In the archives of Gertrude Stein, we see that her sprawling, psychological style appears with a remarkable consistency, popping up organically, it seems, in even her more casual writings. Similarly consistent was her steadfast, assertive personality, both in pushing for the publication of her works and in maintaining their original integrity. Among her correspondence with the editor Robert Carlton Brown is an announcement, in typically Steinian prose, of her and Alice Toklas’ self-publishing efforts—a short letter consisting of one long sentence, worth quoting in its entirety:
We are publishers, not just anything but this, at least I am an author and Alice is a publisher and we are sending you our first book, and here are some subscription blanks to give anyone who might want one, and also could you give us any lists of likely buyers or book shops where they might sell some, all of which is to be appreciated because our idea is to go on, well anyway we will and lots of love to you all
Stein, in this letter, does not name the book that she and Alice are publishing (and the date postmarked on the envelope—22 April 1931—does to little to specify). We do know, however, that she and Toklas worked together on self-publishing many of her works before she broke into literary stardom (with The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas). Though Stein’s Paris apartment at 27 Rue de Fleurs was a major artistic nexus—frequented by Matisse and Picasso, among others—she was often frustrated by the barriers imposed by the publishing industry between her and her readers. Her and Toklas’ self-publishing efforts circumvented much of this barrier, but not all—professional publishers still controlled a less tangible gate, in the type of resources Stein asks Brown for, such as contacts and access to raw materials. Stein’s very reaching out to Brown, though, indicates a seemingly rightful optimism that these barriers can very feasibly be surmounted.
Unfortunately, Stein’s letter to Brown also evidences a larger—and far more lugubrious—network: France’s colonial empire. The letter’s postage is a commemorative stamp from the Paris Colonial Exposition, a 1931 showcase of artifacts, architecture, and even humans from France’s colonial holdings. The Ministry of Colonies commissioned six stamp designs from the artist Louis Pierre Rigal; Stein’s letter bears a red iteration of Fachi Woman, a woodcut profile of a Nigerian woman (of the Fachi tribe) surrounded by eucalyptus leaves. It serves, as do the other exhibits, as a despicably prideful symbol of colonial exploitation. Though some of Stein’s contemporaries, like Picasso, directly appropriated the artistic styles of African countries into their work, it would be unfair to pin any part of using this stamp as intentional on Stein’s part. That would be beside the point, anyway; finding this stamp on Stein’s letter is significant today mostly as a reminder that even some of the most socially important thinkers, like Stein, might overlook violent worldly injustices going on. (Under a 21st-century light, this could caution us to continue being rigorous in realizing the broad, intersectional systems of oppression in the world.)
This letter significance to us, though, is as a rare preservation, in a way, of the Parisian modernist social networks. The importance of personal networks in the professional lives of historical artists like Stein is undeniable, although they can often be invisible in history. The artifacts that survive most pervasively—books, for instance—do not always acknowledge the importance of networks, or at least not as explicitly as this letter does. (The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, by Stein, is an exception, as a whirlwind account of the sheer vastness of these networks, and their part in her Paris life.) Though the glued seams of the envelope have all but disintegrated, Stein’s letter has an important lasting power, as a physical artifact that crystallizes the shapeless frame of interpersonal networks in the artistic and publishing worlds.
Detail of envelope
Detail of letter (sides one and two, and transcript)
Although Langston Hughes was best known as a poet, his literary accomplishments span far beyond verse. In addition to being a prolific short story writer, essayist, and playwright, Hughes work was often adapted. Various composers set Hughes’s poetry to music, including Jean Berger and Walter Brough. Also prevalent were adaptations of Hughes’s poetry into drama. One notable example of this is the adaptation of his poetry collection Shakespeare in Harlem by the Forty-First St. Theatre. This production—staged just six years before Hughes’s death—and the associated ephemera is a testament to the rapidly evolving New York theater scene, as well as Hughes’s lifetime network of collaborators, particularly his relationships with Margaret Bond and James Weldon Johnson.
