Selected Letters of Langston Hughes
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This is the first comprehensive selection from the correspondence of the iconic and beloved Langston Hughes. It offers a life in letters that showcases his many struggles as well as his memorable achievements. Arranged by decade and linked by expert commentary, the volume guides us through Hughes’s journey in all its aspects: personal, political, practical, and—above all—literary. His letters range from those written to family members, notably his father (who opposed Langston’s literary ambitions), and to friends, fellow artists, critics, and readers who sought him out by mail. These figures include personalities such as Carl Van Vechten, Blanche Knopf, Zora Neale Hurston, Arna Bontemps, Vachel Lindsay, Ezra Pound, Richard Wright, Kurt Weill, Carl Sandburg, Gwendolyn Brooks, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Jr., Alice Walker, Amiri Baraka, and Muhammad Ali. The letters tell the story of a determined poet precociously finding his mature voice; struggling to realize his literary goals in an environment generally hostile to blacks; reaching out bravely to the young and challenging them to aspire beyond the bonds of segregation; using his artistic prestige to serve the disenfranchised and the cause of social justice; irrepressibly laughing at the world despite its quirks and humiliations. Venturing bravely on what he called the “big sea” of life, Hughes made his way forward always aware that his only hope of self-fulfillment and a sense of personal integrity lay in diligently pursuing his literary vocation. Hughes’s voice in these pages, enhanced by photographs and quotations from his poetry, allows us to know him intimately and gives us an unusually rich picture of this generous, visionary, gratifyingly good man who was also a genius of modern American letters.
break into the highly segregated Hollywood screen industry. Failing again, he retreated to Carmel. 56 Eslanda “Essie” Robeson responded on October 6 that “Paul was nervous of the rags to riches idea” and wondered if the hero could not be a worker. She continued, “What Paul really wants … is an American picture not built around him, … like, say Grapes of Wrath.” Nothing came of the film project. 57 Van Vechten had advised Hughes in his letter of November 4 that “the second volume of your life
when many others were fleeing the “ghetto” starting in the 1950s underscores this point. In 1960, he mocked those who complained that Harlem was a “congested” area. “It is,” he agreed. “Congested with people. All kinds. And I’m lucky enough to call a great many of them my friends.” He reached out to whites, too. Starting in 1951, he exchanged letters for over ten years with a small-town Kansas housewife who on an impulse—“I had no idea who you were”—had taken one of his books out of her local
(1917–2000) would emerge as one of the most honored American painters and illustrators of the twentieth century, with examples of his work now in the permanent collections of institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. 10 Tired of the work of white artists (chosen by Knopf and other major publishers) who depicted scenes from black culture insensitively, Hughes sought the services of Jacob Lawrence for One-Way Ticket (1949). Knopf reluctantly gave
have to read to be entertained here. And they have the most amusing ways of “bumming” people! One Irishman always takes off his shoes, puts them under a park bench, and runs bare-footed after the tourists. Yesterday, in his haste, he threw his breakfast away (a sandwich) thinking he was going to make a good haul. But they happened to be Germans who had no money for alms,—and no extra shoes!X! The sun’s still wonderful here, but they say it gets cold soon, and begins to rain. I could have gone to
and personally, demand from me, I feel, a critical treatment that, while not in any way touching your own splendid position, might hold up to too unpleasant a criticism our entire American system of philanthropic and missionary education for the Negro, since I am becoming very critical of that system from my observation on this tour. Not that it isn’t doing good; it is. But I feel it a great pity that any group of people should have to beg for their education, and it is a worse defect in our