Jazzing It Up: The Be-Bop Modernism of Langston Hughes

By Hokanson, Robert O'Brien | Mosaic (Winnipeg), December 1998 | Go to article overview

Jazzing It Up: The Be-Bop Modernism of Langston Hughes


Hokanson, Robert O'Brien, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Although few topics in literary studies these days are more complex and contested than the concept of "modernism," it would seem that there remains a consensus that its dominant note is, "Make it new!" Similarly, critics tend to agree that modernist innovation entails breaking down boundaries between the arts, so that musical terms like "canto" and pictorial terms like "imagism" have come to be seen as synonymous with the literary modes of the movement. What seems in turn to have initiated the current revisioning of modernism is the way that the notion of barrier-crossing has also come to include breaking down racial and ethnic boundaries, challenging modernism's exclusive association with Euro-American writers and placing renewed emphasis on other voices, especially the African-American writers of the Harlem Renaissance. With such revisioning, perhaps even occasioning it, there also came the recognition of the need to broaden the music/literary interaction to include African-American musical traditions, particularly jazz.

Within this context, what still needs more attention is the work of Langston Hughes, for it could be argued that no other African-American writer is quite so central to an understanding of how jazz dynamics might operate in poetry and that none so daringly enacts and extends the modernist challenge to "make it new. "What distinguishes Hughes is not merely his departures from the Euro-American modernist tradition but also the extent to which his practice differs from other African-American modernists. The unofficial poet laureate of black America, Hughes's life and work spanned more than a half-century of the modern African-American experience, ranging from the great urban migration and the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s through the stirrings of the Civil Rights and Black Arts movements of the 1960s. A prolific and versatile writer, Hughes published more than 12 volumes of poetry, as well as fiction, drama, essays, and historical studies for adults and children. Across decades and genres, he maintained a commitment to expressing the richness and diversity of African-American life in (and on) its own terms, building a body of work that was both artistically innovative and decidedly "popular" (that is, of and for the people).

In keeping with Hughes's own daring, in this essay I wish to focus not on his early work with African-American musical forms in his already much-discussed first published volume, The Weary Blues (1926), but on his less well known long poem, Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951), which in itself departs from mainstream jazz and taps into the more rebellious mode known as "be-bop." Although the essence of this work lies in Hughes's intricate blending of a variety of cultural issues and music-literary techniques, for the purpose of analysis I will discuss its major component features in the following manner. First, after a brief overview of the musico-cultural context, I will examine the aesthetic principles that Hughes drew from the jazz tradition generally and be-bop in particular, tracing the impact of this interaction on the structure and style of the poem. I will then consider how Hughes's jazz aesthetic plays out in the nature of the poetic voice of Montage (both in terms of the multiplicity of speakers the poem presents and the stance and status of the poet's voice among them). Finally, I will return to Hughes's relation to modernism, exploring the way that his work constitutes a distinctively "popular" modernism, one that uses jazz to ground its poetic experimentation in the vernacular tradition of African-American culture.

Before I proceed, however, I should clarify some important concepts that are fundamental to my approach to Hughes and his work in Montage of a Dream Deferred. First, in referring to the vernacular tradition of African-American culture I mean primarily the oral and musical expressive practices of a cultural tradition that for centuries was largely non-written. …

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