MY REVIEW of Selected Letters of Langston Hughes for the Los Angeles Times is now live.You can find it here.
The book comes in at nearly 500 pages and is a vivid sampling of an archive of letters that could fill perhaps 20 volumes, according to the editors. Hughes was a prodigious letter writer. How he found time to do so (and with such detail), amid his other writing — short stories, poems, plays, librettos, children’s stories and poetry — is mind spinning.
From the piece:
Mail arrived from many corners of the black experience — from the first bloom of Harlem Renaissance stretching well into the trenches of civil rights era. The specific details and texture found within them granted him entree — and lent him gravitas as an informed eyewitness who helped to shape a deeper understanding of blackness in a global sphere. Through letters Hughes cultivated a circle of literary cohorts, business associates and patrons (Countee Cullen, Alain Locke, Carl Van Vechten, Arna Bontemps, Blanche and Alfred Knopf among them), some of whom remained close nearly the entire arc of his professional life.
There is a Los Angeles tie in this. Not in terms of his letter-writing life, but about his relationship to the city. Hughes didn’t very much care for the city. He’d swing through town for meetings or work and at one point took a brief stay downtown at Hotel Clark on Hill Street. However, much of his distaste for the place had to do with his frustrations with work in Hollywood and an on-going battle that had been waged against him by Sister Aimee Semple McPherson founder of the Foursquare Church. Hughes had made mention of McPherson in a poem “Goodbye Christ,” in which he charges that she is both “materialistic” and an “exploited.” Although he would later retract the poem from publication, it wasn’t over, for McPherson whose publicity arm organized a group from her Angelus Temple congregation in Echo Park to protest the poet’s appearance at Pasadena’s elegant Vista del Arroyo Hotel in November of 1940, on the occasion of the publication of his memoir, The Big Sea. It was a poem, as the letters suggest, that would tail Hughes throughout the rest of his career. Click here to read more. Also, here’s black-owned newspaper, the California Eagle’s take on the imbroglio.