ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
Much of his work celebrated the beauty and dignity and Humanity
of black Americans. Unlike other writers Hughes basked in the glow of
the obviously high regard of his primary audience, African Americans.
Books by Langston Hughes
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Langston Hughes Life and Works in Celebration of Black Dignity
By Arthur E.E. Smith
Senior Lecturer of English, Fourah Bay College
Langston Hughes expressed his determination to write fearlessly, shamelessly, and unrepentantly about working class black life in spite of opposition. He also exercised much freedom in experimenting with blues as well as jazz.
The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If coloured people are pleased we are glad. If they are not their displeasure doesnt matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how and we stand on top of the mountains, free within ourselves.
With his espousal of such thoughts defending the freedom of the black writer Hughes became a beacon of light to younger writers who also wished to assert their right to explore and exploit allegedly degraded aspects of black people.
In 1926 Hughes returned to historically black Lincoln University in Pennsylvania where he continued publishing poetry, short stories, and essays in mainstream and black-oriented periodicals. In 1927 together with Zora Neale Hurston and other writers he founded Fire a literary journal devoted to African -American culture and aimed at destroying the older forms of black literature. The venture itself was short-lived. It was engulfed in fire along with its editorial offices.
Then Charlotte Osgood Mason, a 70-year-old wealthy white patron, entered his life and started directing virtually every aspect of Hughes life and art. Her passionate belief in parapsychology, intuition, and folk culture was brought into supervising the writing of Hughes’ novel Not Without Laughter, in which his boyhood in Kansas is drawn to depict the life of a black child, Sandy, growing up in a representative, middle-class African-American home. Hughes’ relationship with Mason came to an explosive end in 1930. Hurt and baffled by Mason’s rejection, Hughes used money from a prize to spend several weeks recovering in Haiti.
Back in the U.S., Hughes made a sharp turn to the political left. His verses and essays were now being published in New Masses, a journal controlled by the Communist Party. Later that year he began touring the South and West, taking poetry to the people. He read his poems in churches and in schools. He then sailed from New York for the Soviet Union. He was amongst a band of young African-Americans invited to take part in a film about American race relations.
This filmmaking venture, though unsuccessful, proved instrumental to enhancing his short story writing. For whilst in Moscow he was struck by the similarities between D. H. Lawrence’s character in a title story from his collection The Lovely Lady and Mrs.Osgood Mason. Overwhelmed by the power of Lawrence’s stories, Hughes began writing short fiction of his own. On his return to the U.S. by 1933 he had sold three stories and had begun compiling his first collection.
The Harlem Renaissance which was long over was replaced for Hughes by a sense of the need for political struggle and for an art that reflected this radical approach. But his career, unlike others then, easily survived the end of that movement. He kept on producing his art in keeping with his sense of himself as a thoroughly professional writer. He then published his first collections, the often acerbic and even embittered The Ways of White Folks .
Hughes’ main concern was now the theatre. Mulatto, his drama of race-mixing and the South, was the longest running play by an African American on Broadway until Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun appeared in the 1960s. His comedies and dramas of domestic black American life, largely were also popular with black audiences. Using such innovations as theatre-in-the-round and invoking audience participation, Hughes anticipated the work of later avant-garde dramatists like Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez. In his drama Hughes combines urban dialogue, folk idioms, and a thematic emphasis on the dignity and strength of black Americans.
With the start of World War II, Hughes returned to the political centre. The Big Sea, his first autobiographical work with its memorable portrait of the Harlem Renaissance and his African voyages appeared. In poetry, he revived his interest in some of his old themes and forms, as in Shakespeare in Harlem (1942).
One of the freshest, most fascinating and enduring Negro characters in American fiction introduced in his weekly column for the Chicaqo Defender was Jesse B Simple, a Harlem Everyman, whose comic manner hardly obscured some of the serious themes raised by Hughes in relating Simple’s exploits in the quintessential “wise-fool whose experience and uneducated insights capture the frustrations of being black in America. His honest and unsophisticated eye sees through the shallowness, hypocrisy and phoniness of white and black Americans alike. From his stool at Paddy’s Bar, in a delightful brand of English, Simple comments both wisely and hilariously on many things but principally on race and women
We could have a first and revealing glimpse of the man himself through the following extracts from “Feet live Their Own Life”.
