Langston Hughes’s roughest book of poetry is also an homage to laughter.
In 1925 Langston Hughes lived with his mother on the north side of S Street, a few short blocks from Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. The tiny two-story square row home, painted in deep brown trim today, is set back from the sidewalk. A meandering path leading up to the house meets, at the sidewalk’s edge, the meandering path of the house next door; they bend together in the rough shape of a heart. The first story of the home has a large single window, broad and revealing like a storefront display. The second and top story, where Hughes most likely lived and wrote, seems squat, pared down, resting atop the broad window. The house itself is inconspicuous, quiet, and low––slyly hidden by the grander-seeming homes surrounding it.
Langston Hughes lived in many places during his pivotal year in Washington, but, walking by this house one day recently, I found myself wondering if it was here that the seeds were planted for his 1927 book of poems, Fine Clothes to the Jew, a book famous among a small group of scholars for its controversial release but that remains unknown to many.
Today the book is out of print. Google Books does not “preview” it, most libraries do not carry it, and even The Library of Congress cannot locate their lone copy. A small number of first editions are available on-line for upwards of a thousand dollars. The book is worth far more. (Two Collected Works of Langston Hughes editions, Arnold Rampersad’s and Dolan Hubbard’s, contain the poems from Fine Clothes to the Jew.) The book received scathing reviews when first released, mostly from Hughes’s fellow literati in Harlem, for its seemingly unabashed and degrading depictions of African Americans.
In situation and appearance, Langston Hughes’s mother’s home resembles the paradox in the reception history of Fine Clothes to the Jew. The house is removed, easy to miss, simple, and confined in the heart of a bustling city. Yet the house is also solid and stern, its gazing window luminous. Likewise the poems in this book are hard, describing people who live hard lives in the brusque city or lonely, rural south. Actually, written in six parts alternating between the city and the country, Fine Clothes doesn’t describe these people; rather, each poem is spoken in the voice of a different, struggling soul—the prostitute, the pimp, the abusive husband, the abused wife, the player, the played, the child, the worried parent, the broken-hearted, and the philanderer—to name just a few of the characters. A burdened consciousness of race and ethnicity is made overt notably in the book’s title, which pairs beauty or opulence (fine clothing) with the ugliness of bigoted social perceptions.
Yet perhaps early critics missed Hughes’s message to the reader in the first edition in his “Note on the Blues”: “The mood of the Blues is almost always despondency, but when they are sung people laugh” (15). These poems, even the river poems about attempted suicides, are not monologues in a Shakespearean tragedy. They are Blues songs. And yet they are not intended to inspire tears, as Hughes discloses in his opening. Caught in the reliable repetition of a blues song, the form drowns out the content, balancing even the harshest realities with a sense of play.
Consider the six-line poem “Mammy”:
I’m waiting for my mammy,—
She is Death.
Say it very softly.
Say it very slowly, if you choose.
I am waiting for my mammy,—
Birth (the mother) ushering in death is as congruous as a Blues song of mourning that produces laughter. One of two poems in the book that seems to be in the voice of poet himself is called “Laughers” (77) (the other biographical poem is “Mulatto”).
Who laughs in Hughes’s world? Everyone. And especially poets: “Dream Singers,/ Storytellers,/ Dancers,/ Loud laughers in the hands of Fate, / My people” (77). Laughter is by nature democratic for Hughes. It suits the Blues because that form of song entertains regardless of its content. Similarly, no topic is handled cautiously in this book, just as nothing is off-limits for the stand-up comedian. Hughes walks into the inner but everyday lives of dozens of souls, showing that what each has in common is an ability to laugh. Hughes even seems surprised about this himself, asking at the end of his “Laughers” poem, “Laughers?” and answering, “Yes, laughers . . . laughers, . . . laughers—/ Loud-mouthed laughers in hands/ Of Fate” (78).