Wingèd Words: Folk Culture and Rhythm from Homer to Hughes

Langston Hughes’ First Book of Rhythms, a children’s picture book published in 1954, begins with a series of instructions, directing the reader to draw lines with different “rhythms.”  With examples provided by Robin King’s illustrations, Hughes guides the reader through several patterns—wavy, zig-zag, and the like—to begin an affable exploration of the rhythms that fill the universe.  He writes:

Rhythm is something we share in common, you and I, with all the plants and animals and people in the world, and with the stars and the moon and the sun, and all the whole vast wonderful universe beyond this wonderful earth which is our home [1].

Incidentally, Hughes’ statement here echoes Ezra Pound’s theory of Great Bass—though with a more inclusive reach.  For Hughes; everything (living or not) “has” rhythm; Pound on the other hand envisioned Great Bass (or Base) as an imperceptible, underlying rhythm that only the most exquisite poets and musicians could harness into their work by perfecting a “form cut into time.”  Both poets slip, at times, into somewhat murky logic, though Hughes’ book is commendable for drawing the child reader into this awesome network resounding throughout the universe.

Of course, the readers’ active responses are virtually nonexistent in archival collections.  They escape archives entirely; no other collections, besides perhaps boxes of mementos in a family basement, are likely to have much, if any at all, of these responses—for what scholarly value do they have to be found?  Even if everyone has a unique rhythm, are they all worth preserving?  The point of archives is to preserve the past—and a purely democratic archival system would likely clutter our collective memory.

In many other cases, reader’s responses manifest in ways that do carry archival value, though more often as written, thought-out responses—such as literary criticism, or in fact Wynton Marsalis’ introduction to a later edition of First Book of Rhythms in 2000.  Marsalis, who admired Hughes’ belief that rhythm resided in more than just music, writes: “He liked to swing his thoughts on the printed page.  Rhythm was his business too” [2].

Archival value, though, is certainly not the only type of value.  A child’s response to these exercises would be ephemeral in nature—and more valuable as an action, a step in their continuing development, than as an actual permanent artifact.  After his instructions, Hughes continues “It is fun to make something special with your own rhythm because it will always be different from what anyone else will make.  Your circles and rhythms are yours alone.”

Apart from Marsalis (and possibly a few others), the significance of the reader’s responses to First Book of Rhythms resides wholly in the activity itself—and the activity is what’s encouraged, for good reason: for all their resounding ubiquity, the rhythms Hughes describes need not (at least in his view) be captured in very rigorous or permanent modes—their authority comes not from their permanence, so to speak, but from their replicability.

Here, of course, Hughes is tapping into the great egalitarian logic of folk culture.  Folk stories, as opposed to archival literature, exist not in the “marble finality of an immaculate typescript” (to borrow Nabokov’s words), but in a more organic state of near-constant change.  Scholar John Miles Foley describes how Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, for instance, in their oral beginnings consisted of interchangeable hexameter atoms—from noun-epithet names like “swift-footed Achilles” or “grey-eyed Athena” to multi-line passages repeated verbatim—that allowed the storyteller flexibility without sacrificing rhythmic form.  Foley writes, “Words were, as Homer himself often characterizes them, ‘Wingèd’ rather than inscribed” [3].

In the folk blues culture that Hughes drew so much from—and in the poet’s own work— repetition is used for a similar formal variability.  First Book of Rhythms is but one variation of the many educational treatises on rhythm that Hughes wrote for children; many passages in this book can be found word-for-word in other products (e.g. LPs) under different titles.  Similarly, as David Evans writes in a survey of the genre, blues artists select from the instrumental and thematic blues vocabulary, to “constantly combine and recombine these elements.”  Even within a single artists repertoire, blues songs can change from performance to performance, he notes [4].

Such a malleable culture depends on responses from audiences, to the point that the purported originator of stories or poems can even become obsolete.  Foley, in his fieldwork research of contemporary Homer-like cultures, searched for Ćor Huso Husović, the most famous guslar (folk singer) in Montenegro and Serbia.  By asking other guslari about Husović’s wherabouts, Foley found little luck, and many biographical contradictions; eventually he wondered if the famed singer had ever existed at all.

