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Susan Duffy, ed. The Political Plays of Langston Hughes.

Susan Duffy, ed. The Political Plays of Langston Hughes. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2000. 221 pp. $19.95; Christopher C. De Santis, ed. Langston Hughes and the Chicago Defender: Essays on Race, Politics, and Culture, 1942-62. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1995. 261 pp. $17.95; Hans Ostrom. Langston Hughes: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York, Twayne, 1993. 125 pp. $31.00.

By 2026 literary criticism and theory on the life and work of Langston Hughes will enter a second century of inquiry. By then it will be the primary work of the current and earlier decades that will have facilitated such new horizons. For years, during the 1970s and 80s, Houston A. Baker, Jr., and others perceived clearly the way that a lack of fundamental texts limited the reach of African American criticism and theory. Even the most well-meaning and best-trained scholars could not do research in a textual vacuum. Today, with the definitive edition of Collected Works of Langston Hughes in 18 volumes now nearing completion, the magnificent series from the University of Missouri Press marks a historical moment in academic research on Langston Hughes. (1) Equally important, the outpouring of previous contributions encourages anew the kind of systematic exegesis and formal celebration of creative text, highlighting a richly deserved delight by Hughes's enthusiasts. I examine here Susan Duffy's edition of The Political Plays of Langston Hughes, Christopher C. De Santis's edited volume of Hughes's Chicago Defender columns, and Hans Ostrom's Study of the Short Fiction that Hughes produced throughout his long career.

While each of these new critical works represents significant accomplishment, Duffy, focusing primarily on the history of theater, might have listed in her bibliography an additional half-dozen of the most prominent Hughes critics across the last two generations. One hopes that future scholars will remember the important critical texts that mark a seamless transition from the last decade of the twentieth century to the dawn of the new one. Instead of reviewing the covered texts in chronological order, I shall consider each of the three as part of a natural advance in Hughes's thought and literary art from the short polemical plays of 1931-1940 (Duffy), through the journalistic essays of 1942-1962 (De Santis), finally to the short fiction of 1934-1963 (Ostrom).

Duffy narrows the ideological focus, and simultaneously rounds out effectively the leftist dimension of Hughes the dramatist. Including a useful backdrop of historical introductions, she recovers four plays typically excluded from critical works on Hughes throughout the last 30 years: Scottsboro Limited: A One-Act Play, Harvest, Angelo Herndon Jones: A One-Act Play of Negro Life, and De Organizer: A Blues Opera in One Act. To her, the agit-prop dramas are part of a larger body of work that began with the publication of The Gold Piece, a children's play, in the Brownie Magazine in 1921. From the theatrical presentations by Carrie Hughes, the writer's mother, during his childhood years in Kansas, Hughes had already developed associations with Karma House, an "artistic sanctuary for inner-school children" founded by Rowena and Paul Jelliffe. Eventually he became instrumental in the founding of the Harlem Suitcase Theater, the Los Angeles Art Theater, and the Skyloft Players (Chicago). A consistent author of drama during the 30s, Hughes wrote 40 scripts while collaborating on 23 others that included one-act plays, comedies of one, two, or three acts, and children's plays; then, too, gospels, propaganda plays, operas, and historical pageants.

The current volume surpasses the earlier Five Plays by Langston Hughes (1963), edited by Webster Smalley, a text of the more comic and better-known scripts. The complementary texts, Scottsboro, Limited, Harvest (Blood on the Fields) and Angelo Herndon Jones, are collected for the first time, hence joining Mulatto (1931; performance 1935) and De [or, The] Organizer (1939) as serious pieces. Duffy observes the transformation of a single plot as derived in the dramatic Mother and Child from the fictive Ways of White Folks (1934); in The Barrier (1950) from Mulatto (1931; 1935), which was also "Father and Son" in 1934; and in Simple Takes a Wife (1953), culled from columns previously published in the Chicago Defender. Well-known and excluded plays such as Troubled Island (1935-36) and Soul Gone Home (1937) are more artistically reflective than their comedic counterparts. Such a timely recovery of texts will likely--and rightly--rekindle spirited debates between the Marxists and the formalists who have quarreled since the 1930s over an appropriate aesthetic for Hughes's work. Dully emphasizes the impact of labor movements in the development of the dramas along with Hughes's inadvertent membership in the Communist Party. Hughes and his major biographers have directly disputed such claims, but the disclaimers, Duffy insists, only sought expediency.

