Robert Shulman

Robert Shulman: On "Power"

As she gathers momentum, Rukeyser amplifies the religious and political implications of "Alloy" in the crucial sequence, "Power" and "The Dam." Before she moves into the depths, first of the powerhouse, then of the dam, in "Power" (pp. 49-53) Rukeyser draws on the resources of classical poetic forms and language to bring alive the setting: "the quick sun," the warm mountains, a vital, sexualized landscape that answers to the love and sexualized body of the poet who "sees perfect cliffs ranging until the river / cuts sheer, mapped far below in delicate track, / surprise of grace . . . as lovers who look too long on the desired face / startle to find the remote flesh so warm." The heat of the day is life-giving, not the terrifying, deadly heat of "Alloy" and "Arthur Peyton." Rukeyser begins and ends the first stanza of "Power" with images of the life-giving sun in what could be a marvelously sensual love poem paying tribute to

A day of heat shed on the gorge, a brilliant

day when love sees the sun behind its man

and the disguised marvel under familiar skin.

By the poem's final line, "this is the end," "the suns declare midnight."

Before she can move into the depths to face death and night, however, Rukeyser must first enter the powerhouse. From above her eye follows the power lines' "narrow-waisted towers" until she reaches the powerhouse standing

    skin-white at the transmitters' side

over the rapids    the brilliance    the blind foam.

Answering to her own ambivalence about the power she is dealing with, Rukeyser's verse form becomes more irregular, more agitated than in the first stanza as she gives us once more "the rapids the brilliance the blind foam" that drive the turbines.

The powerhouse we are entering is "midway between water and flame," midway between the water of the dam and the flame of the furnace. The elemental language also suggests the ritualistic water and flame of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The powerhouse is transitional, a stage not only in the transmission of electricity but also in a process of death and renewal, a renewal Rukeyser has prepared for in the sensuous celebration of the opening stanza. Having raised these expectations, however, Rukeyser immediately qualifies them by applying the grim and, as it turns out, revolutionary word "terminal" to the powerhouse and all it stands for. "Terminal" also casts its shadow and hope on the reiterated refrain line from the opening poem, "this is the road to take when you think of your country," a line that renews our sense of the promise and betrayal of America fused with the journey on the Osiris Way, a journey that has political as well as religious implications.

Inside the powerhouse Rukeyser responds to the colors, "the effective green, grey-toned and shining," to the "tall immense chamber of cylinders" and the play of light and color as "the rich paint catches light from three-story windows, / arches of light vibrate erratic panels on / sides of curved steel." As Rukeyser moves into the depths of the powerhouse, the light becomes increasingly symbolic but at first it has a precise, visual, documentary existence. Rukeyser similarly focuses on the "wheels, control panels, dials, the vassal instruments" of a technology she both values and connects with death, "terminal." In this setting she gives us the creator and presiding spirit of the powerhouse, "the engineer Jones, the blueprint man, / loving the place he designed, visiting it alone." His identifying line is "This is the place."

As they descend the stairs, Jones, ignoring or unaware of the men killed building the tunnel, announces that "they said I built the floor like the tiles of a bank, / I wanted the men who work here to be happy." His intentions, including the probably unflattering reference to the bank, are still bathed in "light laughing on steel, the gay, the tall sun / given away." In her next line, "the iron steps go down as roads go down," Rukeyser continues to keep alive the sense of the journey on the road with its American and Egyptian connotations.

Now in "the second circle, world of inner shade," Rukeyser precisely records the "hidden bulk of generators, governor shaft, / round gap of turbine pit" and further down, "here are the outlets, butterfly valves / open from here, the tail-race, vault of steel, the spiral staircase ending, last light in shaft." This technological world is also a "world of inner shade" whose relation to the Egyptian Book of the Dead is reinforced by saying explicitly of the entire region, particularly the wire flooring of the turbine pit, "this is the scroll, the volute case of night, / quick shadow and the empty galleries." "Inner shade," "night", and "last light in shaft" mark the change from the sunlit world of the opening, a change Jones underscores with the single word, "gone."

In the midst of this dark, powerfully suggestive setting, Rukeyser abruptly intrudes a contrasting voice, language, and tradition, Miltonic and Old Testament:

"'Hail, holy light, offspring of Heav'n first-born,

'Or of th' Eternal Coeternal beam

'May I express thee unblamed?'"

Rukeyser has already established the blame. From the vantage point of Milton's religiously charged language and the central symbol of light (Paradise Lost, 3.1-3), the corporate and technological world of the powerhouse emerges as a blasphemous bringer of light. What is at issue is a primal violation of the West's most basic divine and secular principles.

