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The Collected Works of Langston Hughes #14

I Wonder as I Wander: An Autobiographical Journey

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In I Wonder as I Wander, Langston Hughes vividly recalls the most dramatic and intimate moments of his life in the turbulent 1930s.

His wanderlust leads him to Cuba, Haiti, Russia, Soviet Central Asia, Japan, Spain (during its Civil War), through dictatorships, wars, revolutions. He meets and brings to life the famous and the humble, from Arthur Koestler to Emma, the Black Mammy of Moscow. It is the continuously amusing, wise revelation of an American writer journeying around the often strange and always exciting world he loves.

405 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1956

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About the author

Langston Hughes

343 books1,865 followers
Through poetry, prose, and drama, American writer James Langston Hughes made important contributions to the Harlem renaissance; his best-known works include Weary Blues (1926) and The Ways of White Folks (1934).

People best know this social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist James Mercer Langston Hughes, one of the earliest innovators of the then-new literary art form jazz poetry, for his famous written work about the period, when "Harlem was in vogue."


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Displaying 1 - 30 of 102 reviews
Profile Image for Cheryl.
464 reviews583 followers
February 28, 2017
What is it about art that calms the soul and rejuvenates the mind? In times of unrest, art uncovers the truth and displays it with unwavering subtlety. In Hughes' memoir, I read as he observed how art in the form of theatre, dance, writing, folklore, music, and graphics helped snap portraits of the world during a time of social change. Hughes could not sit at the same table with Hemingway in America, due to the color lines drawn, but both he and Hemingway could dine together with writers in Barcelona, during the war. He was seated as a guest of honor in Japan's most celebrated theaters, yet he was deported from Japan due to fears that he'd travelled to Russia and China, so he could have been a communist. While on tour in the American Jim Crow South, he could not eat anywhere he wanted, rest anywhere he could afford, or use the restroom at his leisure because he was a black man, yet his play ran on Broadway and was "listed among the twelve longest runs for 1935-36" (even if it took him a while to realize that someone else was putting his name to his work, even if his agent didn't tell him about the play until after it was produced, even if he had to get the Dramatist Guild to represent him so he get paid royalties for his own work).

"For ten years I had been a writer of sorts, but a writer who wrote mostly because, when I felt bad, writing kept me from feeling worse; it put my inner emotions into exterior form, and gave me an outlet for words that never came in conversation."

Hughes' house in Harlem stood empty and dilapidated until recently, when Harlem writers were able to raise enough money to turn it into an artist colony (you can read about the process here=>http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/m...). Before this, the house was ivy-covered, almost in the process of being torn down by the city, while in the same neighborhood, Harlem's beauty was finally being seen, being revitalized, but its history distorted. The exposed brick beauty of those Harlem apartments interior that you read about in works from the Harlem Renaissance writers, are now modernized high-end properties, their unique historical frameworks still poetic portraits.

This ends my February journey with Langston Hughes: first his book of poems, Selected Poems, and now his second memoir. If anyone is interested in his memoirs, I would suggest starting with The Big Sea, my favorite of the two, since that first Volume of his memoirs is more poetically inclined than this one, and is more about 1920s America, the Harlem Renaissance, and the start of this travels through Europe. I chose this because I wanted to traverse black history month by following the wanderings of one of the most important voices in black literature. I wanted to feel history traverse my veins and seep through my body so that I was not only reminded of progression, but also reminded of the sacrifice and toil. After all, can one truly learn black history without listening to the experience of the ones directly affected? I read this to learn from the man whose works is often relegated to America and the race lines, but one who is in fact world-rounded; one who, like Hemingway of his time, traveled the world, from Africa to Asia (Soviet Asia), the Caribbean to Europe, from where he wrote numerous articles, stories, plays, poems, and reportage.
Profile Image for Rowena.
500 reviews2,440 followers
July 29, 2013
This was an incredibly enjoyable autobiography of one of my favourite poets, Langston Hughes. In the preface, Margaret Walker says about Hughes, “Langston Hughes loved life and all people, and at the same time worked diligently at his craft and art of writing and was one of the most prolific writers in this (20th) Century. His influence on Black world literature is immense.”

