Variegated Hughes: Rereading Langston Hughes's Soviet Sojourn

Kate A Baldwin*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations

Abstract

This essay rereads Langston Hughes's essay on the Uzbek Harem in the context of its publication in Women's Home Companion (WHC). It pursues questions prompted by reading Hughes's essay alongside the images that accompanied it, Andre Durenceau's powerful full-scale illustrations, and in the publishing context of the essay more generally. The essay focuses on the way a vanguard political mood and an accompanying aesthetics work in tandem or at odds with one another in the formation of a reading public. I argue that while Durenceau's spectacular image does one thing, evoking standard orientalist clichés about veiled women and the exotic near east, Hughes's essay purports to do quite another. Depicting both the voluptuous scene of Uzbek harem life, and unveiling it for the reader, Hughes's words constitute a mode of action, but they also contribute to what we might call, a particular mode of engagement. For Hughes it was the revolutionary promise of Soviet politics and a relatedly transformed aesthetic potentiality that inspired him to hop on what he called the “ark” heading to the USSR. But what happens to this mode of engagement when it is turned back home, repackaged in a woman's magazine directed at white, relatively affluent (for the 1930s) readers? My essay argues that although Hughes may have tried to captivate his reader with the wonders of a revolutionary, emancipated future for women, his words also enabled the woman reading WHC to imagine that her own captivity was surely superior to that of a bygone era.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)386-401
Number of pages16
JournalRussian Review
Volume75
Issue number3
DOIs
StatePublished - Jul 1 2016

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • Language and Linguistics
  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Literature and Literary Theory

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