RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We know Langston Hughes wrote poems and plays and stories. He also wrote a lot of letters throughout his long career - thousands. Some of them are now in the book, "Selected Letters Of Langston Hughes," and it's out this week. It was edited by David Roessel and Arnold Rampersad. Rampersad says they paint a portrait of a man devoted to his craft and his people.
ARNOLD RAMPERSAD: He did not like to gossip. He did not like to say evil things about people. So that's bound to disappoint many readers.
MARTIN: But at the same time, Langston Hughes wasn't afraid to express himself to certain confidants. Charlotte Mason was one of them - a wealthy older white woman. Arnold Rampersad says she supported a number of artists black and white, and in the 1920s she developed a close friendship with a young Langston Hughes.
RAMPERSAD: She was, in some respects, the extraordinarily loving and generous mother that he did not have in real life - godmother, showered him with affection. She believed the glorious racial spirit of Africa, and she wanted that brought out in Langston's writing. But they often did not agree on what he should be writing. As he said in one place, she wanted me to be Africa, but I was just an American Negro, and I wanted to write about Kansas City and Harlem and so on.
When Langston was not producing the kind of art she wanted to see produced, she could get angry. And finally at one point in around 1930 - '31, she just dropped him as a friend
MARTIN: Would you mind reading one of these letters that he wrote to her if you don't mind reading just the beginning of this particular letter from 1930?
RAMPERSAD: Yes - August 15, 1930, from Rockaway.
MARTIN: We should note this is a letter that was written after the split in their relationship.
RAMPERSAD: After the split in the relationship, yes. (Reading) I ask you to help the gods to make me good, to make me clean, to make me strong and fine that I might stand aflame before my people powerful and wise with eyes that can discern the ways of truth. I am nothing now - no more than a body of dust without wisdom. Having no right to see physically and spiritually, I pass through the dark valley, a dryness in my throat, a weariness in my eyes, fingers twisted into strange numb shapes when I wake up at night, the mind troubled in the face of things it does not understand, the mouth silent because there is no one to talk to, the sweet air burning the lungs, the hot sun cold to the body.
He was at one level demoralized. Another level - he was profoundly angry - an internal rage that he could not bring himself to express.
MARTIN: While he was someone who was very quick to nurture young talent and young African American writers in particular, those relationships did have tension. They were complicated. Can you share what these letters do to illustrate his standing in the black literary community at that time?
RAMPERSAD: The letters show him, you know, reaching out to other writers. And what is characteristic of Hughes's correspondence is how quickly he is willing to turn the other cheek. And he defends the right of people not to like his work and not to like him and to turn on him, as several writers did. A few of them thought he wasn't complicated enough in his writing - he wasn't profound enough. And he said, well, I do what I do. I know what I'm trying to achieve with my writing, and I will be the simple writer that I think I am, even though in private he could harbor resentments as he did against James Baldwin, for example, and against Ralph Ellison for treating him, as he considered it, unfairly.
MARTIN: Are there any love letters in this collection - love letters - romantic love letters that would shed some light on that part of his personal life?
RAMPERSAD: There are some love letters to a woman he thought of marrying at one point, a woman named Sylvia Chen. But they are not profound love letters, I would say. But if you read the volume as a whole, you're not going to find love letters to anyone - to a woman, to a man. He wanted - I think he wanted close relationships with certain people, but at some point he decided they were really not for him and that his most important connection was going to always be with the written word, with African Americans, with America as a cultural, psychological, political project.
MARTIN: Arnold Rampersad - he co-edited a new compilation titled "Selected Letters Of Langston Hughes." Thank you so much for talking with us.
RAMPERSAD: Thank you very much.
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