February 8, 2012
Langston Hughes never went to Black Mountain College, but maybe he didn’t need to.
1948-49 was emblematic. A no doubt incomplete list of what happened during those months: in June 1948, Langston Hughes moved into 20 East 127th Street, a townhouse in Harlem he was able to buy using the money received from his collaboration with Kurt Weill on Street Scene. Troubled Island, his own opera about Haiti – with music by William Grant Still – opened at the City Center, New York on March 30, 1949. Also that year, the anthology that he coedited with Arno Bontemps, The Poetry of the Negro, 1756-1949, came out, as did Cuba Libre, a translation of Nicolas Guillen’s poetry, jointly done with Ben Frederic Carruthers. Meanwhile, his latest volume of poetry, One-Way Ticket, also came out, with drawings by Jacob Lawrence.
Black Mountain College turned out to be in the picture after all. Cross-media and cross-genre collaboration was the rule rather than the exception for Hughes. How to adjudicate among the claims of the linguistic, the visual, and the auditory? The answer isn’t at all self-evident. One-Way Ticket is a case in point. The volume, published by Knopf, has a hand-made look. That visual register is further highlighted by Lawrence’s illustrations, starkly abstracted and perhaps left deliberately sketchy. Of the six illustrations, five adopt the titles of the poems, while operating at some remove from the thematic contents. One doesn’t even do that. This one, “Home in a Box” (the title is apparently Lawrence’s) comes after the poem “Deceased,” where Hughes writes: “Harlem/ Sent him home/ In a long box – / Too dead/ To know why:/ The licker/ was lye” – offering a fairly clear and straightforward explanation for the death. Lawrence’s image, on the other hand, does nothing of the sort. We simply see a funeral procession wrapped around three sides of the drawing, with the dead man horizontal in the foreground, the cause of death not assigned. For me, the visual medium here actually seems to be doing what is usually written over to the linguistic side: it is more complex, more enigmatic, more evocative. Is “illustration” still the right word?