Jun 5, 2007

Langston Hughes, self-censor?

Today my juniors heard Langston Hughes, arriving from 1959 via the magic of CD, sharing his poetry with an college audience. In one of the more interesting moments, Hughes, reading "Elevator Boy," makes an interesting substitution. The speaker of the poem talks about his dead end job manning a hotel elevator, and describes what his new earnings provide:
Two new suits an'
A woman to sleep with.
Hughes, though, says, "Two new suits an' / a whole lotta money."

I've said before that my view of the writing process is that each text is a "frozen moment of stasis"--that even the final, published version of a text is up for revision as the author finds a better way to read things. I wonder, though, what prompted Hughes' change, and speculate that it might have been the propriety expected while speaking to a late 50s college audience. Any Hughes scholars in the audience have a better idea?

Update 5/25/09: Listening to Hughes again, I realize that, when writing this post, I unconsciously edited Hughes self-emendation to make it more rhythmic than it actually is. His reading is clunkier: "Two new suits an' / a lotta money." Strikes me as stronger evidence for self-censorship, rather than mere preference.


TeacherRefPoet said...

Haven't recent scholars determined Hughes was probably gay? This might be a matter of him coming to terms with that.

Dr. Richard Scott Nokes said...

The version Hughes reads is just better. My guess would be that Hughes had since revised the weak "A woman to sleep with" with the stronger "a whole lotta money."

I don't know if I've ever attended a poetry reading wherein the poet had not revised his work. Often they announce the change by discussing it in introducing the poem, but just as often it is silent emendation.

Jim Anderson said...

trp, that's a possibility, although from Hughes' discussion, he makes it pretty clear that the speaker of the poem isn't "him."

Dr. Nokes,
It sounds better, but it also significantly changes the meaning. "Two new suits an' / a sweet little honey" would fit the rhythm and keep it semantically intact.

Interesting thoughts, fellas.