The Forty-First St. Theatre production ran during the month of February in 1960. The black and white cover of the playbill features black silhouettes in a spotlight surrounded by stereotypical jazz club imagery in a cartoon style: trombones, dollar bills, playing cards, and a gin bottle label. The only additional feature on the cover is the address of the theater. This is unusual for playbill covers, which usually feature at minimum the name of the director and playwright. Shakespeare in Harlem was possibly well known source material to 41st Street Theatre’s anticipated audience. Alternatively, the lack of information may have been an oversight on the part of the playbill designer.
Cover, from Playbill: Forty-First Street Theatre production, “Shakespeare in Harlem” (New York: Directed by Robert Glenn, 1960). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Sarah Linton.
The interior of the first page has more conventional billing, listing the director, and key technical executives. The first line is a producer credit reading, “Howard Gottfried and Robert Glenn (By arrangement with N.Y. Chapter of ANTA) present.” ANTA is the American National Theatre and Academy, a nonprofit organization founded in 1935 to be the official national theater of the United States, an alternative to for-profit Broadway theater. Although ANTA is credited in the program, “Shakespeare in Harlem” is not listed in the organization’s official database of productions. So while ANTA may have played a role either in funding or advertising the production, it is improbable the performance space was owned by the organization. ANTA has a limited reach today, operating primarily in Denver, but managed multiple New York City performance spaces during the 1960s.
Howard Gottfried was born in Manhattan and served in the army during WWII before returning to the city to attend university and eventually earn a law degree. By the age of 37 in 1960, he was working as a career producer Off Broadway. Shakespeare in Harlem was just one of many theater performances he produced during this time in his life. Although Gottfried would eventually transition into and become more well-known for his film producing in Los Angeles, he appears to have retained his interest in adaptations: he produced the film 1988 adaptation of Harvey Fierstein’s play Torch Song Trilogy.
First page, from Playbill: Forty-First Street Theatre production, “Shakespeare in Harlem” (New York: Directed by Robert Glenn, 1960). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Sarah Linton.
Very little information is available about Robert Glenn. It is probable that Glenn initiated the project, perhaps even approaching Hughes for the rights to the text, given that he is also credited as adaptor and director. The other technical executives–musical director Robert Corbet, set/lighting/costume designer Robert L. Ramsey, and associate producer Wilhelmina Clement–are equally unknown. It is improbable that Hughes interacted with any of them directly. They may have been attached to Forty-First Street Theatre as resident company members, or contracted for this production specifically.
Like ANTA, Forty-First Street Theatre has changed radically since the 1960s–in that it no longer exists. The building at the 125 West 41st Street address has been torn down. The intersection where it used to sit now hosts three large mid-rise buildings, an Equinox Gym, and a Whole Foods. However, the playbill is a reminder of New York’s rich art scene of the sixties, when it was much more common for a large government organization to attach itself to a small production.
The playbill is also a subtle record of Hughes’s own artistic network. “Shakespeare in Harlem” is in fact a show in two parts. Part II comes from Hughes’s work. Part I, however, is an adaptation of God’s Trombones, Seven Negro Sermons in Verse by James Weldon Johnson, a “poetic interpretation of African-American religion” published in 1927. Since Johnson died in 1938, Robert Glenn would have sought the rights for this adaptation from his executor. The pairing of Johnson and Hughes’s work is an interesting one, as Johnson served as a mentor for Hughes during his early years. After Hughes and several colleagues published the almost universally panned African-American literary magazine Fire!! in 1926, Johnson was one of the few writers well-integrated into the black literary establishment who did not make a point of writing a scathing review.
God’s Trombones cast list, from Playbill: Forty-First Street Theatre production, Shakespeare in Harlem (New York: Directed by Robert Glenn, 1960). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Sarah Linton.
The “God’s Trombone” portion of the evening appears to have poorly received. A New York Times review gave it only a paragraph and a half, calling the adaptation “an exercise in storytelling that does not have the momentum of theatre.” Since God’s Trombones was critically acclaimed upon its release, the show’s perceived shortcomings likely fall on Glenn and the script. The 80-page, 7 poem book may have been a challenge to adapt.
