Cultural Entanglements: Langston Hughes and the Rise of African and Caribbean Literature, by Shane Graham
(University of Virginia Press, ISBN 9780813944111, 264 pp)
Langston Hughes, by W Jason Miller
(Reaktion Books, ISBN 9781789141955, 224 pp)
Writer James Baldwin—himself a closet poet—had a withering assessment of Langston Hughes.
“Every time I read Langston Hughes I am amazed all over again by his genuine gifts—and depressed that he has done so little with them,” Baldwin wrote in 1959 as he reviewed Hughes’ Selected Poems. But late in life, after Hughes had died, Baldwin would re-assess his relationship with the older poet, seeing him as a kind of parental figure against whom he had needed to rail. Of the same book that had so disappointed him in 1959, Baldwin in 1986 remarked: “I was still moved by it”. Moved, but also fearful. Fearful of what he had perceived of Hughes and, by implication, himself: he was becoming an echo. The story of Baldwin’s qualification of his earlier views is a good reminder of the shifting sands when it comes to Hughes’ life and legacy.
Recent books re-position the poet of the Harlem Renaissance as a transoceanic cultural figure and raise fascinating questions about how he may have influenced and been influenced by writers in the black diaspora, including the Caribbean.
Making use of archival materials—telegrams, letters, programs, reports, itineraries, shipping slips—Shane Graham’s Cultural Entanglements aims to make a case for seeing Hughes “as globetrotting cosmopolitan, travel writer, translator, anthologist, avid international networker, and maybe above all, pan-Africanist”. The poet’s travels were extensive, but Caribbean readers might take particular interest in his engagement with many key figures in the region like Claude McKay, Jacques Roumain, Aime Cesaire, Paule Marshall, Eric Williams, CLR James, and Derek Walcott. Even when the interaction is brief or of limited scope, and even when the distance Hughes must travel is vast, you get the strong sense of Hughes doing then what most writers do now over Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and whatnot: self-promotion, building networks. Perhaps this was not unusual. In fact, it might have been inevitable for a writer who relied on their work to stay afloat financially.
Still, Graham raises the irresistible idea that Hughes, in the process, influenced the writing of those he engaged with, and more, and that the influence worked both ways. Indeed, at one stage, Graham raises the possibility that Hughes might have influenced Louise Bennett’s style (Hughes visited Jamaica in 1947). Though Graham does not spend much time on this, citing a lack of documentary or inter-textual trails, the mere suggestion of the possibility supports Cultural Entanglements‘ central thesis of re-positioning Hughes as a key global cultural figure.
Ultimately, the strength of this academic work comes from such ideas, as well as its sturdily supported argument, its effective deployment of shifting scales of focus, and its consistent attention to nuance and the archive’s limitations. Graham gives convincing readings of Hughes poems such as the late, book-length work Ask Your Mama, but is also unafraid to complicate an idealistic vision of Hughes’ output and ethos, such as the poet’s early, sometimes hackneyed approach to culture, the implications of class in the elitist movements around him, the co-opting of cultural entanglement by trade imperatives, the inverse issue of the exercise of soft state power in terms of Cold War dynamics, and gender issues given the overwhelmingly male roll call of correspondents.
Hughes’ preference for forging connections with male writers sits alongside realities of the period but also raises the vexed question of his sexuality. In this regard, to admit the notion of travel as a potential escape route to more liberal horizons is not to say all of Hughes’ foreign entanglements had such inflections but rather to offer another way in which he may have been influential. Still, though Graham covers Hughes’ voluminous correspondence with figures like the gay poet Claude McKay, a possible queer dimension to Hughes’ foreign voyages remains largely outside the focus Graham’s project.
Not so in a relatively brief new biography of Hughes by W James Miller which considers, though does not dwell too heavily on, this issue. Miller places Hughes’ sexuality in the context of the stifling censorship of the US of the 1950s, police enforcement of homophobic laws, a state department purging “perverts”, and psychiatry’s designation—at the time—of homosexuality as a “sociopathic personality disturbance”. Miller joins with critics such as Hilton Als in seeing Hughes’ poem, ‘3AM’, as a brave defence of the LGBTQ community, moreso in the context of the times, whatever the ambivalences and silences in relation to Hughes’ sex life. But the biographer goes further and also observes of Hughes the following: “Throughout his life he would share intimacies with both men and women”. He cites one instance of Hughes being with a crewman on a trip to Lagos, an incident also mentioned in previous writing on Hughes, including my own.
Both of these projects are limited in what they can achieve. Graham has a specific focus and readily embraces the fact that he would like to suggest terrain for others to explore. Miller’s biography is relatively slim, especially considering how even Arnold Rampersad’s famous two-volume biography of Hughes, which exceeds 1,000 pages, leaves many unanswered questions. Also said by Baldwin of Hughes: “There was a lot I didn’t understand about him.”
What is clear enough, however, is the poet of the Harlem Renaissance was as much at home as he was abroad; and crossed borders in more ways than one.
Andre Bagoo is managing editor of Moko Magazine.