SELECTED LETTERS OF LANGSTON HUGHES. Edited by Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel with Christa Fratantoro. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Publisher. 2015.
Assembling a collection of correspondence can be as loose as what Richard Wright once said about anthology-making: get a pot of glue and a pair of sharp scissors, and cut and paste the works together. Or, the process can be exacting, following the model of Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel, who crafted Selected Letters of Langston Hughes. The editorial principle determining which of the voluminous body of letters to include illustrates their careful thought. Overall, their goal was to offer “a life in letters.” In so doing, they created a documentary record that complements Hughes’s two autobiographies, the artfully-conceived biographies of Hughes, and previous collections of correspondence, especially The Hughes-Bontemps Letters, 1925-1967 and Remember Me To Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, 1925-1964. Reading Selected Letters against these other texts becomes a pleasure as we discover how it enlarges our understanding and insight into a life too often described as transparent and uncomplicated.
The organizational structure of the collection is chronological and divided into five decades, beginning in 1921 when his first nationally-published poem—“The Negro Speaks of Rivers”—appeared. The collection ends shortly before his death in 1967. In between these two markers are placed a number of letters that tease out, from Hughes’s perspective, relationships with Arna Bontemps, Noel Sullivan, and Carl Van Vechten. Letters to these three individuals, however, are merely the tip of an epistolary iceberg. In a career spanning more than forty years, he had occasion to correspond with writers, politicians, and friends—many of whom are well-known to us today and just as many who were once prominent but now lost to historical anonymity—from Europe, Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, South America, and Mexico. The total collection is so massive that as Hughes sought to organize his letters for donation to Yale’s James Weldon Johnson Collection he found a considerable number of unopened pieces. He often started his replies with an apology for being so slow to respond. But he could hardly be faulted for his tardiness. He typically received as many as thirty letters a day, often forcing him to choose between being a creative writer or a correspondent.
Some readers of Selected Letters will no doubt be disappointed because the ones revealing personal or intimate relations are missing or destroyed and are therefore unavailable to support a number of theories about the personal life Hughes jealously guarded. The ones included here show him to be, in one respect, quite like his irascible father. Langston, like his father James Nathaniel Hughes, was a business man and seemed extremely well organized in all of his financial affairs. Perhaps he had to be. By his own admission, he was the first writer of color to make a living solely from his writing. Herein lies the rub. Generally, the labor to support himself (and, at times, various family members) yielded little financial return. Thus he was often reduced to borrowing money from friends or living with them for free. The effort to achieve financial independence required him to accept writing assignments in many genres: the novel, short fiction, drama, lyrics, news columns, essays, libretti, and more. Guest lectures became a way of receiving honoraria as well as selling autographed copies of his work. In moments of humorous self-deprecation, he referred to himself as “a literary sharecropper,” since he felt he was at the mercy of publishers, promoters, and others who “controlled” his life and livelihood.
This collection, unburdened by a scholarly apparatus and introduced by genial editorial comments and informative notes, achieves its goal of being “a life in letters.” It reveals a personality that, for the most part, was balanced, affable, and simply outgoing. But there are demonstrations of anger and frustration too. The “tactful” refusal to endorse William Faulkner—whom he referred to as “the leading Southern cracker novelist”—for a major literary award is case in point. In brief, this collection is quite readable, informative, and nicely-assembled. Just when we think that we have heard all there is to know of Langston Hughes, he subtly speaks to us and cracks open the door just a bit more to provide us another glimpse of who he actually was. While we cannot claim Selected Letters has penetrated the barrier Hughes constructed to protect his inner self, we can rest assured that the self Hughes fashioned in his correspondence enables us to know him better.
John Edgar Tidwell
University of Kansas