cover image Selected Letters of Langston Hughes

Selected Letters of Langston Hughes

Edited by Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel, with Christa Fratantoro. Knopf, $35 (480p) ISBN 978-0-375-41379-7

Best known for poems such as “Montage of a Dream Deferred” and fiction such as the wry Semple stories, Hughes was also a prolific letter writer. When his friend Carl Van Vechten started a collection of African-American-related materials at Yale in 1941, Hughes immediately pledged all his papers. The sheer quantity of Hughes’s correspondence could easily fill many volumes, and this first-ever collection was judiciously assembled by Hughes’s biographer Rampersad, Roessel, who co-edited The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes with Rampersad, and Fratantoro. Arranged chronologically, the letters show the ups and downs of Hughes’s life, his financial and creative insecurities, and his support of younger writers. Literary stars such as Blanche Knopf, Countee Cullen, Ezra Pound, and Zora Neale Hurston, among many others, parade through the pages. Some of the most revealing selections include Hughes’s 1921 letters to his father about his desire to leave Columbia University, his loving and desperately self-effacing letters to his patron Charlotte Osgood Mason, and various letters detailing his discovery of a young Alice Walker. The book also reveals Hughes’s occasional ambivalence toward fellow African-American authors, as in his observation that James Baldwin “over-writes and over-poeticizes in images way over the heads of the folks supposedly thinking them.” The cumulative effect of the letters is to provide a fitting companion to Rampersad’s two-volume biography of Hughes. (Feb.)