Laurence Bashford Performing American Literature Prof. Wai Chee Dimock Final Project & Reflection Spring 2017
Selected Poems of Langston Hughes: An Interactive Edition
“So Long!” to “Hold On!”: Whitmanian Dreaming & African American Imaginaries
“It is my hope to create a performative and interactive literary project that brings these two poets and their writings to life in dialogue with one another across the centuries. I envision this would take the form of firstly a close-analysis document that uses digital humanities technology to annotate and track the path of poetic influence on a line-by-line basis across both poets’ collated works, drawing primarily on selections from the 1860 Leaves of Grass edition, and Hughes’ 1960 Selected Poems.” – Proposal (03.06.2017)
While my initial designs for this semester’s project had been ambitious beyond the realms of true practicality, I have chosen to highlight this central goal from my earlier proposal as the standard to hold my final-produced digital humanities platform by –– and which I am pleased to say I feel as though I have more or less accomplished, with a couple of key clarifications. The ultimate challenge of technological limitations was bound to limit the flexibility of my capacity to have total free rein over how the project I first imagined could be physically created, and I assigned myself a set of objectives without knowing what tools I would be using to try to carry them out, making it very difficult to accurately imagine the problems that would manifest themselves along the road to completion. Fortunately however, once the foundational basis of research and annotation was complete, I had the bulk of the information necessary for assembling a useful archive surrounding the works of Whitman and Hughes, in addition to producing my own critical commentary to synthesise a more effective reading of the two. The only factor left to-be-determined then was the presentation and ergonomic experience of accessing this information, and how it might best be aesthetically formatted to be most conducive to study of Langston Hughes’ poetry, and tracing the line of his literary heritage back to the handful of Whitman’s key most influential poems from his 1860 Leaves of Grass.
Overview of Project’s Achievements:
I think this image of the internal workings of my project’s program shows aptly the extent to which I have managed to highlight the intertextuality and overarching themes that unite the poem’s selected from the works of Langston Hughes, with a particular view towards his personal and literary relationship with the father of American poetry, Walt Whitman, whose first major published collection Leaves of Grass preceded Hughes’ by almost exactly one century.
As it stands, my current published project successfully achieves what it set out to do. The textual document is performative and interactive, allowing readers and scholars to engage critically and actively with the text, following specific threads of thought, theme, and technique to discover a variety of perspectives on the comparative works of these two poets in dialogue. This is likewise one of the central accomplishments of this piece, in that it allows for a guided reading experience directly from one poet, Hughes, to the his predecessor Whitman, allowing any curious reader a glimpse into the poetic developments and processes of Hughes as he composed his own literary legacy.
The crucial technique of adding hyperlinks and colour-coded highlights to individual words that the Twine program affords, and the creation of a series of linked pages offering multiple layers of new information was also immensely useful for enabling me to track the thematic and verbal preoccupations and influences of Langston Hughes on a line-by-line basis. Similarly, the efficiency of highlighting several key words or phrases across the course of one or more poems, and linking them to a unified separate page discussing the emblematic theme or source material to which they can be linked was crucial for establishing the holistic basis of delving into Langston Hughes’ poetic works.
Another area that I touched upon in my initial proposal was the compilation of critical commentaries and the wealth of extant scholarship on Langston Hughes, and his relationship to Walt Whitman. Ed Folsom’s essay, ‘So Long, So Long! Whitman, Hughes, and the Art of Longing’ in Walt Whitman, Where the Future Becomes Present (2008) was far and away the most useful resource in this regard, spanning a breadth of works by each poet and elaborating on their common historical contexts and literary developments. This pivotal essay became the focal point of my initial structuring of the project, as it directed me towards which central poems I should select as the basis of my investigative research. It is also an incredibly well sourced essay for such a short piece, and directed me towards several other leading scholars who have discussed not merely one or the other of Langston Hughes or Walt Whitman, but specifically the interaction and overlap of the oeuvres of both poets; the most notable of which being George B. Hutchinson. However, from this I even still pushed myself to track down more academic perspectives on Hughes’ poetry in particular, as a tool for fleshing out the varying interpretations of his extensive body of poetry. I think my project is all the richer for this additional resource, and its primary strength as a digital humanities project lies in the new collation and examination of material that is too often viewed as disparate fields of enquiry: either Whitman, or Hughes, but too rarely both together, and too rarely coupled with detailed annotated responses and historical contextualisation of these landmark works in modern American literature.
Areas for Extension
When handling the works of poets as prolific as Whitman and Hughes, the most difficult decisions to negotiate are always the editorial ones: which poems to include, which to refer to in passing, and which to delve into in detailed line-by-line depth. Consequently, I would say that if this project were to continue being added to and compiled, the primary area for extension would be that of its scope. Hypothetically, this project could have encompassed and broken down every single poem included in Langston Hughes’ 1959 Selected Poems publication. The only limiting factor was the timescale of this course and the academic semester, and also the unwieldy bulk of information that would have followed, as I tracked down the countless allusions made by Hughes, and made to Hughes in contemporary scholarship.
In curating the focus of this digital humanities project however, I decided that consistency was the crucial factor here for efficacy and ease of use. It would not do to delve into one poem in drastically greater depth than another; nor would it be appropriate to unbalance the project by approaching it clumsily from two conflicting perspectives. This is why I chose in this preliminary version to centre the works of Langston Hughes, rather than paying completely equal regard to both Hughes and Walt Whitman from the entry window of the Table of Contents, as I had first thought to when I initially conceived of the project. Given how truly vast Whitman’s poetry is, all too soon it became abundantly clear that if I were to attempt a word-by-word breakdown of his poetry in linking it to Langston Hughes’ own as a secondary perspective, I would not only be working right the way to the start of next year, but above all I would be grasping at straws, and treating the poetry anachronistically. Obviously, not every Whitmanian image can be thought of in connection to Hughes, as Whitman lived several decades before Hughes was even born. This made Langston Hughes the much more intuitive starting point, not only as a researcher, but as a reader accessing the information compiled within the project.
