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Unpublished story could provide window into Hughes' experiments with modernist prose, KU scholar says

Sunday, June 05, 2016

LAWRENCE — A previously unpublished Langston Hughes short story could lead to clues into how the Kansas author approached the creative process late in his life, said a University of Kansas scholar of Hughes' work.

The New Yorker in late May published the story "Seven People Dancing." Hughes biographer Arnold Rampersad and scholar David Roessel discovered the story in Hughes’ manuscript collection in Yale’s Rare Book & Manuscript Beinecke Library. Rampersad said the story was probably written in 1961.

"Although unpublished at the time, the short story may have influenced his most ambitious collection of poems, ’Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz,’ which Hughes brought out shortly after we believe the story was written," said John Edgar Tidwell, KU professor of English. "The poetry collection has a distinctly modernist feel to it. Both texts seem to share some of the same elements of modernism."

Tidwell has written widely on American and African-American literature. With KU alumna Carmaletta Williams, he co-edited the 2013 book "My Dear Boy: Carrie Hughes's Letters to Langston Hughes, 1926-1938," in which they examine how letters from Hughes' mother influenced his writings.

Rampersad had mentioned the unpublished story in his biography of Hughes. But it was Roessel who convinced Rampersad it should be made available to the public. In an interview accompanying the story, Rampersad said the story explores themes that Hughes had heretofore been reticent about: sexuality and its expression.

"This is a very interesting piece because it provides us new information to ponder as we seek to interrogate Hughes' complexity in the early 1960s," said Tidwell, noting that Hughes died in 1967 in New York City.

As for the modernist features in the short story, Tidwell said there are subtle shifts in narrative viewpoint, including a paragraph where the white woman character Joan describes herself and explains what she is doing.

The opening lines of the story read very much like the stage directions for a play, he said. Even some of the images Hughes uses, such as "laughter bounced, like very hard rubber balls, around the room, not like tennis balls but like solid hard rubber balls," have a modernist feel.

"This use of language is a departure from his previous prose style and indicates the possibility that Hughes was experimenting with new ways to express himself in his fiction," Tidwell said.

The story itself seems incomplete, which could explain why it was never published during Hughes' lifetime, Tidwell said. The lack of completeness also produces a nearly minimalist effect, which forces the reader to engage the text for ideas and meaning. Scholars will likely spend the next year examining the story in greater detail and determining how it might fit with previous scholarship on Hughes' life and writings, he said.

"As with all literary discoveries," Tidwell said, “the initial task scholars must undertake is to lay out the terms for critical inquiry and debate. But there is no question that ‘Seven People Dancing’ merits our attention. This intriguing story forces us to think beyond Hughes’s previous fiction to determine the possibility of new directions."

Langston Hughes spent much of his childhood in Lawrence, home to KU's main campus, and during the week of Feb. 1, 2002, KU celebrated the centenary of his birth with "Let America Be America Again: An International Symposium of the Art, Life and Legacy of Langston Hughes."

An interdisciplinary group of KU faculty and alumni — including Tidwell, Williams, Randal Jelks, Darren Canady, Madison Davis Lacy, Tess Banion and Elena Lacy — in partnership with the Lawrence Arts Center have also received a $50,000 National Endowment for the Humanities Media Makers Development Grant to create a two-part documentary on Hughes. It is tentatively titled “I, Too, Sing America: Langston Hughes Unfurled.” The Kansas Humanities Council last weekend also awarded the group a $10,000 grant to create an eight- to 10-minute documentary titled "Langston's Lawrence," which will focus on Hughes' formative years in Lawrence and its significance in his life.

To arrange an interview with Tidwell on "Seven People Dancing," contact George Diepenbrock at 785-864-8853 or gdiepenbrock@ku.edu.