Part II was more warmly if not enthusiastically received. As a book of many more short poems, Shakespeare in Harlem may have been easier to adapt, or Glenn may have spent more time working on it, since only this portion of the show is marketed on the playbill cover. Called, “a garland of verses about the ‘dream deferred’ to which Lorraine Hansberry refers in ‘Raisin in the Sun,’” by the Times the adaptation used eight or nine poems to create sketches of Harlem people and life.
Shakespeare in Harlem cast list, from Playbill: Forty-First Street Theatre production, Shakespeare in Harlem (New York: Directed by Robert Glenn, 1960). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Sarah Linton.
The entire show was scored by Margaret Bonds, an artist activist and talented composer had a long, deep friendship with Hughes. Notably, Hughes and Bonds wrote cantatas together, with Bonds providing the music and Hughes providing the text. These collaborations include, “Ballad of the Brown King,” a nine movement Christmas cantata written in 1954, and “Simon Bore the Cross,” an Easter cantata written in 1965. Bonds’s work on “Shakespeare in Harlem” would have occurred between these two more direct collaborations.
How Bonds become involved with the production is unclear. Hughes may have recommended her, or she may have already had a standing relationship with ANTA or Forty-First Street Theater. This unknown, in addition to others – who Robert Glenn is and the acquisition of Shakespeare and Harlem and God’s Trombones, the specifics of the shows beyond what is described in the Times review – draws attention to missing archival items which might help illuminate the details of the show and its relationship to Hughes’s work as a whole.
It would be valuable to be able to see the script itself to compare the adaptation to the original texts. It would also be valuable to see the correspondences between Glenn, Bond, and Hughes, as well as Johnson’s executor, to get a sense of how each’s involvement in the project came about. Another beneficial archival opportunity would be comparing the Times review with other reviews, or to see notes from Forty-First Street Theatre members discussing how they felt the show went. My search for these items via ArchiveGrid and Archive Finder were unfortunately unsuccessful. Neither the Yale Beinicke Collection nor other smaller archives contain references to Forty-First Street Theater or Robert Glenn, let alone these items in reference to Bond and Hughes. Nonetheless, the playbill is a fascinating snapshot of the 1960s theater culture and the reconfiguration of Hughes’s work for the stage.
Langston Hughes was a man of the people. He wrote for the African American community and he was inspired by them. Hughes wrote the book-length poem, Montage of a Dream Deferred, shortly after World War II ended, and it was preserved in the literary archives. The literary archives captured the existence of most of his works as well as attempts to document all the influential people in his life. However, the content of Montage of a Dream Deferred reveals several omissions in the archives, from simple details regarding book design, to more complex limitations regarding the documentation of jazz, to the large exclusion in documenting the influential community of people that directly inspired his writing.
This particular artifact is a first edition copy of Hughes’ Montage of a Dream Deferred, published in 1951 by Henry Holt and Company. The book exterior has a sunny yellow cover and friendly serif font. The back cover bears a quite cheerful picture of Hughes along with a short biography. According to the copyright notice, the book was designed by Maurice Serle Kaplan, who worked with different publishing companies on typeface designs and about whom little else is known. Interestingly, at the bottom of the cover, two of Hughes’ other works are mentioned: Shakespeare in Harlem and Simple Speaks His Mind. One can speculate that the publishers hoped that mentioning the author’s prior works on the cover may snag the interest of customers who are familiar with Hughes and thus generate more sales, but nothing is known about the specifics or context of that decision. Furthermore, it is likewise unknown why the two aforementioned works were chosen as opposed to other well-known earlier works such as The Weary Blues or The Ways of White Folks. Regardless, this artifact establishes a connection between the two mentioned works on the cover and Montage of a Dream Deferred. All three works focus on storytelling set in Harlem, with emphasis on racial inequality in addition to the matter of fact, day-to-day life experiences of African American people. Hughes’ work attempts to be accessible to the African American community at large, and Hughes was unusual as a writer, for this reason.
Montage of a Dream Deferred reveals not only Hughes’ intended audience, but also the extent of the influence of jazz. Jazz served as an essential source of inspiration for Hughes. Hughes dedicates one of his opening pages to the influence of jazz, stating “…this poem on contemporary Harlem, like be-bop, is marked by conflicting changes, sudden nuances, sharp and impudent interjections, broken rhythms, and passages sometimes in the manner of the jam session, sometimes the popular song, punctuated by the riffs, runs, breaks, and disc-tortions of the music of a community in transition.”
