Academic journal article African American Review

"Never Cross the Divide": Reconstructing Langston Hughes's 'Not without Laughter.' (African-American Poet and Novelist)

Academic journal article African American Review

"Never Cross the Divide": Reconstructing Langston Hughes's 'Not without Laughter.' (African-American Poet and Novelist)

Article excerpt

In their discussions of the period in Langston Hughes's life during which he composed Not Without Laughter, Faith Berry and Arnold Rampersad detail the author's relationship with Mrs. Charlotte Mason - the wealthy white patron whom he called "Godmother" at her suggestion. They consider her critical influence on the early stages of the novel's development, including her recurrent use of the word propaganda in pointing out problematic sections of the work. Neither Berry nor Rampersad, however, studies the actual portions of text that were taken out of the novel under Godmother's considerable influence. Because the published product differs radically from its earlier versions, the compositional history of this autobiographical novel deserves close critical exploration if we wish to reconstruct the novel that Hughes intended to write. Such a reconstruction should establish the degree to which his patron's literary censorship forced Hughes to suppress his increasingly strong left-wing political notions in the novel.

Who was this woman who was to have such a profound influence on the young poet? Charlotte Mason was the wealthy widow of Dr. Rufus Osgood Mason, a noted surgeon and authority in parapsychology and therapeutic hypnotism. She wholly subscribed to her late husband's belief that "the most significant manifestations of the spiritual were found in primitive, 'child races,' such as Indians and peoples of African descent, whose creative energies had their source in the unconscious" (Berry, "Black Poets" 281). Hughes first met Mrs. Mason in the spring of 1927 in a meeting arranged by Alain Locke. A formal patronage arrangement was solidified the following November, wherein Mason would give Hughes $150 a month to alleviate the young artist's financial concerns. Hughes's writing would remain his own property, but Godmother expected to be consulted regularly on all of his artistic output, and Hughes had to provide her with a monthly itemized account of his expenses (Rampersad 156). Her insistence that he call her "Godmother" indicates that there also was to be a significant emotional aspect to the relationship.

Mrs. Mason entered into this venture with the intention of merging her own vision with Hughes's promising literary skills. In The Big Sea, Hughes writes of Godmother:

Concerning Negroes, she felt that they were America's great link with the primitive, and that they had something very precious to give to the Western World. She felt that there was mystery and mysticism and spontaneous harmony in their souls. . . . She felt that we had a deep well of the spirit within us and that we should keep it pure and deep. (316)

As Hughes phrases it, "She had discovered the New Negro and wanted to help him" (315). His attribution of Alain Locke's phrase "New Negro" to Mrs. Mason's interest in African Americans is not entirely accurate, for Locke first used the term to announce the arrival of a "younger generation" that was "vibrant with a new psychology" (3). In his introductory essay to The New Negro, Locke explains how "the mind of the Negro seems suddenly to have slipped from under the tyranny of social intimidation and to be shaking off the psychology of imitation and implied inferiority" (4). Locke envisions a transformation from a race whose chief bond is that of a "common condition" to one having a "common consciousness" (7). As for the role of the artist in this transformation, Locke argues for the embrace of folk traditions, for while they are "rapidly vanishing in their primitive expressions," he recognizes their potential for future development as part of the race's "artistic evolution."(1)

While Mrs. Mason wanted Hughes and other young black artists to stress their African roots in their work, she did not share Locke's goal of future development. For it was the primitive expressions themselves, not any resulting development or progress, that were of highest value to her. She expressed her own goal in a letter to Locke:

I had the mystical vision of a great bridge reaching from Harlem to the heart of Africa, across which the Negro world, that our white United States had done everything to annihilate, should see the flaming pathway . …

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