Moving still further into the underworld, Rukeyser records the fear that accompanies both a descent into darkness on the "uncertain rungs" of a steep ladder and the fear that accompanies entry into a region associated with death. In this suggestive setting, Jones amplifies his identification with the place he has created:

"This is the place. Away from this my life

I am indeed Adam unparadiz'd.

Some fools call this the Black Hole of Calcutta.

I don’t know how they ever get to Congress."

Rukeyser mixes high and low languages to endow Jones with a sense of humor and to develop the themes of death and Paradise Lost. Jones speaks about his "life" in a place of death. And, although he does not realize it, it is precisely in his place that he is "indeed Adam unparadiz’d," an identification that resonates with the quotation from Paradise Lost and with the underlying theme of the lost American Dream, or, rather, with the accumulating sense that the technological and economic power associated with the Gauley Tunnel are inseparable from the loss of the promise of America.

Spiraling downward on "the drunken ladder," in contrast to the earlier play of light and color Rukeyser now stresses that "a naked bulb / makes glare, turns paler, burns to dark again. Brilliance begins, stutters," In this uncertain light, or dark, she leaves Jones, "the tall abstract," and encounters "the ill, the unmasked men" of the Gauley Tunnel. These dead enter through association with the mask of the welder who says directly,

    "A little down,

five men were killed in widening the tunnel."

Rukeyser herself now enters the tunnel.

Shell of bent metal; walking along an arc

the tube rounds up about your shoulders, black

circle, great circle. down infinite mountain rides,

echoes words, footsteps, testimonies.

Beneath "the second circle," in the tunnel, the "black circle, great circle," "words, footsteps, testimonies" echo:

"One said the air was thin. Fifth Avenue clean."

But despite this testimony before the subcommittee, the air was not clean. As Rukeyser penetrates further "along created gorges" she deepens the contrast with the earlier sunlit, heat-warmed gorge. Suddenly,

    all the light burns out.

Down the reverberate channels of the hills

the suns declare midnight, go down, cannot ascend,

no ladder back; see this. your eyes can ride through steel,

this is the river Death, diversion of power.

The tunnel merges with the Egyptian underworld, the fear of being trapped merges with the fear of death without renewal, the reverse of the ritual drama enacted again and again in the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The river in West Virginia merges with the river Death, not, however, mechanically but to emphasize the connection with, in the fullest sense, the "diversion of power, // the root of the tower and the tunnel's core."

Within the political culture of the thirties left as well as within mainstream American culture, the dynamo and the triumphs of technology had an honored place. In "Power"" Rukeyser counters this tendency with an intense, nuanced critique that draws energy from the Egyptian, Miltonic, and Marxist traditions. She goes into the depths, confronts death, the men killed in the widening of the tunnel, and, the light burned out, goes to the root and the core, the technology and the corporate capitalism, the diversion of power, and announces, "this is the end." Rukeyser is recording a moral and political judgment on the world of the powerhouse, on the diversion of power. Her concluding line has the force of "this should be and will be the end—a new, revolutionary world should follow." The religious and metaphysical associations of the Egyptian underworld and the Miltonic allusions deepen the moral and political implications but the sense of the "terminal," of "the end" is not in my judgment a pessimistic or despairing assertion of the finality of death.

Robert Shulman: On "Absalom"

In the next in a series of poems in which the workers and their families speak in their own words, in "Absalom" (pp. 27-30) the speaker is Mrs. Jones, another member of the defense committee and the mother not of one but of three sons who have died of silicosis. Her husband is dying and unable to work. Her language is straightforward and affecting:

Shirley was my youngest son; the boy.

He went into the tunnel.

    My heart    my mother    my heart     my mother

    My heart    my coming into being.

Rukeyser juxtaposes the mother's words with what becomes a lamentation as she moves to her poem Spell B of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Rukeyser focuses on the heart and the mother as integral to her political art. She also elides the promise of life ("my coming into being") with the mother's revelations about sickness and death, first of her three sons, culminating in Shirley, the Absalom of the poem, and then of her husband, in the immediately following line, "my husband is not able to work." This simple statement gains force from its juxtaposition and contrast of styles with the suggestive lamentation from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Is Shirley the lamenting voice of "my heart my mother"? Does he merge with the dead Egyptian whose heart "is weighed in the scales of the balance against the feather of righteousness"? For him is there a promise of life or an exposure of the suffering and death the company has caused—or both? Or are the "my" of "my heart" and "my husband" the same? Does the dead Egyptian merge with Mrs. Jones and compound the sense of social, economic, and political wrong? Or are we to keep all of these possibilities in mind? In any case, in the remainder of the poem Rukeyser continues to juxtapose Mrs. Charles Jones's testimony (Investigation, pp. 37-40) with fragments from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. This opening up of possibilities and a denial of closure is basic to Rukeyser's avant-garde political art in which she fuses documentary precision, powerful feeling, and a range of languages.

