This post was written by Luis Rodriguez, Library Collections Technician.
Imagine a moment in Harlem in 1939. It’s inside the Community Center of the International Workers Order on West 125th Street, where the Harlem Suitcase Theater is putting on bare-bones experimental “proletariat” theatrical productions. The audience has left after a performance of Don’t You Want to be Free?—an epic depiction of African-American history that incorporates poetry, music, and drama—and the members of the theater begin to congregate. There is a sense of melancholy because Langston Hughes, the writer and director of Don’t You Want to be Free?, is leaving the project and moving to California. Hughes, a founding member of the theater, makes his way around the room, chatting, congratulating, and wishing people well, and then he comes to Robert Earl Jones, one of the evening’s featured actors and a member of the theater’s Executive Committee. Hughes takes an eight-page typescript folded into thirds from his pocket and hands it to his friend. Jones unfolds it and glances at the title—Seven Moments of Love—and then at the inscription, “To Earl Jones, These monologues, Sincerely, Langston 1939”. The two men shake hands and exchange a few kind words, and then the evening continues. Hughes, already known internationally as a writer and cultural figure, continues to travel and publish; Robert Earl Jones begins a career in film and later becomes better known as the father of the actor James Earl Jones; and the Harlem Suitcase Theater, never a great financial success, doesn’t make it past the 1939-1940 season. The typescript of Seven Moments of Love, meanwhile, arrives in the collections of the New-York Historical Society in October 1940.
Of course we don’t know exactly what the moment looked like when Hughes handed the typescript over to Jones, or if such a moment took place at all, but part of the value of this kind of document is that it can evoke a specific time and place, rich with historic and literary import. During this period in his career, Hughes seemed to be doing everything. After spending time in Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War, he was finishing an autobiography, trying to establish a new kind of theater in the United States, and still writing poetry. His influences during this time ranged from Soviet Constructivism to Shakespeare. The title of his 1940 volume of poetry, Shakespeare in Harlem, underlines the presence of the latter, and we can see it as well in “Seven Moments of Love”, the full title of which adds the phrase: “an un-sonnet sequence in blues”. Shakespeare, the most famous of English language sonnet writers, adjusted the traditional form to suit his purposes, and Hughes, likewise, applied his own meter and rhyme to the basic sonnet structure in which a speaker gives voice to a problem that is resolved in the poem’s final lines. But then this is an “un-sonnet sequence” and the structure and content of the poem are faithful only to the contemporary reader. One nice thing about Hughes’ inscription is that it makes explicit the relationship between the writer and his audience, and in this case it leads us to the person reading the poem: Robert Earl Jones. Jones left his young family when he was about 20 years old to work first in Memphis, and then in Chicago where he was a prizefighter, before landing in New York with a WPA job, which is where Hughes found him. In the poem there are echoes of estrangement and Depression-era wages that would likely resonate with Jones on a personal level. An Elizabethan reader, and probably most readers today, wouldn’t pick up on the references made to KDQ radio and Owl Head handguns, but these bits of culture, like the typescript itself, belong only to that singular time and place that Hughes and Jones shared.