If you want to know about my life,” said Simple as he blow the foam from the top of the newly filled glass the bartender put before him, “don’t look at my face, don’t look at my hands Look at my feet and see if you can tell how long I have been standing on them.
Replying to Hughes persona who claims inability to see his feet through his shoes Simple continues:
You do not need to see through my shoes. Can you tell by the shoes I wear not pointed not rocking chair, not French-toed, not nothing but big, long broad, flat that I have been standing on these feet a long time and carrying some heavy burden? They ain’t flat from standing at no bar, neither, because I always sets at a bar Can’t you tell that? You know I do not hang out in a bar unless it has stools, don’t you?
Simple comes out most starkly through Hughes effective use of contrast in viewpoint between Simple’s segment of society and his own. Simple is made the very articulate spokesman of the untrained worker group and himself the voice of the educated Negro liberal. The two attitudes tend to complement each other with Simple generally exemplifying the directness and single-mindedness of the untrained Negro and Hughes the sophisticated tolerance and broadmindedness of the black intellectual. The clash and interplay of these altitudes provide much of the humour in Simple, but they also at a deeper level point up and accentuate the two-level type of thinking which segregation tends to produce in all Negroes.
Inconsistency is Simple’s trademark. But he is thoroughly consistent in just being first, last and always a “race man”a fourteen carat, one hundred percent, dyed in the wool race man. No professional Negro leader, no Harlem orator, no follower of Marcus Garvey is more concerned about the fate and well being of the black brother than Simple. Morning, noon and night and seven days a weekSimple thinks and talks and gripes about being coloured.
Whatever bad thing happens to him, Simple traces to some remote origin in race relations. No matter what a man does, sick or well something is always liable to happen especially if you are coloured,” he says. For he constantly keeps reminding us “a dark man shall see dark days”. And he can always point with certainty to the cause of all his troubles as he does in this statement: “I have been caught in some kind of riffle ever since I been black, ” And explaining his obsession with the race question he tells Hughes that a black man does not have to bring up the race question, it is always present, for as he dramatically points out: ‘I look in the mirror in the morning to shaveand what do I see? Me.”
Simple’s abode is the black ghetto. His love for it shines through every comment he makes. “Harlem” he boasts, “has got everything from A to Z. In Harlem he found his true love. He likes Harlem because, as he says, it is “so full of Negroes.” There, he feels the protection that black faces give from a predominantly white and often hostile world.
Simple works downtown, but he plays uptown. Harlem therefore means for him release from harsh and unpleasant duties and a chance to climb a bar stool or to ring a doorbell and say, Baby, here I am.”
Hughes loves Harlem because there are no time clocks or bosses to think aboutjust joy, relaxation and his girl friend. In reality, Simple’s love for Harlem is because he sees it as the only place in New York where a black man can find sanctuary. Seeing this black city as a source of refuge, he emphasizes: “I will take Harlem for mine,” “At least if trouble comes, I will have my own window to shoot from.” On being reminded by Hughes that most of the houses in Harlem are owned by whites, Simple is not the least disturbed as seen in his retort: “I might not own ’em; but I live in ’em! It would take an atom bomb to get me out.”
Simple cannot even dream of staying away from Harlem. Indulging his fancy one evening at Paddy’s he imagines himself a bird (black bird of course) flying away in the wild blue yonder. But as Simple envisioned himself flying over New York he found that the pull of Harlem was too strong for him. “I fell in on Lenox Avenue like a fish falls back in the pool when it gets off the hook.” In short, even in his dream world of escape he can conceive of no place better than Harlem.
Actually, Simple is a displaced person. Hence his love for Harlem and for the fierce protective instincts that makes the Simples of Harlem such tragic characters deep down. Simple in spite of his good nature and ebullience, in fact leads a very narrow and lonely existence. From Monday to Saturday he works downtown in an alien world. His real life uptown lies between his drab Third-Floor-Rear room and Paddy’s Bar, with trips to see Joyce, his girl friend. This is his whole limited life.
He has no friends, only bar-room acquaintances, he confesses. When he asks Hughes to be his best man at his wedding, he confesses the real loneliness of his existence “I like to be rowdy myself, but don’t like to run with rowdies. Why is that? I like to drink, but I don’t like drunks. I don’t have the education to mingle myself with educated folks. . . . So who are my buddies? Youand a couple of bartenders.”
