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A Langston Hughes Encyclopedia. (Reviews).

Hans Ostrom. A Langston Hughes Encyclopedia. Westport: Greenwood P. 2002. 495 pp. $95.00.

In 2002, the United States celebrated the centennial of the birth of Langston Hughes. The celebration was highlighted by the issuance of a U.S. postage stamp, unveiled throughout the nation at large public events highlighting the works and the life of Langston Hughes. Joplin, Missouri (his birthplace), Lawrence, Kansas (where he grew up), and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, New York (where his remains are interred) are just three of the sites where the stamp was unveiled and where his life and works have been celebrated. Greenwood Press and Hans Ostrom may have rushed a bit to bring out A Langston Hughes Encyclopedia in time for these grand centennial celebrations. The haste may be the reason for the inconsistencies of research, the oversights, and the occasional egregious errors that mar this otherwise useful effort to annotate a comprehensive array of Hughes's works, associates, and influences. While it is regrettable that more time or additional editorial assistance was not em ployed to catch these problems before this potentially valuable research tool was published, one may hope that Greenwood Press will give Hans Ostrom an opportunity to rectify the errors. A corrected Langston Hughes Encyclopedia would be worthy of an important: spot on reference shelves and would do justice to the works and people represented in this volume. Otherwise, the uncorrected volume may mislead or misinform future generations of Hughes researchers.

Since Hans Ostrom assumes sole responsibility for the weaknesses in the volume, one may suggest that future endeavors attempting to encompass the entire Hughes canon should be collaborative efforts. The vast extent and the many subtleties of the Hughes canon--including secondary and posthumous resources--would lead to inevitable oversights by almost any single individual. Ostrom has undertaken a noble effort, but the volume, which is called an "encyclopedia" (with its inherent implications of accuracy), contains problems that seem puzzling at best and exasperating at worst.

The volume reflects inconsistent methods of citing the individual works noted. For example, while some short stories are traced through reprintings (including the posthumous Langston Hughes: Short Stories), Simple stories are not traced to the posthumous The Return of Simple. Similarly, the poems are not traced through all the volumes in which they appear. Most tracing of the poetry follows what has already been done in the Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, edited by Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel, which has been a sort of "encyclopedia" for Hughes's poetry since its 1994 publication.

Another kind of inconsistency is in the use of separate entries for certain characters from Hughes's fiction and poems, but not for others. For example, Nunuma, the highly objectified woman in Hughes's short story "Bodies in the Moonlight," which was never reprinted in a volume of short stories during Hughes's lifetime, gets an entry despite the fact that she speaks few words, and those she does speak are in broken English. By contrast, no entry appears for Lynn Clarisse, Simple's college-educated, activist cousin, who is the title-character of a Simple story which is listed, and who also appears in at least one other story in Simple's Uncle Sam. In a similar vein, Mingo, a minor and rather insignificant character in Hughes's first novel Not Without Laughter, gets a separate entry, but Tempy Siles (aunt and occasional guardian of the protagonist, Sandy Rodgers) does not. Consuelo, the unfaithful wife in Hughes's frequently republished short story "Tragedy at the Baths" gets an entry. By contrast, Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones, the feisty and proactive protagonist of Hughes's popular short story "Thank You, M'am," is not given a separate entry. Also neglected is Mrs. Sadie Maxwell-Reeves, despite her presence as a recurring character in the Simple stories and a great inspiration to Simple's second wife, Joyce Lane Semple. Thus, while the entries for individual characters are useful when they appear, they are inconsistent and might lead to distorted and unsubstantiated rankings of these characters.

It also bears noting that entries for individual characters occasionally offer details only for one character with that name, neglecting other characters of the same name in different works. For example, the entry for "Lulu" identifies a character in the obscure bluesy poem "Yesterday and Today," but makes no mention of another memorable Lulu in "Same in Blues," a poem near the end of Hughes's popular and frequently reprinted Montage of a Dream Deferred, which Hughes recorded on one of his audio collections. Likewise the entry for "Cora" is linked only to the poem by that title; the several fictional characters named Cora are not mentioned.

