In a piece for The Smart Set magazine, Richard Abowitz reminds readers that this past February marked the birthday of one Langston Hughes, popularly known as “the Bard of Harlem.” Over the course of the article, Abowitz parses out Hughes’ peculiar lack of critical respect as a poet, despite his commercial success and clear legacy as an significant Black artist. Hughes suffered the same critical ups and downs as any writer, but both his race and his politics (and, possibly, his sexuality) have overshadowed his poetry and/or provoked the tepid acceptance of Hughes’ poetic contributions to the American canon.
Abowitz does not dig too deeply into contemporary reviews of the poet, but in my own scholarship, I’ve found that critical response to Hughes was often quite racialized, and quite harsh. After the publication of Fine Clothes to the Jew (which Abowitz notes is a contender for Hughes’ greatest poetry collection), the Black newspaper New York Amsterdam News called it “100 pages of trash” while The Pittsburgh Courier claimed it was “degenerate and infantile.” In fact, these critics often said that Hughes was capable of writing in a more refined, “loftier expression” (read: white), but that in Fine Clothes to the Jew, he was doing something else. Hughes responded to The Pittsburgh Courier by admitting as much:
I would certainly be out of my sphere if I attempted to write about the Vanderbilts or the Gould or Park Avenue Society, because I know absolutely nothing about those subjects. But I do know about the humble side of Negro life, and that is what I have written about in my own way.
In this case, it seems that both Black and white media disliked Hughes’ more “folksy” work and wanted him to write poems that better reflected an appreciation for high culture and mainstream literary values. And while Hughes certainly embraced the folk culture of Black America in his work, it is that very label–folk–which has short changed Hughes in the history and discourse of American poetry.
The folk label has clung to Hughes, even among those critics who revere him as a political activist. For example, Amiri Baraka, an ardent appreciator of Hughes’ political work, concedes that Hughes’ late career, in particular the Simple stories, is “hyper-‘folksy.'” Hughes biographer Faith Berry even acknowledges that the folk label “which he accepted though did not choose, is only part of his legacy.” Additionally, she notes that Hughes’ legacy has struggled against those critics and publishers who wished (and perhaps still wish) to keep Hughes in an artistic box as the Negro folksy “poet laureate” rather than acknowledge his radical work.
I think this is foundational to Abowitz’s argument. After all, “folk” tends to be a pejorative label, one which scholar Kimberly Benston argues is itself an artificial construct created to help insulate “the canon” from that which is deemed uneducated, less literary, or simply less worthy of serious study. In my own work, I have found that because of Hughes’ emphasis on Black vernacular, his work is categorized separately from “legitimate” poetry and drama, which only reinforces the uneven power relations which Hughes struggled against for most of his life.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr famously makes this argument for centering the oral tradition and vernacular speech in his book The Signifying Monkey. Although he does not specifically read Hughes’ work as part of the “speakerly” tradition he is exploring, I think his work allows us to read Hughes as a Black author who writes out of this vernacular tradition. This is not to say that the study of vernacular, whether through linguistics or literary theory, is a simple matter. There are many ideas regarding the influence and significance of vernacular language on our written culture, which I discuss in more depth in my dissertation. A larger blog post may be brewing about this subject!
Abowitz also writes the following:
Sandra Y. Govan well sums up the odd position Hughes holds within the context of his mostly white contemporaries: “Seldom is Langston Hughes included in the discussion of American modernists as either a poet or fiction writer,” she observes. “He may well be listed on an anthology’s table of contents, but typically he is grouped together with other African American writers as a member of the Harlem Renaissance … rarely is he discussed critically as a participant in the modernist movement.”
While this is a accurate observation, it is not merely Langston Hughes who is situated in textbooks outside of the Modernist literary context and framed as solely a Harlem Renaissance writer. (Which seems so odd, anyway, since Hughes lived and worked until 1967, almost 30 years after most scholars pinpoint the end of the Renaissance.) This is a recurring issue within literary scholarship which received renewed traction with the September 2013 issue of Modernism/Modernity, which focused on the questions of why Modernism studies tend to exclude the Harlem Renaissance, whether the phrase “Harlem Renaissance” is even accurate, and how scholars should continue to engage with the artistic movement itself. Despite such robust conversation in the last few years, not much has yet changed in textbooks or mainstream literary scholarship, but academia is a notoriously slow moving train.
In conclusion, I agree with Abowitz’s argument about Hughes’ peculiar absence at the apex of American poetry (and drama), and I hope I’ve been able to add some new perspectives as to why that might be. Either way, go read yourself some Hughes over at The Poetry Foundation, and watch your day improve.
Reading List and Citations
- Baraka, Amiri. Daggers and Javelins: Essays, 1974-1979. New York: William Morrow and Co., Inc., 1982.
- Benston, Kimberly W. Performing Blackness : Enactments of African-American Modernism. New York: Routledge, 2000.
- Berry, Faith. Langston Hughes, Before and Beyond Harlem. Westport: L. Hill, 1983.
- Calvin, Floyd. “Langston Hughes Answers Critics.” The Pittsburgh Courier. 26 February 1927.
- Gates, Jr., Henry Louis. The Signifying Monkey. 2nd Ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014.
- W. M. K. “Book Review: Langston Hughes—the Sewer Dweller.” The New York Amsterdam News. 9 February 1927.