- “Whose Music Was It?”: Unaccountable Art and Uncontainable Sex in Langston Hughes’s “Home” and Eudora Welty’s “June Recital”
That classical, blues, and jazz performances become transcendent happenings in the writings of Langston Hughes and Eudora Welty keenly suggests the importance of music in the authors’ lives and literary imaginations. Hughes documented his musical sensibility throughout his career in such poems as “Jazzonia,” “The Weary Blues,” and “Theme for English B” and in the stories “The Blues I’m Playing” and “Home,” both published in the collection The Ways of White Folks. Lenox Avenue in Harlem serves not only as a setting for “The Weary Blues,” but also as an actual site of artistic production, one that marks Hughes’s heyday in the Harlem Renaissance. Welty signals her sensitivity toward musicians and musical performance in her early story “Powerhouse” and in three later stories, “June Recital,” “Music from Spain,” and “The Wanderers” from The Golden Apples cycle. At Welty’s historic home in Jackson, Mississippi, visitors will find her writing desk upstairs at a window overlooking the Music School of Belhaven University, a possible source of inspiration, located just across the street. As places of musical influence, Welty’s Mississippi and Hughes’s New York could hardly contrast each other more, but as much as Jackson differed from Harlem and Hughes’s life from Welty’s, both writers produced pristinely similar concepts in their stories, “Home” and “June Recital” respectively, of nonconforming musicians and the insular communities that repudiate them.
Like their imaginary musicians, Welty and Hughes themselves experienced the loss of an artistic opportunity due to the insularity of 1940s America, which largely prohibited interracial contact, especially between black men and white women. Lovers of music and literature can only wonder what might have been had Hughes and Welty followed through on adapting Welty’s novel The Robber Bridegroom into an operetta. In a letter to friend and agent Diarmuid Russell, Welty confided, “If I had my wish, I wouldn’t have anything to do with any libretto, and hope I won’t have to” (qtd. in Marrs 153). While Welty heartily approved of Hughes writing [End Page 43] the libretto, she expressed trepidations about the feasibility of their collaborating in Jackson. Welty biographer Suzanne Marrs points out Welty’s added intent not to expose her mother to any hazard Hughes’s presence in Mississippi might incite. Ever wary of the potential for racialized violence, Welty admitted to Russell that “Mr. Hughes … probably knows better than I the difficulties” (qtd. in Marrs 153). Her assumption qualifies as an unaffected understatement, given Hughes’s lifelong activism against lynching and vigilante justice. Speaking at the Windy City Press Club Banquet in 1957, Hughes presented a clear picture of his childhood fear of lynching, commenting how “headlines in the Negro press used to scare me to death. I grew up in Kansas, and for years I was afraid to go down South, thinking … I might be lynched the minute I got off the train” (“Humor” 354). Not coincidentally, Hughes’s image of a doomed artist-outsider disembarking a train in hostile territory specifically recalls the opening scene of his story “Home.” Recurring, then, in rhetoric and fiction, Hughes’s hyperbole of instant death clearly attests to the writer’s visceral reaction to the reality of race killing.
The idea of the outsider’s emergence within a rural, clannish community dominates both “Home” and “June Recital,” as does the modernist clash between cosmopolitan artists and small-town residents. As outsiders, Roy Williams in “Home” and Miss Eckhart in “June Recital” escape Europe’s urban wastelands wrought by the ravages of the First World War. Battling tuberculosis, Roy flees war-torn Berlin to see his mother again in Hopkinsville, Missouri, while Miss Eckhart, a German national, relocates with her mother after the war to Morgana, Mississippi. Roy, a concert violinist, and Miss Eckhart, a devoted piano player, never achieve acceptance within their respective communities; the same proves true for Miss Reese, a native Missourian music teacher who briefly befriends Roy after his return to Hopkinsville. Racially segregated and sexually conservative, Hughes’s Hopkinsville and Welty’s Morgana commonly...