Hollow Hills Farm,
October 30, 1941.
You really should not tell me you are going to give all my letters to Yale because I will now become self-conscious and no doubt verge toward the grandiloquent. Besides I was just about to tell you about a wonderful fight that took place in Togo's Pool Room in Monterey the other day in which various were cut from here to yonder and the lady who used to be the second wife of Noel's valet who came to New York with him that time succeeded in slicing several herself but you know the Race would come out here and cut me if they knew I was relaying such news to posterity via the Yale Library. So now how can I tell you?
Meanwhile I have come across Miss Etta Moten's home address which is: 3548 Vernon, Chicago, Illinois. She recently gave two concerts here on the coast, but did not pass by Carmel so I didn't get a chance to ask her about her father.
I will be delighted to have my manuscripts in a handsome box with a leather label. But if I were to send you all of them, you would need a trunk, so I will only send certain ones from time to time. The other day I sent another one called PASSING about some Negroes who wanted to jive some white folks but got double jived themselves.
You know, I have all your letters, too! And most of your books--even if they are well worn from being lent out. I have a whole series of letters from Ezra Pound, too, about getting Frobenius translated in entirety into English that might also be good for Yale. And some from Zora that would be excellent for some Ph.D. to get his degree on in 2042.
Sure, I would love to have a little short job at Yale. Out of my next job I promise to pay off all the rest of my debts.
C.L.R. James I met in Paris. Also I believe again in Los Angeles. He was the leading colored Troskyite of the English speaking world. Said to be very brilliant. But he did not seem to have much of a sense of humor. And I do not believe he would go near Togo's Pool Room in Monterey--which is where Fannie cut Virgil in the phone booth the other day. And somebody else cut a soldier (among others). And Argyle was cut on the arm and they put it in a sling. But when he got home he found he had also been cut in the side! But the very thought of Yale prevents me from going further!
Thanks so much for reading the new poems for SHAKESPEARE IN HARLEM. I hope they go into it. And I am dying to see the drawings. I did not think the ones in GOLDEN SLIPPERS very good... I haven't seen GEORGE'S JOINT nor ROYAL ROAD yet... But I've read reviews of them... And publicity blurbs... And I hope (even beg and entreat via letters to the entire Knopf staff) that nobody will, in publicizing my book or writing the blurb, use the words:
which, aside from being untrue when applied to the American scene, have been quite out-worn in describing Negroes and books by and about Negroes.
As Ruth Chatterton's mother said when she tripped over the rug in the foyer on West 55th Street,
Besides the NAACP has just asked me to write a credo for them to open all their meetings with from Boston to San Diego. And people who write credos would hardly cuss in English, would they?
They say when Virgie came out of the phone booth her
Which reminds me of why Mamie Smith never made any more records.
My love to Fania,
P.S. I saw Mrs. Blanchard yesterday in the drug store.... Lotte Lehmann will be a guest of Noel's shortly.... Poor Barthe has had a slight stomach upset and wasn't feeling at all well when he left. Is in L.A.... The Dunham Dancers are giving FOUR dance recitals at the Biltmore this week.... I told you, did I not, that I did four librettos for them. They said they were terrific--but as usual in the theatre, now want them all changed around!
NOVEMBER 4, 1941
Caro Langstonia, I am delighted with you and your work and your letters! I think you have completely grown up and represent the Negro at his BEST. As a spokesman for the Negro you are unique because you know all kinds and classes WELL and like all kinds and classes. To some extent this is also true of your relationship with ofays. I see your name everywhere and I guess you are Garvey, Father Divine, James Weldon Johnson, and James L Ford all rolled into ONE. Your paper in Common Ground, for instance, is restrained and eloquent. Frederick Douglass could not do better. And Passing which you have just sent me, is redolent with a frothy irony which is not too bitter and when the tale is read both white and black BOTH have been hit. Pardon the applause, please, but that is the way I feel and, having watched you grow up, it is a pleasure to report progress...
Incidentally the history of the race in America can pretty well be read in autobiographies: (1) William Wells Brown (2) Frederick Douglass (3) Booker T Washington (4) W E B Du Bois (5) James Weldon Johnson (6) The Big Sea and its successor. As a matter of fact the second volume of your life will have to be more weighty than the first. It should, I think, seriously discuss the plight of the Negro (and the hopes) in modern American, and Im afraid you'll have to tell at last whether or no you think Communism is the way out... Of course, you can avoid all this, but at the expense (somewhat) of your reputation. It will be EXPECTED.
Pardon the sermon, please.
By the way, your letter reads even BETTER now that you know it will be deposited at Yale. I havent started on letters yet, And this is a job. Everything has to be arranged chronologically and carefully read (1) for notes of explanation, which I add, when necessary, (2) to discover if there is anything about the letter which demands temporary suppression. Those letters which might offend somebody just now will be put in a sealed package waiting your death and mine (though either of us could remove this seal on the death of the other, if found advisable, or both of us could do so in concert if we decided some day they could be read without harm). I hope you will give my letters to Yale too under more or less the same conditions. If you dont find time to edit them, let me do it!