The jam sessions that Hughes listened to, the improvisation that is central to be-bop and other jazz forms -most of that is not accessible to us now through our literary archives. We instead rely upon representations, such as Hughes’ attempts to capture jazz through his poetry. Hughes also set many of his poems to music, and some archival collections, such as this one in the Yale University Beinecke Library, possess the sheet music from those pairings. However, we have very little documentation of those original sources of inspiration, be it jazz pianists playing in bars in Harlem, or street performers, or concerts that Hughes attended. In part, this was unavoidable: the nature of improvisational jazz is such that it is constantly changing with each beat and only a recording would truly capture what Hughes had listened to. Today’s modern technology would have allowed for such a recording -and how cool would it have been to listen to the same music that Hughes did when reading his “Dream Boogie” while he did when writing it?
I did find just one collection that may provide further illumination on this subject. While extensive Langston Hughes collections, like the one at Beinecke Library, seemed to only include music that had been used as backdrop to Hughes’ lyricized poems, this collection at the Thomas F. Holgate Library at Bennett College is composed of music albums from black musicians along with some poetry by Langston Hughes. Unfortunately there is no available finding aid, and the material is currently unprocessed, so it cannot be confirmed that this music was in fact music that Hughes listened to while writing his poems as opposed to just used as a backdrop for his lyricized poems.
In the same vein, other forms of inspiration behind Hughes’ work are now lost to time. This “community in transition” served as a muse for Hughes’ writing, and some biographies describe Hughes’ relationship with what he called “low-down folks”. Black people who were struggling with racial inequality, with poor living conditions, with failings in their education system: this was what Hughes knew and wrote. Given the scope of the stories that Hughes covers in his work, I doubt Hughes only pulled from his own life experiences and imagination. Instead, I speculate that Hughes had conversations and correspondence with many “low-down folks” who then inspired poems in Montage of a Dream Deferred such as “Ballad of the Landlord” and “Theme for English B”. In addition, perhaps some of Hughes’ poems were inspired by newspaper headlines and events occurring in Harlem and other African American communities at the time. It would be helpful and interesting if our literary archives sought to identify such sources of inspiration. The extensive collection on Langston Hughes at the Beinecke Library contains 204 boxes of Hughes’ personal correspondences. However, this collection doesn’t speak to how many of those correspondents fed Hughes information or stories about their lives, and how much of that, if any, became the foundation for Hughes’ writing. No relevant newspaper clippings seem to have been included in the archives, either. In addition, the literary archives do not generally include simple, innocuous items like receipts or bills, but these items could shed light on places that inspired Hughes to write certain poems, such as “Juke Box Love Song” or “Neon Signs” in Montage of a Dream Deferred.
Overall, literary archives omit several things. First, decisions regarding cover aesthetics, determined by book designers and publishing companies, often are lost without documentation. This is likely due to the fact that they were not deemed important decisions to document at the time; in addition, book designers generally were not well-known or considered as important as authors, and thus it is not surprising they lack representation in the archives. Second, sources of inspiration are largely overlooked. Jazz was instrumental in shaping Hughes’ writing and it is unfortunate that at the time, we largely lacked the resources and technology to easily record the music that inspired him to create jazz poetry. Finally, the archives overlooks a significant group of people who played an enormous role in inspiring and possibly supporting Hughes’ literary career. While literary archives emphasize correspondence between Hughes’ and other well-known writers and artists, family members, and publishing companies, these archives do not emphasize the relationship between Hughes and his community, and in particular, community members of low socioeconomic status. This could be a result of limited available forms of documentation of such interactions or a belief that such interactions were not as important, or some combination of both. Archives also prioritize the documentation of the existence of literary work first, before documenting the process by which a work is created. As such, objects that speak to the finished product (i.e. first edition copies, later reprints, discussion of the work by literary critics, etc) are preserved while objects that are revealing of the process –i.e. relevant newspaper clippings during the creation of the work, receipts and bills from locations that were frequented during the author’s writing process– are often left out. Granted, it may be harder to gather the later category of objects as opposed to the former.
