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  • Origins of the Dream: Hughes's Poetry and King's Rhetoric by W. Jason Miller
  • John Edgar Tidwell
ORIGINS OF THE DREAM: Hughes's Poetry and King's Rhetoric. By W. Jason Miller. Gainesville: University Press of Florida. 2015.

In a meticulous combination of close reading, biblical exegesis, and literary analysis, W. Jason Miller, in Origins of the Dream: Hughes's Poetry and King's Rhetoric, offers an intriguing reinterpretation of Langston Hughes by demonstrating the influence Hughes's poetry exerted on the rhetoric of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Miller focuses on the metaphor [End Page 111] of the dream, which, in his formulation, derives principally from three of Hughes's poems: "Youth," "I Dream a World," and "A Dream Deferred." King, according to this argument, rewrote, revised, recycled, paraphrased, alluded to, rewrote, merged voices, and sampled Hughes's works for the thematic and rhetorical force to embellish his own sermons and speeches. The fundamental premise authorizing the unrestrained appropriation of Hughes's poetry is that, in the sermonic tradition of the old Black preacher, nothing is really new under the sun, freeing up preachers to borrow liberally from all sources, including each other.

The path Miller charts from King's evolving poetic sensibility to the rhetorical tour de force in the "I Have a Dream" speech begins by exploring King's predisposition toward the poetic, an aesthetic vision that derives from a broad, eclectic reading into the Western tradition made famous by Wordsworth, Milton, Shelley, Arnold, Swinburne, and many more. Inspired by their beauty and expressive power, King would rewrite their words for use in cultivating his own rhetorical prowess. Miller is a bit tentative, however, in noting Hughes's acknowledgment of King's use of his poems. Publicly, Hughes thanked King for his kind words and the use he made of the poems in his sermons and speeches. More personally, though, Hughes was thought to be a bit peevish about King's often failure to acknowledge Hughes's authorship of the poems. Could there have been, in Miller's view, a subtle jibe Hughes takes at King because his poetry helped to raise sums of money for the civil rights movement but none was given to the poems' creator?

Miller is considerably stronger in confronting the challenge of reading King's sermons and speeches line by line to glean embedded instances of Hughes's poetic language. Metaphors from "A Dream Deferred," for instance, appear in King's sermons as early as 1956, in phrases such as "a festering sore." This use, however, is more than merely quoting a vivid image; it signals both idea and framing device. Here, it applies to the debilitating effects of racial segregation—on both the ones suffering discrimination and the ones committing the discrimination. Methodically, Miller makes judicious use of poetic and rhetorical analytical tools to establish connections between Hughes's poetry and King's prose. The result is a persuasive rendering of Hughes's influence on King.

To appreciate fully the results Miller achieves in this study, one need only examine its trajectory. He patiently retraces King's ultimate exposition of the dream metaphor, which culminates in its iconic use in the speech popularly known as "I Have a Dream." Miller masterfully shows how King appropriates and submerges the poetic impulses of Hughes's poems in this well-known speech. From all accounts, King's prepared text did not move the audience that hot August day in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Spurred by Mahalia Jackson's entreaty—"Tell them about the dream, Martin!"—King put notes aside and spoke from memory and the heart. Listeners had little or no inkling of Hughes's resonance in the background of this speech. But therein lay the deft display of King's creativity. In making artful use of the metaphor, he made the speech his own.

Origins of the Dream is not without flaw. The assertion that Hughes engaged in a life-long fascination with communism or socialism seemingly begs the issue. While Hughes was indeed a political subversive, the claim he was inspired by "Red" ideology requires more evidence. Rhetorically, the idea functions nicely to set up...


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pp. 111-113
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