Callaloo 25.4 (2002) 1097-1098
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Brent Hayes Edwards
The essays in the special section that follows are a sampling of recent work on the life and writing of Langston Hughes. This past year marked the centennial of the birth of the man still referred to with affection as the "Negro poet laureate," and there has been a ground swell of new criticism on Hughes' enormous oeuvre. Some of this work emerged at the major conferences celebrating Hughes in the spring (particularly at the symposiums held at the University of Kansas and at Yale University in February 2002), and other efforts have been spurred by the eagerly-awaited emergence of the first installments of The Collected Works (projected to run to eighteen volumes in all) from the University of Missouri Press.
Oddly, for a writer so central in 20th-century American literature, there are significant portions of Hughes' writing that have hardly garnered any critical attention, and a number of the essays here offer readings of understudied works. David Chioni Moore is one of the key critics (along with Kate Baldwin) who in the past few years have been pursuing the daunting archival research necessary to consider Hughes' sojourn in Moscow and Asia in the early 1930s in the depth it merits. Hughes originally made his way to Moscow in 1932 with a group of young African Americans who were scheduled to participate in the making of Black and White, a Soviet-sponsored film about the U.S. that was eventually abandoned. But instead of returning to the West or staying in Moscow, Hughes took up an ambitious plan to travel through the Soviet Asian republics (Kazakstan, Turkestan, and Uzbekistan), before eventually making his way to Japan and China. For most readers, the only available account of this journey has been the chapters devoted to it in Hughes' 1956 autobiography I Wonder as I Wander, a book composed in the shadow of McCarthyism that—as Moore points out—is less forthcoming than it might have been about Hughes' enthrallment with the "Soviet experiment" in Central Asia.
Moore is preparing an edition of Hughes' A Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia, a remarkable travel narrative he wrote during the trip. It was published in a small edition in Moscow in 1934, but aside from the few sections Hughes excerpted for essays in journals like the Crisis and the New Masses that year, it has never been available in English in the West. Along with the many long-forgotten essays Hughes published on the subject in a variety of periodicals, including International Literature, Theater Arts Monthly and Woman's Home Companion (essays collected in the just-published Volume 9 of The Collected Works of Langston Hughes, edited by Christopher C. De Santis)—the new edition of A Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia finally gives us access to a crucial, if little-known, archive of Hughes' thinking about revolution and race in a uniquely transnational, comparative context. [End Page 1097]
While undertaking the project, Moore discovered that a selection of Hughes' poems published in Uzbek in 1934 included translations of poems that apparently were never published in English. With the assistance of Kevin Young—a poet who must be considered one of the "rightful heirs" to the "Langston Hughes Legacy," as Yusef Komunyakaa puts it—this section includes retranslations into English of several poems from the Uzbek poem series. It is an impossible task, most reminiscent of the 1979 retranslation of Claude McKay's 1923 The Negroes in America (which only exists in Russian translation, the English original having been lost during McKay's own trip to Moscow). At the same time, it is a fascinating endeavor that raises questions about translation and literary style that are important to consider in such a black transnational publishing circuit. In this light, Moore's essay here is indispensable in that it provides a cogent consideration of the difficulties of editing and translating the "Central Asian" Hughes.
Moore's work is not the only one of the essays collected here that strives to break new ground. Elizabeth Schultz offers an unexpected reading of...