This last class of omissions -the omission of documentation of the inspiration behind an author’s work– is difficult to remedy in large part due to current convention, to limited available resources, and to the inherently tricky nature of documenting something as continually evolving as an author’s inspiration. Even with possession of documented correspondence, newspaper clippings, receipts, etc, speculation likely will still be necessary to draw conclusions about what places, people, and events inspired specific content from a writer. That said, I believe that documenting an author’s inspiration is still an important focus for future archivists. Focusing on the inspiration behind a work is essential to uncovering an author’s intentions and is helpful to interpretation of an author’s work. Understanding the mindset and headspace of an author is also, simply, fascinating. Finally, in the case of Langston Hughes, detailed documentation of the community interactions that inspired his work would illuminate the extent of their influence on Hughes’ literary career, and thus would give them their due importance in the archives.
The artifact is a musical score of Jean Berger’s rendition of Langston Hughes’ poem, “I’ve Known Rivers.” The score was published in 1953 by R. D. Row Music Co. and is intended for a four part male chorus divided into Tenor 1, Tenor 2, Bass 1, and Bass 2. Though the German-American composer is more well known for his traditional choral arrangements, Berger integrates elements of blues and jazz into this unique composition.
The title page of the score adheres to what one would most expect from a traditional cover – simple, black monochromatic patterns combined with the song’s title and composer. The title, “I’ve Known Rivers for Male Chorus A Capella” is placed at the center of the page in traditional typography. Below the title are printed the credits of the creators of the work: “The Music by Jean Berger… The Poem By Langston Hughes.” Surrounding the title and authors are elegant illustrations of ribbons and leaves, most likely a trademark of the publishing company, “Row Octavo Series.” This can be implied by the company’s name printed at the bottom of the page, “R. D. Row Music Company, Inc.” Stamped over this print is a faded mark indicating the score’s ownership to the Peabody Conservatory of Music.
Upon opening the first page of the score, one can note Hughes’s poem are typed out across the score’s page, repeated and reordered with the musical melody that Berger composed. A deeper observation of the score reveals that it is written in the familiar E minor but follows an irregular time signature, switching between 5/4 and 3/4. The dynamic changes, ranging from pianissimo (pp) to fortissimo (ff), imitating a river flowing on its course. The slow tempo of “Moderato,” or 72 bpm, reflects the old age of the poem’s speaker. The river is “lulling” and “old” as the lyrics mention. On page 3, the word “deep” is sung in a lower note and then extended for several measures, providing emphasis. Following this, a staggered entrance of “My soul grows deep” takes place, cascading from the highest register of Tenor 1 down to the lower register of Bass 2.
These striking musical choices makes one wonder if Hughes had any input in the score’s arrangement. Was the process of producing the score a collaborative effort, or did Berger create the piece by himself? Likewise when the score was published, did Hughes ever have the chance to see it performed live? If not, then for whom was the piece performed for? Absent archives that could give insight into how the work was produced and perceived could include promotional flyers leading up to the song’s performance, brochures handed out to the audience, as well as early drafts of the score. Letters of correspondence exchanged between Hughes and Berger could also give clues into how the piece was arranged.
With this list of potential artifacts in mind, I really anticipated my search on Archive Grid and other online archive sources. However, I was met with disappointment when I couldn’t find a single artifact that connected the two people. Adding on to my disappointment, I was also unable to find any recordings of the piece from my searches on YouTube and the archive libraries. I learned from this search that archives cannot reveal every aspect about a person’s life, even if they are very well known. As with anything historical, there will be biases that determine which artifacts are preserved and which are disposed.
Yet a beautiful trait about archives is that they can continue to be expanded. It’s ironic that even though archives are a collection of the past, there is room for artifacts to be added as new discoveries are made. So I decided to add an artifact of my own: a piano performance of the song, “I’ve Known Rivers.”