Beneath all Simple’s gaiety and humour there is to be found the basic tragedy of the urban Negro and his circumscribed life. As such Simple becomes a symbol of all the limited and proscribed figures of all the black ghettos in America. The Simples talk gaily and laugh loudly but they are really laughing to keep themselves from. Crying. So because they reflect their woes so eloquently these simple sketches became very popular among black readers of Hughes’ day.
His bebop-shaped poem “Montage of a Dream Deferred” (1991) projects a changing Harlem, fertile with humanity but in decline. In it, the drastically deteriorated state of Harlem in the 1950s is contrasted to the Harlem of the 20s. The exuberance of night-club life and the vitality of cultural renaissance has now gone. An urban ghetto plagued by poverty and crime has taken its place. A change in rhythm parallels the change in tone.
The smooth patterns and gentle melancholy of blues music are replaced by the abrupt, fragmented structure of post-war jazz and bebop. Hughes was alert to what was happening in the African-American world and what was coming. This is why this volume of verse reflected so much the new and relatively new be-bop jazz rhythms that emphasized dissonance They thus reflected the new pressures that were straining the black communities in the cities of the North. The best known poem there is probably “Harlem.”
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load
Or does it explode?
Twelve irreverent poems commenting on the political turbulence of the early 1960s constitute his collection, Ask Your Mama: Twelve Moods for Jazz. Intended to be read aloud with jazz musical accompaniment; it offers acerbic solutions to segregation and the plight of Southern Blacks. He also created an imaginary South where civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. is elected governor of Georgia and Orval Faubus, the Arkansas governor who defied federal court orders to desegregate public schools, becomes a mammy in charge of rearing black children. Negroes sit on comfortable verandahs, of pillared mansions, served by whites, their plantations being worked by white sharecroppers) their coloured children being cared for by white mammies.
The poet admonishes the mammy to make haste. The jazz mood then turns international bringing in African nationalist leaders of that era like (Gamel Abdel Nasser, Fidel Castro, Sekou Toure, Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkrumah. In one mood, a Negro moves out to Long Island, where he is the only coloured man and becomes famous the hard way known down town and across the world.
Hughes’ living much of his life in basements and attics brought much realism and humanity to his writing especially his short stories. He thus remained close to his vast public as he kept moving figuratively through the basements of the world where his life is thickest and where common people struggle to make their way. At the same time, writing in attics, he rose to the long perspective that enabled him to radiate a humanizing, beautifying, but still truthful light on what he saw.
Hughes’ short stories reflect his entire purpose as a writer. For his art was aimed at interpreting “the beauty of his own people,” which he felt they were taught either not to see or not to take pride in. In all his stories, his humanity, his faithful and artistic presentations of both racial and national truth – his successful mediation between the beauty and the terrors of life around him all shine out. Certain themes, technical excellence or social insights loom out.
“Slave in the Block” for example, a simple but vivid tale reveals the lack of respect and even human communication, between Negroes and those patronising and cosmetic whites.
“Poor Little Black Fellow” satirizes religious cant in race relations treating corrosive varieties of self-deceit with a subtle complexitythough pointing out consistently that Negroes want only to be treated like everyone else.
Two among Hughes’s best stories: “On the Road’ and “Big Meeting” perfectly conceived as both fantasy and reality and poetically executed, using intense patterns of writing images joins Christ and a black hobo in a brief adventure against systemized, prejudiced religion. “Big Meeting” pursues the theme of Negro identification with Christ more emotionally and picturesquely, using a green-coated, big revival preacher with masterful timing and histrionic. “Home’s” violent ending tends to obscure the profound interplay between life and art which thematically deepens the action.
The sensitive, gifted little Negro violinist who finds the world too “rotten” for his survival, is a doomed purveyor of beauty in the midst of European decay and hometown American racism. In “Father and Son,” Hughes works at a number of themes (psychopathic southern violence, sexual exploitation of Negro women, Negro mis-education, and religious abuses) using effective symbols and striking arrays of atmospheric images; but the title itself underscore his strongest theme: the climactic encounters of steel will and frustrated love between a white father and his mulatto son.