A similarly mythic aura pervades the American blues tradition; from blind bards to Robert Johnson, who, as legend has it, acquired his unrivaled guitar talent by selling his soul to the Devil.  Both traditions resist archives, or at least decisive recordings.  Our current versions of Homer’s epics, Foley writes, are mere snapshots of single instances within the poems’ long histories, and the full breadth of First Book of Rhythms’ effect on readers will go unmeasured.  But most importantly, these folk cultures are supported by constant creative maintenance—which, especially in Hughes’ case, requires participation and encourages community.

Notes

  1.  Langston Hughes, First Book of Rhythms, ill. Robin King (New York: Franklin Watts, 1954).
  2.  qtd. in Marilyn Miller, “(Gypsy) Rhythm and (Cuban) Blues: the Neo-American Dream in Guillen and Hughes,” Comparative Literature 51, no. 4 (Fall 1999): 325.
  3. John Miles Foley, “‘Reading’ Homer through Oral Tradition,” College Literature 34, no. 2 (Spring 2007): 1-9.
  4. David Evans, Big Road Blues: Tradition and Creativity in Folk Blues (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 313.

 

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Instigations and Divagations

By 1900, the Western world had already been exposed to elements of ancient Chinese culture, but it was only then—upon the fall of the Qing Dynasty—that it immersed its museums in looted artifacts, from ancient past to the present [1].  Following this inundation, many Americans became newly acquainted with Chinese culture, though perhaps none more significantly, Alec Marsh argues in his biography, than Ezra Pound, whose involvement indelibly altered the direction of American Modernist poetry.

Pound’s new interest in China, Marsh writes, led him to befriend Lawrence Binyon, the British Museum’s curator of Chinese acquisitions.  On the basis of this friendship, the widow of college professor Ernest Fenollosa, Mary, entrusted Pound with her husband’s papers on various aspects of Chinese culture [2], from translations of ancient poets to essay entitled The Chinese Character as a Medium for Poetry, which, due to Pound’s exposure to it, Marsh claims, “is probably the most influential statement of poetics of the century” [3].

Pound’s use of these papers coalesced most famously, perhaps, into his celebrated collection Cathay, wherein he used Fenellosa’s translations of ancient Chinese poets for his own translations.  (Famously loose, if not outright inaccurate, Pound’s translations are nonetheless keystone texts of modernism—William Carlos Williams remarked that “if these were original verses, then Pound was the greatest poet of his day” [4].)

At the Johns Hopkins Special Collections, though, we have the rare opportunity to observe the place of Fenellosa’s notes in Pound’s pedagogical nonfiction, with Instigations of Ezra Pound: Together with an Essay on the Chinese Written Character by Ernest Fenollosa.  Published in 1920 by Boni and Liveright, Instigations is now a relatively little-known book (it is not mentioned in the Marsh biography), and its cultural importance likely stems more from the individual ideas formulated within it than the publication itself—for instance, it contains short praises of T.S. Eliot and James Joyce, which make for enlightening reads, but nowhere near as much as The Wasteland or Ulysses do as a result of their authors’ personal collaboration with Pound.  (The journals of Charles Olson, though, do indicate that the younger poet read Instigations in 1945 [4].)

As an artifact, this book offers a trove of insights into the networks, both ideological and interpersonal, of the moment.  Most excitingly is the rare book original jacket which survives in this copy, featuring a portrait of Pound by Australian-born Modernist painter Horace Brodzky.  Although he is far less recognized today as a Vorticist artist than peers like Gaudier-Brzeska, Brodzky—and his illustration here—can help extend our understanding of both the aesthetic and interpersonal networks involved in Pound’s Modernism.

According to biographer Henry Lew, Brodzky became in 1912 “the first artist in Great Britain to do a linocut,” which “anticipated the linear stylings [and, in fact, linocuts] of Picasso and Matisse” [5].  Brodzky’s illustration here also evokes, if not precedes, the ideogrammatic style of Pound’s Cantos—firm individual lines, floating apart from one another on the page, forming a whole that seems fragmented at first but “glows with meaning” [6] once deciphered.

Importantly, the ideogrammatic method was a product of Pound’s exposure to Fenollosa’s notes. The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, Marsh writes, had two principal effects on Pound:

“The first was the ‘ideogramatic method,’ which became a rationale for a mode of presentation based on ‘heaping together the necessary components of thought’ into historical ‘ideograms’. This method permits the paratactic historical method of The Cantos and even his prose, where Pound’s habit of jumping from topic to topic can be excused as creating ideograms [7].

