Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Which Sin to Bear? Authenticity and Compromise in Langston Hughes

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Which Sin to Bear? Authenticity and Compromise in Langston Hughes

Article excerpt

Which Sin to Bear? Authenticity and Compromise in Langston Hughes

by David Chinitz

New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. 269 pages

These are heady days for Langston Hughes scholarship. In 1959, James Baldwin opened his review of Hughes's Selected Poems with the slam that "Every time I read Langston Hughes I am amazed by his genuine gifts--and depressed that he has done so little with them." Ten years later and Lindsay Patterson, in the New York Times, referred to Hughes as the most critically abused poet in America. Both would be surprised by the cottage industry in Hughes scholarship that has emerged over the past fifteen years; a wealth of primary and secondary material has substantially changed the critical conversation about his range of interests and his importance to modern--and modernist--American literary history. The most important contribution to this resurgence is the sixteen-volume edition of his collected works issued by the University of Missouri Press, which makes much of his output readily accessible for the first time--including in the critically neglected areas of his journalism and essay writing, his translations, his children's fiction, and his drama. Three new volumes of his correspondence have recently been published, providing his exchanges with his mother, with Carl Van Vechten, and with the South African anti-apartheid magazine Drum. Attention to Hughes's radical verse and plays from the 1930s, material which was long treated as an embarrassing aberration from the poet's lifelong commitment to African American folk culture, has now moved to center stage in his critical reception, as scholars such as James Smethurst, Anthony Dawahare, William J. Maxwell, Kate Baldwin, Cary Nelson, and David Chioni Moore have positioned Hughes as a major figure in complex international and interracial circuits of experimental, proletarian writing. And critics such as Brent Hayes Edwards and Vera Kutzinski have begun to pay serious attention to Hughes's work both as a translator and in translation. Kutzinski's recent The Worlds of Langston Hughes makes a strong case that Hughes's status as the most famous US poet of the twentieth century in Latin America needs more critical notice, and posits Hughes as a key proponent of a "fringe modernism" which flourished in "spaces worldwide in which we find avant-garde literary practices typically excluded from modernist studies for being too 'transparent,' too 'realistic,' too 'ethnic,' or too 'political'--or simply for using languages other than English" (8). Hughes, for so long faulted for being--like his most famous fictional character--"Simple," has in recent years come to seem anything but.

David Chinitz's Which Sin to Bear? is as much a meditation on this altered critical terrain as it is a consideration of two of the most persistent issues in Hughes's reception--the racial authenticity of his vernacular writing, and the ethics of his political transition from communist fellow-traveler in the 1930s to co-operative witness at Joseph McCarthy's Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in 1953. In addressing the former, Chinitz--like most recent scholars--is more interested in how (and why) criteria of racial authenticity are formulated than in how well or poorly a writer conforms to them. And Hughes emerges here as the defining figure in establishing racial "authenticity" as a "supreme criterion of African American literature" (12), a criterion which would be endorsed in the Black Arts era and again in the vernacular-centered black literary criticism of the 1980s epitomized by the scholarship of Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Houston Baker. The signal exhibit in Hughes's establishment of that criterion is his most famous essay, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain"; rooting the culture of authentic blackness in the black working class, this essay also influentially faulted an emergent urban black middle class for its racial self-loathing and its aping of white aesthetic standards. …

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