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This is the first comprehensive selection from the correspondence of the iconic and beloved Langston Hughes. It offers a life in letters that showcases his many struggles as well as his memorable achievements. Arranged by decade and linked by expert commentary, the volume guides us through Hughes’s journey in all its aspects: personal, political, practical, and—above all—literary. His letters range from those written to family members, notably his father (who opposed Langston’s literary ambitions), and to friends, fellow artists, critics, and readers who sought him out by mail. These figures include personalities such as Carl Van Vechten, Blanche Knopf, Zora Neale Hurston, Arna Bontemps, Vachel Lindsay, Ezra Pound, Richard Wright, Kurt Weill, Carl Sandburg, Gwendolyn Brooks, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Jr., Alice Walker, Amiri Baraka, and Muhammad Ali. The letters tell the story of a determined poet precociously finding his mature voice; struggling to realize his literary goals in an environment generally hostile to blacks; reaching out bravely to the young and challenging them to aspire beyond the bonds of segregation; using his artistic prestige to serve the disenfranchised and the cause of social justice; irrepressibly laughing at the world despite its quirks and humiliations. Venturing bravely on what he called the “big sea” of life, Hughes made his way forward always aware that his only hope of self-fulfillment and a sense of personal integrity lay in diligently pursuing his literary vocation. Hughes’s voice in these pages, enhanced by photographs and quotations from his poetry, allows us to know him intimately and gives us an unusually rich picture of this generous, visionary, gratifyingly good man who was also a genius of modern American letters.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375413797
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/10/2015
Pages: 480
Sales rank: 590,447
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 5.70(d)

About the Author

ARNOLD RAMPERSAD, the Sarah Hart Kimball Professor Emeritus in the Humanities at Stanford University, has also taught at Princeton, Columbia, and Rutgers Universities. His books include The Life of Langston Hughes (two volumes); biographies of W. E. B. Du Bois, Jackie Robinson, and Ralph Ellison; and, with Arthur Ashe, Days of Grace: A Memoir. Among his numerous awards and honors are a MacArthur Foundation fellowship in 1991 and the National Humanities Medal, presented at the White House in 2011.

DAVID ROESSEL is the Peter and Stella Yiannos Professor of Greek Language and Literature at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. He is the associate editor, with Arnold Rampersad, of The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, as well as the coeditor of The Collected Poems of Tennessee Williams and Mister Paradise and Other One-Act Plays by Tennessee Williams. His book In Byron’s Shadow: Modern Greece in the English and American Imagination was awarded the annual MLA Prize for Independent Scholars.

CHRISTA FRATANTORO is a senior editor with F. A. Davis Company, a health care publisher based in Philadelphia. She studied literature at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. An independent scholar with an interest in Hughes, she welcomed the opportunity to work on Selected Letters.

Read an Excerpt

[On Hotel Wellington, Seventh Avenue At Fifty- Fifth­ Street, New York, N.Y. 10019 stationery]
CURRENT ADDRESS April 22, 1967
Dear Arna,

I believe I asked Raoul |Abdul| to drop you a card requesting that you revise, as you like, your own biog, and add to it what you wish, to bring it up to date for THE POETRY OF THE NEGRO and send it to me post haste as I’m now ready to type those sheets up for Doubleday, having all the material— but Lewis Alexander’s birth date— which I intend to find if it KILLS me. Ran into Kurtz Myers of the Hackle Collection in Detroit, who says­ he thinks he can get it for me through a library researcher who finds things for him in Washington. The house is still ALL torn up,  and Emerson is going around in circles, not being good at  “law and order” and quite lost without Aunt Toy, who is wasting away by the hour to a wisp of her former self, now too weak to sit up, but wants to come home— which really would put an end to her if she saw the house as it is now— full of paint fumes, dust and debris. You never saw the like.

With such confusion there, I shall stay here at the hotel until I go to Europe  (maybe not till July now). So you may best write me here, ROOM 41, at the above address. Impossible to work at home.

Meltzer’s second draft of his book, LANGSTON­ HUGHES, is good.  And I’ve just added a little chapter for him about my African trip.  But this is the LAST book or thesis I can take time out to help anybody with. Enough anyhow— four— with |James| Emanuel’s and the two in France ­Belgium. . . . . SIMPLE got off to a good start in Paris so they write me, and still urge me to fly over right now for interviews. Wish I could. But not for just a week, not for  just a year. . . . .as the song says . . . but—


