Dutiful rather than insightful, vivid, or eloquent, this study of writer/traveler Hughes is further limited by the...


LANGSTON HUGHES: Before and Beyond Harlem

Dutiful rather than insightful, vivid, or eloquent, this study of writer/traveler Hughes is further limited by the unavailability of the complete Hughes papers--and by Berry's decision to treat the years after 1948 in a sketchy epilogue chapter. Still, as a consci-entious, intensely detailed documentation of Hughes' life and work through the Forties, it's a welcome arrival: the first full-length study of a figure who's regularly given YA/juvenile treatment. Berry follows young Langston (b. 1902) through his fractured childhood: in Kansas, Illinois, Ohio, moving back and forth between grandmother and mother, later spending uneasy summers in Mexico with his hitherto-absent father. (Father was a lawyer/businessman; Mother was a bohemian sort--always broke--from a prominent black family.) A precocious poet, Langston dropped out of Columbia to see Europe in the 1920s--working on ships, in menial Paris jobs. By the time he resumed undergrade life, he was a much-published confrere of Countee Cullen, Alain Locke (soon a nemesis), and other Harlem Renaissance figures. And, after sour experiences with patronage (Charlotte Mason) and collaboration (Zora Neale Hurston), the focus here settles chiefly on Hughes' travels and political passions through the Thirties: Berry prints much of his militant verse (with only sporadic critical assessment); she journeys with him, in sometimes-tedious detail, from Moscow through Asia, around the US, and over to 1937 Spain; she works hard at distancing him from the Communist Party line, but to little effect; she fills gaps and makes corrections re the Hughes memoirs. And, as for the long-veiled private life, Berry acknowledges Hughes' homosexuality (with a sliver of pat psychology) but remains excessively vague on specifics: the nature of a series of heterosexual ""romances"" is unclear, as is the Locke relationship; one can't tell if Hughes was a near-monk or promiscuous--a lack of vividness in portrayal which extends to the other aspects of his character too. With annoyingly sketchy treatment of such later landmarks as Street Scene (one paragraph) and the HUAC hearings, then, this ends up as a spotty disappointment in many ways. But, if deficient as a biographer, Berry is scrupulous as a scholar--and her work will be appreciated by all who study Hughes in the future.

Pub Date: May 22, 1983


Page Count: -

Publisher: Lawrence Hill

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1983