That said, I think the next step for this piece would be to take the Whitman poems that Hughes explicitly references in his own, and provide a complimentary pathway through the digital project that allows you to start from either perspective. The completion of an accompanying Whitman half to the project was beyond by reach of feasibility, but would be the final piece that would truly place the two in direct dialogue with one another, as Hughes had intended. This could moreover be supplemented with extra selections from the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass that thematically compliment the preoccupations of both Whitman and Hughes in literary and historical terms, even if they do not directly correspond to a particular allusion made by Hughes; for example, I Sing the Body Electric. However, given the circumstances, I think my approach of a literary journey back through time is the most lucid for use in a prototype digital archive of this nature.
The primary shortcoming I encountered in the production of this online resource was that it was perhaps in some ways too effective at targeting one of its earlier elaborated goals: the line-by-line analysis and annotation of poems. While the program that I ended up using was very well suited to such breakaway commentaries and developing offshoot trains of critical thought, it was much more difficult then to redirect the avenues of investigation towards the overarching structural parallels shared by both Whitman and Hughes as they oversaw the publication of their collected bodies of poetry, in 1860 and 1959 respectively. As I identified in my initial project proposal, both Whitman and Hughes are distinct for their employment of thematic clusters of poems, which are grouped in such a way as to evoke clear moods, tones, and images that resonate uniquely with the transcendent concerns of their poetry. My best effort to acknowledge this can be seen by following the pathways of “Montage of a Dream Deferred”, and “Words Like Freedom” – here, I created pages dedicated to examining the implications of these titles, and how they find their basis in the same Whitmanian cluster technique I have just described. The ability to truly compare the structural basis and how this reflects the concerns of each poet respectively remains elusive; probably because this requires a broader approach to reading than a close-analysis document can provide.
Moreover, in some ways the structural limitations of the Twine software itself could also be pinpointed as areas that would warrant fine-tuning if this project were to be continued or expanded. For instance, the limited options available in colour-coding, which I partially chose to keep as such in an allusion to the American flag and thematic mood of the poetry displayed, could certainly benefit from an expansion of options. There should be a better way of clarifying where any particular hyperlink might lead; and the project would most certainly benefit from improved navigational tools such that readers have greater flexibility in accessing the information and knowing how to move through the series of compiled and curated texts presented through the platform.
For example, when testing the project with peers within this course, it often took some time before new users identified the Forward and Backward arrows that seem to be camouflaged in the top left. Had I possessed the technical wherewithal to adjust these and render them more visible, I certainly would have done so. I think the solution would be the addition of something like a tool bar or control panel that remains constantly accessible to users of the page, such that more calculated leaps and revisitations to particular sources of material throughout the database could be made according to the particular needs of the individual reader.
In my mind, in order to hypothetically take this project to the next stage of its overall development, would require two steps. The first, as outlined above, would be the full extension of its content material, to encompass the vast swathes of published works that Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman produced over the course of their respective lifetimes. This alone would require a monumental amount of effort; but the results would certainly be unparalleled for their use in illuminating this avenue of the development of American literary culture, as the course of history forged its path towards the pinnacle of the Harlem Renaissance of which Langston Hughes was one of the foremost pioneers. With this accumulation of content however, or perhaps even before it would necessarily come a total overhaul of the platform technology, both from the point of view of the researcher/archivist, and equally from that of the online user and prospective reader of the works of Hughes and Whitman in dialogue.
The only way of achieving this that I can bring to mind would be the creation of a custom-built, standalone website whose layout and functionality was programmed specifically to maximise the ease of accessibility of this compiled treasure trove of literary information. The example that comes to mind as the basis for such an enterprise is the online Walt Whitman Archive, which in fact I relied upon heavily over the course of my research for the production of this project, as it is one of the easiest to use and most reliable repositories of the earlier published editions of Walt Whitman’s poetry, which was essential in examining the two poets for their historical significance and relationship: both poised a century apart, both in times in American history that lie on the brink of national turmoil and civil unrest. The website would be able to effectively host the database of poems, with increased capacity for adding marginalia and cutaways, or dialogue boxes that allow for the multiple layers of research, and thus a fusion of the two distinct diegetic levels of source material and subsequent inspiration, which should truly realise the goal of creating a coherent, overlapping narrative with the two writers and their works in dialogue.
A custom-built platform of this kind would also enable the expansion of the kind of content that could be included in the database. For instance, Twine was significantly limiting in that it could only contain textual information – no pictures, music, or audio-visual enhancements of any kind were supported in the software’s codebase. With a transition into a new platform, the possibility for a full multimedia exploration of the lives and works of Hughes and Whitman opens itself up within reach; from where they lived and worked, to the travels they undertook, and the iconic images that found their way into the language of their poems. The possibilities for compiling relevant archival materials are truly endless – and in my mind, the ideal end result would almost resemble an online museum exhibition of the two poets; transcending not only the century of time between them, and the unjust shortcomings of the United States in their respective lifetimes; but also, all physical constraints on their poetry and output, that might have ever limited their readership and appreciation in the annals of American cultural history.