../Portals

Current Issue 2004
2004

Donald Backman

Katy Chilies

Amber Dean

Gregory Esplin

Rebecca Gould

Yolanda Morata

Irina Negrea

Christopher Romans

Cristina Stanciu

 

Unsettling Fixity and Fantasy:
Langston Hughes, Carl Van Vechten,
and The Weary Blues

Email this article

Katy Chiles
Northwestern University

This essay begins by making a bold statement: we, even as 21st-century scholars, remain haunted by the "meaning" of the Harlem Renaissance. Please allow me to point to and quote at length an endnote buried in small print at the back of Houston Baker's Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. In endnote 17, Baker writes that

The phrase 'when Harlem was in vogue' is drawn [for David Levering Lewis' book by the same title] from the section of Langston Hughes's autobiography The Big Sea devoted to the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes writes of the renaissance as a mere 'vogue' set in motion and largely financed by white downtowners while Negroes played minstrel and trickster roles in it all. A time of low seriousness and charming highjinks is what Hughes (one hopes ironically) portrays. [...] He reads treacherous patronage over the entire Harlem Renaissance. Further, to say, as Hughes does, that you were 'only funny' is to dampen the pain that results if you were really serious and your patron [speaking mainly of Mrs. R. Osgood Mason] was 'funny' all along. (110)

I foreground Baker's footnote because it addresses several of the concerns that still haunt (albeit in the "Notes" section) both Baker's text and the questions that I pose in this essay: What was the relationship between white patronage and black cultural production during the Harlem Renaissance? Did relationships between white benefactors and black artists compromise and/or distort "black" art? Or, more to the point here, how did the interaction between white patron Carl Van Vechten and poet Langston Hughes affect Hughes's work, specifically his first collection of poetry, The Weary Blues? With these questions in mind, I will argue that Van Vechten's brief introduction to Hughes's book of poetry, along with the front cover he commissioned from Mexican caricaturist Miguel Covarrubias, attempts to collapse the poetry, the front cover, and the author into a fixed image that shuts down productive readings of The Weary Blues. Utilizing Homi Bhabha's notion of the fixity and fantasy of the stereotype, I hope to pull these aspects "apart," to "(dis)integrate" Van Vechten's preface from Hughes's poetic text, in order to accentuate the multiple voices, perspectives, and identities which recur throughout Hughes's 1926 collection.

Within the past decade, scholars James Smalls and Jonathan Weinberg have considered Carl Van Vechten's role in the Harlem Renaissance by analyzing his (homo)sexually explicit photographs and notebook collages; indeed, while their critical interventions maintain the complex nature, meanings, and implications of the photographs, they situate Van Vechten's photography at the center of his relationship to African-American culture. Drawing upon their work, I would like to use the metaphor of a picture frame in order to think about Van Vechten's interaction with the revision, publication, introduction, and binding of Hughes's book, all processes in which Van Vechten was involved intimately. To be sure, Van Vechten's introduction to Hughes's work is located in a tradition of black-authored texts with white-authored prefaces that attempt to validate the author's literacy or identity, a method used in texts by such varied authors as Phyllis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Jacobs. In addition, I would argue that Van Vechten's foreword, especially when considered as a border that tries to limit its text in the same way that a frame circumscribes its photograph, approximates what Homi Bhabha describes in his essay "The Other Question" as the stereotype.

Bhabha writes that "the stereotype, which is [colonial discourse's] major discursive strategy, is a form of knowledge and identification that vacillates between what is always 'in place,' already known, and something that must be anxiously repeated" (66). Certainly, Van Vechten's relationship with Langston Hughes is not one of the colonizer with the colonized in a strict sense, but the power differentials afforded a white and black man in 1920s New York, especially in terms of the (white) publishing world, allow aspects of Bhabha's formulation to be quite useful in this analysis. Clearly, Bhabha interests himself not in disproving racial stereotypes but rather in analyzing how and why they function; indeed, he tells us that his "reading of colonial discourse suggests that the point of intervention should shift from the ready recognition of images as positive or negative, to an understanding of the processes of subjectification made possible (and plausible) through stereotypical discourse" (67). Bhabha's use of the verb "shift," even, proves instructive, as this paper hopes to locate places where the poetry itself shifts under the glass Van Vechten places over it, exceeds the boundaries he attempts to set around it.

