In 1960, the NAACP presented its highest honor — the Spingarn Medal — to poet and activist Langston Hughes. In accepting, Hughes made a point to give credit where he believed it was most due: "I can accept this only in the name of the Negro people who have given me the materials out of which my poems and stories, plays and songs have come."
Hughes wasn't just a voice for "Negro America," but an ear — one finely tuned and sensitive — trained on some of the country's most remote and forgotten corners.
For five decades, he listened: recording the rhythms, reach and richness of the black experience with the dedication of an anthropologist and the nuanced rendering of an artist. His prose and poetry were the formal spaces — a stage — where black people across the social strata could speak frankly about racial injustice, economic inequity and strategies for uplift.
Hughes took seriously his role as multifaceted chronicler, penning poems, short stories, newspaper columns, plays and librettos, but he was also a dedicated letter-writer who spent years asking after manuscripts, answering reader inquiries, advising old acquaintances, cultivating new ones. The assemblage would ultimately become "[s]o vast it could fill 20 large volumes," writes longtime Hughes biographer Arnold Rampersad in his introduction to the new collection of Hughes' correspondence, "Selected Letters of Langston Hughes," co-edited with David Roessel with Christa Fratantoro.
Their resulting compilation — constructed as "a life in letters" — comes in at nearly 500 pages, meticulously footnoted and succinctly introduced by two contextualizing essays that fill in Hughes' biography and outline their editorial process.
Hughes had been set afloat, estranged early on from his immediate family. Writing was his way of creating community. Letters weren't incidental; the sheer volume of correspondence sometimes became the subject of the missive itself: "I got 30 letters today, which took me all day to read and answer...." Though the ritual crowded into his workday, these letters weren't tools of procrastination, they were lifelines.
Mail arrived from many corners of the black experience — from the first bloom of Harlem Renaissance stretching well into the trenches of civil rights era. The specific details and texture found within them granted him entree — and lent him gravitas as an informed eyewitness who helped to shape a deeper understanding of blackness in a global sphere. Through letters Hughes cultivated a circle of literary cohorts, business associates and patrons (Countee Cullen, Alain Locke, Carl Van Vechten, Arna Bontemps, Blanche and Alfred Knopf among them), some of whom remained close nearly the entire arc of his professional life.
He assumed many personas on the page: His tone might warm or sharpen, depending upon to whom or of what he was speaking: He worried over the plight of "Cullud" folks with his black confidants, with an urgency leavened at times; he made well-honed arguments for fair and proper representation with white editors and publishers — down to the most minute yet crucial detail: In a letter to an illustrator for a volume of children's poetry, he advised against "the usual kinky headed caricatures," then patiently presented context: "One of the great needs of Negro children is to have books about themselves and their lives that can help them be proud."
For all his meticulous documenting, the Hughes we encounter in these letters remains, in a certain sense, an enigma: a figure who "shrugged off insults," who could skate around conflict, and even keep his head under the unblinking eye of HUAC investigation. "He seemed assured and optimistic when many other blacks were cynical and bitter," writes Rampersad. "When rebuffed ... chose to look ahead."
Who buttressed him in those onerous stretches? "The absence of love letters is puzzling" — a "paucity" to women and none to men, the editors acknowledge. "Was Hughes' devotion to his work so complete," the editors ask, "that he had no time for love?"
Hughes embraced a knockabout life. Even after he'd secured a permanent address in Harlem, he remained restive. The lecture circuit helped make ends meet when publishing did not. "Writing," he once commented to writer Claude McKay, "is like travelling. It's wonderful to go somewhere but you get tired of staying."
Consequently, a singular Hughes doesn't emerge from these letters. We encounter instead a necessary many — a person eclipsed by the spokesperson. And while some of his reports from far-flung destinations — France, Mexico, Russia — feel as vivid as the poems or stories, most of his letters are given over to the tedious, heart-crushing minutiae of chasing checks, finessing advances, fighting for what was his. The life of a poet — a "literary sharecropper," as he ruefully dubbed himself — was numbingly prosaic. That disquiet was part the fiber of his life, a faint watermark floating on a page over which he kept writing — and rewriting.
What this life in letters reveals may be that Hughes' "lost" love letter actually hides in plain sight: A flowing body of work celebrating a relationship that began the moment he picked up a pen. This commitment — confirmed in a letter he wrote at 23, to poet Vachel Lindsay — suggests Hughes — though still bussing tables — was already well on his path.
"If anything is important, it is my poetry not . I do not want to know me but if they know and like some of my poems I am glad. Perhaps the mission of an artist is to interpret beauty to people, — the beauty within themselves."
George is an L.A.-based writer. She is a columnist at KCET Artbound where she covers arts, culture and social issues.
Selected Letters of Langston Hughes
Edited by Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel with Christa Fratantoro
Alfred A. Knopf: 442 pp., $35