Here is a recording of the first few measures of the piece below, played with my mediocre piano skills:
I hope you enjoyed it! The recording of the piece reminded me of our class field trip to Georgetown University, where we watched a performance of Margaret Bond’s composition of Hughes’ poem, “Simon Bore the Cross.” The song was performed for the first time in February of this year, following the rediscovery of Bond’s unfinished scores by John A. Buchtel, Director of Special Collections, whom we had the privilege of meeting during the trip. Dr. Buchtel shared his experience about finding this lost archive, and how its acquisition led to the song’s completion and performance at Georgetown. If I could acknowledge someone who truly went his way to search for something that was missing in the archives, it would be no other than Dr. Buchtel.
Langston Hughes is one of the most illustrious African-American poets in history and the central figure of the Harlem Renaissance. His influence is deeply felt in contemporary black culture and poetry, and his poem that famously asks, What happens to a dream deferred? is taught in every high school throughout the United States. It comes to a point that his other work is at times neglected. Impressive autobiographies or pieces of fiction or plays or essays or even lyrical compositions. The Dream Keeper and Other Poems is one of these lesser regarded publications, and often referred to as his only collection of poems for children.
James Smethurst claims that in the 30s, Hughes’ poetry fell into three categories. Lighter, more uplifting poems meant for the general African-American community, high modernist work for black intellectual circles, and “revolutionary” poems for Communist audiences. The Dream Keeper falls squarely into the first category, even more so because it was meant for children, though it does contain more commentative works such as “I, Too”. While the artifact I have for this post seems like a normal copy of the collection, it can provide us integral insight into the network that drove Hughes to write for children (this being the first of several later works).
From the sixth printing run in 1945 (over seventy years old!), the book remains in good condition. A note at the top of the copyright page states that the book complies with the restrictions on “paper, metal, and other essential materials,” confirms the aforementioned year, consistent with the Second World War. The cover is laminated and beige, depicting what appears to be a black man playing a wind instrument under a tree at night, inked in black and red. The book’s illustrations were done by American illustrator Helen Sewell, who later would illustrate for Laura Ingalls Wilder among others. They are high contrast and resemble stamp prints. Each generally relates to its attached poem, focusing on flowers, animals, small bits of scenery or people. This sparse and gentle style is appropriate for a children’s book and lacks the overt social commentary of his other children’s work such as Black Misery (1969).
The book contains an introduction and two intriguing dedication. Written in 1931, the introduction by Effie L. Power, a children’s librarian who encouraged Langston’s literary pursuits in high school, speaks to the collection’s popularity among the children of the Cleveland Public Library. It’s likely that Power greatly influenced Hughes’ interest in Children’s literature. While he was quite prolific and it’s not strange for writers to dip into multiple disciplines, it’s noteworthy how earnestly he wrote for children considering his fame. Nine separate works over thirty-seven hectic years set on entertaining and educating young people.
Regarding the dedications, one features Hughes’ signature and his beautiful script, “For Marguerite and Carleton Colson.” I can imagine the incredible story behind meeting Langston, having him sign their book, and making light conversation with him. As unlikely as it sounds, perhaps the Colsons motivated Hughes to continue to write for children. However, through all my searching, I could find nothing on the assumed couple. At least in the archives and in Google, their lives are undocumented.
The second dedication is towards his brother, which surprised me because in our selected reading of The Big Sea and other bibliographic material no such a person was mentioned. Searching “langston hughes brother” in ArchiveGrid brings up Yale Beinecke, and a little biographical blurb mentioning Gwyn Clark, Hughes’ step-brother. According to another blurb from the Kansas University’s Langston Hughes Center, he lived with Gwyn and his biological mother in Lincoln, Illinois where he attended eighth grade and became class poet against his will. Further searching about Gwyn unearths a portrait of the man and excerpts from Rampersad’s The Life of Langston Hughes. These excerpts describe how they met in their youth and Hughes’ affection for his “brother.” At one point he goes so far as to bring a monkey home from Africa for Gwyn as a present. The question as to why Clark receives the book’s dedication is hard to answer. Perhaps his influence encouraged Hughes’ writing, or perhaps those brief memories together were an important part of Hughes’ childhood. One can only speculate.