History is not necessarily on Duffy's side. Especially during the 30s, critics debated whether the stock devices of American socialism, or the transformative power of the literary imagination, would determine Hughes's greatness as a writer. Today Dully finds it hard to explain his comparative standing in American drama. As the critic Lionel Trilling wrote about formal prescriptions in theory and literature more than 20 years ago--and as Hughes and later Richard Wright would come to understand about Marxism in their time--an arbitrarily prescriptive aesthetic becomes a limited one. Perhaps this limitation is the reason that Hughes-born in Missouri rather than in Kansas--never achieved renown in the national theater. Drama had to prove to him the lasting value of its protocols, but the imaginative qualities of poetry and short story were presumed.

Of the three valuable works reviewed here, De Santis's Langston Hughes and the Chicago Defender proves the most instrumental in laying out the historical record of racism in the United States. The columns reach a double climax in the writer's epic return after many years to St. Louis, Missouri, and in his stirring tribute to W. E. B. Du Bois. In addition to offering a rare glimpse into some of the writer's work habits, the pieces suggest a roadmap for the future. Hughes cherished the epiphany of history. His signatory essay entitled "The Sun Do Move," for May 1, 1954, should easily become a classic. Referring to a famous sermon by the Reverend Josh Jasper (1812-1901)-who coincidentally died the very year before the writer was born--Hughes says that those who heard the sermons never forgot them. In a loose transition back to his own life, he tells about his grandmother and mother, both of whom rode integrated trains from Kansas as far as St. Louis. Since Hughes would retrace their Missouri path several times in later years, on the way to visit his expatriated father in Mexico, St. Louis became for him a dividing line between integrated and segregated worlds. As a Black teenager, he could not buy a malted milk at the station in those early days. Invited by the Pine Street branch of YMCA to speak in the city years later in 1954, he was somewhat apprehensive about experiencing more of the same hostility. Assured by colleagues and friends that he could register at any hotel in the town, he selected the Statler. Then venturing to the soda-fountain of the station once more to order a malted milk, he proclaims with Jasper in the vernacular, "De Sun Do Move" (my italics).

On October 6, 1951, a few years before, he had written that American dissenters would never accept the imprisonment of a revolutionary thinker as artist:
 Somebody in Washington wants to put Du Bois in jail. Somebody in
 Franco's Spain sent Lorca, their greatest poet, to death before a
 firing squad. Somebody in Germany under Hitler burned the books,
 drove Thomas Mann into exile, and led their leading Jewish scholars
 to the gas chamber. Somebody in Greece long ago gave Socrates the
 hemlock to drink. Somebody at Golgotha erected a cross and somebody
 drove the nails into the hands of Christ. Somebody spat upon His
 garments. No one remembers their names.

Hughes's passionate defense of the Scottsboro case in Faith Berry's Good Morning Revolution (1973) used a very similar imagery in 1931.

As nearly every reader of The Big Sea remembers, Hughes wrote a draft of "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" while taking a train down to Mexico. Fewer scholars probably know about his penchant for conceptualizing work while talking long strolls at night. The occasions provided many rich opportunities for his speculating about human existence. Suddenly, his vivid narration about a journey in Havana, titled "Little Old Spy," in 1934--"A mile away on the Malecon--for I had continued to walk along the seawall--I looked and saw the hour"--resonates more deeply. So do his nicely figured descriptions of Parisian boulevards during 1937-38. On May 5, 1945, he explains: "Sometimes I take long walks because I can think good walking, and I can meanwhile work out ideas for poems and stories or articles in my head. Then I put them down on paper when I come back home." Meanwhile, the grieving war mother in "Detroit Blues," on September 11, 1943, reincarnates the image from "Southern Mammy Sings" (Poetry, May 1941). What Hughes calls the saddest tale in The Big Sea (1940) recurs in The Defender dated December 19, 1942:
 Early one morning, the president of Tuskegee Institute, one of the
 oldest and most revered of African American colleges and
 universities, was changing trains in Atlanta. Having just stepped
 from the coach onto the station platform, he heard a scream behind
 him. Turning quickly he saw a white woman who had caught her heel on
 the train step and was about to fall. Resisting the charity of
 touching her, he let her tumble to the concrete below.

Often we recognize the overall story of human nature as written by Hughes while returning to the sub-stories and sub-images he repeats. Somehow they almost never seem to lose their power. His plots recur in multiple genres, if not within the same genre. In his carefully figured equations, the Fascists are to Jews as Southern supremacists are to Blacks; Aryanism is to humanity as Jim Crowism is to Civil Rights; Nazi Germany is to murdered citizens as the British Empire is to its Black martyrs in South Africa. There's a delightful balance.