In the fullest sense Mrs. Jones cares for her son:

Shirley was sick about three months.

I would carry him from his bed to the table,

from his bed to the porch, in my arms.

    My heart is mine in the place of hearts,

    They gave me back my heart, it lies in me.

The quotations from the Egyptian The Book of the Dead center on the heart, the seat of feeling, humanity, and life. These connotations reinforce Mrs. Jones's humanity, intensify her sense of loss and, as she continues, expose what the doctors lack. Dr. Harless in particular refuses to X-ray the boys because "he did not know where his money was coming from." Mrs. Jones goes on,

I promised him half if he'd work to get compensation,

but even then he would not do anything.

I went on the road and begged the X-ray money,

the Charleston hospital made the lung pictures,

he took the case after the pictures were made.

Mrs. Jones adds Shirley's words and feelings to the account. When he dies he wants his mother to have him opened up to

"see if that dust killed me.

"Try to get compensation,

"you will not have any way of making your living

"when we are gone,

"and the rest are going too."

    I have gained mastery over my heart

    I have gained mastery over my two hands

    I have gained mastery over the waters

    I have gained mastery over the river.

The chant from The Book of the Dead amplifies and gives urgency to this narrative of suffering and loss. The positive note of "mastery over my heart," the sense of renewal, and the invocation of "the waters" and "the river," with their reference both to the river at Gauley Bridge and the waters and river of life—these positive associations also throw into ironic relief Mrs. Jones's narrative of legal manipulation, company power, and government hostility:

The case of my son was the first of the line of lawsuits.

They sent the lawyers down and the doctors down;

they closed the electric sockets in the camps.

As she continues the names of the dead resonate, as do the place names—"the whole valley is witness." In a compressed style Rukeyser has Mrs. Jones establish the role of the relief officials who refuse to mail checks so that

I hitchhike eighteen miles, they make checks out.

They asked me how I keep the cow on $2.

I said one week, feed for the cow, one week, the children's flour.

What gradually emerges is that after the doctors first called what the boys had pneumonia or "would pronounce it fever,"

Shirley asked that we try to find out.

That's how they learned what the trouble was.

From Shirley, who has opened out a way into the tragedy, Rukeyser segues to the last of the quotations from The Book of the Dead,

I open out a way, they have covered my sky with crystal

I come forth by day, I am born a second time,

I force a way through, and I know the gate

I shall journey over the earth among the living.

Rukeyser has previously associated crystal with the deadly silica, one of the multiple ironies her montage generates. In particular, in the context of Rukeyser's poem the traditional affirmation of rebirth has a specifically human and implicitly radical connotation, reinforced by the mother's concluding declaration:

He shall not be diminished, never;

I shall give a mouth to my son.

Robert Shulman: On "Gauley Bridge"

At the beginning of "Gauley Bridge" (pp. 16-17), by viewing the city from the point of view of the camera—"camera at the crossing sees the city"—Rukeyser reinforces the organizing idea of a series of documentary photographs. The scene is a familiar one from thirties documentaries,

a street of wooden walls and empty windows,

the doors shut handless in the empty street,

and the deserted Negro standing on the corner.

Rukeyser uses a stripped down style to focus on the harsh, empty details, emphasized by the twist of "deserted Negro, " not "deserted corner, " but doubly deserted, both as part of a desolate urban scene and as a black man in a West Virginia town.

Rukeyser meticulously uses the vantage point of the camera "fixed on the street" at the railway crossing to record what comes into view:

The little boy runs with his dog

up the street to the bridge over the river where

nine men are mending road for the government.

He blurs the camera-glass fixed on the street.

Rukeyser then turns the camera inside, to the hotel owner "keeping his books behind the public glass" and, behind the postoffice window,

a hive of private boxes,

the hand of the man who withdraws, the woman who reaches her hand

and the tall coughing man stamping an envelope.

To reinforce the sense of meticulous documentary notation, Rukeyser records the details inside the post office and bus station in a series of incomplete sentences. In this randomly observed scene a man coughing, the symptom of the fatal silicosis, is simply taken for granted as part of the flow of routine details.

After "the yellow-aproned waitress" in the bus station, in the next frame Rukeyser gives us

The man on the street and the camera eye;

he leaves the doctor's office, slammed door, doom,

any town looks like this one-street town.