One of Hughes’ best stories, “The Blues I’m Playing” addresses itself not only to the Harlem “cult” of the Negro but to the exploration of Hughes’ concept of American Negritude. Although it must be stated that this story, like “Home,” closely pictures the conflict between life and art, and the blues-playing heroine represents life more so than art precisely because she is so much of a Negro, so close to the roots of art-the-blues in her own racial community experience. The last few chart-like clarity of the pages of the story support Negritude as an insistence upon the black artist’s preservation of personal and racial integrity.
Two other good stories cross the colour line on the wings of interracial love. In the fast-moving and very popular “A Good Job Gone” a “sugar-brown” girl with a suppressed hatred of bigots drives a promiscuous rich white man insane. “Little Dog” is distinguished by Hughes’s adept characterization of a lonely white spinster who falls in love with a “big and brown and kind-looking” Negro janitor. Hughes with admirable adroitness presents a wasted life without minimizing its integrity or ridiculing its belated humanity.
“Cora Unashamed” which with “On the Way Home” are rated among Hughes’s best narratives shows the ignoble defeat of both parental and carnal love. Its tragedy is moderated only by the earthy strength of a Negro maid whose simple thoughts (“And there ain’t no reason why you cant marry neitheryou both white”) free her of all but natural impulses. “On the Way Home” suggestively employing various images of wine and water understandingly describes a young man’s ambivalent responses to his mother’s death. Trapped in both guilty exhilarations and anguish the dutiful but radically unidentified son struggles to be reborn.
By the end of his life Hughes was almost universally recognized as the most representative writer in the history of African American literature and also as probably the most original of all black American poets. He thus became the widely acknowledged “Poet Laureate” of the Negro Race!
According to Arnold Rampersad, an authority on Hughes:
Much of his work celebrated the beauty and dignity and Humanity of black Americans. Unlike other writers Hughes basked in the glow of the obviously high regard of his primary audience, African Americans. His poetry, with its original jazz and blues influence and its powerful democratic commitment, is almost certainly the most influential written by any person of African descent in this century. Certain of his poems; “Mother to Son” are virtual anthems of black American life and aspiration. His plays alone… could secure him a place in Afro-American literary history. His character Simple is the most memorable single figure to emerge from black journalism. The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain is timeless, “it seems as a statement of constant dilemma facing the young black artist, caught between the contending forces of black and white culture’
Liberated by the examples of Carl Sandburg’s free verse Hughes’ poetry has always aimed for utter directness and simplicity. In this regard, according to Rampersad, a thought widely held and often encouraged by Hughes himself is the notion that he almost never revised his work. He could thus be said to be like many romantic poets who believe and demonstrate that poetry is a “spontaneous overflow of emotions.”
Like Walt Whitman, Hughes’s great poetic forefather in America’s poetry…, Hughes did believe in the poetry of Emotion, in the power of ideas and feelings that went beyond matters of technical crafts. Hughes never wanted to be a writer who carefully sculpted rhyme and stanzas and in so doing lost the emotional heart of what he had set out to say.
His poems imbued with the distinctive diction and cadences of Negro idioms in simple stanza patterns and strict rhyme schemes derived from blues songs enabled him to capture the ambience of the setting as well as the rhythms of jazz music.
He wrote mostly in two modes/directions:
(i) lyrics about black life using rhythms and refrains from jazz and blues.
(ii) Poems of racial protest
They explore the boundaries between black and white America. Through such development of racial themes Hughes contributed to the strengthening of black consciousness and racial pride than even the Harlem Renaissance’s legacy for its most militant decades. While never militantly repudiating co-operation with the white community, the poems which protest against white racism are boldly direct.
The Negro Speaks of Rivers
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like rivers
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
In this poem, the simple direct and free verse makes clear that Africa’s dusky rivers run concurrently with the poet’s soul as he draws spiritual strength as well as individual identity from the collective experience of his ancestors. This point Rampersad amplifies in stating that the poem is: “reminding us that the syncopated beat which the captive Africans brought with them “that found its first expression here in “the hand clapping, feet stamping, drum-beating rhythms of the human heart (4 – 5), is as ‘ancient as the world.”