When one picks up an original copy of Hughes's 1926 text, one finds on the front cover [Figure 1] a caricature of a black male blues singer seated at a piano with his head thrown back, mouth open, apparently giving rise to the words, "The Weary Blues," which are printed across the top of the drawing. His hands are raised above the keyboard, as if taking a break in the middle of the song for his voice to command an audience's attention before returning to the keyboard. Across the bottom of the cover, one finds the words "by Langston Hughes." Then, upon turning the first few pages, one reads Van Vechten's proclamation, "INTRODUCING LANGSTON HUGHES TO THE READER" (9). Already we see the work performed by the cover and Van Vechten's initial words— the preface conflates the poet, the singing figure presented on the cover, and the poetry into one fixed image. It is as if Van Vechten announces the singer on the cover, the poet himself, and the verses, all with this first statement. Throughout his introduction, Van Vechten describes Hughes's career as a "picturesque romance," a "primitive outline" of which Van Vechten hopes to be able to "sketch[]" (11). The reader gets the sense that the poetry will illuminate Hughes's "career," or, to put it more bluntly, will serve as an autobiography, or, in Van Vechten's words, a "primitive outline" of one.

Van Vechten's attention to the verse itself constitutes perhaps the most interesting aspect of the preface. The paragraph is illuminating and worth quoting at length.

His verses, however, are by no means limited to an exclusive mood; he writes caressingly of little black prostitutes in Harlem; his cabaret songs throb with the true jazz rhythm; his sea-pieces ache with a calm, melancholy lyricism; he cries bitterly from the heart of his race in Cross and The Jester; he sighs, in one of the most successful of his fragile poems, over the loss of a loved friend. Always, however, his stanzas are subjective, personal. They are the (I had almost said informal, for they have a highly deceptive air of spontaneous improvisation) expression of an essentially sensitive and subtly illusive nature, seeking always to break through the veil that obscures for him, at least in some degree, the ultimate needs of that nature. (13)

Here, Van Vechten first notices that Hughes's "verses" are not restricted to "one mood," but it becomes clear by the end of the paragraph that Van Vechten means that the poems, always "personal," reflect the different "moods" of the author himself, showing how he reads Hughes's poems as pieces of personal autobiography. Secondly, all the writing metaphors are subtly sexualized metaphors: the poet "writes caressingly," his songs "throb," his pieces "ache," and he "cries" and then "sighs." The writing of these "personal poems" is depicted as a sex act, beginning with caresses and ending with a post-climax "sigh." Van Vechten frames the collection of poems as a single poet's sexual relationship with himself or, one might claim, between the two men who collaborated to bring The Weary Blues into existence: Van Vechten and Hughes themselves.

What makes Van Vechten's writings also approximate Bhabha's "stereotype" is how Van Vechten implies that he "knows" what the poet himself cannot see. Van Vechten claims that he perceives how these personal poems express Hughes's "essential" nature, one whose "needs" are hidden from Hughes himself behind a veil. Indeed, this isn't the Duboisian notion of a "veil" which, existing between the black and white person, is translucent for the black individual looking through it and gives rise to a second sight, a sense of double consciousness. Here, Van Vechten's veil shields part of the poet's nature from himself, but, importantly, not from the powerful spectatorial position of Van Vechten. Van Vechten's prose not only points out his self-aggrandizing presumption (i.e., "I can know Langston better than he can know himself because I'm a better reader of his poetry than he is") but also highlights this homology to Bhabha's formulations. As he explains, "[D]espite the 'play' in the colonial system which is crucial to its exercise of power, colonial discourse produces the colonized as a social reality which is at once an 'other' and yet entirely knowable and visible. It resembles a form of narrative whereby the productivity and circulation of subjects and signs are bound in a reformed and recognizable totality" (70, emphasis added). Regarded in this way, Van Vechten's introduction can be seen as a piece of stereotypical discourse that attempts to "know" and "see" the "other" while still keeping that "other" locked into a fixed and repeatable image palatable for the reader. In other words, Van Vechten's "frame" allows him to see Hughes while still circumscribing Hughes within that frame.