In her self-reflexive use of documentary, for Rukeyser the camera eye, like the earlier rapids of the mind, is as much a part of the scene as the man on the street. In a context of precise physical notation, the phrase "the man on the street" records a physical presence but in a way that generalizes him into the representative "man on the street, " a connotation that contributes to the irony of "any town looks like this one-street town. " "Any town" may look like this town but this town is also special because of "the tall coughing man" and this "man on the street" who leaves the doctor's office, the "slammed door" and "doom" conveying a sense of emotional disturbance and finality, presumably for the same reason the man in the post office is coughing. Everything about the town of Gauley Bridge is ordinary and recognizable but slightly heightened because, whereas people everywhere get sick and die, in Gauley Bridge some of them suffer and die from silicosis.

Rukeyser continues to develop the simultaneously special and representative quality of Gauley Bridge by accumulating the common objects that, along with the coughing man and the man on the street, give this American place its precisely rendered look and meaning. "The naked eye" and the "camera" are again part of a scene that includes

Glass, wood. and naked eye: the movie-house

closed for the afternoon frames posters streaked with rain,

advertise "Racing Luck" and "Hitch-Hike Lady."

The figures who have peopled the earlier part of the poem or photograph reappear, familiar now as

Whistling. the train comes from a long way away,

slow, and the Negro watches it grow in the grey air,

the hotel man makes a note behind his potted palm.

The rain, the wish fulfillment movies, the "grey air, " and the approaching train

And in the beerplace on the other sidewalk

always one's harsh eyes over the beerglass

follow the waitress and the yellow apron—

"the yellow-aproned waitress" noted earlier in the bus station—these unglamorous, commonplace details are the backdrop for Rukeyser's concluding stanza:

What do you want—a cliff over a city?

A foreland, sloped to sea and overgrown with roses?

These people live here.

Abruptly, "what do you want"—the picturesque details of the conventional guide—book or landscape painting, a pretty, comforting scene, "a foreland, sloped to sea and overgrown with roses?" Instead, "the empty street, / and the deserted Negro, " the "posters streaked with rain, " the "red-and-white filling station" and, unremarkably, the coughing man and the man on the street: "these people live here, " in a place that has value and a claim on our attention because of them.

In "Gauley Bridge" Rukeyser brings alive a documentary aesthetics of precise observation and self-reflexive involvement. The language is stripped down, the sharply focused details are noted, and the reader or viewer is invited to fill in, as with the elliptical scene of the man on the street leaving the doctor's office. Rukeyser uses this aesthetic to render an American subject matter of the ordinary made luminous through accurate recording, understated revelation, and implied protest. The deserted Negro, the yellow-aproned waitress, the bus station, the "Racing Luck" and "Hitch-Hike Lady," the men dying of silicosis, the "one-street town," the railroad tracks and the whistling train, the "grey air" and the red-and white filling station, the "beerplace" and the underpass—all are familiar objects and characters in the iconography of the Popular Front, with its special attention to blacks, ordinary workers, and the abuses of capitalism. As she does throughout The Book of the Dead, in the political art of "Gauley Bridge" Rukeyser draws energy from, works within, and contributes to the political culture of the Popular Front.

Like the long poem it is an integral part of, "Gauley Bridge" derives part of its meaning from this cultural context. When the poem appeared in the April 1, 1939, issue of Scholastic, this context of Popular Front political culture did not have to be supplied but was alive as part of the general culture a magazine like Scholastic emerged from and transmitted. What is problematic, however, is how the poem fared removed from the context of The Book of the Dead. Dorothy Emerson, the editor of Scholastic's "Poetry Corner," intelligently addressed the problem any anthologist faces, how to make one or two poems from a long work accessible. She tactfully established that "Gauley Bridge" was part of The Book of the Dead, "a group of poems dealing with ‘the Gauley tragedy,’ in which several thousand workers toiled under such bad conditions that they died from having breathed in silica, fatal as fine glass-particles." She states that as one of these workers "the man leaving the doctor's office will die here, in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia." She also introduces the poem by way of "The Road," the camera, and the gaze of the tourist. But even with her helpful, sympathetic commentary, does "Gauley Bridge" by itself really convey the full implications of Rukeyser's documentary aesthetic and the organizing role of documentary photography as a vehicle of witnessing and of political exposure and protest? These questions also bear on the issue of the role of anthologies in making poems from the past available to contemporary readers. "Gauley Bridge" gains its full meaning and impact as part of a larger composition but The Book of the Dead is not a candidate for anthologizing. A group of representative poems—Rukeyser's for her Selected Poems or summaries like Dorothy Emerson’s—can nonetheless make a difference. To her credit, in her Rukeyser selection, Out of Silence: Selected Poems, Kate Daniels faces up to the problem by reprinting the entire Book of the Dead.

