Posts Tagged ‘Langston Hughes’

Langston Hughes and his thousands of letters

Thursday, April 16th, 2015

hughesI haven’t read much of the work of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, but I adore the man already, after reading Arnold Rampersad‘s engaging, straightforward introduction to him in the new Selected Letters of Langston Hughes. The new Knopf volume is the first comprehensive selection of his correspondence, edited by Rampersad, winner of the National Humanities Medal (we’ve written about him here and here and here) and David Roessel, with Christa Fratantoro.

Hughes and I both have a complicated relationship to the world of letters. As he put it, it’s not the writing, but the “getting down to writing” that’s the problem. Here’s the first paragraph of Rampersad’s introduction:

“Who knows better than I,” Langston Hughes once wrote to a friend, “what letter writing entails?” Certainly he knew much about letters. With a crowded life that put him in touch over the decades with thousands of people, the mail was crucial to starting and keeping friendships and to doing business. He admired people who answered letters promptly. His friend Carl Van Vechten, for example, received a flood of mail but usually answered each piece on the day it reached him. Hughes was not so disciplined. In fact, at one point he called himself “the world’s worst letter writer.” Another time, he confessed to stuffing away a swelling pile of answered pieces. “Two drawers are full,” he noted, “so I’m moving my sox over.” All the same, he wanted to be a faithful correspondent. “I leave you now,” he ended a letter in 1944, “to consider the stack of mail on top of mail piled on the bed. I cannot take my rest until I unpile some of it.”

I can sooo relate. Rampersad continues:

Later in life, living near one of the noisier sections of Harlem, he wrote through the night, when the brownstone row house he shared was likely to be quiet. Then, at three or four or five o’clock, or even later, he sat at his typewriter and pounded out letters (more than thirty on many nights) that went all over the world. This was in addition to writing the poems, novels, short stories, plays, autobiographies, histories, translations, opera libretti, song lyrics, children’s books, and newspaper columns, as well as editing anthologies and other volumes, that made so many people long to be in touch of them.”

As early as 1923, Hughes wrote an early letter to Countee Cullen, “Certainly it is very kind of you to offer to read my poems for me at the library and very beastly of me not to have written a single line since returning from New York.” He was already behind in his letter-writing. But that was the least of his problems.

About two decades ago, I remember reading the letters of Katherine Mansfield, and the dominant theme of the letters was: money. Constantly short of cash as she coughed the last of her life in resort towns to relieve her tuberculosis, as she wrote, wrote, wrote … letters, diaries, short stories. Francs, dollars, yen … At least that seems to be one eternal part of the equation, and Hughes was no exception.

Did you ever try livin’
On two-bits minus two?
I say did you ever try livin’
On two bits minus two?
Why don’t you try it, folks,
And see what it would do to you?

A winner

Thousands of letters, and he edited them.

The new volume opens with the early beseeching letters to father in 1921, after he published his first poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” in a national magazine. The humiliating financial exigencies were an ongoing condition. He wrote to his publisher Blanche Knopf, from a Mexican house above a pear orchard in Carmel Valley as he wrote his long (and somewhat premature) autobiography in 1939: “The house is entirely my own for work, and as remote and quiet a place as one would want to find, so I shall not be interrupted. I am sorry the manuscript is not ready to send you now, as I had hoped it would be, but it is going along splendidly and is two-thirds finished, so a month more of steady work should get it done. However, my difficulty at the moment is this: having turned down all lectures for this fall and put aside everything else in order to get the book done, my sources of income have temporarily ceased – and I find myself with an eviction warning from my New York landlord if I do not come through with the August rent. Which is bad enough, but not quite as bad as being unable to employ a typist to assist me in preparation of a final draft – some five hundred pages – which I shall shortly have ready to have recopied. So much as I dislike to do it at this stage of the game, I am writing to ask you if it would be possible to now allow me an advance of $200.00 on the book…” He lived in a time, you see, when $200 was more than a spit in the bucket.