Indeed, perhaps Van Vechten undertook such an endeavor. After meeting Hughes at the Opportunity magazine's literary awards banquet in 1925, Van Vechten invited him to his home and encouraged him to bring the poetry manuscripts that would eventually become The Weary Blues. Hughes left the manuscripts with Van Vechten, and the next day he approached the poet about publishing them (Rampersad 108-110). Very soon afterward, Van Vechten began pushing Hughes to write an autobiography and asked Hughes for his permission to write the introduction to the collection before he met with publisher Alfred A. Knopf. In a letter to Van Vechten dated May 15, 1925, Hughes wrote back, "I would be very, very pleased if you would do an introduction to my poems. I am glad you liked the poems in the new arrangement and I do hope Knopf will like them, too. It would be great to have such a fine publisher!" (Remember Me 8-9). Hughes's very few sentences illustrate how inextricably linked were the issues of Van Vechten's proposed introduction, his advocacy on behalf of Hughes to Knopf, and the poetry's eventual publication.

Van Vechten then collaborated with Hughes on his revisions and reordering of the poems, got Knopf to publish the verse, secured Covarrubias to do the cover, and picked out the binding paper for the text itself (Rampersad 108-112). Importantly, these myriad "framing devices," one might call them, were created around the text after the verse had been written. Indeed, although Hughes appeared outwardly pleased with the publication of his book and lauded Van Vechten's introduction, literary historian Arnold Rampersad claims Hughes expressed some trepidation about The Weary Blues in published form. He writes that

In mid-November when Hughes received the complete proof of The Weary Blues, his nervousness about the volume began to build again. Covarrubias's strength was in caricature, and blacks hated to be caricatured. And what of Van Vechten's introduction, which he himself had sanctioned? Would blacks find it patronizing? Obviously, Hughes himself wondered how much of his integrity, if any, he had surrendered in his closeness with Van Vechten. His conscience, in fact, was clear on this score; publicly and privately, he stuck by Van Vechten for the rest of his life. But in a letter to Gwendolyn Bennett... he worried about these matters. (116)

However, as elucidating as Hughes's personal correspondence and anxiety about Van Vechten's involvement in his work might prove to be, in order to consider how Van Vechten's introduction takes part in stereotyping discourse that is always already flawed, we must turn to some of the poems themselves.

First, Van Vechten's introduction fails to account for the multi-vocality of the text itself. It does not present one poet's singular and cohesive voice, despite what the picture of the cover and Van Vechten's preface might lead one to believe. Instead, we find Hughes employing many differing voices; one cannot locate and fix the poet's "autobiographical" voice. In the opening poem "Proem," for example, the poetic voice claims to be a Negro from Africa, a slave of both Caesar and George Washington, a worker on the pyramids and the Woolworth Building, a singer of slave sorrow songs and ragtime, and a victim of Belgian colonialism and Texas lynching practices. Clearly this "I" who "is" all these different things cannot be reduced to the "I" of Langston Hughes who holds the pen. Instead, much like the voice of "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," this is a mythic black "I," an "I" that embodies a type of collective consciousness for a group of people. Van Vechten futilely tries to reduce Hughes's work to the "personal," when clearly Hughes's verse attempts to expand to include experiences far outside his own.

