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

By James Edward Smethurst | Go to book overview

5
Hughes's Shakespeare in Harlem and the Rise of a Popular Neomodernism

Langston Hughes is seldom mentioned as one of the authors who are part of the self-consciously "modernist" or "neomodernist" turn in African-American poetry during the 1940s and early 1950s. When Hughes Montage of a Dream Deferred appeared in 1951, it was characterized as a rehash of earlier work or even old-fashioned. 1 This critique, which implicitly or explicitly compared Hughes's work unfavorably to that of other African-American writers considered incontestably "modern," such as Brooks, Tolson, and Hayden, was largely turned on its head during the cultural nationalist era of the 1960s and 1970s. In the "Black Arts" era, Hughes's proto-"Black Aesthetic" was praised and the "whiteness" and integrationist irrelevance of the "high" neomodernists were attacked. 2 However, contrary to the claims by such critics as Saunders Redding and Ralph Ellison that Hughes's art essentially remained the same throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Hughes attempted to create a "usable" African- American "neomodernist" poetry derived from popular African-American expressive culture, popular "literary" poetry, and "high" modernism. 3

In part, Hughes's popular neomodernism of the early 1950s seemed to some observers a rehashing of his earlier work because it did in fact proceed from his development as a poet through the 1930s and 1940s. As noted in chapter 3, Hughes began the 1930s writing three types of poetry for three relatively discrete audiences -- the "literate" African American, the literary Left, and the "high" literary -- and ended the decade writing largely to an imagined, and to some extent realized, unified popular audience rooted in, but not restricted to, the African-American communities of the

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