- The Worlds of Langston Hughes: Modernism and Translation in the Americas by Vera Kutzinski
As the terms “hemispheric” and “transnational” proliferate in American cultural studies as subjects of scholarship and standbys of Humanities job descriptions, they have come under pressure from critics aiming to historicize the concepts and the politics of their use. Vera Kutzinski’s The Worlds of Langston Hughes: Modernism and Translation in the Americas offers a skeptical, deeply researched critique of the current transnational vogue by examining the career of a writer who embodied an earlier ideal of internationalism in U. S. literature. Ultimately, however, this book fails to provide a compelling alternative to what its author regards as insufficiently comparative hemispheric work.
Hughes’s globetrotting career as a journalist, translator, and cultural broker is a fascinating and still relatively understudied part of his work and of U. S. modernism more generally. He came to global prominence at a time when the institutional structures of literary left internationalism were at their height, especially via the Communist Party and affiliated groups. (As Richard Wright poignantly and regretfully described the John Reed Clubs he repudiated in his autobiography, Black Boy: “Who [End Page 211] had ever, in all human history, offered to young writers an audience so vast?”) Hughes was also an active translator who introduced Haiti’s Jacques Roumain, and along with Ben Carruthers, Cuba’s Nicolás Guillén to English readers. Kutzinski devotes considerable attention to Guillén’s Motivos de son, a collection of vernacular poems based on the Cuban ballad form known as the son. Hughes was also an enthusiastic traveler, as his diaries reveal and as his local hosts sometimes joked. (Guillén, in fact, poked fun at the American’s eager sightseeing at Afro-Cuban clubs in Havana in an article he wrote in the Havana press on Hughes’s visit.)
In this respect, Hughes is an ideal subject for exploring both the universalizing ideals of modernism and its heterogeneous fragmentations along linguistic, racial, and political lines. The great strength of this book is its emphasis on these asymmetries in its assessment of Hughes’s popularity in Latin America, for which Kutzinski provides extensive archival documentation that will be a starting point for future students of the circulation of African American literature in the hemisphere. She argues that Latin American translators of Hughes’s work tended to avoid the blues poetry for which he is celebrated in the United States, revealing an opportunistic political logic in countries with large African-descended populations like Cuba, where it was common “to separate blackness as a cultural commodity from the social and political realities of racial conflicts” (64). Furthermore, the politics of anti-imperialism meant that for such editors and translators, racial segregation could be singled out as the United States’ own unique problem. Kutzinski writes that such translations “constructed Hughes’s verse in Spanish as a vehicle for nationalist and transnational anti-imperialist alliances” (64).
The suggestion of political opportunism here hints at her broader critique of “transnationalism” in contemporary literary scholarship, which she regards as often sloppy and motivated by political concerns over philological and literary rigor. Kutzinski takes issue with a U. S.-centered transnationalism that reinforces U. S. anglocentrism, especially in an academic field dominated by institutions in the United States. (As she shows, most of the Hughes scholarship on his international ties commits this error, assessing Hughes’s influence on Latin American writers, and rarely the other way around.) Too often, however, she works from straw-man arguments like this one:
Instead of considering intellectual traffic in the Americas as a two-way street, most USAmerican scholars have drawn patterns of cultural influence that spread in one direction only: from north to south. The field of African American (literary) studies is no exception to this rule. In inquiries into [the] “shared cultural forms used by black writers to reconnect to a common, ancestral resonance,” which started to multiply in the [1970s] and 1980s, it is a critical commonplace to assert that African American writers...