The title poem "The Weary Blues" does similar work, but here Hughes uses direct quotes to mark the narrator's voice from that of the blues singer he encounters in a club on Lenox Avenue. As scores of literary scholars have pointed out, "The Weary Blues" presents the more formal English used by the narrator voice who tells us that "In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone / I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—" (23). The language used by the narrator throws the quoted verse of the blues singer into stark relief as he sings

Ain't got nobody in all this world,
Ain't got nobody but ma self.
I's gwine to quit ma frownin'
And put ma troubles on the shelf. (23)

Rampersad points to the disjunction between the two voices as a way to claim Hughes's "awkward position" in relation to the blues culture itself (65). His point is well-taken, and I would push it even further to unsettle the suggestion made by the cover illustration and Van Vechten's introduction. Hughes cannot be easily conflated with the blues singer; indeed, the narrative voice in this poem describes his experience of listening to the blues and quotes the singer himself. Hughes is not just the singer of The Weary Blues; he is one of the audience members as well. As Paul Allen Anderson points out, Hughes argued within the context of the Harlem Renaissance that the blues was a more representative music for the black folk than the spirituals, as Du Bois had claimed (170-1). Hughes's use of the blues wasn't merely "personal" as Van Vechten saw it; rather, it represented both an aesthetic and political statement on the part of the poet. Again, Hughes's poetry "shifts" under Van Vechten's glass and exceeds the frame he placed around it.

Hughes's poetry further upsets the fixity of Van Vechten's introduction by refusing to rely on binaristic systems of racial or sexual identity and instead presenting identities that do not "fit" into clearly demarcated categories. In his poem, "Cross," the narrative voice wonders where, as the child of a white man and a black woman, he will meet the end of his life, asking, "I wonder where I'm gonna die, / Being neither white nor black?" (52). Although Van Vechten explicitly claims that Hughes "cries bitterly from the heart of his race" (13), in this specific poem Hughes clearly points out the socially constructed and fluid nature of "race" by illustrating that the narrative voice can't find his "place" in one "race" or the other, neither in life nor in death. The narrator's mere existence proves what Jennifer Brody calls the "impossible purity" of either racial category. Additionally, I would argue that Hughes's collection does similar work around the issue of sexuality. Poems such as "A Black Pierrot" depict an unfulfilled love relationship between the narrative voice and a woman, but other poems like "Songs to the Dark Virgin" and "Poem: To the Black Beloved" do not specify a gender for the loved person. Furthermore, "Poem: To F.S." conveys the grief of the poet over the loss of his male friend. I do not cite this poem as others have done before to argue that Langston Hughes was "really" a homosexual but to illustrate how his collection refuses to offer up any one fixed type of sexuality. To the contrary, The Weary Blues presents what queer theorist Eve Sedgwick has termed a "universalizing" view of sexuality, one that isn't underpinned by a binary and minoritizing view but rather considers sexuality "as an issue of continuing, determinative importance in the lives of people across the spectrum of sexualities" (1). Hughes's poetry exceeds all sorts of boundaries, both those of Van Vechten's "frame" and those of the society around him.

In further unsettling boundaries that differentiate black from white, The Weary Blues employs the characters of a black jester and Pierrot, a black clown, in order to trouble both boundaries and notions of the black minstrel and trickster figures. In "The Jester," the narrative voice of the black jester inverts tragedy and comedy, claiming that "Tears are my laughter. / Laughter is my pain" (53). He claims that they are "Masks for the soul," implying that a spectator can't rely on outward appearances in order to "see through" the performance to what Van Vechten calls the "essential nature" of the performer. Hughes expands upon this theme of performance and masking in his poem "A Black Pierrot." In this poem, we find a "black Pierrot," or a clown wearing not white, but black, face paint, confronting the fact that his love for a mysterious "she" is unrequited. Here, Hughes conjures the idea of black face paint not to depict his character as a minstrel but rather to point out the social construction of race based upon skin color and to emphasize the always unstable relationship between changing exterior surfaces and one's interiority. A few poems later, in "Pierrot," the Pierrot character is more closely associated with a trickster figure when juxtaposed with the more honest, wise, and rules-obeying Simple John. Simple John works in order to purchase his home and stays faithful to his wife, satisfying both the "Lord" and John's bourgeois dream. Pierrot, on the other hand, "left Pierrette," "saw a world of girls," and "ran down the long white road" in order to fulfill his own desires and fantasies, no matter how outside of a "respectable" lifestyle those choices may be. The poem passes no moral judgment on either character but does leave the reader with the sense that despite, or perhaps because of, his trickery and appetite-satisfying lifestyle, Pierrot will lead the happier life of the two. It is as if the black clown figure succeeds because he does not ascribe to but rather inverts and exceeds the strictures placed around him.