The autobiography focused on Hughes’ thoughts and experiences while travelling around the world during the 1930s, and how his travels shaped his craft and personal philosophy. Some of the places he visited were Haiti, Cuba, the former Soviet Union, and Japan. His insights were really fascinating and thought-provoking. His experiences as a black man were even more so as race did play a part in his travels. He showed that the world was a lot more diverse than many thought, even back then. I learned some fascinating information about the world and also about Hughes, the most interesting was perhaps that he was quite good friends with Alfred Koestler, whom he travelled with.

I couldn’t help thinking how difficult travelling was back then. Nowadays our biggest problems seem to be whether we can get a wi-fi connection but in those days even finding a good quality pencil to write with was a challenge for Hughes!

His experiences in the former Soviet Union were the most illuminating for me. He met the most interesting people there and also considered the parallels between the blacks in the racist American South and the Uzbeks who were downtrodden members of the Soviet Union. He realized art can be therapeutic in those cases: “To me as a writer, it was especially interesting to observe how art of all sorts – writing, painting, the theatre- was being utilized as a weapon against the evils of the past.”

Hughes was definitely a funny guy. He never failed to see the humour or irony in situations: “In El Paso it was strange to find that just by stepping across an invisible line into Mexico, a Negro could buy a beer in any bar, sit anywhere in the movies, or eat in any restaurant, so suddenly did Jim Crow disappear, and Americans who would not drink beside a Negro in Texas, did so in Mexico. Funny people, Southerners.”

A great read, one that I will gladly read again.
Profile Image for Zanna.
676 reviews942 followers
August 6, 2017
"While he was engaged in correcting my manners, since I took his admonition amiably, he went on to say that furthermore he had noticed [us] sitting in the grassy open space in front of the hotel on the ground talking with market women and fishermen, and even playing with their children – or worse, engaged in dominoes with the barefooted wharf workers who hung out on the sea wall! These things, the hotel manager explained, simply were not done in Haiti by persons of our standing. He, the manager, who was also a lawyer, would be glad to introduce us to his friends with whom, he was sure, we would have much more in common.

I was pleased to accept the manager’s offer, I said politely. But at the same time, I argued with him that I did not see why, since I was interested in the folk life of the Haitian people, I should not associate with whom I please – especially since the better-class Haitians neither knew how to play drums nor dance the conga. The parties at the homes of his friends, I was sure, were very much like the parties of educated people everywhere. I tried to tell [him] that one can drink champagne and talk about Proust or Gide in New York. But one cannot see a conga dance there or attend a wake with tables set in the yard for games of cards. But he got up and went away shaking his head."


"Concerning the nice girls of the town, there was a very sad story going the rounds of Madrid that year. In pre-revolutionary Spain, good maidens did not go out with young men until they were engaged, and only then accompanied by a chaperone. Such girls remained virgin until married. If it were rumoured otherwise, and chastity were doubted, a girl might never get a good husband. But when the Franco troops besieged Madrid in overwhelming numbers early in the days of the Civil War, and when it seemed that the city could hold out no longer, word spread that if Madrid fell to Franco the Moorish legions would rape all the women in the city. This pleasure, without hindrance, Franco had promised them. Rather than be raped, many of the good girls of Madrid decided to give themselves to their sweethearts – the gallant young men who expected to die anyway, within a few days, in defence of the city. So, under the thunder of Franco guns and the bombs of foreign planes, one thunderous night shaken by gunfire, a sort of mass submission of the decent maidens of Madrid to their beloveds took place. But due to the miracle of “No pasaron!” - They Shall Not Pass – the city did not fall – not that week, nor that month, nor that year. Madrid held out. Then, even in the eyes of their own lovers, thousands of the nice girls of Madrid, since they were no longer virgins, were held in contempt."
Profile Image for Caroline.
765 reviews218 followers
February 25, 2017
Near the end of this 1954 account of his world travels from 1931 through 1937, Langston Hughes writes:

I remembered once during my childhood in Kansas my grandmother had given me an apple that had been bruised and so had a brown spot on it. I didn’t want to eat the apple.
My grandmother said, “What’s the matter with you, boy? You can’t expect every apple to be a perfect apple. Just because it’s got a speck on it, you want to throw it away. Bit that speck out and eat that apple, son. It’s still a good apple.”
That the way the world is, I thought, if you bite the specks out, it’s still a good apple.

