IT HAS BEEN the fate of many a black American writer to be forced into a narrow mold by publishers and by critics of both races. Rare is the biography of a black writer that is devoid of some implication that does not focus most heavily on matters that bear on "race consciousness." Thus it has come to be the fashion to identify some of the finest American writers of the early 20th century with race and with Harlem, and to pay less attention to work that did not relate to Harlem and its so-called "Negro Renaissance." Some writers, who did not enjoy a Harlem connection, notably Sterling A. Brown, did not receive the attention they deserved. And others, who did enjoy a Harlem connection, found their other, more general works less well received. Of this latter group, no writer was more misrepresented than Langston Hughes, for Hughes, more than most of the writers connected with Harlem, had experiences and concerns that were international in scope and a career that brought him into the mainstream of American letters.
In Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem, Faith Berry, editor of a fairly recent collection of little- known Hughes works, Good Morning Revolution, attempts to give a less racially focused view of Hughes and his life. She is hugely successful.
Hughes was born in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri, the product of a marriage that was apparently more a result of a shotgun than of courtship. The pregnancy resulted in an infant who later died. Hughes, born a few years later, therefore found himself with embittered parents, who separated frequently and for long periods of time. Eventually Hughes' father made his home in Mexico, which led to Hughes' early international experience; before he was old enough to attend college he had savored the exotic sights and sounds of a foreign land, and the thrill of it never left him. Before he finished college or became a part of the Harlem crowd, he had spent time as a merchant seaman and traveled to the coast of Africa and the fleshpots of Europe. Indeed, his initial association with the Harlem Renaissance was the result not of Harlem residence but of correspondence with Alain Locke, whose celebrated issue of The Survey Graphic brought the Renaissance to national attention. As a result of that correspondence, and Hughes' precocious prolificacy--by the age of nineteen he had published extensively in The Crisis, had penned his most famous poem,"The Negro Speaks of Rivers"--Locke included Hughes in The Survey Graphic's "New Negro" issue. Significantly, when they met for the first time it was not in Harlem, but in Paris.
That irony is one that Berry allows to remain implicit but which she neverthless explores thoroughly. Hughes, it emerges, did not even reside in Harlem during the Renaissance but rather visited often during weekends and vacations from Lincoln University, near Philadelphia. He did not live in Harlem full time, in fact, until the late 1940s--long after his reputation was established. Nor, indeed, was much of his writing of the sort that lent itself to narrow racial analysis. Hughes, rather than being solely or even primarily the "bard of Harlem," enjoyed an international identity as "comrade Hughes." He wrote some of his most stirring poems in a vein of more general proletarian protest. His travels took him to Haiti, Mexico, Cuba, Paris, Russia, China, Japan, and Spain, and wherever he went he was known not as a black poet, but as a people's poet.
Although he never joined the Communist Party, much of his writing was done for New Masses and other leftist organs, and much of his fame derived from them; enough so that he was the victim of the right-wing Vigilantes in Carmel, California (where he was associated with Lincoln Steffens), kept under surveillance by J. Edgar Hoover's Bureau of Investigation (later the FBI) and called before the McCarthy Committee and forced to disclaim some of his earlier work.
All of which Berry makes clear without forcing the case. Her exposition is clear and concise; color is added to the text by judicious yet extensive quotation from Hughes' writings, both from his autobiographical works, The Big Sea and I Wonder as I Wander, and from his poetry. The effect is that of work placed in historical and personal context--literature enhanced.
Berry's work is not without flaw. Hughes' alleged homosexuality is dealt with coyly and leaves the reader unconvinced that he was in fact a homosexual. This is crucial, for it might explain his apparent capitulation before the McCarthy Committee, a defeat which Berry chronicles but does not explain. Nor is Hughes' apparent willingness to repudiate his works before the committee and whenever pressure was applied dealt with directly.
But these are small failings, overwhelmingly outweighed by the strengths of the text. For in taking Hughes beyond Harlem, Berry has shown him to be a part of the mainstream of American letters--a figure not only of the Harlem Renaissance but of the cafes of Paris and the Spanish Civil War, a respected colleague and friend not only of Countee Cullen and Claude McKay, but of Hemingway, Arthur Koestler, Stephen Spender, W. H. Auden, Andr,e Malraux, and Pablo Neruda.
The result of Berry's careful study of the international Hughes is a biography which not only expands our perception of Hughes as a poet but which calls into question the assumption that there exists a literature of American blacks that can be profitably viewed as a thing apart from the literary mainstream.