Thursday, November 16, 2006

Week 13, Hughes and Steinbeck

Langston Hughes and John Steinbeck. Hughes’ selections (1891-1901). Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1901-13).

Page-by-Page Notes on Langston Hughes’ Selections (1891-1901).

1892-94. “The Negro speaks of Rivers.” Rivers are the source of life and vitality. Africa is represented as the cradle of civilization. Perhaps the river also gives us a different way to reckon time. It creates its own temporality. In this poem, the river is also associated with purity, hope, and endurance—in short, with the deeper currents of humanity that prove irresistible in the long run.

1893. “Mother to Son.” The homely metaphor that the mother uses is appropriate to the way she has lived her life. The advice she gives is that determination and endurance are the keys to success.

1893-94. “Weary Blues.” I don’t know much about the blues, but this kind of music seems like sorrow sounding out itself. The song does not amount to whining; it is a call to be strong. The blues song puts the piano player to sleep but continues to echo in his mind. The music even replaces the moon and the stars.

1894. “I, Too.” To sing is to be. Art is a key part of self-definition. The speaker reckons “many years” as “tomorrow,” and knows how to laugh at oppression.

1895-97. “Mulatto.” This poem adopts a mocking tone, and it concludes by confronting white people with a boy of mixed race. The mixing of races was a fact of life in the South, but knowledge of it was generally repressed because acknowledging it would tear down white racial purity doctrine. The poem associates black people with the night, joy, and sensuality—things that white people can give in to and then reject scornfully.

1896. “For a Dark Girl.” This poem appropriates the minstrel genre, and replaces it with something more realistic. I am reminded of Billie Holiday’s doleful song, “Strange Fruit.” See also “Silhouette” on page 1899.

1896. “Vagabonds.” This poem resembles William Blake’s Songs of Innocence in its simplicity. The idea is that even adults must be able to recognize bitter truth without being crushed by it.

“Refugee.” As Du Bois and others have pointed out, once the original struggle for freedom had succeeded, further struggle was necessary. Self-definition and autonomy only come with difficult experience. Martin Luther King Jr. will later refer to the Declaration of Independence as a “blank check.” Just as in the poem “Democracy” (1900-01), the sentiment is not cynicism. Instead, freedom is represented as a deep, perpetual desire, not as an abstraction. A modern theorist has described history as “the pain of our ancestors.” That definition makes sense especially when we are reading African-American literature.

1897-98. “Madam and Her Madam.” The speaker rejects southern gentility bluntly because she sees it as false consciousness. It is vicious to be polite to people whom you are in fact treating like trash.

1899. “Visitors to the Black Belt.” Again, the issue of self-definition is vital. White America continually defines black people in demeaning ways, even when it glamorizes Harlem, jazz, and so forth.

1900. “Commercial Theater.” In this poem, the speaker laments that his favorite art forms, though deeply American, are treated as if they are foreign and exotic. Jazz becomes swing, played by Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, and other white musicians. Many African-Americans saw this borrowing as cultural expropriation. Black people have long been an integral part of American history, but Hughes points out that they often see themselves plundered as a rich vein for exotic representations. So they were still being treated as foreigners even in the Twentieth Century.

1900-01. This poem looks forward to Martin Luther King’s civil opposition to the argument that black people must not “force the issue” of equal rights. The truth is that all genuine progress is untimely because there will always be people unwilling to grant such progress—it goes against their perceived interests. Langston Hughes, like King, understands that history is made by human action, by confrontational people who draw prejudice and injustice into the light of day and make it contemplates itself. Waiting accomplishes nothing. In this poem, Hughes describes freedom as “a strong seed” (something natural) but also as something that needs human nourishing.

Page-by-Page Notes on John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1901-13).

1902-03. In these selections, we get mostly the narrator’s perspective, but he describes what happened to families like the Joads while they made their way west. Such midwesterners were trying to live a poor-folks variation of the Jeffersonian “gentleman farmer” ideal. They may not have had fine manners or the erudition of a Jefferson, but they maintained an organic, almost mystical relationship with the soil. However, agriculture had been undergoing mechanization from the 1890s onwards, and by 1910, large tractors were widely used on big plots of land. The 1920s began to experience excessive agricultural production, so much so that by 1934 FDR succeeded in passing the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which paid farmers not to overproduce and further destabilize the market for their crops. The 1930s were simply terrible—drought combined with the effects of over-farming to create the Dust Bowl, as large portions of the Midwest came to be called. (These general points can be found at That condition is what drove Okies like the Joad family out west, especially to California. But this great migration westward differed from predecessor migrations in that it was the result of desperation, not a sense of boundless opportunity. Steinbeck captures the eerie desolation left behind when he describes civilized homes returning to wilderness. On 1903, he writes, “The wild cats crept in from the fields at night, but they did not mew at the doorstep anymore. They moved like shadows of a cloud across the moon, into the rooms to hunt the mice.” Steinbeck’s realism allows him to capture the unfolding human drama of the Dust Bowl exodus with great accuracy. However, the objective reality he registers calls for taking up an attitude, not for false neutrality. It cries out for strong judgment against oppressors, for cynicism about the self-serving mythologies of the marketplace (which many stubborn supporters of President Herbert Hoover continued to maintain), and denunciation of class snobbishness and essentialism. But it also called for compassion for those who were simply confused rather than malicious. There is appropriate lyricism in the midst of Steinbeck’s realistic writing—this tone works especially well when he is trying to capture the persistence of hope even when it would seem that all objective justification for hope has disappeared. It is easy to see the simultaneous despair and determination in the faces of poor people captured on film during the 1930s—the Library of Congress website at I suppose that combination of despair and determination is what Steinback wants us to appreciate.

1905. The tire-dealer is a small-time opportunist preying upon desperate people. The same goes for the maker of the handbill promising Okies jobs out west. The point of such handbills is to create a pool of surplus labor, thereby driving the price of labor down. The kind of resentment generated by such swindles was widespread. There was a great deal of anger against the capitalist order and its ideology, even though America has never really turned to radical forms of government such as socialism. A good book to read on the subject of America’s leftist and progressive tradition is Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

1906-13. Route 66, which was built in 1926-27, ran through the heartland all the way to Southern California nearly to the ocean around Santa Monica (see the Wikipedia article on Route 66 at Chapter 15 describes the life that passes through and congregates in areas connected with that once vital highway, which was decommissioned in the mid-1980s but still exists in parts as a scenic route. Rich people, truck drivers making a stable living, and employees at the many diners dotting the road, are all described. Steinbeck uses an impersonal narrative style to categorize the waitresses, cooks, and other characters, and he captures the emptiness they must feel. We can sense this in the mechanical way the waitress must say again and again “What will you have today?” Insecurity besets even the wealthy men and women who breeze along at 65 mph and stop for coffee and pie. Everyone is isolated, and nobody can fully understand the plight of the poor. But as the bread-and-candy scene from 1910-13 shows, Steinbeck apparently believes people from all classes retain some common humanity, some empathy, even though they feel compelled to disguise it fiercely. Insecurity and fear make the diner employee Mae mask her generosity, her desire to protect the dignity of downtrodden people. Al the cook disguises his own decency with cuss words, but it comes through all the same, and the truck drivers leave a tip that more than makes up for the generosity Mae has shown. This desire seems to be the light of hope in Steinbeck’s otherwise very bleak novel.


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