I've finished reading Arnold Rampersad's biography of Langston Hughes. Heavy sigh. What a rollercoaster! And what an illuminating work! Reading the story of Hughes's life is like reading the history of African American literature (and black literature, more broadly -- really, black culture) from 1920-1967. There hardly seems to be a writer of African descent or birth during this era with whom he does not come into contact -- and, moreover, he is consistently using his name, status, and contacts to support and promote 2-3 generations of younger writers (and sometimes writers his age who simply started publishing less precociously early than he did). Name names? Okay, just a few examples of writers he inspired, encouraged and hooked up in various ways: Melvin Tolson, Nicholas Guillen, Margaret Walker, Leopold Senghor, Aime Cesaire, Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ralph Ellison, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Lorraine Hansberry, and Alice Walker. Not all repaid him with the kind of gratitude one might wish to see. (What is it with that "kill the father" syndrome among male writers?? That's a half-rhetorical question, half-joke, but there is some kernel of truth underlying it, and if anyone cares to respond, I'd be interested in hearing perspectives on this phenomenon.) But Hughes touched them all.
And he paved the way for so many, at great personal sacrifice. I'll let you read it -- but suffice it to say that Hughes's career as a writer was pioneering in the very truest sense of the word, and that had the racial and political climate been different during his years, he might have created even more great work . . . and been better appreciated for his accomplishments at the time. Rampersad did a great job of conveying how complex Hughes was, though I'm among those who are disappointed with the way he treats Hughes's sexuality (without accusing Rampersad of being homophobic, as some have done -- he just seems to me to have been overly cautious, for various reasons).
Reading about the challenges Hughes faced in trying to make a life as a writer strengthens my resistance to the current, negative view, held by some, of the prevalence (read: overabundance) of MFA programs and creative writing teachers. Though we don't often focus on it, American literature (like British literature, where we're more likely to acknowledge this) has been for most of its history the province of the wealthy and upper middle classes -- those who could afford to spend time writing rather than holding down soul-crushing jobs needed just to make ends meet. Obviously, there are exceptions, but canonical writers who emerged from the working classes were few and far between, until recently . . . and often they were black (a la Hughes, Hurston, Wright, Brooks, and so forth). Maybe there is something to the charge that MFA programs homogenize writing to some degree (though the unique, like the cream, often rises to the top), but what they more clearly do -- which I value a great deal -- is to democratize the art/profession of writing. More different kinds of people can become writers and live as writers, should they need to or choose to, than ever before. This fact has introduced more than enough variety into contemporary literature to offset any tendencies toward sameness that the predominant workshop model might encourage, to my mind.