Secondly, he identifies, Fenollosa’s papers brought about an increase in Pound’s use of ideograms as ancient, “hieroglyphic” symbols to “[load] his poems with a cosmic significance” [8].  Transferring this sort of “cosmic significance” across time implies a sort of network of its own—a system of hidden threads running through every single piece of worthy art.  The stuff of such a network, in theory, exists completely independent of artist or viewer—the value of an artwork would reside in the artwork itself, as an irremovable, essential quality.  This view is reflected in Pound and Fenollosa’s theory that Chinese written characters carry, inherently, the meaning of what they depict.

Importantly, neither Fenollosa nor Pound understood Chinese.  (The poems that Fenollosa had translated were themselves translations—it was Fenollosa’s teachers who had translated the original Chinese poems into the Japanese versions that Fenollosa used [9].)  But they both believed that the characters were discernible, even if unfamiliar.  Marsh paraphrases:

Pound seconds [Fenollosa] with preposterous claims that Gaudier-Brzeska could [by virture of being a visual artist] ‘read the Chinese radicals and many of the compound signs almost at pleasure.’  Pound himself spent years poring over his Chinese dictionaries believing that, given time, the Chinese characters would naturally reveal themselves to his understanding [10].

This particular copy of Instigations comes from the collection of Michigan State University Literature Professor Arno L. Bader, who, in an apparent emulation of the Chinese “style-name” tradition (wherein an additional name is bestowed on the arrival of one’s adulthood) left a seal imprinted upon the endpapers reading “From the Book Collection of Jiande.”  (The Chinese characters and their translations did not reveal their meaning to me; I had to ask a speaker of the language—“Jiande” translates, according to Tobie Meyer-Fong, Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University, to “seeing virtue—with an extended meaning of thankfulness.”)

Apart from what we can learn from the style of his illustration, Brodzky’s presence in this book serves to remind us that the Modernist’s aesthetic network was built by a physical, interpersonal network, in which Brodzky was, surprisingly, something of a node: “in 1917 he [brought] together both his British and American contacts in his role as manager, or clerk of works, for the Vorticist Exhibition held at the Penguin Club in New York” [11]—the only American exhibition ever put on by the Vorticists [12].

Instigations itself details an interpersonal network, wherein Pound selects names from an array of contemporary and recent French and American writers.  Importantly, this survey’s publication method crosses lingual lines as well: the many quoted passages in his survey of French poets offer no English translations, as Pound begins his book by arguing that “The time when the intellectual affairs of America could be conducted on a monolingual basis is over.” He continues:

The intellectual life of London is dependent on people who understand the French language about as well as their own.  America’s part in contemporary culture is based chiefly upon two men familiar with Paris: Whistler and Henry James.  It is something in the nature of a national disgrace that a New Zealand paper, ‘The Triad,’ should be more alert to, and have better regular criticism of, contemporary French publications than any American periodical has yet had [13].

This is a noble call to arms for American readers, though unfortunately, for all the poetic revelation brought about by Pound’s use of Fenellosa’s notes, his statements on the Chinese language are mishandled, incorrectly analyzed, and tainted by an anglocentric haze of oriental exoticism.  While the ideogrammatic method has undoubtable poetic merit, it is simply not a correct interpretation of the Chinese language.

Sadly, it is not surprising to find ethnocentrism in Pound’s writing—rather, its occurrence here serves to remind us of the paradoxical nature of this Modernist figurehead, whose vociferous inclusionary impulse to draw bridges across time and literary tradition would eventually be matched only by the outspoken cruelty of his exclusions.

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Cover detail.

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Dust jacket flap detail: “Don’t be an Ezra Pound bluff!”

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Seal detail.

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Spine detail.

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Title page detail.