This, in a sense, brings us back around to Van Vechten's "frame," and the ways in which Hughes's poetry always shifts and exceeds the very frame Van Vechten tries to use to contain it. As Bhabha points out, this inclination to stereotype is always an already failed project. Bhabha finds the stereotype problematic not because it is a "false representation of a given reality," but rather that its fixity doesn't allow for the "play of difference," a type of play, I contend, that runs throughout The Weary Blues. Indeed, with its multiple voices, its "universalizing" senses of both racial and sexual identities, and its uses of the black clown/trickster figure, I argue that the collection of poems is anything but "fixed" as merely the "personal" as Van Vechten imagines. As Bhabha writes, "the stereotype in that sense [of being fixed and a fantasy] is an 'impossible' object. For that very reason, the exertions of the 'official knowledges' of colonialism— pseudo-scientific, typological, legal-administrative, eugenicist— are imbricated at the point of their production of meaning and power with the fantasy that dramatizes the impossible desire for a pure, undifferentiated origin" (81). In terms of the relationship between Van Vechten and Hughes, the "official knowledge" that Van Vechten claims he has over Hughes's knowledge of how own poetry plays into his fantasy of the "possible" stereotype. The purpose of this essay is not to argue that the stereotype is "wrong," a point easily proved and perhaps irrelevant. Rather, it is to identify how Van Vechten's introduction works as stereotypical discourse, what Bhabha calls a "much more ambivalent text of projection and introjection, metaphoric and metonymic strategies, displacement, overdetermination, guilt, aggressivity..." (81-2). This understanding allows the reader to disregard Van Vechten's introduction as a frame that would collapse poet, poetry, and cover illustration into a fixed image and to appreciate more fully Hughes's diverse, nuanced, and changing perspectives and identities offered throughout the collection of poems. Indeed, to return to Baker's endnote that worries over the interaction between white patrons and black artists in the Harlem Renaissance, this approach allows one to remove Van Vechten's "frame," to place the introduction in conversation with, not in announcement of, Hughes's poetry, and to offer a sophisticated reading of The Weary Blues that is anything but fixed, fantastical, and stereotypical.

Works Cited

Anderson, Paul Allen. Deep River: Music and Memory in Harlem Renaissance Thought. Durham: Duke UP, 2001.

Baker, Houston. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987.

Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Brody, Jennifer DeVere. Impossible Purities: Blackness, Femininity, and Victorian Culture. Durham: Duke UP, 1998.

Hughes, Langston. "Langston Hughes to Carl Van Vechten." 15 May 1925. Letter in Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, 1925-1964. Ed. Emily Bernard. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001. 8-10.

---. The Weary Blues. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Lanston Hughes. Vol. I: 1901-1941, "I, Too, Sing America." New York: Oxford UP, 1986.

Sedgwick, Eve. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: U of California P, 1990.

Smalls, James. "Public Face, Private Thoughts: Fetish, Interracialism, and the Homoerotic in Some Photographs by Carl Van Vechten." Genders 25 (1997): 144-93.

Van Vechten, Carl. Introduction. The Weary Blues. By Langston Hughes. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926. 9-13.

Weinberg, Jonathan. "'Boy Crazy': Carl Van Vechten's Queer Collection." Yale Journal of Criticism 7.2 (1994): 25-49.

Figure 1


Image obtained from Anthology of Modern American Poetry Online Journal and Multimedia Companion.

http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/g_l/hughes/images/weary.jpg

Back to top

 

Submissions

SFSU

 

 

 

Home | Back Issues | blog | Store | Links | Submissions | About | Contact

© 2004 Comparative Literature Student Association at San Francisco State University
design: landisdesigns.com