I Wonder as I Wander: An Autobiographical Journey

I Wonder as I Wander: An Autobiographical Journey

by Langston Hughes

In I Wonder as I Wander, Langston Hughes vividly recalls the most dramatic and intimate moments of his life in the turbulent 1930s.His wanderlust leads him to Cuba, Haiti, Russia, Soviet Central Asia, Japan, Spain (during its Civil War), through dictatorships, wars, revolutions. He meets and brings to life the famous and the humble, from Arthur Koestler to Emma, the Black Mammy of Moscow. It is the continuously amusing, wise revelation of an American writer journeying around the often strange and always exciting world he loves.

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In Hughes' memoir, I read as he observed how art in the form of theatre, dance, writing, folklore, music, and graphics helped snap portraits of the world during a time of social change. The exposed brick beauty of those Harlem apartments interior that you read about in works from the Harlem Renaissance writers, are now modernized high-end properties, their unique historical frameworks still poetic portraits. I read this to learn from the man whose works is often relegated to America and the race lines, but one who is in fact world-rounded; one who, like Hemingway of his time, traveled the world, from Africa to Asia (Soviet Asia), the Caribbean to Europe, from where he wrote numerous articles, stories, plays, poems, and reportage.

The autobiography focused on Hughes thoughts and experiences while travelling around the world during the 1930s, and how his travels shaped his craft and personal philosophy. I learned some fascinating information about the world and also about Hughes, the most interesting was perhaps that he was quite good friends with Alfred Koestler, whom he travelled with. He met the most interesting people there and also considered the parallels between the blacks in the racist American South and the Uzbeks who were downtrodden members of the Soviet Union.

He, the manager, who was also a lawyer, would be glad to introduce us to his friends with whom, he was sure, we would have much more in common. But he got up and went away shaking his head." ---------- "Concerning the nice girls of the town, there was a very sad story going the rounds of Madrid that year. Rather than be raped, many of the good girls of Madrid decided to give themselves to their sweethearts the gallant young men who expected to die anyway, within a few days, in defence of the city. Then, even in the eyes of their own lovers, thousands of the nice girls of Madrid, since they were no longer virgins, were held in contempt."

Near the end of this 1954 account of his world travels from 1931 through 1937, Langston Hughes writes: I remembered once during my childhood in Kansas my grandmother had given me an apple that had been bruised and so had a brown spot on it. Bit that speck out and eat that apple, son. That the way the world is, I thought, if you bite the specks out, its still a good apple. Lanston Hughes travels jubilantly, and describes but distances himself from the specks. He goes to Mexico to settle the estate of his dead father, to Cuba and Haiti for the experience, through the south on a reading tour of universities, to Moscow on a doomed motion picture project, to central Asia as a journalist, across China on his way home, to Japan where he is ejected under political suspicion, and lastly to Spain to cover the Civil War. Sometimes he basks in the hospitality of wealthy friends, mostly he is barely able to pay for a hotel room and food. He had just been to Cuba and Haiti, where he saw the effects of American capitalism and imperialism. But he was writing the book just as the McCarthy hearings were climaxing or ending, so one has to read this as the book of someone who had testified but not defied McCarthy; Hughes was criticized for being almost cooperative.

(Japan and China were at war at the time.) Back to California where a friend loaned him a house to live in for a year so Hughes could write. But a friend kept pointing out that the people who disagreed with the new Soviet order of things were either dead or in prison. I am sorry not to read more of his own words about that life, but I am very glad that I have these two volumes in my library, and I am looking forward immensely to reading Short Stories of Langston Hughes, which I ordered a day or so ago, and I will be on the lookout for his poetry books as well.

Hughes notes the shortcomings and even the crimes of the new regime, yet his experience as a Negro in Jim Crow America gives him a more immediate appreciation for the praiseworthy aspects of the new ideology: Koestler and Grasdani both had told me that the jails of Tashkent were full of political prisoners. But I could not bring myself to believe, as Grasdani did, that life was not better for most people now than it had been in the days of the Volga boatmen, the Asiatic serfs and the Jim Crow signs. Hughes saw the world at a unique point in human historywith Communism at its most promising, Fascism on the rise, Imperialism reaching its tentacles everywhere, and Jim Crow clicking along apparently unimpeded.

Langston Hughes autobiography from the years 1931 through New Years Day 1938 covers his early years as a professional writer during the Great Depression, in which he travels extensively and observes practices and politics as well as the status of black people throughout the world. Next, Hughes tours the USSR with a group of blacks hired to make a movie that is a Communist spin on race relations in the US. Written by an Austrian, the script is flawed and will not make a plausible movie, and the northern-educated actors have little interest in enacting in the Negro spiritual musical score, little talent in singing and dancing, and indeed little acting experience. They travel freely and enjoy theater, music, and other cultural experiences without limits, as they cannot do in the US. Eventually, Hughes spends quite a bit of time in Uzbekistan and its surrounds, and writes a fascinating account of his friends and cultures of various ethnic groups in this region. Hughes then tours Japan and China, and experiences a polite but firm interrogation by the Japanese police.

It is yet another demonstration (as if one were needed) that books often are have all of the advantages of conversing with the most interesting person you've ever met, with none of the drawbacks. For example Advantage: the poet has been to more interesting places, at more interesting times, than you or I will ever to be able to experience personally, and yet can convey the atmosphere concisely and with a self-deprecating good humor. (If you are me, you are already in bed when reading.) Now that the poetry of Langston Hughes is being weaponized as a small part of the current unpleasantness in the United States, it is interesting to look back on the poet's experience. In addition to a long and often surprisingly comic visit to Stalinist Soviet Union, and a less comic visit to the Jim Crow south, Hughes seems to have spent a little bit of time everywhere, met a load of interesting people, collected telling anecdotes and observations, and gave the impression of having a high old time at every moment.