Having inspected the gold-plated darts Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray threw at Richard Wright in their letters to one another, I let curiosity win the night when I picked up
Bennard, Emily, ed. Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten. New York: Random House, 2001.
Hughes is charming and tactful as he tutors the author and lover of Nigger Heaven about the dignity of black folk. Hughes is sensitive to the need to treat adults who suffer hyperactive curiosity with compassion. Hughes sends them “two pale emerald frogs with onyx eyes” (186).
On June 15, 1938, Hughes informed Van Vechten that Wright was “in seclusion in Brooklyn and is hard to get at. Working on a new novel….” (142) A year later, Van Vechten photographed Wright on June 23, 1939. In fall 1939, Hughes thanks Van Vechten “….for the picture. Also the card of Dick Wright, which I think is excellent….” (150). On December 9, 1939, Hughes is asking Van Vechten “Did you hear that Richard Wright’s book is to be the Book-Of-The-Month for January? I hope it is true. ( 161) Bennard notes (162) that Arna Bontemps’s November 24, 1939 letter to Hughes indicated Native Son had been chosen. Van Vechten’s reply after December 9, 1939 reveals what it conceals: “I hadn’t heard about Wright’s book, but it is probably true as publication has been postponed” (163).
Hughes had no reason to feel threatened by Wright’s success or to envy it. Bennard notes that in his February 29, 1940 letter to Wright, Hughes proclaimed that Native Son “is a tremendous performance!” Still, Hughes did not wish for performance to be confused with reality. Speaking at the Chicago Public Library, April 28, 1940, he suggested the audience should know that “Bigger was not “representative of all blacks. Five days earlier, he had signified to Van Vechten that “The South Side is a solid sender. I keep looking for Bigger running over the roof tops. See plenty of his brothers in the streets” (172). Seventy years later, the real Biggers in America are a lighter shade of pale.
Hughes had a sharp eye for paradox, and Van Vechten had a sharp intuition for what might be destined. He wrote to Hughes on August 25, 1944 that Wright’s two-part article “I Tried to be a Communist” (August and September issues of Atlantic Monthly) was “obviously a part of the autobiography he is writing and if it is all like this it will be interesting to read” (230) Van Vechten also was capable of sending Hughes two onyx frogs with emerald eyes and pink mouths. When the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) harassed Hughes and other artists, Van Vechten offered him cold comfort: March 9, 1948 –“Dear Langston, To mix metaphors the wages of writing controversially about politics is that you have to face the music. It will be worse, you know, before it is better, and if there is a war I dare say they’ll pop you in a nice clean jail…Poor Langston!” (253). If the FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) was actually free to provide information, we might know more than we do about what Van Vechten knew that Hughes did not know. More than Addison Gayle was able to tell us in Richard Wright: Ordeal of a Native Son (1980). More than Arnold Rampersad disclosed in The Life of Langston Hughes, Vol. II: 1941-1967.
Hughes was in California when the play Native Son opened in New York. He wrote on April 5, 1941 “Wish I could see NATIVE SON and PAL JOEY.” to Van Vechten. Hughes did see Ketti Frings’s dramatic adaptation of Wright’s The Long Dream and wrote in his Chicago Defender column of March 3, 1960 that the adaptation could alarm. “Dear Lord! How long is the list of plays in which the Negro is defeated in the end! (308). What a fine implied question. What a solid reason to satisfy curiosity by “interrogating” The Long Dream: A New Play by Ketti Frings (Special Collections, University of California, Davis, D-207 135:9).
Like many of us, Hughes was not immune to gossip; his correspondence with Van Vechten is full of it. Should curiosity limit itself to what Hughes wrote to Van Vechten, to how Van Vechten replied, we begin to commend Hughes for integrity.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
May 8, 2014