Movies, Modernity, and All That Jazz: Langston Hughes's Montage of a Dream Deferred

Article excerpt

Over the past decade, in a proliferation of scholarship paralleling more general critical investigation into the connections between literature and jazz, scholars have taken up the question of jazz and blues influence in the poems of Langston Hughes. (1) Much of this scholarship has centered on Hughes's most accomplished poem sequence, his 1951 Montage of a Dream Deferred, in which poems based on everything from boogie-woogie to bebop are juxtaposed to depict the dreams and difficulties of a Harlem in transition. Considering these approaches to Hughes's poetic appropriation of African American musical forms, in conjunction with a surging critical interest in the intersection of modern poetry and mass culture, it is somewhat surprising that so little attention has been given to the various mechanisms--the phonograph, the radio, and above all, the sound film--through which this music was often heard and which are so prominently depicted in Hughes's work.

This inattention to Hughes's fascination with the instruments of mass culture goes hand-in-hand with a general critical neglect of Hughes's radical politics. When treated at all, Hughes's radical commitments have often been reduced to the proletarian poetry of the 1930s that has generally been taken as a kind of hiccup--an abrupt disruption and departure from issues of race and community that most concerned him in the 1920s and that he would return to in the 1940s and for the rest of his career. Ryan Jerving, for example, places Hughes's jazz poetry directly against such commitments, arguing that Hughes's "early handling of jazz--and his virtual abandonment of it for almost two decades--bears the telltale marks of an entertainment industry form that could not be articulated confidently or without a certain ambivalence to black identity or to anticapitalist critique until after the Second World War" (661). (2)

I want to suggest, however, that while Hughes does in his late poems return to jazz and blues, his handling of them is still very much caught up in the ambivalence and anticapitalist critique that had marked his radical poetry of the 1930s. His insistence on the authenticity of jazz as an African American art form as well as a form of social critique, most evident in his depiction of bebop in Montage, is asserted against the standardization of jazz by a (white) U. S. culture industry, whose "most powerful agent," Walter Benjamin reminds us, "is the film" (221). Under this culture industry, as Krin Gabbard has argued, the movies became a powerful site for producing a mythology of jazz--that "other history" of a commercial music that is so often neglected by scholars in favor of a few unusually talented composers and performers (1-2).

I will show how Hughes incorporates both jazz and film form into his poems, placing them in dialectical contention, to emphasize both the music and one of its most pervasive mediums. This dialectic is played out in a number of discursive registers--oral/visual, black/white, embodiment/disembodiment, sex/impotence, and primitivism/progress--that Hughes foregrounds in an attempt to offer a specifically black subjectivity that becomes a point of negotiation of mass modernity as well as a productive alternative to it. (3) Formally, the poem itself becomes a forum for staging this dialectic and ultimately Hughes's poetry serves to help articulate a point of political resistance beyond the realm of the poem.

Movies and Mass Modernity

From the early days of silent cinema, African Americans have had a complex relationship with film. They were, not surprisingly, generally caricatured and ridiculed on the silver screen, often by white actors in blackface. As a coherent audience to which films were actually aimed, African Americans were generally ignored, and as several scholars have pointed out, the very standardization of a Classical Hollywood style--with its emphasis on the invisible continuity of image and sound--was dependent on a stable notion of whiteness. …