On Langston Hughes's The Weary Blues
One never grows weary of The Weary Blues. Langston Hughes’s first book, published by Knopf in 1926, is one of the high points of modernism and of what has come to be called the Harlem Renaissance—that flowering of African American literature and culture in the public’s consciousness. Really an extension of the New Negro movement that began toward the start of the twentieth century, international as much as based in New York, the Harlem Renaissance represented different things to different people: to “race men” like W. E. B. DuBois and James Weldon Johnson, the black cultural ferment found from the teens to the nineteen twenties and beyond provided an opportunity to prove in culture things sometimes denied black folks in society—namely, their humanity.
For a younger generation of black artists like Hughes, their humanity proved self-evident. What’s more, the freedom of expression they sought and Hughes insisted on in his 1926 manifesto “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” didn’t require putting a best foot forward in writing, or uplift in any easy sense. “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame,” he wrote. “We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.” As such, Hughes and other young writers often sought to scandalize as a form of sympathizing with those for whom life “ain’t been no crystal stair.” If Hughes’s second book would take this as a kind of gospel, using the form of the blues to represent washwomen, porters, rounders, fools, and heroes—creating one of the best and most influential books of the twentieth century in the process—then The Weary Blues represents the start of this newfound and profound blues and jazz aesthetic.
Hughes was in fact the first to write poetry in the blues form. He was the first to realize the blues are plural—to see in their complicated irony and earthy tone the potential to present a folk feeling both tragic and comic, one uniquely African American, which is to say, American. The blues made romance modern; modernism borrowed from the blues a new way of saying what it saw: Hughes made the blues his own, and ours too.
As I mention in my introduction to the Everyman’s Pocket Poets volume Blues Poems (2003), the form of the blues fights the feeling of the blues. If Hughes hasn’t yet mined the blues form as fully in The Weary Blues as he would later on, he has already embraced and in large part invented the blues aesthetic, “laughing to keep from crying”:
Does a jazz-band ever sob?
They say a jazz-band’s gay.
Yet as the vulgar dancers whirled
And the wan night wore away,
One said she heard the jazz-band sob
When the little dawn was grey.
The simplicity of this “Cabaret” may distract from the fact that jazz bands and vulgarity weren’t easily found in poetry before Hughes wrote of them. Hughes’s opening question here is well aware that what F. Scott Fitzgerald named the Jazz Age too often saw jazz bands as not only exclusively white but also relentlessly happy. By implying them black, and making their night not merely the fictional Great Gatsby’s grand party but its wan aftermath, Hughes reveled in the gray (and gay) he saw around him in his travels to Mexico, his exile in Paris, and home in his adopted Harlem. “Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy,” Fitzgerald wrote. Hughes took tragedy and made it heroic, finding it comic too.
The Weary Blues also pioneers the jazz aesthetic. While others had earlier described jazz, often at a remove—notably Carl Sandburg in his “Jazz Fantasia”—Hughes knew that with jazz the form is the feeling. His poetry recognizes ecstasy not as a rarified state but a newborn freedom jazz helped him capture on the page. His first book is filled with exclamation points (“Sweet silver trumpets, / Jesus!”) and typographical incursions (“Jazz-boys, jazz-boys,— / Play, plAY, PLAY!”); he even ends one poem simply: “!” He used this jazz aesthetic—one radical and racy and racial—to describe everything from a “Troubled Woman” to a “Danse Africaine.” Sometimes this asymmetrical aesthetic is refined and refracted in short poems like “Winter Moon,” quoted in full:
How thin and sharp is the moon tonight!
How thin and sharp and ghostly white
Is the slim curved crook of the moon tonight!
Or take the enigmatic testimony of “Suicide’s Note”:
Cool face of the river
Asked me for a kiss.
From similar so-called American haiku Hughes would later craft his mid-career and mid-century masterpiece, Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951), which would give us quite a different Harlem in transition after the war, bringing bebop artistry to the page. In The Weary Blues he would first perfect that mix of hope with heartbreak—though individual poems may provide one or the other, as in his later book-length epic, they add up to a whole that truly sings.