Robert Shulman: On "West Virginia"

In "West Virginia" Rukeyser takes the river and locale back to their colonial sources. This abrupt imaginative leap begins to fill in the history she started with John Marshall. At the start "they saw rivers flow west and hoped again." At first we do not know who "they" are but we soon understand that this hope for the sea is disappointed. The powerful rivers flowing west are nonetheless connected with the vital promise of America, an organizing motif Rukeyser reemphasizes at the end of "West Virginia" and at the end of The Book of the Dead. The "they" of the opening are "1671—Thomas Batts, Robert Fallam / Thomas Wood, the Indian Perecute, / and an unnamed indentured English servant." As part of her concern with the documentary, Rukeyser incorporates direct quotations from their journal to establish that they are mistaken in their belief that "WATERS, DESCENDING NATURALLY, DOE ALWAIES RESORT / UNTO THE SEAS INVIRONING THOSE LANDS."

Inseparable from this public language is the leap of personal association Rukeyser has with the "spilled water which the still pools fed. / Kanawha Falls, the rapids of the mind, / fast waters spilling west." Kanawha Falls is not only "the rapids of the mind" but also the site of the "New Kanawha Power Company, subsidiary of the Union Carbide and Carbon Company," the company responsible for those who "have from time to time died from silicosis contracted while employed in digging out a tunnel at Gauley Bridge, West Virginia." For Rukeyser, the rapids of the mind, the as-yet-unmentioned New Kanawha Power Compy, and the history she immediately returns to are all interconnected. Her version of the documentary, that is, includes the poet's mind as well as "the battle at Point Pleasant, Cornstalk's tribes, / last stand, Fort Henry, a revolution won."

As she moves from the American Revolution to the Civil War, in her version of the documentary Rukeyser also experiments with verbal montage:

the granite SITE OF THE precursor EXECUTION

sabres, apostles OF JOHN BROWN LEADER OF THE

War's brilliant cloudy RAID AT HARPERS FERRY.

Instead of a linear quotation of the inscription on the granite monument to John Brown, Rukeyser breaks up the inscription and intersperses notation words that signal the coming of the Civil War ("precursor," "sabres"), so that John Brown and his sabres emerge as precursors and apostles of the war, even as the "brilliant cloudy RAID" merges with the "brilliant cloudy" war. The symbolic weather of the raid and war merge with "floods, heavy wind this spring," perhaps the present of the poem merging with the immediacy of the past as Rukeyser sketches the separation of West Virginia from Virginia in the Civil War and then "troops / here in Gauley Bridge, Union headquarters, lines / bring in the military telegraph. / Wires over the gash of gorge and height of pine." In a context filled with merging and principled conflict, for Rukeyser John Brown deserves the special attention her montage encourages the reader to give him. As a militant rebel John Brown is a historical precursor not only of the war but also of a radical response to the deaths at Gauley Bridge. In The Book of the Dead Rukeyser returns to John Brown to body forth her revolutionary affirmation at the climax of "The Bill" (p. 65) and later in her 1940 poem, "The Soul and Body of John Brown."

In "West Virginia" Rukeyser shifts back to her protagonist, "the water / the power flying deep / green rivers cut the rock / rapids boiled down, / a scene of power." This boiling natural power looks ahead to the electric, corporate, governmental, and radical power Rukeyser deals with later in The Book of the Dead. A forecast is the enigmatic stanza,

Done by the dead.

Discovery learned it.

And the living?

The phrase "done by the dead" may complete the immediately preceding "a scene of power," referring elliptically to the workers who drilled the power tunnel.

In response to the question "and the living?" Rukeyser concludes "West Virginia" with another of her quiet, understated, suggestive endings:

Live country filling west,

knotted the glassy rivers;

like valleys, opening mines,

coming to life.

In the phrase "live country filling west," Rukeyser plays off the living and the living country against the dead and reinforces her opening imagery of rivers flowing west, of simultaneous disappointment and the American Dream, the hope connected with the power of life-giving water "filling west." The "live country" "knotted," perhaps dammed, "the glassy rivers," which are "glassy" because of the silica that will cause painful deaths. In her elliptical style Rukeyser sketches a West Virginia, valleys, opening mines, "coming to life." The affirmation of life is inseparable from the recognition of death, not as a metaphysical or religious abstraction but as a result of a misuse of the "power" of the "glassy rivers."

