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The Remarkable Langston Hughes : THE LIFE OF LANGSTON HUGHES, VOL. II, 1941-1967 I Dream a World by Arnold Rampersad (Oxford University Press: $22.95; 496 pp.; 0-19-504519-X)

September 04, 1988|John A. Williams | Williams' most recent novel is "Jacob's Ladder" (Thunder's Mouth Press). He has poetry and plays to his credit and has written for several newspapers and magazines, as well as for television. and

Langston Hughes died--can it be?--21 years ago. He was 65. Hughes was, of all the American writers who are black, the most beloved. No other black writer ever said so clearly to his beleaguered people both here and abroad, repeated it consistently in each aspect of his work, "I love you." He lived and worked in Harlem, wrote of its people, invoked their idiom, shared their infrequent triumphs and more frequent humiliations, and only toward the end, did the burden of being loved so much for so long grow heavy enough for him to slip away "downtown" to write and relax.

With this volume, Arnold Rampersad completes his official biography of Hughes. As in Volume 1, he picks his way carefully through the awesome accumulation of Hughes' work and the long friendship with his frequent co-author/editor, Arna Bontemps, and he fills in the gaps of Hughes' life as a pre-eminent American writer. The arrival of the poet (for Hughes, even when writing fiction and essays and columns and lyrics and plays, was always best known as a poet and most times a superbly innovative one) at mid-life, his continuing jousts with publishers, editors, producers, other writers--black and white--friends and enemies, his political compromises, come under wide-ranging scrutiny and critical assessment in Rampersad's current study.

At the moment, no other biography of Hughes can match the grace and richness of Rampersad's writing, or his investigative and interpretive abilities. As the official biographer, he is clear about the placement of his loyalties--they are to Hughes the man and Hughes the writer. In Volume 1, "I, Too, Sing America" (1902-1941), Rampersad, also the author of "The Art and Imagination of W. E. B. DuBois," began his study with a bite of 13 years, then six, and proceeded from there in bites of one, two or three years.

We find the same structure here, but we are conscious that the years are closing in on this writer who'd been a figurehead of the Harlem Renaissance and whose influence at home and abroad are here most carefully weighed. Combined, both volumes approach being 1,000 pages long.

The final chapter of Volume 1 is entitled "Fall of a Titan," but Rampersad, who often writes wryly and with biting humor (an almost precise reflection of Hughes' humor), begins this volume under the title "Still Here." And so Hughes was. In the opening paragraph, we find Hughes back in California, in the Peninsula Community Hospital in Monterey, recovering from a severe case of gonorrhea and being assailed by followers of Aimee Semple McPherson and the Saturday Evening Post for his sympathetic views of the Soviet Union, depicted in poems such as "Good Morning Revolution" and "Goodbye Christ." And Hughes was broke, a not unusual condition for him, despite tremendous amounts of work (for which he was usually underpaid).

Writing solidly, with an ear for nuance and an eye that measures out Hughes' place in American literature, Rampersad establishes some important points, often ignored, about the importance of the poet. He was a writer in the world tradition. That is, like many 19th- and early 20th-Century writers around the world, he was many kinds of writer: poet, dramatist, novelist, essayist, journalist, librettist; he also wrote for radio and television. Most contemporary authors, American writers particularly, define themselves not as writers, but as poets or novelists or playwrights or journalists. Rarely are they multifaceted writers.

An inveterate traveler, Hughes early took an international view of conditions. In 1943 in the Chicago Defender, the most prestigious black newspaper in the world, he wrote in the column he did there for more than 20 years, "It is the duty of Negro writers to reveal the international aspects of our (racial) problem at home, to show how these . . . are merely a part of the great problem of world freedom everywhere." Hughes best made these connections in his relationships with Latin American, Caribbean and African writers. He was, Rampersad writes, "Negritudinous far in advance of the doctrine of Negritude," whose roots in fact are in the Harlem Renaissance. Nicolas Guillen, Leopold Senghor and Aimee Cesaire are some of the writers who have acknowledged this.

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