Book Report 005: Langston Hughes, NOT WITHOUT LAUGHTER

Scribner · 1930

A couple months back I went on a book-buying spree. I knew I was going to do this blog come the new year, so I haunted bookstores and bought recklessly, grabbing armfuls at a time, going back three or four times in a week, carrying little lists of titles and author names and scurrying back and forth on the fiction and poetry and genre shelves.

The main focus of all this purchasing was literature from the 1920s. It's a period I've been broadly interested in ever since high school — I think what first really crystallized it was discovering the 1970s editions of Dorothy L. Sayers with the Marie Michal covers at the same time I discovered Wodehouse, and then I read The Great Gatsby and came across a bound volume of the old Vanity Fair magazine and was lost. Before now I've drowned in the music, in the theatrical life, and the humor and cartooning of the period. But in the past year I've decided I need to come to grips with the literary output of the era. This blog has begun the process; the pattern that's developed is that I read one 20s book a week, and the second book of the week can be from whenever.

So here we return to the well of the 20s and meet Negro Literature for the first time on this journey, one of the last books of the Harlem Renaissance if you take that term to be strictly bound up with the relative artistic and social freedom that came with the economic boom of the 1920s. (I don't, largely because books can take a lot longer than music or other arts to develop, and for my money the first real post-Renaissance novel is Native Son in 1940.) My understanding of the 1920s has a lot to do with black life -- one of the prisms through which I've always seen it and learned about it has been jazz, blues, and black show business -- and I'm deeply ashamed of never having really read much Harlem Renaissance literature before now. (The poetry of Claude McKay and Countee Cullen is about it; but I was looking for specific things then and their worth as poetry was only incidental to my purpose.) Langston Hughes is undoubtedly the foremost name to come out of the movement, though he lasted much longer than the Renaissance, and I'm never sure when I bring him up what my audience knows or thinks it knows about him. Some people know the early poetry collection The Weary Blues, some people know the gossipy, kindhearted autobiographies, some people know the educational material for children. Relatively few people know his novels, or so I would assume from the fact that although I took a Harlem Renaissance class not long ago the first I heard of this novel was when I came across it on the shelves.

(My professor, by the way, was the son of Arna Bontemps, one of Hughes' closest friends and occasional collaborators, and if I didn't learn much in the way of bibliographic details it was an unlooked-for pleasure to go to class and listen to him reminisce in his patient, tangential way about the long sweep of black history in the twentieth century and earlier.)

But as this is my first extended encounter with Hughes, it's probably a good idea to pass on some impressions, cobble together a working theory or two, and pass judgment. Here, then, goes:

He's a remarkably fine writer, as one would expect a poet-turned-novelist to be, with a sharp eye for vivid, fragmentary images and the small details of living, but less successful at weaving the whole into a story that convinces. Nothing rings particularly untrue (save maybe the protagonist's confused innocence about sex in one or two chapters), but especially as the book goes on the graceful picture-drawing of the early chapters necessarily collapses into mere narrative spadework. Things must happen in a novel, after all, and emotionally fraught events must be described, and if Hughes isn't quite as good at making them live as he is at making the unfraught, quotidian days hum with life and activity, he wouldn't be the first. (Of course, all this may be and probably is only my personal preference masquerading as aesthetic judgment.)

One clue as to why Hughes the novelist may be more forgotten than some of his less well-regarded peers is that he's not a modernist. He has no facility with, and doesn't attempt, the rich symbolism of a Fitzgerald, the fragmented narrative voice of a Faulkner, or the dense, mannered allusiveness of a Joyce or Pound, and is content to write in an unaffected style that owes more to the popular writers of his youth like Booth Tarkington or Willa Cather than to the heady brew of the small-circulation magazines and recurrent manifestos of the 1920s. With one important exception, Not Without Laughter is as readable as anything that was ever written by someone called "one of the most important young voices of our day."

That exception is the dialogue, which is frequently rendered in a crude Negro dialect. Hughes does some interesting things with it — for instance, a study of who uses dialect and under what circumstances would certainly be worth undertaking — but it's extremely difficult (though not impossible, once you get into the rhythm of it) in the twenty-first century to sit and read sentences like "Sho it is! I knowed it all de time," and not squirm with embarrassment and shame. But Hughes isn't Joel Chandler Harris — his ear for dialect is sound and he follows the rules of the varieties of speech he's recording (and no two people talk exactly alike, which is far more difficult to pull off than you might think), at least so far as he's able without being a trained phonetician. And since he is a poet, the words crackle with meaning and import, however mangled their spelling might be in the creaky old cracker-barrel tradition.

But what really won this book to my heart wasn't the language or Hughes' descriptive power; it was the music. I'm on record as being a total mark for early jazz and blues, and Hughes was too, and the book is full of blues lyrics, onomatopoetic transcriptions of jazz playing, and humid, delirious descriptions of dance and song and performance. The chapter "Dance" is some of the best music writing I've read applying to the hot jazz of the 20s and 30s (though it's supposedly set in the pre-war 'teens), and if you've had difficulty getting into that stuff I'd recommend you search it out and read it through while playing Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives, Jelly Roll Morton's Red Peppers, and Cab Calloway's earliest recordings at a high volume. The climactic scene in the book is in a black vaudeville house, where the secret heroine of the novel (absent for much of its action) is revealed as one of the great blues singers and high-stepping dancers of the age; and I couldn't help but be reminded of Florence Mills, who died three years before Not Without Laughter was published, and was the most famous black cabaret artist in the world when she did. Hughes was deeply invested in the sense of self and of physical and psychological freedom that black musicians, dancers, and entertainers worked hard to convey (though they rarely achieved it themselves), and it's not surprising, though it might for people with a more realistic sense of history be disappointing, that he sees art and music and entertainment (which are for him all the same thing; ergo he's not a modernist) as the salvation of the race.

The Harlem Renaissance, several texts in that class reported severely, was a failure; that is, it did not lift the great mass of Negro citizenry (or even the Talented Tenth in which W. E. B. Du Bois placed his faith) into social, economic, or legal equality with their white neighbors. But it could not have done; no artistic movement on earth has ever done anything like that, and it took a particularly myopic and Romantic early-twentieth-century view of art to think that it could. (Artistic people back then were also certain that Yeats and Shaw and Joyce meant the vindication of the Irish, that Sergei Eisenstein proved the success of the Soviet experiment, and that Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo meant that Mexico had joined the first rank of nations. Artistic people were, in short, unworldly and kind of stupid.) But it did make more thinking Americans more aware of black life, and its injustice, than at any time since before the Civil War; it caused some very good poetry and a handful of solid novels to be published, and it facilitated a revolution in music which has not yet finished ringing round the world. (The secret source of all modern pop is hot jazz, as I will someday prove with charts and diagrams and science. But this is long enough as it is.)

The judgment passed?

Awesome novel. I wish I'd read it when I was a good deal younger; in fact it should be taught in high school instead of Salinger or Knowles or whoever. Fuck a middle-class white kid's problems; Hughes knows more about growing up American than any Preppie Easterner ever did.

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