Langston Hughes’ autobiography from the years 1931 through New Year’s Day 1938 covers his early years as a professional writer during the Great Depression, in which he travels extensively and observes practices and politics as well as the status of black people throughout the world.
“Most of my life from childhood on has been spent moving, traveling, changing places, knowing people in one school, in one town or in one group, or on one ship a little while, but soon never seeing most of them again,” Langston Hughes writes in I Wonder as I Wander.
“When I was twenty-seven,” he begins, “the stock-market crash came. When I was twenty-eight my personal crash came. Then I guess I woke up. So, when I was almost thirty, I began to make my living from writing.” Hughes had been a long time getting through college. He graduated in 1929, and had worked in a hat store, on a truck farm, in a flower shop, and as a doorman, second cook, waiter, beach-comber, bum, and seaman, on the way. In that time he was writing poems too, and a novel, Not Without Laughter, which earned him a $400 award, which was what he had in 1929 when he lost his patron and decided to go to Haiti for a while.
I remembered once during my childhood in Kansas my grandmother had given me an apple that had been bruised and so had a brown spot on it. I didn’t want to eat the apple.
My grandmother said, “What’s the matter with you, boy? You can’t expect every apple to be a perfect apple. Just because it’s got a speck on it, you want to throw it away. Bit that speck out and eat that apple, son. It’s still a good apple.”
That the way the world is, I thought, if you bite the specks out, it’s still a good apple.
A Traveling Man
He knew pretty well by then that he wanted to be a writer, but it was not so easy for a Negro to get a living out of writing. In Haiti he started to think about making poetry pay, and during the next few years which took him from Port an Prince to Havana, through the south via New York to San Francisco, and then to Moscow, Tashkent, Tokyo, Shanghai, Carmel, California, Mexico City, Harlem, Cleveland, Madrid, and finally Paris, he got along.
With stops in Russia during the ‘heroic days’ of the second Five Year Plan and in Spain in 1937, Langston Hughes’ journey from 1930 to 1937 paralleled those of many writers and journalists born around 1900. But Hughes’ story is not much like those of such men as Stephen Spender, Louis Aragon, Louis Fischer, George/Orwell, and Arthur Koestler.
Without Ideological Purpose
The difference is that the travels of the latter group often served some carefully thought out intellectual purpose, and Hughes never cared much for ideology. Orwell chose to go down and out in Paris and London, and Koestler’s trips to Palestine, Russia, and Spain were motivated by prior and (he thought) complete ideological commitments to Zionism, Communism, and finally the Popular Front. These men, particularly those who joined the Communist Party, were afflicted, wherever they went by an all-embracing purpose which made it difficult for them to see anything except in relation to that purpose.
Hughes and Koestler met by chance in Ashkhabad in 1932, and it is interesting to compare their accounts of the weeks they spent together in Russian Central Asia. Koestler had come to inspect the accomplishments of the Soviet Five Year Plan in backward areas such as Ashkhabad, while Hughes was enjoying a free vacation at the expense of the Russians after the movie he had come to Russia to make had turned into a fiasco.
Dirt and Music
“As I lay on the sheetless bed,” Koestler writes The Invisible Writing–“enveloped by gloom and stench, counting the familiar stains on the wall which crushed bed-bugs leave behind, I heard the sound of a gramophone in the next room.” It was Hughes, playing Sophie Tucker on his phonograph, not bothering to notice the dirt. While Koestler was disgusted by the filth and unsanitary living habits, and only briefly amused by a local purge trial, Hughes was enjoying lavish Turk hospitality and occasionally reading the voluminous notes Koestler took each day. What Koestler found most everywhere failed to meet his expectations, and Hughes, having none, was mostly satisfied.
When Koestler described those days in 1953, he apologized, “I found it impossible to revive the naive enthusiasm of the period.” This was not Hughes’ way. His enthusiasm stayed fresh because it was for people and things, not ideas, which date faster. While he protested violently against the Scottsboro decision and later against Franco’s bombing of Madrid, his protest was not a Party member’s but always that of an individual. As he was convinced by the discovery of a swank little restaurant in Tashkent: “The system under which the succesful live–left or right, capitalist or communist–did not seem to make much difference to that group of people, in every city around the globe, who managed by hook or crook to live well.”
A Tooth for a Tooth
Though it was often by crook, Hughes usually managed to live well, or fully. Unlike those who distorted themselves and what they saw to correspond with prefixed ideas, Hughes was willing to take things pretty much as he found them and, if possible, to get fun out of them. In Russia for instance a free dental filling “seemed to me a minor miracle.” “Moscow dental customs, the unveiling of the harem women in Turkestan, and the disappearance of the color line throughout Soviet Asia, are the three achievements I remember best of the whole USSR.”
Of course he could never forget the barriers that faced a negro at home; and it made him more tolerant of the Russians, for all their purge trials and liquidations. He said he felt about Communism as Frederick Douglass though of abolition, “Whatever else it might be–it was not unfriendly to the slaves.” “After all,” he concluded, “I suppose how anything is seen depends on whose eyes look at it.”
Hughes’ willingness to take things as they came sometimes reached astonishing proportions.
There was the day when he arrived in Shanghai, not knowing a soul, nor a word of the language: “Hardly had I climbed into a rickshaw than I saw riding in another along the Bund a Negro who looked exactly like a Harlemite. I stood up in my rickshaw and yelled. ‘Hey man!’ He stood up in his rickshaw and yelled, ‘What ya sayin’?’ We passed each other in the crowded street, and I never saw him again.”
“I have discovered in life that there are ways of getting almost anywhere you want to go, if you really want to go. You might have to squeeze through a knothole, humble yourself, drink muddy tea from consumptive bowls or eat camel sausage, pass for Mexican, or take that last chance, but—well, if you really want to get there, that’s the way it is. If you want to see the world, or eat steaks in fine restaurants with white tablecloths, write honest books, or get in to see your sweetheart, you do such things by taking a chance. Of course, a boom may fall and break your neck at any moment, your books may be barred from libraries, or the camel sausage may lead to a prescription of arsenic. It’s a chance you take.”
― Langston Hughes,
Humor and Dinner
Hughes made few prejudgments about the people that passed his way, and knew that few judgments–least of all those one makes about oneself–are final. He was not so absorbed in his own purposes as not to notice what was going on around him. And often enough it was the the funny side of things that got his attention, in beseiged Madrid for instance, where Franco broadcasted each day the Falangists’ dinner menus to the hungry loyalists, and where he and his friends would play Jimmie Lunceford’s “Organ Grinder’s Swing” all night to drown out the noise of the bombing.
“Even to an outsider like myself, not only in the theatre was such disunity evident, but in much else in government Spain. Alvarez del Vayo, Socialist Minister of Foreign Affairs, once asked, “Why is it Spain’s people are so great, but her leaders so small?”
What he saw in Madrid could only be wondered at–a girl practicing her piano the morning after a shell had passed through her house taking with it part of the living room wall and the top corner of the piano. “The will to live and laugh in this city of over a million people under fire, each person in constant danger, was to me a source of amazement.” Langston Hughes is that kind of traveller who seeks after little, and, so, discovers much to wonder at.
But sometimes, his focus on biting out the specks is bad policy. He mentions the show trials and purges in passing a couple of times, but with no comment. This is puzzling. But he was writing the book just as the McCarthy hearings were climaxing or ending, so one has to read this as the book of someone who had testified but not defied McCarthy; Hughes was criticized for being almost cooperative.