IN THE PERSONAL library of any Afro-American scholar the combined works of Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps would take up a shelf at least six feet long. For half a century these two writers put out the work that has ensured the growth and systematic development of an Afro-American literary tradition. More than anything else, the monumental anthologies they edited -- The Book of Negro Folklore, Poetry of the Negro, Best Short Stories by Negro Writers, Great Slave Narratives -- symbolize the achievements of these literary giants; for in these books they kept the records of a tradition, preserving its roots, assuring its continuity.
Both Hughes and Bontemps were born in 1902, and both began their careers by winning prizes in the famous Crisis writing contests sponsored by the NAACP in the 1920s. They were so similar in appearance that they were often mistaken for each other. Fundamentally, they were very different men. Hughes is mainly known for his poetry, for the original ways he used Afro-American forklore in his work. Most people know Hughes through his famous folk character Jesse B. Simple, Harlem's Everyman. Always the troubadour, Hughes gained wide recognition by carrying his books around with him, selling them one by one wherever he read his poems. But the prolific Hughes wrote in every genre, from fiction and autobiography to gospel plays, musicials, song lyrics and television scripts. Hughes did what almost no other black writer before or since has done: he earned his living solely as a creative writer for over 30 years.
Bontemps was principally a scholar. Though he too worked for 30 years as a creative writer, producing two historical novels and poetry, he was primarily the researcher, editor and historian. He returned to school in the 1930s to get a degree in library science (to support a growing family) and became head librarian at Fisk University in 1943, where he remained until 1965.
Between 1925 and 1967 Hughes and Bontemps exchanged 2300 letters -- and, apparently, saved them all. Veronica Mixon, and editor of Doubleday, where to two writers were often published, says "they always had this sixth sense that they had to leave something of value in order to establish a black literary tradition." The collected letters constitute a kind of collective authority. In surveying the American literary scene for a half a century, they selected the Big Questions for literary discussion; they helped decide what trends to notice, what influences to count; they announced the up and coming young writers. They always knew how important it is for the Afro-Americanist to claim this kind of control.
While their influential voices were used mostly to the good, in fairness to the women artists that get mentioned in these letters, it must be said that they also contributed to the climate which made it hard for women to participate as equals in that tradition. Grown women are habitually referred to as "yellow gals," "ofay gals," "little dark girls," and "cute little things." Richard Wright's wife, Ellen, is described as "a pretty little trick." Zora Neale Hurston, their associate and peer, is labeled a "career gal" -- though I doubt they ever thought of themselves as "career boys" -- with all the triviality and eccentricity that epithet connotes. Bontemps sums up Hurston's notorious feud with Hughes by tracing it back to "old-fashioned female jealousy." With further condescension he says, "it is hard to blame poor Zora. She can't help it if she's a woman."
The main thrust of these letters, however, is to talk about themselves, to show their determination to refine their craft and gain recognition in the world of letters. They are nearly always exuberantly optimistic about achieving their place in the sun, in spite of all the obstacles. One can almost feel the muscular effort they exerted. At the end of 1940, when they are both broke, Hughes writes to assure his friend that success is inevitable:
"In due time Boy of the Border will get off, too. Everything does in time if you just hold on long enough. There sure are a lot of rocks in the field, though, for any old cullud plow to get over. But I mean to turn out some literature this year or die!"
With each year they made steady progres toward triumph, and for the last 20 years of their lives they were nationally known and respected literary figures. Hughes was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1961. Bontemps was a distinguished librarian, archivist and professor. Of course, they were patronized and ignored by whites, and by comparison to successful white writers, died poor. But these comparisons are irrelevant. Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps profoundly influenced an entire generation of black writers and scholars -- and that was their aim.
All pretensions to highbrow esthetic interest aside for a moment, I must confess I read this book for the juicy gossip, the scandals, the unintentional or deliberate self-revelations, the unguarded moments, the petty, callous thing one allows only in the privacy of an intimate conversation or correspondence. There is almost none of that in these letters. Hughes and Bontemps wrote for posterity, so even the mutual love and trust they felt for each other is rarely shown here. I have the feeling that these figures we are looking at through the window saw us first and staged this show very carefully. Always the consummate theatrical producer, Hughes is entirely aware of his audience and has expertly arranged these literary remains for viewing.
Truly it is a loss and a disappointment. Literature is not, after all, unconnected with life, and we would be the richer for having shared their "felt life" as well as their "archival life." There is itinerary here and lists of projects but no illumination of their souls. There is only an occasional break in the incessant activity of Hughes' life, the merest hint of an intake of breath, to suggest that he was also noticing and recording the great passages of a man's life. Once his adopted godson and namesake comes to visit him at 2 a.m., "looking for his father in the vastness of Harlem," and Hughes shares this haunting scene.
"[He] came here, feeling rejected. I played him Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child That's Got His Own" and we discussed the strange ways of parents, me having been rejected too. Then went and ate 2 big bowls of spaghetti."
Langston and Langston, two night owls, kindred souls, comforting each other in the middle of a Harlem night. Is the godson real or is he Hughes' alter ego? This is the kind of picture we look for but rarely get in this correspondence.
What I most preversely enjoyed in the letters was the sense of reverse double consciousness that Bontemps and Hughes maintain throughout. A two-man in-group, they pass judgement on their white counterparts with genial wit, acumen and sometimes withering accuracy:
On the New Critics: "Not all have been reconstructed. . . . They are ready enough to protest the things they don't like. They simply object to protesting the disabilities of the Negro in America." (Bontemps)
On Robert Lowell and his poetry clique: "The whole T. S. Eliot coterie, including Ezra Pound and those who gave him that big award this year, is a sick lot." (Bontemps)
On Carson McCullers: "The most anti-cracker cracker you ever saw," "a made genius." (Hughes)
And Hughes provides a sound trouncing to William Faulkner's highly touted ability to create black characters. At the New York opening of Faulkner's Requiem for a Nun in 1959, Hughes is indignant that the black woman in the play is depicted as a "dope-taking servant-whore," who is referred to as a "nigger whore" throughout the play. With sly amusement, Hughes says he also suspects that the woman's loyalty to the work ethic is totally out of character:
"Somebody asks what she would do in heaven and she say 'Ah kin work.' (Which is about the LAST thing any Negro expects to do in heaven). So I have put Faulkner down."
Humanists, in the classic sense of that word; hustlers, in the classic way that word is used by blacks, these gentle scholars will be remembered most for the living ways they preserved and extended the Afro-American heritage: for taking it to school children, for their contributions of books and art of museums and libraries. In his own poetry, Bontemps spoke prophetically of the spiritual and intellectual legacy he and "Lang" would someday leave us: We are not come to wage a strife With swords upon this hill; It is not wise to waste the life Against a stubborn will. Yet would we die as some have done: Beating a way for the rising sun.