Some things don’t change, even with fame. He wrote to Van Vechten in 1955: “What I was about to write you abut you about yesterday was (and is) to ask you if by any chance you’ve got a spare hundred lying around loose anywhere you could lend me for a month. Brokeness suddenly descended upon me unawares and my stenographer’s last check bounced. Turned out I was $1.48 short! … I don’t mind being broke myself, but typists live more hand to mouth than author, and I don’t want to get more than a week or two behind with her…” Working on a film project in 1940, he wrote that he had been “entangled in that unprofitable thing known as the show business,” adding that “in this charming democracy of ours there seems to be no place for Negroes to live in Hollywood even if they do work out there occasionally.”

Thousands of letters. We’re grateful they haven’t disappeared over the years – including letters to Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Ezra Pound, Wole Soyinka, Rev. Martin Luther King. Although, in a 1936 letter, he wrote, “I seem to be out-doing even myself as the world’s worst letter writer,” his correspondence is so huge that it could easily fill a score of large volumes. But then, he saved everything. “I guess I never throw anything away ever,” he admitted.

Commencement season brings (yet more) honors for biographer Arnold Rampersad

Wednesday, June 12th, 2013
A winner

A winner … again and again

We’re in the middle of commencement season – but Arnold Rampersad has already picked up his honors (we’ve written about his previous triumphs here and here).  Rampersad, a leading biographer of African-American writers and cultural figures, including Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois, Jackie Robinson, and Arthur Ash, received an honorary doctor of letters degree from Columbia University.

He also received one of four “Centennial Citations”  from his alma mater, Harvard, where he received his PhD in 1973.  The award honored him  “for showing us how biography can illuminate culture and history, and how literature transcends barriers…”

From Harvard Magazine here:

How did this native of Trinidad develop the perfect pitch that allowed him to capture the tensions of American writers, the fullness of what it is to be black in America? When Rampersad was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2010, he gave credit in part to his early education in literature, which, he said, “some people might dismiss as ‘colonial.’ It nevertheless served me well in dealing with the complexities of American biography.”

His work as a biographer began at Harvard, where he wrote his dissertation on W. E. B. Du Bois. He has said that he was drawn to that work because Du Bois changed his life, and the historians who had written about him had not been able to explain why: they missed, he said, “his genuine essence—which is, in my opinion, the grandly poetic imagination he brought to the business of seeing and describing black America and America itself.”

When the dissertation was published as the masterful intellectual history The Art and Imagination of WEB Du Bois, the acclaim it received drew notice from the executors of the Langston Hughes estate. Rampersad’s resulting two-volume biography, released in 1986 and 1988, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and is widely considered the definitive work on this most important Harlem Renaissance poet. Exploring the complexity of Hughes’s ambition, intelligence, and commanding talent, Rampersad set him in his time, chronicling not just the life of one black American but the changing world of all black Americans at the time.

Arnold Rampersad

Arnold Rampersad accepting the National Humanities Medal from Obama

His revelatory biography of Ralph Ellison, published in 2007, considers the full arc of Ellison’s life and — as the San Francisco Chronicle put it — “the extent to which family tragedy, failed ambitions and a prickly, imperious nature combined to isolate him in the years following Invisible Man.

“I know of no other scholar who has consistently told stories that matter so deeply to our society as whole,” says Rampersad’s Stanford colleague Shelley Fisher Fishkin. “Arnold Rampersad has left an indelible mark on our understanding of who we are as Americans.” She recalls co-editing Oxford’s Race and American Culture book series with Rampersad as “an extraordinary education. Arnold’s vision of what kinds of scholarship could move the field in productive directions was always spot-on; his judgment about what authors needed to do in order to transform a good manuscript into a great book was illuminating.” …

Rampersad has said that he was “was drawn to biography because I saw the African-American personality as a neglected field despite the prominence of race as a subject in discussions of America. African-American character in all its complexity and sophistication was, and still is, by and large, a denied category in the representation of American social reality.” There is no other scholar who has done more to undo that denial, to assert the grace and the terrifying complexity of the American experience, than Arnold Rampersad.

