- My Dear Boy: Carrie Hughes’s Letters to Langston Hughes, 1926–1938 ed. by Carmaletta M. Williams and John Edgar Tidwell
My Dear Boy is a text of undeniable importance to the body of Langston Hughes scholarship. The application of the family systems theory to understanding the content of letters written to him from his mother offers a new and richer way to analyze the often-strained familial relationship between mother and son and highlights the ways that his mother, Carrie, sought to negotiate and control their interactions. The writings, and meticulous scholarship attached, reveal a portion of the relationship, turmoil, and life Langston Hughes kept clutched close to his chest. While his own words are absent from this work, they are made clearer through this proximity with the woman who inspired, tormented, and drove him.
Carmaletta Williams and John Edgar Tidwell surround each grouping of letters with poignant commentary. Their prologue explains their innovative use of Murray Bowen’s family system theory (FST), an approach that examines the interlocking concepts of “self-differentiation, fusion (or enmeshment), and triangulation” (8) that Carrie uses to relate to and control her son. They employ family system theory continually throughout the text, briefly describing the cultural and emotional events surrounding the mother’s letters and elaborating on the ways that Carrie positions herself in them. Their scholarship concludes in an epilogue where they place some of Langston Hughes’s works directly beside the specter of his mother. Soul Gone Home and Mulatto are made clearer and more poignant through the understanding [End Page 110] gained from the intimate access that the letters provide and the manipulative emotions that drove her to write them.
The letters Carrie Hughes sends to her son Langston depict a complicated, heartbreaking, and exhausting relationship filled with emotional and monetary manipulation, isolation, and failed attempts at affection. Where she often pens doting words of love, her sentences reveal a broken and entitled self who controls and depletes the lives around her for her own temporary comfort. The years that pass in her letters can be read less like the endearing communication between a parent and child and more like an outside perspective of an empire cresting and falling. Her early and constant correspondence positions Langston as a source of financial, emotional, and cultural resources; she constantly asks him for money and situates Langston’s step-brother, Gwyn, as a rival for her attention, praise, and the semblance of love she is able to provide. Her writing indicates that Langston must constantly provide the resources she feels that she is owed, yet obtains nothing, no love, no support, and faint praise, in the bargain. In her late letters, where her failing health and increased isolation are evident, Carrie slowly moves away from her constant demand for money and proximity and instead turns an introspective eye to her inability to provide financially or emotionally for her dear boy.
The Great Depression and Carrie’s own tumultuous emotions are evident in every word she writes. Her elation and certainty ring loud and clear when she writes of her brief success on the stage. Her shaky hand and loneliness are evident each time she begs her son to visit. A sharpness of her tone and obvious wanting is apparent in every dollar sign she puts to paper. They all reveal a complicated, conflicted, and distant woman who deeply affects her son but is unable to reach him in any way he needed.
The fascinating and oftentimes painful letters provided by Carrie Hughes are made even richer by the commentary provided by Carmaletta Williams and John Edgar Tidwell. Where Carrie’s own words often present her as harsh and manipulative, the editors’ research and insights present her as a passionate woman whose search for love and adoration compelled her to follow it wherever it appeared, even though it frequently led her away from her son.
Carrie’s correspondence to Langston reveals a more nuanced picture of him...