Callaloo 25.4 (2002) 1177-1187
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Natural and Unnatural Circumstances in Langston Hughes' Not Without Laughter
The Harlem Renaissance was a big city phenomenon. It was generated and supported by African Americans living, working, and creating in New York City's streets, tenements, brownstones, cabarets, clubs, offices, publishing houses. Yet the imagery in literary texts produced by the Harlem Renaissance's major writers—Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, Eric Walrond, Langston Hughes, among others—is not all urban. Rather it reflects these writers' intimate familiarity with nature—in places as distant from New York as Jamaica, Florida, and Kansas.
Hughes' Not Without Laughter (1930), based on his boyhood years growing up in Lawrence, Kansas, was written fifteen years after his departure from Kansas; during these intervening years Hughes traveled the world, becoming a consummate urbanite and cosmopolitan. Yet, as Not Without Laughter reveals, Hughes forgets neither the individuals and experiences he encountered during his Kansas years nor the features of that land. Among the particular aspects of Kansas that he recalls throughout the novel are those related to nature—plants, seasons, weather, earth, and sky.
Hughes perceives nature in his novel as the source of neither transcendental reverie nor Darwinian determinism as European American writers were doing in the 1920s and 1930s. It can be argued that in drawing on natural imagery, Hughes, like other Harlem Renaissance writers, was referring explicitly to his personal experiences prior to moving to New York as well as to the rural experiences of thousands of other African Americans who participated in the Great Migration. Unlike the narratives of his contemporary and collaborator, Zora Neale Hurston, Hughes does not engage in extensive re-envisionings of African-American animal tales in Not Without Laughter. 1 Nor does he romanticize or exoticize nature in his novel, as Countee Cullen does African nature in his poetry. I will argue that instead Hughes, recognizing the conventionality and neutrality of nature as imagery and subject matter for middle- and upper-class readers, exploited its rhetorical possibilities for representing complex social concerns in Not Without Laughter.
From the time of his writing "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" at the precocious age of nineteen, Hughes appears to have recognized the rhetorical possibilities for linking African-American experience and nature. It is also possible to believe that the impetus for "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" might have been the Kaw River, which flows [End Page 1177] through Lawrence and which he would have seen as a boy. His 1921 description of the Mississippi in "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" with "its muddy bosom turn[ing] all golden in the sunset" anticipates his 1930 description of the river in Not Without Laughter where Sandy and his father go fishing: "The warm afternoon sun made [it] a languid sheet of muddy gold." However, more significant than the specificity of the descriptions of the poem's rivers is the symbiosis he generates by seeing them as the embodiment of African history, the African diaspora, and himself, perceived as the representative "Negro": "My soul has grown deep like the rivers" (CP 23).
Hughes' descriptions of Kansas' natural features in Not Without Laughter not only establish the authenticity of place or a vividly textured backdrop for human affairs but they also establish the boundaries of class. In addition, they provide him with the rhetorical means for generating what Mikhail Bahktin calls "a double-directed discourse" (324). Thus Hughes constructs a dominant narrative in Not Without Laughter that relies upon natural imagery to appeal to its mainstream readers, including his wealthy and aged white patron, Mrs. Charlotte Mason, and also significantly slips a subversive subtext into the narrative under this conventional and non-controversial guise. Thus in Hughes' "double-directed discourse," a "natural" story of a boy's coming-of-age reveals the "unnatural" circumstances of racism and poverty. His subtext explicitly introduces middle- and upper-class readers to the ubiquity and injustices of racism in American society as well as to the richness of African-American culture.
In small midwestern towns in the early...