I am more grateful than I can say for the new manuscript. You CAN send a trunkful, if you desire. They will be more than welcome at Yale. You will get a formal acknowledgment from the Library later, of course. But at present, these are waiting a box. Ezra Pound and Zora would be wonderful for Yale!
Curiously, your report of the cuttings in the Monterey Poolroom follow a recent evening I spent, and loved to spend, with William Attaway, who was describing similar goings-on in a Harlem poolroom! He even sees cuttings at the Savoy, which I never did...
Dont be selfconscious about Yale. Henry Miller puts more shits and fucks and cunts in than ever when I assure him his letters are destined for college halls ... I guess HIS should go to Bryn Mawr or Vassar... The gals could read 'em and masturbate.
Most of the new poems for Shakespeare, I liked, some of them I was enthusiastic about... I must say Harlem Sweeties hit me hard. I read it aloud one night to a group. One I was quite fainthearted about, Deceased; they seemed to have a similar feeling about it in the Knopf office and so decided to leave it out. I hope you wont mind this excision for two lines.... The Golden Slippers illustrations are stinko. Is Henrietta Bruce Sharon ofay? I question the taste of the selection in many respects. WHY should young readers be invited to read Countee's Incident: Baltimore, for instance? If you like dont like YOUR illustrations, I wouldnt know what you would like. Whatever else they are, they are works of art and extremely novel in conception... My feeling about illustrations corresponds entirely with that of Diaghileff who before he was a ballet impresario was an art critic. He wrote in an article that illustration should be "subjective." If we demand that an illustrator's art be mainly descriptive, we limit his scope, and set insuperable difficulties in his path. It is sheer madness to demand of illustration that it render the soul of the poet or his most secret thoughts: for what it amounts to is asking that the painter shall become a poet, too, which is neither possible nor helpful. The whole significance of the illustrator's art lies in its utter subjectivity; all that we ask of him is his own interpretation of a poem, story, or novel. An illustration should never be expected to complement some piece of writing, nor merge into it; far otherwise. It should light up the creation of the poet with the strictly personal illumination that emanates from the painter. The more startling that vision is, the more completely it expresses the personality of the painter, the greater will be its importance. In a word it is a matter of complete indifference that the poet shall be able to say, "Yes, that indeed is how I see it." What really matters is his saying, "Ah, so that's how you see it."
I hope this letter is not too long for you... You've said so little about Barthe that perhaps he didnt enjoy himself, or you didnt enjoy him... Did Mamie Smith get HER throat cut? Rosamond Johnson was here yesterday, inscribing music (with historical significance) and getting photographed in color. He recommended highly a record from the Duke Ellington show, I Got it Bad, and that aint Good. Are these your words... More and more material is piling up for you to inscribe. I am working like mad and photographing and printing in between.
Fania and I send out love to you,
NOVEMBER 8, I941
Thanks for your delightfully long letter and all the nice compliments and advice. I agree with you about the second part of The Big Sea. Only I don't want it [to] get so weighty that it weighs me down, too.
Barthe left Los Angeles Thursday for Chicago. We enjoyed his visit greatly here. But I didn't report it in more detail because nobody got cut, and it was just a pleasant quiet time, with some dinner parties, and teas, and cocktails. And Ethel Waters came by one Sunday morning for breakfast with Archie and a car full and Noel took them all to call on Mrs. Blanchard.
It was too bad Eulah and I didn't get around to having our colored party while Barthe was here. (Eulah Pharr is Noel's housekeeper, and a very charming person who's been with him for twelve years or more.) But we had it Thursday, cocktails 3-6, except that it lasted from 3 to 3 [in the] morning and nobody made a move to go home before midnight, and then didn't go. The joint jumped. We had about 50. And played plenty of Lil Green. Everybody was dressed down, and most proper in a gay manner, and nobody got too high or anything, except one girl got mad when she heard her soldier boy intended to take another girl home, so she simply pulled all the wires out his car so it wouldn't budge--which left him and six other members of Uncle Sam's citizen army stranded out here in the country, and they had to be taken back to Fort Ord in our station wagon just in time to hear "reverie" blow in the morning.
Your paragraph on the art illustration was most interesting. And I am sure the Kauffer drawings are charming. But still, if they come out with NO hair on their heads--after all the millions that have been spent with Madame Walker and Mr. Murray--my Negro public--whom I respect and like--will not be appreciative. I wrote as much to Blanche when I first saw the samples. Harlem just isn't nappy headed any more except for the first ten minutes after the hair is washed. Following that the sheen equals Valentino's and the page boy bobs are as long as Lana Turner's. And colored folks don't want no stuff out of an illustrator on that score. Even Lil Green has finger waves. And if some of the ladies in SHAKESPEARE IN HARLEM don't have them, too, I will catch hell--in spite of whatever strictly personal illumination emanates from the painter." Do you get me?
I'm sure Henrietta Bruce Sharon is white. But since I couldn't swear it, I've asked Arna to let you know. (But she draws heads and feet as if she were.)
