Kerry's Lit Crit
The soon-to-be nominee sanitizes a Stalinist poem.
Last month, Chatterbox urged John Kerry to drop the campaign slogan, "Let America be America again." Instead, Kerry has wrapped his arms more tightly around the slogan's regrettable source. As Chatterbox noted in the earlier column, "Let America be America again" comes from a poem published in 1938 by the Harlem renaissance poet Langston Hughes. But Hughes intended the line ironically. A black man living in the pre-civil rights era would have had to be insane to look back to a golden age of freedom and equality in America, and Hughes was not insane. Hughes was, rather, an enthusiastic cheerleader for the Soviet Union at the time he wrote "Let America Be America Again," which explains the poem's agitprop tone. "I am the young man, full of strength and hope," Hughes writes in the poem:
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold!
Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!
Toil good, private ownership bad, etc. Hughes ends his poem on a more hopeful note ("America never was America to me/ And yet I swear this oath—/ America will be!"), but the future Hughes imagined for America when he wrote those words probably looked a lot like Stalinist Russia.
Chatterbox brings all this up not to bash Hughes—who was hardly the only serious artist who swooned over the Soviet experiment during the 1930s and who resumed writing memorable poetry after his fever broke—but to warn Kerry that this particular Hughes poem comes with baggage he would best do without. But like an overeager bellhop, Kerry has grabbed that suitcase with both hands and charged heedlessly up the grand staircase. He has written (or allowed to be written under his name) the preface to a thin volume titled Let America Be America Again, which includes that poem along with eight other (much better) Hughes poems. The book, which will be published Aug. 10, is packaged like the little collection of W.H. Auden poems published a few years back as a tie-in with the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral (which made dramatic use of Auden's "Funeral Blues"). The Hughes volume is, in effect, a tie-in with the Kerry campaign.
Kerry's preface makes it much harder for him to claim that he is ignorant of the circumstances under which Hughes wrote this poem. He notes that it came out of the Great Depression, which brought greater misery to blacks than to whites. He doesn't note that the hardships of the Great Depression drove Hughes and various other writers and artists (even, momentarily, Ronald Reagan!) to belief in Soviet-style communism. Here's Kerry's sanitizing literary analysis:
It was in that climate that Langston Hughes, Black America's unofficial poet laureate, wrote his powerful poetic lament, "Let America Be America Again." While it is the litany of the great promise of opportunity that has drawn so many of the world's disaffected to our shores, the poem is also a call to make that promise real for all Americans—especially for the descendants of slaves.
Not unmindful of the duality of meanings, I was drawn to incorporate the words of the poem in my 2004 presidential campaign, because it reminds us that America is a nation always in the process of becoming, always striving to build "a more perfect union." We must not forget that African Americans and women were written out of the Constitution before they were written in.
Chatterbox applauds Kerry's political message, but as lit crit, this is a whitewash. What "duality of meanings" is Kerry talking about? The poem has only one meaning: America's golden promise is hooey. It's hooey for blacks, it's hooey for the farmer, it's hooey for the Native Americans. It's hooey for the entire proletariat. Time to seize the means of production! Please, Sen. Kerry, Chatterbox begs of you: Do not incorporate the phrase, "Let America be America again" into your acceptance speech this Thursday. The New York Times is onto this. The Washington Post can't be far behind.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.