A third kind of inconsistency in citation involves the choice of which individual works are mentioned. Hughes's speech "The Negro Faces Fascism" receives a separate entry, although it was not published separately. The bibliographic notation cites volume one of Arnold Rampersad's biography The Life of Langston Hughes. On the other hand. Hughes's essay "The Need for Heroes" receives no entry, although it was published in The Crisis and is referenced rather extensively in my Not So Simple, a work which is included in the volume's bibliography.

Some of the oversights in the volume may reflect the inevitable saturation of the Hughes scholar. For instance, Hughes's alma mater is called only Lincoln University. Those of us who know Lincoln remember to add Pennsylvania, because another historically Black Lincoln University exists in Jefferson City, Missouri. While the details in the entry include the 1854 founding date of Lincoln University, Pennsylvania (the oldest historically Black university in the United States), and the location near Philadelphia clearly point to the specific Lincoln University attended by Langston Hughes, a simple "Pennsylvania" would help make the distinction clear from the outset.

Oversights in the volume most often relate to the bibliographical notations. For example, the entry on "Sexuality and Hughes" mentions "biographer Faith Berry." However, both "Abbreviations and Short Titles" and the "General Bibliography" only name Faith Berry as the editor of Good Morning Revolution: Uncollected Writings of Social Protest by Langston Hughes. In fact, Good Morning Revolution barely touches anything that can be construed as a discussion of Hughes's sexuality, while Berry's biography Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem explicitly pronounces Hughes's homosexuality. The biography by Faith Berry is obviously being alluded to, but it is not listed.

Another oversight involves the listing of The Return of Simple, a posthumous collection of Simple stories, but no separate entries for the individual Simple stories included in that volume. "Hail and Farewell" is actually given a separate entry, but no mention is given of its original date and place of publication (31 December 1965 in the New York Post) and its republication in The Return of Simple. By contrast, essays on the Soviet Union which originally appeared in the Chicago Defender and were republished in Good Morning Revolution are noted.

Another frustrating (and possibly misleading) element of citation in the volume involves the actual bibliographic notations. Only the most recent editions of books are listed, and in most cases original dates of publication are not noted. Hence, the important volume edited by Faith Berry, Good Morning Revolution, is represented as a 1992 work, whereas the volume first appeared in 1973 and was reprinted in 1992.

Even primary texts such as Not Without Laughter, The Ways of White Folks, and The Panther and the Lash are listed in the bibliography as recent editions without mention of their original years of publication. Selected Poems, by contrast, shows two publication years--an original year of publication and the reprint year. Fortunately, individual listings for each work do show original publication dates. Thus, a conscientious user of this encyclopedia will not be misled regarding the primary texts. However, a consistent use of original dates and reprinted (and readily available) volumes would be helpful in such an important reference tool.

More important and more disturbing than the inconsistencies and the oversights, however, are the errors, some of which involve omissions. For example, "Banquet in Honor," a memorable Simple story, is only listed as a short story first published in Negro Quarterly in 1941. No mention is made of the revision, which allowed the story to join the Simple canon, including publication in The Best of Simple. Likewise, several stories from Hughes's youth are not traced to their significant inclusion in Langston Hughes: Short Stories. Researchers would save time and trouble seeking "Mary Winosky," "Those Who Have No Turkey," "Seventy-Five Dollars," "The Childhood of Jimmy," and "Luani of the Jungles" in a handy, in-print volume rather than in obscure journals or in special collections in libraries.

On the other hand, some errors blatantly misstate facts. For example, eleven short stories ("Berry," "Father and Son," "A Good Job Gone," "Home," "Little Dog," "Mother and Child," "One Christmas Eve," "Passing," "Poor Little Black Fellow," "Red-Headed Baby," and "Rejuvenation Through Joy") are erroneously reported to have been reprinted in Langston Hughes: Short Stories. "Rejuvenation Through Joy," a thirty-page story, is called the longest work in The Ways of White Folks. In fact, "Father and Son," a forty-nine-page story, is the longest story in Hughes's first collection. Another example appears in the entry for a poem, "Railroad Avenue." The encyclopedia states, "The address '942' is given, but the poem has not been linked to an abode in which Hughes lived." In fact, the 942 mentioned in "Railroad Avenue" was the unofficial lottery number that won for the day. Other entries in the encyclopedia refer to playing the numbers, so this error seems inexcusable.