Rampersad is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.  He held a MacArthur fellowship from 1991 to 1996.


New feather for Arnold Rampersad’s cap

Sunday, July 15th, 2012


Accepting the National Humanities Medal last year

Shelley Fisher Fishkin wrote to tell me what I’d already heard from other sources – Publishers Weekly, among them.  Arnold Rampersad, the award-winning biographer of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, has won the 77th Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards Lifetime Achievement Award, widely recognized as a highly prestigious prize.  It’s the only juried literary competition devoted to recognizing books that have made an important contribution to society’s understanding of racism and the diversity of human cultures.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. headed the jury, which included Rita Dove, Joyce Carol Oates, Steven Pinker, and Simon Schama.

It tops a very good year for the author and literary critic: President Obama awarded him a National Humanities Medal last year.

Rampersad has already won a previous award with the organization, when the first volume of The Life of Langston Hughes, published in 1986, won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Nonfiction in 1987. Volume Two, published in 1988, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1989.

His other award-winning books have profiled W.E.B. Du Bois, Jackie Robinson, and Ralph Ellison. He has also edited critical editions of the works of Richard Wright and Langston Hughes.

Shelley, who co-edited Oxford University Press’ Race and American Culture series with the prizewinner from 1993 to 2003, called the new award “really special. … a major honor that is very well-deserved.”

He’s in especially good company now.  The Lifetime Achievement award has recognized some of the most widely-respected and influential writers and artists  of our time. Past winners include poet Derek Walcott;  playwright August Wilson;  fiction writers Ernest Gaines, Dorothy West, William Melvin Kelley, Paule Marshall, and John Edgar Wideman; photographer Gordon Parks;  writer and critic Albert Murray; and historian John Hope Franklin.

Here’s what Shelley said:

An extraordinarily elegant writer, a meticulous researcher, and a scholar gifted with the ability to focus on what matters most about any subject that he tackles, Arnold Rampersad richly deserves this honor.

A winner

His biographies and his literary scholarship have had an enormous impact on our understanding of American culture, illuminating issues of race and racism in America in groundbreaking, crucial ways. He has been a role model for generations of scholars in American Studies, English, and African American Studies. I congratulate the Anisfield-Wolf jury for recognizing his important contributions to the cultural conversation with this award.

New award for Rampersad tops an exceptional year – not only for him personally, but for a number of other folks in Stanford’s English and Creative Writing Department.  I wrote about that here.

Langston Hughes, Joseph Stalin, Jesus … and a little bit of Mayakovsky, too

Friday, December 30th, 2011

Langston Hughes vs. ...

It’s the sixth day of Christmas, by my count, and my friend Elaine Ray has sent me a post from her blog, entitled “Langston Hughes, my father, Joseph Stalin and Jesus”, discussing a rather anti-Christmas poem by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, and a 1940 article objecting to the poem written by her own father, the New York Age columnist Ebenezer Ray. 

In an article in Poetry magazine, Hughes biographer Arnold Rampersad noted that during the most difficult days of the Great Depression, Hughes “had composed some of the harshest political verse ever penned by an American. These pieces include Good Morning Revolution and Columbia, but above all, Goodbye Christ. Here the speaker of the poem ridicules the legend of Jesus in favor of the radical reality of Marx, Lenin, ‘worker,’ ‘peasant,’ ‘me.’”

What struck me about the poem was … hadn’t I read this before?  It sounded awfully familiar.  My search for the poems Vladimir Mayakovsky, the gifted and misguided bard of the Bolshevik  Revolution, in my ancient edition published by the USSR’s Progress Books, led to an unsuccessful household excavation.

So I tried google instead.

My nose hadn’t led me astray.  In fact, Hughes translated Mayakovsky. The Communist writer Louis Aragon had offered his guidance to the American poet, and give an indication of how Hughes may have interpreted the Russian’s legacy.

From a paper by UCLA’s Ryan James Kernan:

Hughes’s choice of a literal translation for Mayakovsky was, in part, the result of his decision to heed Aragon on how to translate the peculiarities of the Russian master.

