Posts Tagged ‘Langston Hughes’

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

Wednesday, June 12th, 2013
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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
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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
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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
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“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: