AS LANGSTON HUGHES TELLS IT, he wrote “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (now one of his most famous and widely anthologized poems) when he was just 17. Having recently graduated from high school, he was on a train heading to Mexico City, where he would spend just over a year with his father, a man he barely knew. In his narration of this poem’s scene of composition — you can listen to it here — Hughes says that he was crossing the Mississippi just outside of St. Louis when inspiration struck:
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 the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
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.
While Hughes would one day travel widely and eventually spend significant time in France, Haiti, the former Soviet Union, Netherlands, and Africa, when he wrote this poem he was emerging from a distinctly Midwestern childhood. He was born in Joplin, Missouri, and raised in various places in Kansas, Illinois, and Ohio. He would move to New York City (the city with which he would come to be associated) to attend Columbia University the year after writing this poem, but at the moment of its composition, it was the landscape of the Midwest that he knew best. Yet this poem declares itself to be spoken by someone whose knowledge is as ancient as the rivers of which he speaks. In other words, this is an old “Negro,” someone returned from a journey (or many journeys) around the world, someone whose soul has had time to “grow deep as the rivers” that he has known intimately. This is not, in other words, the story of a teenager just setting out on a journey across the middle of America.
As I contemplated this seeming disjunction between Hughes the teenage poet and his aged, wise, Negro speaker, I found myself stuck in Hughes’s story of the poem’s composition. While Hughes tells the story with much certainty — that, at the moment of the poem’s inspiration, he is just outside of St. Louis, crossing the Mississippi as he heads towards Mexico — when we look at it more closely, certain questions arise. Could one actually travel by train from St. Louis to Mexico in 1920? If so, what route would one take — would Hughes, for example, have been pulling out of St. Louis or pulling into it when he wrote the poem? And on which side of the Mississippi would he be traveling as he made his way down to Mexico? Because Hughes himself makes so much out of this romantic scene of his teenage self writing the poem, I couldn’t help, while writing this column, but at least try to answer these questions. If I could figure out exactly where Hughes was, maybe I would understand the poem better.
Maybe unsurprisingly, no book or article on Langston Hughes that I consulted (and I read many of them!) could tell me the route that Hughes traveled to Mexico. By now, his story is famous, but it turns out that, in our repetition of it, we have totally overlooked its details. Although I had moments when I wanted to give up on what seemed like a wild goose chase for information that might not affect my reading of this poem in the slightest, I stuck with it, as I have a good amount of experience trying to figure out the most obscure facts about poems and their poets. (I once spent the better part of a week trying to figure out how coconuts made their way into Emily Dickinson’s home in the 1860s. This puzzle remains unsolved.)
Success came from the most unlikely of sources: an undergraduate student. Well, actually, her father. One day a few weeks ago, we were talking about this poem in my “Introduction to American Literature” course, when I decided to tell my class that I had become interested in Hughes’s little story about train travel. When I expressed a kind of mild frustration that I might never figure out how he actually got from point A to point B, this particular student asked me if she could text her dad, since she was sure he would know. Off went her text and I didn’t give it another thought until that afternoon when I received multiple emails from a man I didn’t know. One of them included the train schedule for the Missouri Pacific Lines.
This particular schedule was from 1966, although my source from the railroad says that this line, which is now no longer in use, was up and running in 1920. If Hughes’s facts are in fact correct and he has not misremembered the details of that day, then, in all likelihood, he was just concluding the first leg of his trip (the 560 miles from Cleveland to St. Louis), and was crossing over the Mississippi on either the MacArthur or the Merchants Bridge, just before landing in Union Station and boarding the next train. That next train would take him through, among other places, Bismarck, Poplar Bluff, Little Rock, and Texarkana, keeping him far west of the Mississippi for the rest of his journey south.
Knowing this allows me to know two more things: One is that Hughes was not traveling down the Mississippi the way Lincoln is in his poem. By ending on that image of Lincoln traveling into the sounds of the river (which I take to be woven through with the songs of slaves), Hughes allows the poem’s speaker and reader to travel there too, becoming, in a sense, some version of an American liberator. But this is a fiction, as Hughes himself is not that liberator — he is, in fact, heading west, out of what were once border states and into slave states, into land (not water) upon which some of the worst battles of the Civil War were fought. The other thing that Hughes’s train travel allows me to remember is that Mexico is an intrinsic part of this poem’s story. Waiting for Hughes in Mexico was Hughes’s estranged father, whom he would live with for one year. Hughes writes the poem on the back on an envelope that holds one of his father’s letters and, in this way, the poem becomes not just a poem about traveling towards his father but a form of communication, albeit not a direct conversation, with that father.
Hughes’s mother and father separated shortly after his birth, and Hughes was raised by his mother and a number of her family members. Hughes barely knew James N. Hughes, although he had spent some time with him the year prior to the Mexico trip. At this moment of traveling towards his father, Hughes probably didn’t know the extent to which he and his father were so different, but glimmers of this knowledge are present in the act of writing this poem. For one thing, Hughes’s father would come to be discouraging of his son’s desire to write poetry. But maybe more importantly, Hughes and his father held drastically different ideas about race. The perspective of Hughes’s father ran directly counter to the celebratory and romantic vision that Hughes presents in his poem — a vision of African Americans as makers and speakers of history. Later, Hughes would describe how he had contemplated his father’s dissonant attitude, right before the trip to Mexico: “I had been thinking about my father and his strange dislike of his own people. I didn’t understand it, because I was a Negro, and I liked Negroes very much.” Even more strongly, Hughes once said that his father “hated Negroes. I think he hated himself, too, for being a Negro. He disliked all of his family because they were Negroes.”
