The New Red Negro: The Literary Left and African American Poetry, 1930-1946

By James Edward Smethurst | Go to book overview

3 "Adventures of a Social Poet"
Langston Hughes in the 1930s

Social forces pull backwards or forwards, right or left, and social poems get caught in the pulling and hauling. Sometimes the poet himself gets pulled and hauled -- even hauled off to jail.

-- LANGSTON HUGHES, "MY ADVENTURES AS A SOCIAL POET" ( 1947)

The difficulty in authoritatively reading Hughes's "true" personality and "true" artistic enterprise -- which are often conflated -- has been much remarked, directly by critics and indirectly in the belletristic works of such writers as Wallace Thurman and Melvin Tolson. 1 Since the late 1920s, Hughes's use of a wide variety of tones, voices, styles, and subjects in many literary or quasi-literary genres has often been seen as a flaw, betraying a facility that, though possessing a certain charm, is at least a little shallow without any real distinctiveness. In many of these accounts, Hughes both evades the rigors of "high" literature while insufficiently mastering African-American "folk" utterance. 2

No portion of Hughes's literary career has been more commonly dismissed than that of the 1930s. Even many of Hughes's admirers compare unfavorably his writings of the 1930s to his work in other decades. In this view, Hughes's 1930s efforts in many different genres -- including short and long fiction, poetry, drama, reportage, song writing -- largely sounded over and over the same ham-fisted didactic note, lacking the lyric humanism and folk wit of his work in the 1920s, 1940s, and 1950s. This asserted nadir of Hughes's literary efforts is almost always related to his engagement with the CPUSA.

That Hughes was, with the exception of Richard Wright, the black writer most identified with the Communist Left during the 1930s is undeniable. Hughes's frequent publication of "revolutionary" poetry in the journals and press of the CPUSA, his activity in Communist-initiated campaigns such as the drive to free the Scottsboro de

-93-

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