Robert Shulman: On "Come to the Waldor-Astoria"

Several contexts animate "Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria," another of the poems Hughes wrote during the fall of 1931. He published it in New Masses in December, so that the "CHRISTMAS CARD" ending is, like "Merry Christmas," seasonal. Another occasion for the poem is that, two years into the depression and in the midst of the fight to save the Scottsboro Boys, Hughes read a two-page advertisement in Vanity Fair, the most elegant magazine in America. Along with ads for luxury cars, furs, and expensive clothing--the depression did not exist in the world of Vanity Fair--Hughes encountered an advertisement announcing the opening of the new Waldorf-Astoria "where," as Hughes noted, "no Negroes worked and none were admitted as guests." In his poem, in place of the bold-faced headings in the ad--"PRIVACY," "FREEDOM FROM RESPONSIBILITY," "MODERN CONVENIENCES"--Hughes substitutes such headings as "LISTEN, HUNGRY ONES," "EVICTED FAMILIES," and "NEGROES."

In a prose format like the ad's, Hughes opens up the absurdities and contrasts between his down-and-outers and the luxury of the rich in their new hotel. His approach is to parody the ad, sometimes by using a left language, sometimes an idiomatic language instead of Vanity Fair formality and by directing his flophouse clientele to take advantage of the amenities the hotel provides, to "ankle on down to 49th Street at Park Avenue." Hughes summarizes the "PRIVATE ENTERTAINING" and "PUBLIC FUNCTIONS" the ad describes by intoning of the Waldorf,

    It will be a distinguished background for society.

So, when you've got no place to go, homeless and hungry ones, choose the

    Waldorf as a background for your rags--

(Or do you still consider the subway after midnight good enough?)

Under the heading, "ROOMERS," "take a room at the new Waldorf," he advises them, "sleepers in charity's flop-houses where God pulls a long face, and you have to pray to get a bed."

For their edification Hughes reprints a luncheon menu of "GUMBO CREOLE CRABMEAT IN CASSOLETTE / BOILED BRISKET OF BEEF / SMALL ONIONS IN CREAM / WATERCRESS SALAD / PEACH MELBA." Then he adds, "Have luncheon there this afternoon, all you jobless. Why not?" To provide an answer, Hughes departs from his dominant tone of high-spirited satiric indignation. He reanimates the left imagery of hands, some cutting coupons while others, exploited by the rich, do hard manual labor. Parodying the ad writer's invitation, Hughes tells his people, "dine with some of the men and women who got rich off of your labor" and then in the emotionally charged, pile-driver rhythms and imagery of left discourse he adds,

    who clip coupons with clean white fingers because your 

    hands dug coal, drilled stone, sewed garments, poured 

    steel to let other people draw dividends and live easy. 

(Or haven't you had enough yet of the soup-lines and the bitter bread of 


Walk through Peacock Alley tonight before dinner, and get warm, anyway.

    You've got nothing else to do.

In one of his most irreverent sections, under the heading "NEGROES" Hughes shifts from the language of left social protest to the language of black vernacular, a language especially incongruous in the upper-class white world of the Waldorf and Vanity Fair. "Oh, Lawd, I done forgot Harlem!" Hughes breaks in, using "I" for the first time. Then, in the perfectly rendered idiom of the street, Hughes goes on to contrast the reality of hunger on 135th Street with

the swell music they got at the Waldorf-Astoria. It sure is a mighty nice place to shake hips in, too. There's dancing after supper in a big warm room. It's cold as hell on Lenox Avenue. All you've had all day is a cup of coffee. Your pawnshop overcoat's a ragged banner on your hungry frame.

Does the last line heighten the emotional impact not only through the contrast between ease and pawnshop poverty but also through the reinforcing contrast between the street idiom of "shake hips" and " cold as hell" and the more formal, literary metaphor, "a ragged banner on your hungry frame"? Hughes often achieves his effects by juxtaposing contrasting languages, although readers unsympathetic to his literary and political project may respond negatively to the slight elevation of the metaphor of the pawnshop overcoat as "a ragged banner on your hungry frame."

In any case, in the pages of New Masses, writing explicitly to "you colored folks" within the poem but also to a radical white reading audience, Hughes goes on to subvert the upper-class fascination with things Negro. "You know," he writes, "downtown folks are just crazy about Paul Robeson! Maybe they'll like you, too, black mob from Harlem." Of course. Through the comic and slightly ominous incongruity of the "black mob," Hughes deconstructs the 1920s cult of Harlem, "When the Negro Was in Vogue," as he phrased it in a chapter heading of his autobiography, The Big Sea. Hughes cuts even deeper when he invites his "black mob" to

Drop in at the Waldorf this afternoon for tea. Stay to dinner. Give Park Avenue a lot of darkie color--free for nothing! Ask the Junior Leaguers to sing a spiritual for you. They probably know' em better than you do--and their lips won't be so chapped with cold after they step out of their closed cars in the undercover driveways. Hallelujah! Undercover driveways! Ma soul's a witness for de Waldorf-Astoria!