This brief foray into the finer details of The Dream Keeper gives us the opportunity to unpack bits and pieces about Hughes’ children books, the drive behind their creation. It is not a usual topic in the study of his life and work. As much as we can discover about The Dream Keeper as an artifact, there’s limit to what and how deeply we can search on our own and the literary archives provide the small push we need to elevate our discourse. Small biographical footnotes in some collections suddenly become essential in others. The question archivists and literary historians have to ask themselves is, what is important? As much as we’d like to say everything, that kind of meticulousness is short of impossible. Every archive falls prey some bias or another, or perhaps a library buys a collection faster than the others . While Hopkins has a lot of older, rarer ephemera on Hughes, Yale and Georgetown seem to have a great deal more in the way of his correspondence with his family and associates. Like in the case of the Colsons, it is almost impossible to find meaningful data on such anonymous people from over half a decade ago. Furthermore, anything that was destroyed or doesn’t have a physical form that can be recorded and archived online will be left out. However, our job as people who study literary history is to use the information we can access and develop the greatest understanding possible of every work. From the high modernist novel, to the play, to the children’s book.
For my final time this semester, I sifted through the archives at the Johns Hopkins University, Sheridan Libraries. Relatively new, the Langston Hughes collection was not as large as those of Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, but that doesn’t mean it was any less interesting. A sheen of mystery rested over a flier I found that connected him to a network of minority clubs/leagues. At the top “LANGSTON HUGHES” and directly under it in script that shows a certain amount of elegance “Poet…Playwright…Novelist”. Those three words that are used to describe Mr. Hughes are not necessarily unique to this poster, however, on either side of a the photo of adult Hughes, which is located in the middle of the large page, the words “One of America’s Poetic Prophets for Justice Liberty and Equality” printed in similar script to the labels above. These words “Prophet for Justice, Liberty and Equality” indicate to me that this more than just poetry reading but a discussion of humanity. This would be unsurprising as Langston Hughes is known in history as one of the main thinkers of the Harlem Renaissance. The poster is for a Langston Hughes Recital to take place on Friday, April 28, 1944 at the Urban League Bldg., 2030 T Street. The event was sponsored by the Urban League Men’s Club and admission was 50 cents (tax included). At the bottom of this off-white page you will find the various options of where you can buy the tickets, there are three locations. And despite the fact that there is seemingly a lot of information about this recital on this flier, here 74 years later, we know nothing about it. There is an address, yes, but there is no city indicated by this flier, leaving me now clueless.
After doing various google searches in attempts to find where this place may be, I think it may be in Lincoln, Nebraska. The “Urban League” is not something that is unique to one city, it is something that is relatively widespread in the United States. This fact made me wonder if he did a tour of sorts at each of these Urban League’s Men Clubs. There is no indication that it was a male only event, however, as it was in the mid 1940s so it is quite possible that it was assumed to be as such. Another unanswered question.
Although it was a different time back then, I think people wouldn’t normally speak at niche clubs. But this was a regular occurrence for him. Performance poetry was not really something popular until the 1960s and even so, instead of reading at concert halls, he would speak at churches or town halls. Which sets a certain precedent for whom he liked to speak for. This represents a certain network of people for him. Although this Men’s Club is assumed to be in Lincoln, Nebraska, we can also assume that it is a primarily African-American or minority club. I say this only because it was 1944 and I don’t think that he would have been invited to perform at country clubs with the white upper class people. Despite his success, he continued to have these recitals with people in working class communities. Similar to his recital in Nebraska which I am writing about, he had a recital in Dayton, Ohio with a Senior Women’s Church group in 1946, according to a paper program found in the Langston Hughes collection at the Sheridan Libraries. These recitals brought together a community of people that felt Langston Hughes was giving them a voice. It is evident that these people admired him just from the wording of the flier. They found any way possible to bring him in including charging admission. There is no way of knowing how much money was made or how many people were there. But if nothing else that is made clear by Hughes’s history, it is that people wanted to hear him. It is why he was successful in such a difficult time for African Americans and it is why he is still read now. He connected with every person that came to see him and that seems like a pretty good network to me.
