Nearly ninety years after its first publication, this celebratory edition of The Weary Blues reminds us of the stunning achievement of Langston Hughes, who was just twenty-four at its first appearance. Beginning with the opening "Proem" (prologue poem)--"I am a Negro: / Black as the night is black, / Black like the depths of my Africa"--Hughes spoke directly, intimately, and powerfully of the experiences of African Americans at a time when their voices were newly being heard in our literature.Read more...
Nearly ninety years after its first publication, this celebratory edition of The Weary Blues reminds us of the stunning achievement of Langston Hughes, who was just twenty-four at its first appearance. Beginning with the opening "Proem" (prologue poem)--"I am a Negro: / Black as the night is black, / Black like the depths of my Africa"--Hughes spoke directly, intimately, and powerfully of the experiences of African Americans at a time when their voices were newly being heard in our literature. As the legendary Carl Van Vechten wrote in a brief introduction to the original 1926 edition, "His cabaret songs throb with the true jazz rhythm; his sea-pieces ache with a calm, melancholy lyricism; he cries bitterly from the heart of his race . . . Always, however, his stanzas are subjective, personal," and, he concludes, they are the expression of "an essentially sensitive and subtly illusive nature." That illusive nature darts among these early lines and begins to reveal itself, with precocious confidence and clarity.In a new introduction to the work, the poet and editor Kevin Young suggests that Hughes from this very first moment is "celebrating, critiquing, and completing the American dream," and that he manages to take Walt Whitman's American "I" and write himself into it. We find here not only such classics as "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" and the great twentieth-century anthem that begins "I, too, sing America," but also the poet's shorter lyrics and fancies, which dream just as deeply. "Bring me all of your / Heart melodies," the young Hughes offers, "That I may wrap them / In a blue cloud-cloth / Away from the too-rough fingers / Of the world."
Well Read: The dream keeper
Many readers first encounter the work of Langston Hughes in school but may not revisit it much beyond that early exposure. A seminal voice in the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes lives on in a handful of widely anthologized poems, but the vast majority of his prolific output goes unread. His literary light has waxed and waned since his death in 1967, but the publication of the Selected Letters of Langston Hughes, as well as a new edition of his first volume of poetry, The Weary Blues, could help spur renewed interest in Hughes and his work.
The letters, edited by Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel with Christa Fratantoro, chronicle an extraordinary life that defied the odds against being a black writer at a particular time in America. The correspondence also underscores that Hughes was savvy enough not only to recognize his own talents but also to engage in what today we would call networking to achieve his goals. Arriving in New York after a childhood spent in the Midwest and, briefly, in Mexico, young Hughes was unhappy at Columbia University and left after only one year. He sustained himself with a series of odd jobs.
Hughes was still a teenager when national publications began accepting his poetry, and the appearance of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” in the prestigious NAACP magazine, The Crisis, in 1921, brought him widespread attention as a poet to watch. His work was championed by white writer Carl Van Vechten, and in 1926, when Hughes was just 24, Knopf published his first poetry collection, The Weary Blues. His use of blues and jazz rhythms in his poetry, as well as African-American vernacular, was innovative and electrifying. He would go on to write fiction, as well as a number of plays and opera libretti, and, as the letters reveal, his stage collaborations were fraught with a drama all their own.
To read Hughes’ letters is to be immersed in mid-century culture and politics—over the years, Hughes corresponded with Paul Robeson, Countee Cullen, Vachel Lindsay, Claude McKay, Ezra Pound, Nancy Cunard, Mary McLeod Bethune, Richard Wright and Martin Luther King Jr. He feuded with Zora Neale Hurston, Amiri Baraka and James Baldwin. Hughes was famously circumspect about his private life, and there are no love letters here, although there is apparent abiding affection for many of his enduring correspondents.
Taken as a whole, the letters give the sweep of the black intellectual experience in America between the 1920s and the 1960s, a dramatic period of struggle and change. Hughes was often at the forefront of that change as one of black America’s most visible spokesmen. As the movement for the rights of African Americans became more politicized and polarized, Hughes was sometimes criticized by younger black writers and activists for not being “radical” enough. But these letters and this groundbreaking book of poems remind us that Hughes’ voice was among the first voices that dared to articulate the essence of the black man’s soul to a wider white audience. “They’ll see how beautiful I am / And be ashamed—,” he writes. “I, too, am America.”