Duke's I GOT IT BAD is good. But unfortunately the words aren't mine. They're by Paul Webster, the white chap who wrote most of the show.
NO, Mamie Smith didn't get her throat cut. She just lost her contract. Why, I will tell you when I see you. (Leaving space at the bottom of this here letter for annotation.)
I am now on my way to hear Lotte Lehman sing.
Ere I lay me down in questa tomba obscura I shall try to find all your letters for Yale, but they are in so many various files, boxes, suitcases, and trunks stored from here to yonder that I shall start here to finding recent ones tomorrow.
To whom are you giving your Mary Bell's?
The blues seem to be coming back in a big way. Every club out here now has a blues singer as a part of the floor show. And Joe Turner was the hit of the recent Duke show, pulling it out of polite prettiness.
Did I tell you I did a libretto of THE ST. LOUIS BLUES for Katherine Dunham, a danceable story woven around the song? Hope she uses it. But she rather thinks she ought to do Latin American things--Cuba, Brazil, etc. Easier to sell to concert managers and Hollywood.
November 8, 1941
John Macrae, Jr., Vice-president of the publishing house E.P. Dutton, sent Hughes a copy of Mr. George's Joint, by the white writer Elizabeth Lee Wheaton, and asked for his reaction to it. In his response, Hughes took issue with the way the company was promoting the book. He referred to an ad in the October 26 New York Times Book Review when he wrote: "I personally fail to see where the tale is either magnificent or true to the 'Negro as he really is.'" Hughes considered both the ads and the novel were insulting to blacks. "Most Negroes are quite hard working, honest, early-to-bed-people, as are other Americans.... Books like MR. GEORGE'S JOINT just simply do not represent the American 'Negro as he is.'"
NOVEMBER 17, 1941
Dear Langston, I LOVED your letter to the Dutton's. And I sent you a postcard last week re: At George's Joint. To me the book is entirely devoid of feeling. Nobody in the book has any feelings at all: SO, it becomes monotonous and uninteresting and untrue. After awhile you stop believing it. I have no objections to people drinking and screwing in books. In fact Ive written books like that myself, but to make them entirely bereft of mother love, romantic passion, of any regard for property, or any inhibitions whatever, is to make them so inhuman that they don't stand up as characters. So I applaud everything you say... I am sending this letter WITH the book to Yale, as it hasnt gone yet... Well, I heard Lil Green at the Apollo Saturday. She is the nearest thing to Bessie Smith that this effete age can offer, tho Bessie never needed a microphone to put herself or her voice over. She is very sweet and good looking to boot. I sat in a box with Ella Fitzgerald who didnt like her much which is a good sign. Alfred sends me an announcement of a new edition of Not Without Laughter! Is Eulah Pharr any relation to Kelsey Pharr?... I cant recall about the hair in the Kauffer drawings as I didnt look at them from that angle. But THEY ARE ART. Maybe Blanche got 'em fixed according to your desires, but in any case your criticism is not an art criticism but an economic or social one. It is highly probable indeed that in a few years EVERYBODY will be having nappy hair again and loving it. Some few sensible persons go in for it now... BUT I GET YOUR POINT, and next time you want to put over something like this, write me about it
Affection to you and hope to see you in NYC soon,
November 17, 1941
In April 1941, Hughes received a $1,500 fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Fund to write a series of one-act plays about black heroes for high schools, colleges, and amateur theatre groups. The Rosenwald Fund was established in 1913 by Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears Roebuck and a champion of black education. Hughes's fellowship included the use of an office at the Rosenwald Fund headquarters in Chicago. On November 20, Hughes arrived to begin researching his project. He took a room at the Good Shepherd Community Center, a black settlement house that was quickly becoming known as a center of black intellectual life in Chicago. He slept there, but spent a good deal of time with the family of his close friend Arna Bontemps.
NOVEMBER 20, 1941
You will soon have a trunk full of drafts.... Your letter and card both delightful. Comment on MR. GEORGE'S JOINT most interesting.... Please look and see if the Kauffer drawings have any hair on their heads next time you see them.... Ama says the GOLDEN SLIPPERS artist is white.... Yesterday afternoon Dorothy Maynor sang before a capacity SRO--three hundred extra seats in orchestra pit--audience of 3,900 at Chicago Civic Opera House. Gave four encores at the end of program. Then came out to dinner with me and ate turkey which she carved herself with an expert touch.... Carlo, you remember that picture you took of me with hat on in front of the house in Greenwich Village? I think it is one of the best ones I've ever had. Good Shepherd Community Center here where I'm staying wants one for its walls. Also Dorothy Maynor wants one. And the Rosenwald's office. Would it be possible for you perhaps to send me copies of it for them? Don't if it is too much work or trouble.... Eulah Pharr is no relation to Kelsey Pharr.... NATIVE SON is a hit here selling six weeks ahead, they say. I shall go shortly.... Snowflakes and snowbirds to you,
c/o Arna Bontemps,
703 East 50th
Excerpted from Remember Me to Harlem by Emily Bernard. Copyright © 2001 by Emily Bernard. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.