 

 

Notes

  1. Alec Marsh, Ezra Pound (London: Reaction Books, 2013), 49.
  2. Marsh, 61.
  3. Zhaoming Qian, “The Orient,” in Ezra Pound in Context, ed. Ira B. Nadel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 337.
  4. Alan Golding, “From Pound to Olson: the Avant-Garde Poet as Pedagogue,” Journal of Modern Literature 34, no. 1 (Fall 2010): 104.
  5. Rex Butler and A.D.S. Donaldson, “French, Floral and Female: a History of UnAustralian Art 1900-1930 (Part 1),” Electronic Melbourne Art Journal 5 (2010): 26.
  6. Marsh, 95.
  7. Marsh, 64.
  8. Marsh, 64.
  9. Marsh, 61.
  10. Marsh, 64.
  11. Butler, 26.
  12. “Press Release: The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World,” Tate, September 9, 2010, http://www.tate.org.uk/press/press-releases/vorticists-manifesto-modern-world-0.
  13. Ezra Pound, Instigations of Ezra Pound, Together With an Essay on the Chinese Written Character by Ernest Fenollosa (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920), 3.

“Our idea is to go on”: Gertrude Stein to Robert Carlton Brown

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

Gtde Stn

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.

 

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Detail of envelope

 

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Detail of letter (sides one and two, and transcript)

 

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Detail of Fachi Woman stamp

“Shakespeare in Harlem” in Manhattan: Adapting the Work of Langston Hughes for the Stage

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.

Front CoverCover, 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.

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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.

Part One InteriorGod’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.

Part Two InteriorShakespeare 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.

Hughes’ Inspiration: Missing from the Archives

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.

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Front cover, Langston Hughes, Montage of a dream deferred, (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1951). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Charlotte Kwok.
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Back cover, Langston Hughes, Montage of a dream deferred, (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1951). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Charlotte Kwok.

 

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.”

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Detail of page, Langston Hughes, Montage of a dream deferred, (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1951). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Charlotte Kwok.

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?

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Detail of “Dream Boogie”, Langston Hughes, Montage of a dream deferred, (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1951). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Charlotte Kwok.

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.

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Langston Hughes by Carl Van Vechten by U.S. Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs division/public domain

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.

An Addition to the Archives: “I’ve Known Rivers” for Male Chorus

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Front cover of “I’ve Known Rivers for Male Chorus” (New York, R. D. Row Music Company, 1953). From The Sheridan Libraries, The Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Jeanne Lee.

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.

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Page 2 and 3 of “I’ve Known Rivers for Male Chorus” (New York, R. D. Row Music Company, 1953). From The Sheridan Libraries, The Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Jeanne Lee.

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’ve Known Rivers by Jean Berger, Langston Hughes

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.

Interpretation of Dreams: The Network Behind Langston Hughes’ The Dream Keeper

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Picture of Langston Hughes by Jack Delano, 1942 (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Langston-Hughes) Encyclopaedia Britannica.

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.

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Cover of The Dream Keeper (New York, Knopf, 1945). From The Sheridan Libraries, The Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Abigail Rogers-Berner.

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).

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Illustrations from The Dream Keeper (New York, Knopf, 1945). From The Sheridan Libraries, The Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Abigail Rogers-Berner.

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).

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Picture of Helen Sewell. (https://janeaustensworld.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/sewell.jpg)

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.

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Staff photo of Effie L. Power taken ca. 1937. (https://cplorg.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p4014coll13/id/174/)

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.

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Picture of Gwyn Clark. (https://brbl-dl.library.yale.edu/vufind/Record/3526339) from Beinecke Digital Colection, Yale University.

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.

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Poems from The Dream Keeper (New York, Knopf, 1945). From The Sheridan Libraries, The Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Abigail Rogers-Berner.

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.

Bibliography:

“Effie L. Power, the first children’s librarian” Cleveland Public Library Digital Gallery.  https://cplorg.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p4014coll13/id/174/

“Helen Sewell Papers.”  Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections Cornell University Library.   http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/EAD/htmldocs/RMM06616.html

Hughes, Langston. The Dream Keeper and Other Poems. Knopf, 1945.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes. Oxford U, 2001.

Smethurst, James. “Langston Hughes in the 1930s.” The New Red Negro: The Literary Left and African American Poetry, 1930-1946. Oxford U, 1999.  http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/hughes/1930s.htm

Tracy, Steven C. “About Langston Hughes.” Kanas University Langston Hughes Center. UMass-Amherst, 2001. https://langstonhughes.ku.edu/about-langston-hughes