But what Hughes is better known for is his treatment of the possibilities of African-American experiences and identities, not his personal life. Like Walt Whitman, he created a persona that speaks for more than himself. His voice in “I, Too,” for instance, absorbs the depiction of a whole race into his central consciousness as he laments:
I, Too, Sing America
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed- –
I, too, am America.
The “darker brother” celebrating America is certain of a better future when he will no longer be shunted aside by “company.” The poem is characteristic of Hughes’s faith in the racial consciousness of African Americans, a consciousness that reflects their integrity and beauty while simultaneously demanding respect and acceptance from others as demonstrated in these lines:
Nobody’ll dare / Say to me, / “Eat in the kitchen”
This dogged resistance and optimism in facing adversity is what Hughes’ life centered on, thus enabling him to survive and achieve in spite of the obstacles facing him. Rampersad’s testimony again proves supportive here.
Toughness was a major characteristic of Hughes’ life. For his life was hard. He certainly knew poverty and humiliation at the hands of people with far more power and money than he had and little respect for writers, especially poets. Through all his poverty and hurt, Hughes kept on a steady keel. He was a gentleman, a soft man in many ways, who was sympathetic and affectionate, but was tough to the core.
Hughes’s poetry reveals his hearty appetite for all humanity, his insistence on justice for all, and his faith in the transcendent possibilities of joy and hope that make room as he aspires in “I, Too, ” for everyone at America’s table.
This deep love for all humanity is echoed in one of his poems: “My People” some lines of which were earlier referred to:
The night is beautiful,
so the faces of my people,
the stars are beautiful,
so the eyes of my people
Beautiful, also, is the sun
Beautiful also, are the souls of my people
Arnold Rampersads last word on Hughes’s humanity, is anchored on three essential attributes: his tenderness; generosity and his sense of humour.
Hughes was also tender. He was a man who loved other people and was beloved. It was very hard to find anyone who had known him who would say a harsh thing about him. People who knew him could remember little that wasn’t pleasant of him. Evidently, he radiated joy and humanity and this was how he was remembered after his death.
He loved the company of people. He needed to have people around him. He needed them perhaps to counter the essential loneliness instilled in his soul from early in his life and out of which he made his literary art.
Hughes was a man of great generosity. He was generous to the young and the poor, the needy; he was generous even to his rivals. He was generous to a fault, giving to those who did not always deserve his kindness. But he was prepared to risk ingratitude in order to help younger artists in particular and young people in general.
Hughes was a man of laughter, although his laughter almost always came in the presence of tears or the threat of the surge of tears. The titles of his first novel, Not Without Laughter, and a collection of stories, Laughing to Keep from Crying, indicate this. This was essentially how he believed life must be facedwith the knowledge of its inescapable loneliness and pain but with an awareness, too, of the therapy of laughter by which we assert the human in the face of circumstances. We must reach out to people, and one should not only have an astounding tolerance of life’s sufferings but should also exuberantly complete the happy aspect of life.
His sense of humour is again credited by a writer from Africa who was like Hughes also faced with fighting racial discrimination and deprivation, Ezekiel Mphahlele.
Here is a man with a boundless zest for life… He has an irrepressible sense of humour, and to meet him is to come face to face with the essence of human goodness. In spite of his literary success, he has earned himself the respect of young Negro writers, who never find him unwilling to help them along. And yet he is not condescending. Unlike most Negroes who become famous or prosperous and move to high-class residential areas, he has continued to live in Harlem, which is in sense a Negro ghetto, in a house which he purchased with money earned as lyricist for the Broadway musical Street Scene.
In explaining and illustrating the Negro condition in America as was his stated vocation, Hughes captured their joys, and the veiled weariness of their lives, the monotony of their jobs, and the veiled weariness of their songs. He accomplished this in poems remarkable not only for their directness and simplicity but for their economy, lucidity and wit. Whether he was writing poems of racial protest like “Harlem” and “Ballad of the Landlord” or poems of racial affirmation like “Mother to Son” and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” Hughes was able to find language and forms to express not only the pain of urban life but also its splendid vitality.
Ballad of the Landlord
My roof is sprung a leak
Don’t you ‘member I told you about it
Way last week?
These steps is broken down.
When you come up yourself
It’s a wonder you don’t fall down.
Ten Bucks you say I owe you?
Ten Bucks you say is due?
Well, that’s Ten Bucks more’n I ‘II pay you
Till you fix this house up new.