At his most acute, Hughes enters taboo territory and deflates the mix of class privilege and racial condescension at the heart of society's affair with the Negro. At the end he perfectly uses black vernacular to diminish those symbols of class and racial inequity, the underground driveways and the Waldorf itself. In the process, Hughes undercuts the religiously tinged Uncle Tom language he himself turns into a vehicle of hard-hitting comic protest.

In the "CHRISTMAS CARD" that ends the poem, Hughes intensifies his irreverent religious satire. Looking ahead to "Goodbye, Christ" and back to "Christ in Alabama," "Merry Christmas," and "A Christian Country," Hughes exuberantly, provocatively sends his radical greetings:


The censors who a decade later hounded Hughes because of "Goodbye, Christ" somehow overlooked the ending of "Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria." In "CHRISTMAS CARD" Hughes's cultural politics are as radical as his politics. In presenting Mary as a "little girl--turned whore / because her belly was too hungry to stand it anymore," Hughes vividly connects depression hunger and poverty and that of the Holy Family. He does so with a blasphemy--Mary as whore--that he compounds in relating the immaculateness of the Immaculate Conception to the clean bed Mary needs and the manger of the Waldorf can supply. Hughes's radical politics reinforce and are reinforced by his irreverent cultural politics. The brash announcement that "the new Christ child of the Revolution's about to be born," the injunction "kick hard, red baby, in the bitter womb of the mob," and the final imperative, "listen Mary, Mother of God, wrap your new born babe in the red flag of Revolution" are examples of the radical spirit of 1931, hopeful, optimistic, unintimidated. In "CHRISTMAS CARD" and "Goodbye, Christ," Hughes handles communism as the new religion with more verve and idiomatic force than anyone in the decade.

In "Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria" Hughes is also one of the pioneering left poets who incorporated and put to unconventional uses the language of the media--advertising, in this case, the documentary in Muriel Rukeyser's, the movies in Kenneth Fearing's. These poets engaged and tapped into the energy of influential "low" forms and turned them from their prevailingly commercial to left uses. As with the black vernacular and jazz rhythms and improvisation that animate his work, Hughes as much as any modernist delights in "low" forms typically excluded from the "high" art of traditional poetry. They contribute to the immediacy, energy, and accessibility of his work, reinforced in the New Masses by the drawings that frame "Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria." The drawings are fanciful satiric line sketches of limousines, upper-class dowagers and top-hatted gentlemen, and decadent partygoers above a panorama of grim-faced working people.

From The Power of Political Art: The 1930s Literary Left Reconsidered. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by The University of North Carolina Press.

Robert Shulman: On "White Shadows"

The concluding grim recognition emerges from the interplay of racial-political realities and physical impossibilities. "In the world" of racial and political experience, white shadows are everywhere, although "in the world" of physical experience white shadows do not exist. Hughes's imagery moves us back and forth endlessly between physical and racial-political realities, between the world of physics and the world of power. The white shadows that do not exist are at the same time ominous and omnipresent. The spare form answers to and underscores the elemental, inescapable presence of "white shadows" in an unsparing racial landscape.

The speaker is looking for a shelter someplace in the world "where white shadows / Will not fall." The sense of inescapable white power dominating the entire world, including the world of the speaker and the Dark Brother, shows the impact of Hughes's trip to Haiti in spring 1931. One of his essays about the trip is titled "White Shadows in a Black Land." In it Hughes uses his own observation to document specifically who has the power in Haiti. The U.S. Marines are everywhere. The cafés are filled with the "cracker" accents of the Marines, "drinking in the usual boisterous American manner." Beyond the military, "you will discover," Hughes continues, his eye on the other kind of control that counts, "that the Banque d'Haiti with its Negro cashiers and tellers, is really under control of the National City Bank of New York. You will be informed," he goes on, still concentrating on power and money, "that all the money collected by the Haitian customs passes through the hands of an American comptroller. And regretfully, you will gradually learn that most of the larger stores with their colored clerks are really owned by Frenchmen, Germans, or Assyrian Jews. And if you read the Haitian newspapers, you will soon realize from the heated complaints there, that even in the Chamber of Deputies, the strings of government are pulled by white politicians in far-off Washington--and that the American marines are kept in the country through an illegal treaty thrust on Haiti by force and never yet ratified by the United States Senate. The dark-skinned little Republic," Hughes concludes, "has its hair caught in the white fingers of unsympathetic foreigners, and the Haitian people live today under a sort of military dictatorship backed by American guns. They are not free."