... Ebenezer Ray

Aragon most likely hand-delivered his advice for explicitly Western translators to Hughes when the two crossed paths in Paris.  His advice offers both a justification for Aragon’s own literal translation of Mayakovsky, and a prescription for future translators.  He urges that they forsake the reproduction of the formal elements of Russian poetry in the interest of preserving the totality of Mayakovsky’s revolutionary message and spirit for the purpose of its infusion into Western Europe:

Oui, le poèmes de Maiakovsky sont rimes. Mais allez comparer la rime française, et je ne dirais pas la rime russe, mais la soviétique! Tout un nouveau langage, le langage d’une nouvelle vie, des mots qui n’ont jamais été usés par les rabacheurs poétiques, jetés du jour au lendemain à la disposition du lyrisme. [….] De plus, la rime de Maiakovsky toujours imprévisible, souvent complex, faites de plusiers mots, tient peut-etre advantage du jeu de mots que de la rime.

Yes, Mayakovsky’s poetry rhymes. But let’s compare French rhyme, and not Russian rhyme, with Soviet rhyme. An entirely new language, the language of a new life, composed of words that were never used by old, tired poetics, which should not be thrown out because of a thirst for lyricism. [….] Moreover, Mayakovsky’s rhyme, always unexpected, often complex, is perhaps more concerned with word play than rhyme.

“I was as surprised as I was pleased”: Rampersad receives National Humanities Medal

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

“I was as surprised as I was pleased,” said Arnold Rampersad, who received the National Humanities Medal yesterday.  He didn’t stay in Washington long — he headed back to his native Trinidad, where he’ll be till mid-month.  I had emailed him on another matter, and my message crossed with the happy announcement he had received one of the highest awards a scholar in America can get.

Rampersad was cited for his work as a biographer and literary critic. His award-winning books have profiled W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Jackie Robinson, and Ralph Ellison. He has also edited critical editions of the works of Richard Wright and Langston Hughes.

“Growing up as a schoolboy in Trinidad, I received an education in literature that some people might dismiss as ‘colonial,’” he recalls. “It nevertheless served me well in dealing with the complexities of American biography.”

According to the NEH’s online profile:

Ralph Ellison [2007] was published in an era when, according to Rampersad, “the life of the African-American writer has changed dramatically. In part through holding positions at programs in creative writing and departments of English at universities, the black writer has gained a solid presence on the literary scene that has replaced the fugitive nature of expression and publication forced on blacks over the centuries, especially in the slave narratives but continuing into the twentieth century. That presence does not guarantee fine writing but it has led, in my opinion, to an assurance that bodes well for the future. Black literature was described a long time ago as a ‘literature of necessity’ rather than one of leisure. That element of necessity still exists but it does not dominate as it once did. Black American literature as a cultural phenomenon has reached a level of stability and maturity that the circumstances of American life once routinely denied it.”

He joins authors Wendell E. Berry, Joyce Carol Oates, and Philip Roth; historians Bernard Bailyn and Gordon S. Wood; literary scholars Daniel Aaron, Roberto González Echevarría, and Arnold Rampersad; cultural historian Jacques Barzun; and legal historian and higher education policy expert Stanley Nider Katz.

The National Medal of Arts was awarded the same day, to former U.S. Poet Laureate Donald Hall [yayyyyyy! — ED.] actress Meryl Streep, musicians Sonny Rollins, Quincy Jones, James Taylor and Van Cliburn, painter Mark di Suvero, theater champion Robert Brustein and an organization, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.

“One of the people that we honor today, Joyce Carol Oates, has said, ‘Ours is the nation, so rare in human history, of self-determination; a theoretical experiment in newness, exploration, discovery.’ That’s what we do,” President Obama said before presenting the medals.

He also said that works of art, literature and history speak to the human condition and “affirm our desire for something more and something better.”

“Time and again, the tools of change, and of progress, of revolution, of ferment — they’re not just pickaxes and hammers and screens and software, but they’ve also been brushes and pens and cameras and guitars.”

The whole shebang below: