Negro blood and Negro blood donors…” He goes on to castigate the Red Cross for having “failed thirteen million Negroes on the home front, and its racial policies are a blow in the face to the American Negro morale.” Van Doren apparently did not respond.
An introduction and editorial preface place the letters in a general context while brief introductions to the five sections provide a more specific context to the letters that follow. Each letter is complete. The number of recipients presented here is amazing; their names are a veritable who’s who of the twentieth century. Arna Bontemps, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, Blanche Knopf, Ezra Pound, Carl Sandburg, James Baldwin, Muhammad Ali, and Martin Luther King, Jr. The list goes on.
Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel, two of this wonderful book’s editors, have long been associated with Hughes scholarship. The former is Professor Emeritus in the Humanities at Stanford and author of a two-volume biography of Hughes in addition to biographies of W.E.B. Du Bois, Jackie Robinson, and Ralph Ellison. Roessel is Professor of Greek Language and Literature at Richard Stockton College. He edited The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes with Rampersad. His book, In Byron’s Shadow was awarded the annual MLA Prize for Independent Scholars. The third editor of this collection, Christa Fratantoro, is also a senior editor at F.A. Davis Company, a health-care publisher. She studied literature at Stockton College.