Hughes/Lawrence/Douglass: Power and Resistance in The Ways of White Folks
Langston Hughes recounts in his second autobiography, I Wonder as I Wander (1956), how he remained in the Soviet Union after the aborted attempt to film White and Black there. He had been persuaded to read D.H. Lawrence's collection of short tales on the lives of the English upper classes, The Lovely Lady, and how such reading had influenced Hughes toward his own collection of short stories, The Ways of White Folks.(2) The Laurentian tales, particularly the title story, about a selfish, grasping but wealthy elderly woman who so diminishes her son's self-worth that he very nearly misses embracing his own sense of life, had a mesmerizing effect on Hughes: significantly, they reminded him of his fractured relationship with the white doyenne of the Harlem literary scene, Mrs. Charlotte Osgood Mason, a separation which began after a trip to Cuba in 1930, where he had met among others, the man he had helped become Cuba's national poet, Nicolas Guillen, and before an enriching tour of the South, during which he was widely feted and many clamored to hear his poetry.(3) Now, in the nether regions of Soviet Central Asia in 1933, he is again challenged by these now distant recollections, but this time, rather than being daunted by them, he uses his great artistic gift in sublimating them into fictional narratives on race and class.(4) But they are not simply these, for as he sees these peculiarly American issues through the lens of Lawrence's English stories, he understands their master theme to be, ultimately, the fundamental role power plays in shaping human motivations.
Power is unmistakably the governing influence of several of these stories by Lawrence. In "The Lovely Lady," Mrs. Pauline Attenborough's tragic and eventually fatal overreaching into the lives of her son Robert and his intended, Ciss, is such to force the very invocation of the word:
"She didn't even love herself," said Ciss. "It was something else -- what was it?" She lifted a troubled, utterly puzzled face to him.
"Power!" he said curtly.... "Power to feed on other lives.... She put a sucker into one's soul, and sucked up one's essential life.... I know I've got a heart," he said, passionately striking his breast. "But it's almost sucked dry. I know people who want power over others." (Lady 26)
The desires of the powerful, as always outstripping the means of the powerless to fulfill them are at the heart of "The Rocking-Horse Winner," the third story in Lawrence's collection and the other which, as Hughes writes, "made my hair stand on end."(5) The neglectful parents who always want more, whatever more may be, unwittingly exploit their son's gift to pick winning racehorses; his zeal to please costs him his life. For Hughes, this story also hits too close to home, as it further forces his recollection of the deepening of his exploitation by Mrs. Mason. Another story, "Mother and Daughter," is quite as specific in narrating the call of power. Mrs. Bodoin's restraints on the passions of her daughter Virginia seem strong enough, but fully a match for these are the charms of the Turkish sexagenarian who woos the young woman:
She quivered, and was helpless. It certainly was quaint! He was so strange and positive, he seemed to have all the power. The moment he realized that she would succumb into his power, he took full charge of the situation, he lost all his hesitation and his humility. He did not want just to make love to her: he wanted to marry her, for all his multifarious reasons. And he must make himself master of her. (Lady 76)
And so a young James Langston Hughes, now a long way from home, reflected on the meaning of these stories to his own life. The falling-out with Mrs. Mason -- "Godmother" to her many minions -- and with this, the conspiracy of Zora Neale Hurston and Alain Locke to continue to discredit Hughes before her -- had, for some time afterward, left him sad, bewildered, and broken. …