As Hughes makes his way into this web of issues — familial, racial, professional — that resides in Mexico, he writes a quiet, wise declaration of the African-American community’s age-old humanity. It is a message that, he would come to find, poetry was particularly suited to convey.
Stranger, maybe, than Hughes’s confusing rendition of travel by land, is this poem’s attention to a variety of different kinds of rivers. The Mississippi is the only one of the four rivers featured in this poem that Hughes had actually seen. So why these four rivers? If these rivers mean the same thing in this poem — if clustering them in this way culminates in a message — it is unclear exactly what that message is.
The four rivers referenced in this poem reside in three different continents. Each empties into a different body of water, and each has a clear (but different) historical and symbolic association for most readers. The Euphrates, which begins in eastern Turkey and flows through Syria and Iraq, and eventually into the Persian Gulf, is the longest river in western Asia. The earliest references to the Euphrates are dated around 3500 BCE, near the very beginning of civilization, or, as Hughes’s poem says, “when dawns were young.” The Euphrates may be the oldest river, but the Congo is the deepest, making its way through 11 African countries before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. Hughes presents the positive effect of both of these rivers on the poem’s speaker. In the case of the Congo, it is the sound of this deep river that ushers in sleep.
Things get more complicated as we move to the Nile and the Mississippi, as both rivers are strongly associated with slavery and the related issues of labor, persecution, and politics that Hughes conjures up. In both cases, Hughes transforms this slavery through the poem’s knowing. As the narrator of the poem single-handedly raises the pyramids above the Nile (which runs from Uganda into the Mediterranean Sea), he both invokes and erases 1,000 years of slavery in Egypt. Whereas the line about the Nile is peopled by one person (who stands in for many), the line about the Mississippi allows us to see (and hear) slaves en masse. Here, Hughes recalls the most recent moment of, we might say, a civilization at unrest.
On the one hand, the progression from the Euphrates to the Mississippi tells an all-too-natural history (from birth to death, from an unpeopled world to a peopled one, from the sun rising to the sun setting). In doing so, it tracks the movement from innocence to tragedy, from water thought to be divine to water that contains the blood of slaves. But even if we want to map this narrative onto the move from one river to the next, it doesn’t work seamlessly. For instance, although the Euphrates and the Mississippi come first and last, they both represent the fall of certain kinds of empires. Reading the list this way makes it hard to superimpose a developmental narrative on it. In fact, what Hughes tells us about these rivers collectively — that they are old — may be just as important as what he tells us about their individual identities. They may also be beautiful or wild or dangerous or useful, but first and foremost they are old. And in being old, they embody ancient knowledge of the human and geographical sort.
While rivers are often thought to mark boundaries, they also make movement (of both goods and people) possible. Because the stories that these rivers tell do not move in one clear direction, Hughes shows us that the history of the world’s people does not flow in one direction either. Stories move forward and then wrap back around on themselves. And when this happens, their essence, their moral content, and their potential symbolism can be hard to locate.
While the different scenes within this poem render moments across a huge swath of historical time, the story of this poem’s life in print is oddly dependent on a very specific historical moment. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” was published the year after Hughes wrote it, in the June 1921 issue of W. E. B. DuBois’s journal, The Crisis. Because The Crisis was the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, it makes sense that the images of African Americans the world over, united by industry, triumph, and tragedy, would greatly appeal to its readership. And indeed it was very popular. It is rumored that when the poem arrived at the magazine, DuBois said to Jessie Fauset, “What colored person is there, do you suppose, in the United States who writes like that and is yet unknown to us?” This story may give you a sense of just how interested the current literary establishment was in Hughes and why he was so easily taken under its wing.
But between this moment of initial enchantment with a new voice in 1921, and the moment when Hughes published the poem again — this time in his first book, The Weary Blues, in 1926
— the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing and both the aesthetics and the politics of the establishment had shifted. While some people mark the publication of this book as the beginning of Hughes’s career, he had already published many poems (many through Fauset, who was a huge supporter of his work) between 1921 and 1926. And, by 1926, the unanimous support he received in the early 1920s had become tempered slightly by some of the African-American literary community’s objections to the jazz and blues poems included in his first book.
People thought of Hughes as the poet of social progress, and the poems contained in The Weary Blues identified him with other ambitions, namely, the desire to give voice to the rhythms and songs of the African-American community. This was a new aesthetic, an aesthetic to which many people were resistant, for its politics were not as clear and its message not as tidy. To some, the fact that his poems sang through individual blues players and community members meant that the poems were not radical enough, because they did an inadequate job of advancing and uniting the community. Within five short years, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” went from being the first and wholly unexpected poem by a young stranger, to being one of many poems by a man to whom the African-American community looked for representation and guidance. In this way, the 1926 appearance of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” works to prove that one cannot step into the same river twice. History must flow on.
There are several stories about travel here that I have attempted to tell — about Hughes’s actual trip from Cleveland to Mexico; about the paths that rivers cut into the landscape and the histories they tell; about this poem’s trip from one form of print to another. In each one, space and time do something unexpected, and the story doesn’t end where we think it is going to end. When we think Hughes is heading south, he is actually heading west. A racist father waits to greet the young man who will become the greatest poet of the Harlem Renaissance. The rivers empty in places we don’t expect. A poem lands twice upon a quickly changing readership. In the same way that there is no coherent narrative from slavery to freedom, Hughes’s own journey, and the journey that his poem takes, cannot be easily mapped or known. Each journey requires us to look harder, to investigate its details, to get off the train and look around ourselves before we get back on.