The Panther and the Lash is described as a book which "chiefly reprints poems from previous volumes." However, given that only one more than half of the volume's seventy poems are reprinted from previous collections, it seems unfair and misleading to characterize Hughes's last book of poetry as consisting "chiefly" of reprinted poems from earlier books of his own verse. In fact, the rather remarkable thing about this volume--Hughes's final volume of poetry--is that it so masterfully blends the new works (some never before published) with so many of the older poems--including a few written in the 1930s. This kind of comparative analysis would have been more useful than a questionable generalization.

The most conspicuous and damaging errors, however, involve FIRE!!, a significant creative venture that represented the break from the establishment that young creative talents hoped to achieve during the New Negro Movement (also called the Harlem Renaissance). Three of the seven contributing editors of the publication--Aaron Douglas, John P. Davis, and Gwendolyn Bennett--are not mentioned in the encyclopedia. Wallace Thurman's entry acknowledges "his editorial work" on FIRE!! but neglects his short story "Cordelia the Crude." Zora Neale Hurston's entry neglects both her editorial work and her creative contributions to the publication. Richard Bruce Nugent is listed only as having "contributed illustrations to FIRE!!"; no mention is made of "Smoke, Lilies, and Jade," his provocative and controversial fictional contribution. This is all the more problematic given that Hughes's The Big Sea details the creation of FIRE!! and mentions Nugent as one of the editors/publishers of the project. In fact, he was in charg e of distribution and, as Hughes notes, distributed the publication "on foot."

More egregious, however, is the entry on FIRE!! itself, which names Claude McKay as the only editor and attributes to McKay the editorial intention of challenging the Harlem cultural establishment. McKay, says Ostrom, included two of Hughes's poems in the single issue of FIRE!!--an error compounded by the fact that the two poems by Hughes that were published in FIRE!! both include a cross-reference to Claude McKay. Given that the FIRE!! Press, under the leadership of Thomas H. Wirth, has allowed Bruce Nugent to complete his ultimate distribution of FIRE!! by providing the original copy, which has subsequently been reprinted so that it is available in its entirety, the corrected Langston Hughes Encyclopedia needs to list Wallace Thurman as principal editor, in association with Gwendolyn Bennett, Richard Bruce [Nugent], Zora Neale Hurston, Aaron Douglas, John Davis, and Langston Hughes himself. This same list of names is provided in Hughes's own autobiography The Big Sea. Claude McKay was not only not one of th e editors, but the editors did not include any of McKay's works in the single issue of the publication. How can A Langston Hughes Encyclopedia omit Hughes's own involvement with this significant product of the New Negro Movement?

As the source of all these erroneous entries involving FIRE!!, Ostrom cites David Levering Lewis's The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader. However, Lewis never links Claude McKay to FIRE!! and he does list the seven actual editors. He also outlines the entire contents of the original publication. Thus, Ostrom commits the compounded error of printing incorrect information and attributing that information to a source in which the errors do not appear.

Such inconsistencies, oversights, and errors need to be corrected before A Langston Hughes Encyclopedia can be respected as a truly valuable reference tool. In the meantime, it offers a convenient place to identify many of the people important in Hughes's life and offers many cross-references to related works. Its most valuable contribution may be in the entries that, in the words of the preface, "add synthesis."

In a volume of nearly 500 pages, the nature and specifics of the inconsistencies, oversights, and errors documented here are certainly far outnumbered by the accurate entries, and the enormous scope of this venture represents an appreciable volume of work. The fact remains, however, that this important and massive step toward what Ostrom calls "revaluing" the work and life of Langston Hughes is already in need of considerable revision. The truly comprehensive encyclopedia should also be correlated to the Collected Works of Langston Hughes being published by the University of Missouri Press. The combination of a powerful and accurate research tool and the massive collection of Hughes's works will truly position the next generation of scholars to advance the scholarship on Langston Hughes.
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Author:Sullivan Harper, Donna Akiba
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2003
Words:2326
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