Death is never far in this book, including in the title poem, which after a “Proem” (or prologue-poem) sets the scene, we find ourselves “Down on Lenox Avenue the other night” where the speaker watches a blues singer perform. The poem quotes the bluesman’s song:
“I got the Weary Blues
And I can’t be satisfied.
Got the Weary Blues
And can’t be satisfied—
I ain’t happy no mo’
And I wish that I had died.”
The poem ends with a description of the singer who “slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.” Though in the end he’s begun to identify with the singer, the “I” in the poem is still only an observer—but what an observer!—rather than the blues people that Hughes would regularly go on to speak as, and even for. This isn’t to say that The Weary Blues isn’t filled with personae (such as “When Sue Wears Red”) or with nude dancers, beggar boys, cabaret singers, young sailors, and everyday folk who would dominate Hughes’s further work. But it’s the poems that speak of being “Black like me”—black still being fighting words in some quarters—that prove especially moving. Hughes manages remarkably to take Whitman’s American “I” and write himself into it. After labeling the final section “Our Land,” the volume ends with one of the more memorable lines of the century, almost an anthem: “I, too, am America.”
Offering up a series of “Dream Variations,” as one section is called, Hughes, it becomes clear, is celebrating, critiquing, and completing the American dream, that desire for equality or at least opportunity. But his America takes in the Americas—including Mexico, where his estranged father moved to flee the color line of the United States—and even the West Coast of Africa, which he’d also visited. His well-paced poetry is laced with an impeccable exile. The Weary Blues has so many now-classic verses that exemplify this it is hard to single out just one. But certainly we must mention “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” which, like the book's proem, manages to recast the “I” as racial and universal, declaring, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” The first mature poem Hughes wrote (in 1920), here “Rivers” is dedicated to Du Bois; it is the poem he would end every reading with. Could it speak of the same river that had asked the suicide for a kiss? However mighty, this river, both real and metaphoric, flowed across and united a nation that, even if it didn’t keep all its promises, still managed to hold out promise.
Writer Carl Van Vechten had helped guide Hughes’s poems to Knopf, which would become his longtime publisher. But just as he would capitalize on seeing the popular poet Vachel Lindsay in a restaurant he worked in—playing up his being a newly “discovered” busboy poet, even though The Weary Blues was already in production—it was Hughes alone who made the most of such opportunities. Van Vechten and Hughes would remain close to the end of Hughes’s life, but to call Van Vechten his patron is too reductive and elevating; to call him Hughes’s mentor far too pat and patronizing. The two were that far more profound thing, friends. Van Vechten did provide an introduction to The Weary Blues, which, after it quotes heavily from Hughes’s “picturesque” letters, perceptively notes his stanzas “have a highly deceptive air of spontaneous improvisation” that really is studied, almost presciently seeing their “expression of an essentially sensitive and subtly illusive nature, seeking always to break through the veil.”
Hughes would provide Van Vechten a lens on and even access to a black world of “life behind the veil” that he sought the rest of his life to understand and that Hughes celebrated; and when Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven (1926) caused controversy from its title alone, Hughes would come to his defense under the same principle of artistic freedom that Hughes had asserted in “The Negro Artist.” It would be the silhouetted cover of The Weary Blues by Mexico’s Miguel Covarrubias that Hughes seemed more to mind. Suggested by Van Vechten, its ironic status now seems less an overwrought type, as it might have then, than a borrowing from the rather stately shadows of others—such as black artist Aaron Douglas, who like Hughes had lived as a child in Topeka, Kansas, (where I once lived too) and with whom Hughes would collaborate over a long career.
Even given its rich context, The Weary Blues remains a unique achievement. A century after Knopf began as a publisher, and nearly ninety years after his book first appeared, Hughes’s innovation still resonates with its rich lines and fascinating lives—the very liveliness it brought to the world. His is a tremendous debut, and we are lucky to have it, exactly as Hughes wrote it, in all its black, blues, and symphonic glory.