In all my life I have never been free. I have never been able to do anything with freedom, except in the field of my writing.  With my parents, with my employers in my struggle for food, in all the material circumstances of life, I have been forced to move this way and that— only when I sat down for a moment to write have I been able to put down what I wanted to put down, to say what I’ve wanted to say, when and where I choose . . . . . . As long as I worked on my novel, dear Godmother, I think we were One— we both wanted it finished soon, we both agreed about what was being done. But when you told me that I should have begun my writing again the week after I returned from Cuba — I must disagree with you. I must never write when I do not want to write. That is my last freedom and I must keep it for myself . . . . Then when you tell me that you give me more than anybody ever gave me before — ($ 225 00 a month— my allowance and half of Louise)— and that I have been living in idleness since the first of March— I must feel miserably ashamed. I must feel that I have been misusing your kindness and that it would be wrong to you for me to take your help any more when I cannot write— when I cannot do what you believe I should be doing— when I am afraid of making you unhappy because you have been kind good to me— and when I know that I cannot write at all on any sort of pre- arranged schedule. The nervous strain of finishing the novel by a certain time has shown me that. Almost all of one’s life must be measured and timed as it is— meals every day at a certain hour; if I am working for a salary— to work at a certain time; to bed at a certain time in order to get enough sleep; letters to be answered by a certain time in order to avoid discourtesy or loss of business. So far in this world, only my writing has been my own, to do when I wanted to do it, to finish only when I felt that it was finished, to put it aside or discard it completely if I chose. For the sake of my physical body I have washed restaurant thousands of hotel dishes, cooked, scrubbed decks, worked 12 to 15 hours a day on a farm, swallowed my pride for the sake help of philanthropy and charity— but nobody ever said to me “You must write now, you must finish that poem tomorrow. You must begin to create on the first of the month.” Because then I could not have have written, I could not have created anything. I could only have put down empty words at best. . . . . . The creative urge must come from within, always as you know dear G., — or it is less than true . . . . . So I am sorry if you feel that I have been unnecessarily idle. And, I am ashamed beyond words, if I have misused your generousity. I did not want ever to do that. And if I have misunderstood your words advice, your kind and sincere talks with me the last few weeks, blame only my stupidity, Godmother, not my heart. My love and devotion are yours always, and my deepest respect and gratitude, and my willingness always to listen to you in the future as in the past and to be guided by you as nearly as I can. But I must tell you the truth so that there will be no wall between us.

S.S.­West­ Hassayampa, Jones Point, N.Y. February 6, 1923.

Dear Mr. Locke:

I have had your delightful letter for a long while and I have wanted to answer you sooner, but so many things have intervened, a bad cold and a birthday, —I am twenty-one! And then I am a terrible correspondent. But I should like to know you and I hope you’ll write to me again.

It is too bad I am not living in New York anymore.  I am missing so many interesting people. I am chasing dreams up here, though, and that’s an infinitely more delightful occupation even than being in New York, where all my old dreams had been realized; college, (horrible place, but I wanted to go), Broadway and the theatres — delightful memories, Riverside Drive in the mists, and Harlem. A whirling year in New York! Now I want to go to Europe. Stay for a while in France, then live with the gypsies in Spain (wild dream, isn’t it?) and see the bull fights in Seville. My Spanish is good from having lived in Mexico and there’s no sport in the world as lovely as a “corrida de toros,” to those who like them.

Jeritza is wonderful, isn’t she? I fell in love with her last year and waited at the stage door for a smile and a rose. But have you seen Chaliapin in “Boris”? If you haven’t, please do. It’s the experience of a lifetime. And did you see the Moscow Art players? I couldn’t get in, so I comforted myself with seeing the “Chauvin  Souris” for the third time, and  Jane  Cowl’s   Juliet.  I suppose you saw Barrymore’s Hamlet, and maybe “Rain.” I have been telling all my friends to see it— “Rain”— but none of them take my advice. For me, it’s the finest thing, aside from “Hamlet,” I’ve seen this season, and stands out in my mind as “Anna Christie” from last year’s plays.

Countee told me about seeing the “World We Live In” with you. He has been doing some very beautiful poems lately, hasn’t he?

Jones Point is about forty miles up the Hudson from New York— a little white village almost pushed into the water by the snow­covered hills. And the Hassayampa is one of five  “mother­ ships” anchored in the river in a forest of masts and cables belonging to a hundred other long old sea-going boats waiting for the Subsidy to pass, or something to happen to take them back to the sea. The sailors up here are the finest fellows I’ve ever met—fellows you can touch and know and be friends with. And after the atmosphere of college last year, being up here on the long ships is like fresh air and night stars after three hours in a dull movie show.

No I haven’t a single dramatic sketch. I would be glad to hear from you again and to enjoy your friendship.

Langston Hughes
Excerpted from THE LETTERS OF LANGSTON HUGHES by Langston Hughes. Edited by Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel. Copyright © 2015 by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House.  Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Introduction Arnold Rampersad ix

Editorial Preface xxvii

Part I We Have Tomorrow, 1921 to 1931 1

Part II Let America Be America Again, 1931 to 1939 113

Part III I Do Not Need Freedom When I'm Dead, 1939 to 1949 207

Part IV The Rumble of a Dream Deferred, 1950 to 1960 289

Part V I Heard the Horn of Plenty Blowing, 1960 to 1967 357

Acknowledgments 421

Index 425

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