Langston Hughes was the slave of Modernism. The works of Hughes’ were in stark contrast ot that of other Modernist writers such as Ezra Pound. Hughes had more in common stylistically with the Realist style of writing that could be found in the slave narratives of the nineteenth century, while he had much in common with their writings there were some differences as well. Hughes wrote about issues that he faced and dealt with on a regular basis which is more in tune with the precepts of thought that governed Realism.
Still much of Hughes’ work does bear the mark of Modernism in the way that it puts into question the ideas of equality and freedom, ideas that this country holds in high esteem perhaps somewhat naively and as such it can be said that since Hughes was writing when he did he was in a sense shackled by the constraints placed upon him by Modernism. It must be pointed out that Hughes was black, and the other Modernist writers were not, so their perspectives may have been influenced by their race, but that is not an easy argument to make. In order to fully understand the differences and the similarities that Hughes shared with both the Realists and the Modernists an in depth analysis of one of his poems that speaks about the reality of the world he wrote about and put into question the ideals that the world at that time held high.
The first line in the poem “I, Too” harkens back to Walt Whitman’s somewhat self-indulgent if not racially naïve poem “I Hear America Singing.” While some might debate whether or not Whitman can be classified as a Realist is moot in the terms of this discussion, since Hughes’ poem from the very onset is a reaction to Whitman’s poem as evidenced from the very title of Hughes poem. The phrasing “I too,” in the title denotes a reaction to declarative statement in the opening lines of Whitman’s poem.
Hughes writes the poem from the narrative perspective of a single voice with the declarative statement in the first line of the poem, but it in the second stanza the poem shifts from Realism to Modernism through its use of metaphors, which is used to described an abstract idea, but at the same time the stanza includes a differentiation from Modernist writers as well.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
And I eat well and grow strong”
It must be noted this poem was written in 1929 and then reprinted in 1959 at time when the nation still practiced the doctrine of “separate but equal” which the poem alludes to in this stanza when the speaker says that he has to eat in the kitchen but still is able eat well and grow strong. This allusion points to the reality of the time, but at the same time begins to challenge the long held, yet abstract, ideal of equality.
As the poem progresses the challenge becomes more blatant, and causes the reader to question the ideal of equality which is more in tune with Modernism and its tendency to call things into question and often express their disillusionment with such things, while the Modernists achieve the goal of expressing their disillusionment through the use of abstract thought, Hughes approach in this poem is much more direct.
Still, unlike Modernist works such as T.S Eliot’s “The Wasteland” which by its very title sets the stage for a work of disillusionment, there is a sense of hope in “I, Too.”
This hope that the voice feels contrasts with the disillusionment many Modernists expressed in their work, and can be seen as a challenge to the very real doctrine of “separate but equal” and the abstract idea of equality. Despite the contrasts with Modernism, the shackles of Modernism have bound this poem stylistically. The poem repeats phrases in the second and third stanzas. In fact the second and third stanzas as well as the first and last lines are almost mirror images of each other. For instance the first line of the poem “I. too, sing America” is almost identical to the last line of the poem “I, too, am America. Both are almost are almost identical in phrasingand are both declarative statements. The only difference between the two lines is the substation for “sing” with “am” in the last line. Still even such a minute substitution speaks of inequality. The fact that while there is repetition throughout the poem is not always exactly alike each time that a phrase is repeated suggests that while Hughes wrote in the style of the Modernists he used that style to speak of reality as opposed to abstract ideas.
The unequal repetition in the second and third stanza only serve to further the themes of inequality that become apparent with not only the usage of the Biblical metaphor of a family eating at the table in the first stanza and how the speaker is then asked to leave the table. While the third stanza talks about “the darker brother,” a phrase (keyword: “darker”), which alludes to race if one was to put it in the context of the aforementioned metaphor. It also talks about how the darker brother will be eating at the table the very next day.
The fourth stanza also adds to the inequalities in the poem structurally and realistically. If one was to write the poem down on a sheet of paper and fold it in half, the poem would not be symmetrical. Also the stanza increases the poem from four to five stanzas, four being an even number that can be equally divided into two parts. Also the fact that the poem has 18 lines as opposed to 19 is equally important because 18 like four is an even number and the fact that it has an even number of lines and an odd number of stanzas cause to the poem to structurally become a statement of the incongruities between equality and the doctrine of “separate but equal.”
Yet even more structural differences in the poem also highlight these incongruities. The first and last stanzas are of equal length, being that of one line each. The second and third stanzas in the poem are also equal length, being that of six lines each. The already incronguous, for the aforementioned reasons, is only three lines in length and is unequal in length to any of the other stanzas in the poem.
The fifth stanza itself also differs from Modernism by further imbuing the reader with a sense of hope that is very much instilled with anger. “Besides,/They shall see how beautiful I am/and be ashamed—”. Modernists would not have made such a statement of hope. The last stanza speaks of tomorrow and the perhaps a possibility of change in the future.
The usage of the Biblical metaphor is important to note because of its abstractness, and thus is a representation of the idea of equality. But as line by line the poem progresses the idea begins to diminish through the references of the darker brother and the idea that soon people will be shamed. Even through the shackles of Modernism, Hughes was able to effectively paint a picture of reality albeit in a very abstract way through his use of metaphor. Yet slaves can often bear the mark of their masters, and despite the shackles placed upon them find a measure of freedom to escape those shackles and become free of them. If Realism was the Promised Land Hughes poetry as evidenced by “I, Too” would safely and securely be there.
3 thoughts on “Langston Hughes: The Slave of Modernism”
I have an exam coming up next week on Modernism and have to write on Langston Hughes, so this helped me enormously! Thank you!
I hope did well on your exam.