Langston Hughes first became popular during the 1920s during the Harlem Renaissance when African American artists were budding stars who promoted and pioneered African American cultural expression. Hughes was one of the most important writers, thinkers, and social activists of this time. Hughes brought a common person perspective to the literary scene. His work resonated with many people because Hughes portrayed the humanity of everyday life. Hughes’ work influenced many artists of his time and was often celebrated for its encouragement to accept people’s varied ethnicities and heritages. This can be observed in the many plays, performances, and readings that were inspired by Hughes’s work and that were performed while Hughes was still alive. One of which is the Stage Society’s production A Part of the Blues, A Musical Portrait of Langston Hughes.
Cover page, from Playbill: Stage Society production A Part of the Blues, a musical portrait of Langston Hughes, (Los Angeles: Directed by Walter Brough,1957). From the Sheridan Libraries,Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Julia Pacitti.
The play was first performed in 1957 at the Stage Society Theater on Melrose Avenue. The performance is based on the life, work, and times of Langston Hughes. The show included two dozen of his major poems and 19 musical numbers. The playbill is printed on blue paper with dark blue ink, adding an additional visual component to the performance. The blue colors influence an attendees’ mood and set the tone for the deep, personal sounds of Hughes’s poetry and blues music.
Society Stage was a non-profit community theater in Los Angeles which quickly became very successful. After it’s achievement in its beginning years, the founders grew out of the experience and moved on to Broadway in New York. As a result, the theater started losing stamina. In 1951, new board members were elected and turned the theater around. In 1953, Society Stage moved to Melrose Avenue. The productions that were put on were new and innovative, something no one had seen before rather than the classics. One of the many successful shows put on was A Part of the Blues. The Stage Society was known to be a great stepping stone for a lot of actors, producers, and directors. Often, people would work at the Stage Society before moving on to the big leagues of Hollywood. This was no exception for the people involved in the production of A Part of the Blues. Most of the players involved in this small scope network went on to have successful careers.
Inside page, from Playbill: Stage Society production A Part of the Blues, a musical portrait of Langston Hughes, (Los Angeles: Directed by Walter Brough,1957). From the Sheridan Libraries,Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Julia Pacitti.
The network that this playbill and production represents is a very small survey of the community of artists who were inspired by Hughes and who performed, read, or participated in a production of his work while he was alive. All of the people involved in this network started out at Stage Society with A Part of the Blues and moved on to bigger projects. The director of the production, Walter Brough, has a long list of notable projects under his belt including Dr. Kildareand Mission Impossible. Sylvia Lewis was the choreographer of the production. She was featured as a back-up dancer in Singing in the Rain. She also choreographed many television shows and appeared on some shows including The Dick Van Dyke Show. The cast includes Davis Roberts, Jackie Deslonde, Victor Cheltenham, and Magda Harout. Davis Roberts is known for his roles in Westworldand Star Trek. These contemporary artists of Hughes were able to achieve such success from their participation in and inspiration from Hughes’ work.
The playbill provides the names of most of the actors, musicians, directors, and other crew members involved with the production. However, it doesn’t name every person involved and doesn’t detail these participants’ backgrounds or relation to Langston Hughes. While other recourses including Archive Finder and Archive Grid provide insights into some of these people’s career, none of these resources provide a definite connection with Hughes and a person involved with the production. Hughes was alive when the production premiered. However, it’s unknown if he knew about the production, saw the production, or knew anyone involved with the production.
Back page, from Playbill: Stage Society production A Part of the Blues, a musical portrait of Langston Hughes, (Los Angeles: Directed by Walter Brough,1957). From the Sheridan Libraries,Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Julia Pacitti.
These gaps demonstrate the limits of literary archives. While literary archives are meant to allow access to primary sources including: letters, diaries, recordings, published works, manuscripts, and much more, they don’t always have every answer. Literary archives can be limiting in their information, not always being able to provide insight on the connection between different people, the events people attended, or even the works people wrote. It can be frustrating to not always find the answers your looking for, especially when literary archives provide so many answers to questions that arise in research.
Hughes touched artists everywhere and had a large influence over his contemporaries. This is a huge feat for an African American writer and activist. Hughes’ influence on artists and their work can still be felt today and is enlivened by the continuous readings, productions, and performances inspired by him and his works.