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  • Havana Reads the Harlem Renaissance:Langston Hughes, Nicolás Guillén, and the Dialectics of Transnational American Literature
  • John Patrick Leary (bio)

On April 20, 1930, the Cuban journalist Gustavo Urrutia wrote to Langston Hughes in New York to announce the publication of a new set of poems, Motivos de son [Son Motifs], by a young Cuban poet named Nicolás Guillén, whom Hughes had met on his recent trip to Havana. Guillén's poems had just been published in "Ideales de una raza" ["Ideals of a Race"], the weekly black-interest section edited by Urrutia. It ran in the Sunday edition of the conservative Havana daily Diario de la Marina from 1928 until it was withdrawn under political pressure from the national government.

As the editor of "Ideales de una raza," Urrutia played a major role in Cuba's afrocubanista (Afro-Cuban) movement. In his letter to the young American poet, Urrutia solicited the American's support and predicted happily that Guillén's Motivos de son would scandalize the local black bourgeoisie with its frank use of the vulgar slang and popular music of urban Cubans of color. Hughes, who had recently returned from a March visit to Cuba covered carefully by Urrutia's reporters, was also well known among the Havana literati for The Weary Blues (1926) and Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), parts of which had already been translated in "Ideales" and publications [End Page 133] like Social, Cuba's premier cultural review of the 1920s.1 Urrutia wrote in his letter to Hughes:

I feel excedingly [sic] happy in this moment on account of eight formidable negro poems written by our Guillén in our negro page of to-day. They are something grand. The name of the series is Motivos de Son. You know very well what this means. They are real, Cuban negro poetry written in the very popular slang. They are the exact equivalent of your "blues." The language and feelings of our dear negroes made most noble by the love and talent of our own artists. I am only sorry that you will be unable to translate, and even understand what these poems mean, but you must know that the spirit of them is same [sic] as the blues. Some ones are sad, some are ironical, others are sociological, viz. Oyé me dijeron negro.2

Urrutia is careful in this letter to translate the meaning of Guillén's work into a North American racial vocabulary, insisting conspiratorially that Hughes knows "very well what this means" ("this" could refer either to the importance of Guillén's poems or to the collection's title). Finally, Urrutia equates the son—the Afro-Cuban ballad form of the Havana working class and rural peasantry that inspired Guillén's collection—with "your blues." As scholars of the Hughes-Guillén encounter have done ever since, Urrutia is careful to draw racial analogies between Cuba and the United States, which he then uses to compare the work of the two young black poets, inspired as they both were by music, radical politics, and modernist poetics.

This letter has been routinely misinterpreted in American scholarship, beginning with its reading by Hughes's influential biographer, Arnold Rampersad. Hughes and Guillén met on the American's second trip to Havana, where they struck up a friendship and a long correspondence and eventually began a collaboration that resulted in Hughes's cotranslation of Guillén's poetry. Rampersad argues that Urrutia's complimentary remarks confirm Hughes's influence on Guillén: just as the American poet had combined the rhythms and structure of blues forms and popular speech in his Weary Blues, Guillén had done the same with the son. "For the first time, as Hughes had urged him to do," writes Rampersad, "Guillén had used the son dance rhythms to capture the moods and features of the black Havana poor."3 Many American critics have similarly attributed Guillén's decision to incorporate son rhythms and popular slang into "high" poetry to Hughes's influence.4 The scholarly misinterpretations of Urrutia's letter overlook two important aspects of his communication to...


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