In "White Shadows," as in a politically and racially charged Cubist landscape, Hughes eliminates the particular details and concentrates on the basic power relations and his grim response to them. The Dark Brother of the poem is not only African American but also Haitian and Cuban. He is also a much less hopeful version of "the darker brother" of Hughes's critical and affirmative "I Too Sing America." In "White Shadows" Hughes illuminates the racial impact of the same kind of world-ranging imperialism he had satirized in "Merry Christmas." The extremity of his vision in "White Shadows" is an index of his sense of the power and consequences of American and capitalistic might "in the world." Unlike such works as "Scottsboro Limited," "Tired," and "Union," in "White Shadows" Hughes does not modify his powerful negative criticism with the affirmative promise that black and white workers will make a revolutionary new world.

For readers in the present, Haiti still exists. Hughes's "White Shadows," "White Shadows in a Black Land," and "People without Shoes" take us back to an earlier period of American involvement. The dominance Hughes highlights underlies the current situation even as we have almost totally erased the earlier history from public discourse, so that "White Shadows" and "White Shadows in a Black Land" are involved in both a political and cultural suppression.

From The Power of Political Art: The 1930s Literary Left Reconsidered. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by The University of North Carolina Press.

Robert Shulman: On "Justice"

Hughes put together four of his Scottsboro poems and the verse play in a booklet, Scottsboro Limited, to raise money for the Scottsboro Defense Fund. The copy I used in the Berkeley library is inscribed to another political prisoner, Tom Mooney, the radical who had probably been framed, who had been imprisoned since 1916 for allegedly bombing the Los Angeles Times, and who was the object of repeated "Free Tom Mooney" campaigns. The copy is signed "Langston Hughes."

The collection opens with a four-line poem, "Justice" . . . .

The surface is moderate as Hughes quietly subverts the commonplace about Justice as a blind goddess impartially adjudicating. Instead, "we black[s] are wise" to exactly how blind justice is. Unlike "Letter to the Academy," where the "we" are those in the revolutionary new movement, in "Justice" race is central. Even the apparent typo, "black" instead of "blacks," emphasizes race. Some of Hughes's feelings about southern justice Scottsboro style emerge in the powerful image of the "two festering sores / that once perhaps were eyes." The qualification, "perhaps," opens up an endless prospect of disease, a connotation Hughes underscores in his view of "Dixie justice blind and syphilitic." This prose gloss on the central images of the "blind goddess" and the "festering sores" is from Hughes's Scottsboro essay, "Southern Gentlemen, White Prostitutes, Mill Owners and Negroes," which he wrote at the same time as the republication of "Justice." In the context of Scottsboro is there a subtext in "Justice," a sense that the goddess is not only blind but also white, a white woman with festering syphilitic sores? Has Hughes applied to the deified southern white woman or at least to white justice the stigmata of two of the accused, blindness and syphilis?

For me, "Justice" loses some of its disturbing, subversive power when it is removed from the context of the animating passions and particulars of the Scottsboro case. When Hughes reprinted "Justice" in A New Song, published by the International Workers Order (IWO) in 1938, he did not mention Scottsboro. He did not even connect the poem with Tom Mooney, whose experience deepens the poem, although two pages later Hughes did include his "Chant for Tom Mooney." He also shifted the emphasis from race to class by changing one word: "black" becomes "poor" in A New Song. In the process, we lose the subtext of blind, syphilitic Dixie justice and the specific resonances of Scottsboro, a major instance inspiring and validating the vision of the poem.

"Justice" could usefully be taught along with a group of Hughes's radical poems. This conveniently short, deceptively moderate poem raises the key issue of the importance of historical-political context, of language and energy streaming in from events and circumstances, to paraphrase Josephine Herbst. Scottsboro, the particular historical-political event, is a significant part of what for most students is still the suppressed history of America. In the context of Scottsboro and its suppression, the title, "Justice," invites a complex response. More technically, reading "Justice" in A New Song as part of the sequence "Let America Be America Again" (the 1938, not the usually anthologized version), "Justice," and "Park Bench," gives us a significantly different poem than the one in Scottsboro Limited. Working with the two versions raises the general issues of textual reliability ("black"/ "blacks"?) and textual change (from "black" to "poor") and the particular issue of why or to what effect Hughes made the change. In Hughes's case these technical matters are inseparable from the dynamics of the shifting relations of race and class in 1930s left politics generally and the Popular Front in particular. We will return to these concerns when we look more closely at A New Song.

"Justice" poses still another interpretive issue, because Hughes first published it in 1923 and thus originally Scottsboro was not involved in the meaning of the poem. Placed in its new context in Scottsboro Limited, however, is "Justice" open to the interpretation I have been suggesting or do we ignore the redefinition Scottsboro makes available? How fixed is the meaning of the poem? How do we deal with the different historical contexts, 1923, 1931, 1938? And what role does the interpreter play?

From The Power of Political Art: The 1930s Literary Left Reconsidered. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by The University of North Carolina Press.