Socialist Joy in the Writing of Langston Hughes

Reviewed by Anamaría

Jonathan Scott, Socialist Joy in the Writing of Langston Hughes (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006).

This book, the latest addition to the substantial body of Hughes scholarship, is different from previous critical studies. In Socialist Joy, Scott crafts the paradigm for a new, dialectical approach to the work of Hughes -- and to Hughes the writer and activist -- thus paving the way for a new beginning in American studies. Scott demonstrates that Hughes’ work was motivated by the dialectic between activism and art and that his expertise in a myriad of genres made him into a literary Renaissance man. Readers, teachers, students, and scholars of Hughes therefore need to approach his work in that vein. Hughes cannot be reduced to the poet or the columnist –- or the columnist or the activist; instead he must be recognized as all of these things along with translator, essayist, novelist, and traveler, to name but a few of his attributes. Hughes was a master dialectician and, as Scott’s thorough discussion shows, only scholars and critics who think dialectically will recognize the same quality in his work.

The book is divided into four chapters: 1) “The Backward Glance”; 2) “Socialism, Nationalism, and Nation-Conscious: The Antinomies of Langston Hughes”; 3) “The Poet as Journalist: Aesthetics of Black Equality”; and 4) “The College Aesthetic: The Writer as Teacher.” Each chapter corresponds to an area of Hughes’ intellectual work: his connection to Afro-Caribbean arts, including his translations of the Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén; the relationship between the Soviet Union and the Harlem Renaissance; Hughes’ extensive work as an anthropologist; and his writings for youth.

Scott shows that the thread running through all of Hughes’ work is the “socialist joy” produced by a “…triangular relationship among Hughes and ‘non-American’ traditions such as the Bolshevik Revolution, Latin American and Caribbean music and poetry, [and] communist ideology” (2). In other words, Scott shows that Hughes’ ingenious method of moving between the arts and activism -- something long overlooked by his biographers and critics -- is the basis for his creative achievement.

Scott begins his study with an introduction that takes into consideration the white blindspot in American studies that has contributed to the balkanization of Hughes’ work. Scott points out that the dominant assumption in the United States, despite the arguments put forth by eminent literary artists such as Toni Morrison, Amiri Baraka, and Hughes, is that “American is a synonym for ‘white.’” This realization opens the door for reading and analyzing Hughes’ work -- his aesthetic theory and his intellectual practice -- as a whole. Scott approaches Hughes’ work from three angles (6). First, he criticizes recent forms of cultural theory such as post-structuralism for positing “timeless and unsurpassable contradictions between historical determinism (social being) and art and literature (ideology).” Second, he “explores old ‘truths’ about Hughes in a way that allows them to be understood from new perspectives,” and third, he “suggests possibilities for programmatic research projects on [Hughes’] writing” (6). Throughout, as Scott emphasizes in his conclusion, the focus is on Hughes’ intention and method.

One of the most interesting themes of the book is Hughes’ theory of the North American mestizo. The common literary figure of the tragic mulatta/o or mestiza/o is precisely what Hughes’ mestizo is not. Rather than concentrate on the tragedy of being neither “white nor black” (or in the case of the mestiza/o neither Indian nor European), Hughes celebrated the North American mestizo as a new archetype, and the concept of mestizaje (mixing) as a site of creativity and empowerment. Organic to the Americas as a result of the slave trade, this archetype is a synthesis between African Americans (“blues people”) and the oppressed peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean. Free from the agonizing implications of being out of place because of one’s skin color, the North American mestizo -- and Hughes himself was one -- represents a new beginning for U.S. national identity and a new trope in U.S. letters. Based on a rejection of the color caste system of the Caribbean and Latin America and the white supremacy of the U.S., the Hughesian beginning is a socialist beginning (i.e. born of the U.S. laboring class) and hence a source of socialist joy.

The expressions of socialist joy in Hughes’ work are particularly discernible when his career is not periodized in Cold War terms, contrasting the communist with the post-communist years, separated by Hughes’ encounter with the House Un-American Affairs Committee (HUAC). Scott shows that far too much emphasis has been placed on Hughes’ later work, reflecting the distorting effect of anti-communist ideology in the bourgeois academy. Teachers, scholars, and biographers (including many who profess leftist leanings) tend to focus on the second half of Hughes’ career because the bourgeoisie is comfortable with a “post-communist” Hughes whom they deem safe, understandable, and patriotic.

These adjectives, however, do not aptly describe Hughes in the wake of his interrogation by the HUAC. Because Hughes’ biographers and critics have not paid attention to his method, his response to anti-communist ideology in works such as Simple Takes a Wife (1953), The First Book of Rhythms (1954), and I Wonder as I Wander (1956) has been misunderstood and underappreciated. Hughes’ method, which produced work characterized by love and approbation of the working class, stands in dialectical opposition to the anti-communist ideology of the bourgeois literary establishment. The synthesis, then, is Hughes’ work itself: the poems celebrating the North America mestizo and the everyday working woman and man, for example, or Jesse B. Semple who has to school his foil, Boyd.

If socialist joy is the thread that holds together five decades of Hughes’ work, methodology is the thread that holds together Scott’s study. As Scott affirms in the conclusion, the objective of the book is to show “that the staying power of Hughes’ irreducible discourse derives from a dialectical approach to art and politics that was neither opportunistic nor ideological” (225). Convincingly argued in a language that is both poetic and succinct, Socialist Joy in the Writing of Langston Hughes denotes more than a new beginning for American studies.

Because the focus is on Hughes’ method, much of the text is devoted to Hughes’ paradigms for teachers of writing. For example, Hughes’ own work on an anthology of Black poets demonstrates a departure from the linear rigidity that characterized previous anthologies and introduces the writing “collage” where sundry forms of poetry are layered or “pasted” and juxtaposed according to one “overarching theme.” Other paradigms developed by Hughes that Scott focuses on include developing writing assignments that appeal to popular tastes and teaching literature that tells the stories of working people in their own language. By teaching this kind of literature and encouraging this kind of writing, teachers can help their students become conscious and consequently political, which is the ultimate goal of the Hughesian model. These new beginnings would revolutionize education in the Americas if incorporated into the school and university curricula. And there are other new beginnings discussed throughout the text.

Intellectually stimulating and pleasing, Scott’s analysis of Hughes and his work is a read that won’t disappoint.

Reviewed by Anamaría Flores CUNY Graduate Center