What? You gonna get eviction orders?
You gonna cut off my heat?
You gonna take my furniture and
Throw it in the street?
Um-huh! You talking high and mighty
Talk on – till you get through.
You ain’t gonna be able to say a word
If I land my fist on you.
Come and get this man!
He’s trying to ruin the government
And overturn the land
Headlines in press:
MAN THREATENS LANDLORD
TENANT HELD NO BAIL
JUDGE GIVES NEGRO 9 DAYS IN COUNTY JAIL.
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Gates, Henry, Louis and Mc Kay, Nellie, Y. (gen. eds.). The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. New York & London: N.W. Norton & Co, 1997.
Hughes, Langston. Not Without Laughter. New York: Cother Books Edition, 1969.
Hughes, Langston. Selected Poems. New York: Vintage, 1974.
Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (1926). In Nathan Huggins, ed. Voices from the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Mphahlele, Ezekiel. “Langston Hughes.” In Introduction to African Literature, Ulli Beier (ed). London: Longman, 1967.
Rampersad, Arnold, The Art and Life of Langston Hughes, Vol. 1 & 11. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Trotman, James, (ed), Langston Hughes: The Man, His Art and His Continuing Influence. New York & London: Garland Publishing Inc., 1995.
Walker, Marshall, The Literature of the United States of America. New York: Macmillan, 1983.
posted 10 December 2008
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By Tracy K. Smith
Tracy K. Smith, author of Life on Mars has been selected as the winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. In its review of the book, Publishers Weekly noted the collection’s “lyric brilliance” and “political impulses [that] never falter.” A New York Times review stated, “Smith is quick to suggest that the important thing is not to discover whether or not we’re alone in the universe; it’s to acceptor at least endurethe universe’s mystery. . . . Religion, science, art: we turn to them for answers, but the questions persist, especially in times of grief. Smith’s pairing of the philosophically minded poems in the books first section with the long elegy for her father in the second is brilliant.” Life on Mars follows Smith’s 2007 collection, Duende, which won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, the only award for poetry in the United States given to support a poet’s second book, and the first Essence Literary Award for poetry, which recognizes the literary achievements of African Americans. The Bodys Question (2003) was her first published collection.
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By Charles C. Mann
Im a big fan of Charles Manns previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Its exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that its anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, Im proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, globalized entity.
Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple.
We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book, an open question.
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By Pauline Maier
A notable historian of the early republic, Maier devoted a decade to studying the immense documentation of the ratification of the Constitution. Scholars might approach her books footnotes first, but history fans who delve into her narrative will meet delegates to the state conventions whom most history books, absorbed with the Founders, have relegated to obscurity. Yet, prominent in their local counties and towns, they influenced a conventions decision to accept or reject the Constitution. Their biographies and democratic credentials emerge in Maiers accounts of their elections to a convention, the political attitudes they carried to the conclave, and their declamations from the floor. The latter expressed opponents objections to provisions of the Constitution, some of which seem anachronistic (election regulation raised hackles) and some of which are thoroughly contemporary (the power to tax individuals directly).
Ripostes from proponents, the Federalists, animate the great detail Maier provides, as does her recounting how one state conventions verdict affected anothers. Displaying the grudging grassroots blessing the Constitution originally received, Maier eruditely yet accessibly revives a neglected but critical passage in American history.Booklist
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By Gil Scott Heron
Shortly after we republished The Vulture and The Nigger Factory, Gil started to tell me about The Last Holiday, an account he was writing of a multi-city tour that he ended up doing with Stevie Wonder in late 1980 and early 1981. Originally Bob Marley was meant to be playing the tour that Stevie Wonder had conceived as a way of trying to force legislation to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday. At the time, Marley was dying of cancer, so Gil was asked to do the first six dates. He ended up doing all 41. And Dr King’s birthday ended up becoming a national holiday (“The Last Holiday because America can’t afford to have another national holiday”), but Gil always felt that Stevie never got the recognition he deserved and that his story needed to be told. The first chapters of this book were given to me in New York when Gil was living in the Chelsea Hotel. Among the pages was a chapter called Deadline that recounts the night they played Oakland, California, 8 December; it was also the night that John Lennon was murdered. Jamie Byng, Guardian
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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update 5 July 2012