But social reality is not always the priority of his stories. Langston Hughes: A Study of Short Fiction functions importantly as a first of the kind since James A. Emmanuel's dissertation at Columbia University in "1962" (actually 1966), while benefiting from a reader-response theory influenced by Gates's structuralism and later by Baker's post-structuralism. Ostrom places Hughes's short fiction within the Anglo-American tradition of Henry James and D. H. Lawrence (whom Hughes cites directly in the second autobiography, I Wonder as I Wander [1956]). Ostrom asserts, "The Ways of White Folks (1934) stands as one of Hughes's most important, unified, and accomplished works. It is a landmark book in his career, in the canon of African-American literature, and in the history of American short fiction." Often in a blow-by-blow narrative, the scholar points to "On the Road" (Laughing to Keep From Crying, 1952) as the best-known and most anthologized story of the collection. The piece, he argues, demonstrates Hughes's craft despite the writer's straying from modernist conventions that would have privileged imagism and lyricism over plot. Hence, the tale becomes a modern parable that is especially satisfying for its deployment of Christianity, humor, and simplicity.

In privileging "On the Road" as Hughes's finest story, Ostrom needs to explain the reason that the plot of "Father and Son" has dominated the author's literary voice (White Folks, 1934). Indeed, the same scheme has metamorphosed from Hughes's short poem "Cross" (Crisis, December 1925) through his Broadway play Mulatto (1935) to his libretto The Barrier (November 2, 1950). For the signature story of "Father and Son" expresses great vitality. The most sustained of all Hughes's tales, it blends the metaphors of journey and of the Model-T Ford dynamically within a previously static Southern landscape. The tale implies a driving force of liberating thought and of great social change through what had once been only inert space. Beyond the carefully wrought plot, reminiscent of a Keats urn, it experiments with lyrical leaps into a narrative consciousness of African American history. If the plot gravitates toward tragedy more than comedy, such a choice is the prerogative of the African American writer. Hughes's devices achieve an aesthetic climax in a coexistent variety of narrative styles--Victorian intrusion and modern stream-of-consciousness, including a revolutionary interior monologue. Hence, "Father and Son" testifies to the coming of age of African American modernity.

Certainly, the principle of aesthetic distance comes into play. Often an implied author differs markedly from a folk sexist whose story he tells. By presuming a sexually effete ambivalence in Hughes's literary world, Ostrom therefore reads his belief into the story "Blessed Assurance" (Something in Common and Other Stories, 1963). Langston Hughes emerges as having a distanced perspective on Harlem as Charles Dickens on London and James Joyce on Dublin--an artisan consciousness of the race. In basing narrative almost entirely on dialogue, Hughes resembles Hemingway; later he becomes a natural precursor within an African American tradition of storytelling epitomized by Ernest Gaines and J. California Cooper.

Rather than include entire essays in the final part of the volume, Ostrom paraphrases major points from each commentator on a single page per scholar. Though the arrangement seems at first to be a chronological one, dating from the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, the grouping is actually methodological. Hence, the design advances from historicist approaches to reading figures such as Alain Locke; then through formal appraisals of structural and cultural inquiry (Gates), namely a theory of performance art by Houston Baker; to Black Aesthetics. Three sustained articles by a few exemplary figures for each category may have achieved more.

All three of the contributions are valuable ones that would interest academic and general readers. Along with The Return of Simple (1994) and Langston Hughes: Short Stories (1996), both edited by Akiba Sullivan Harper, as well as The Collected Works of Langston Hughes: The Short Stories (Vol. 15), these pioneering volumes inspire new inquiries. (2) In unison, the reviewed texts vigorously conclude that Hughes merits an even higher place in American literature. On June 17, 1944, the writer closed his own column more imaginatively than I this review:
 This is our War [WWII] because we are dying in it. This is our
 Country because we are dying for it. This is our Invasion because we
 never did believe in slavery and race hatred
 and the strong-arm methods of subjugation that Hitler
 and others like him believe in. The new world that
 will come out of this war will be our world--and a
 decent world--because we intend to help make it so.
 Otherwise, we would be unworthy of the Americans--white
 and black--who push ahead under fire--from the coast of
 the Invasion toward the heart of tomorrow.

Critics, scholars, readers, none can compensate for the literary sense. We need primary and biographical texts both to return us time and again to Hughes's figured horizon.


(1.) See also Fred L. Standley, Rev. of Langston Hughes. Autobiography: I Wonder as I Wander. Vol. 14. The Collected Works of Langston Hughes. African American Review 38 (2004): 529-30.

(2.) See my forthcoming MELUS article.

R. Baxter Miller

University of Georgia
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Author:Miller, R. Baxter
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2004
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