And that attitude pervades these pages. Lanston Hughes travels jubilantly, and describes but distances himself from the specks. At the beginning, back from Europe (see the earlier The Big Sea) he finds himself rejected by his long time elderly white sponsor, and heading west to San Francisco where he benefits from the friendship of another sponsor. He goes to Mexico to settle the estate of his dead father, to Cuba and Haiti for the experience, through the south on a reading tour of universities, to Moscow on a doomed motion picture project, to central Asia as a journalist, across China on his way home, to Japan where he is ejected under political suspicion, and lastly to Spain to cover the Civil War. Sometimes he basks in the hospitality of wealthy friends, mostly he is barely able to pay for a hotel room and food.

But friendship and luck are on his side. He meets everyone there is to meet during the thirties, either introduced or fortuitously ending up destitute in the same spot and encountering another artist. He rented a room with a then-unknown Cartier-Bresson in Mexico City, and ran into a getting-started Arthur Koestler in the farthest outback of Central Asia. They spent weeks investigating the effect of Soviet rule on the feudal society together.

Now we say, ‘How could these artists have been so susceptible to Communism and the USSR?’ But reading Hughes, you understand. He had just been to Cuba and Haiti, where he saw the effects of American capitalism and imperialism. The poverty was intense. He had just traveled through the Jim Crow south, where an acquaintance died just before he reached a town because she had been refused care at a white hospital after an auto accident. The Scottsboro boys case was going on. He connived his way onto a plantation and saw the plight of sharecroppers.

And then, he goes to Moscow where artists are respected and well paid. He goes to Central Asia where women are being liberated, children schooled, doctors stationed. There is electricity. There is no color line. Because Hughes is everywhere sensitive to race, and searching out blacks and African-Americans to ask how they are treated.

But sometimes, his focus on biting out the specks is bad policy. He mentions the show trials and purges in passing a couple of times, but with no comment. This is puzzling. But he was writing the book just as the McCarthy hearings were climaxing or ending, so one has to read this as the book of someone who had testified but not defied McCarthy; Hughes was criticized for being almost cooperative.

Hughes is a delightful writer, conveying personality and local color wonderfully. He was in a myriad of dangerous and physically uncomfortable situations during his travels, but what comes across is his enjoyment of it all. Recommended.

Profile Image for Debbie Zapata.
1,759 reviews29 followers
February 23, 2018
This is the second autobiography written by Langston Hughes. Here he talks about his life in the 1930's. He spent time in Cuba and Haiti, then did poetry readings in the American South, and stayed for a time in California before heading to Russia to take part in a Soviet movie that was to be made there. He eventually rode the Trans-Siberian train across the country to then spend time in Shanghai and Japan, and he was asked to leave that country because the authorities thought he was a spy. (Japan and China were at war at the time.) Back to California where a friend loaned him a house to live in for a year so Hughes could write. Next he was asked by a Negro newspaper to travel to Spain and send back articles about the Spanish Civil War, and he spent more time in that country than he had intended, because he loved it and was so impressed with the spirit of the citizens of Madrid during their siege by Franco's forces.

I was amazed at his ability to endure all these travels and the mostly primitive conditions he found himself in all over the world. He never had much money, so he did not stay in the fancy hotels; and he preferred to become acquainted with what I would call the 'regular people': he did not associate exclusively with other writers and artists, although he was quite capable of rattling off names of The Rich And Famous that he mingled with here and there.

Politically I think he may have been a bit naive while in Russia, accepting that in only ten years after the Revolution there was no more prejudice against people of color (I am thinking specifically here about his time in what is now known as Uzbekistan). He kept marveling at how, when he was there, the native people of Central Asia no longer had their version of the Jim Crow laws to deal with. But a friend kept pointing out that the people who disagreed with the new Soviet order of things were either dead or in prison. Hughes seemed to be okay with that, and I think the fact of his own race made him more sensitive to the issue than his white friend could ever be.

This book was originally published in 1956. I don't know why he never wrote another volume that talked about the 40's and beyond. Maybe he was busy with other projects by then, or felt that the earlier decades were filled with the most readable adventures of a full life. I am sorry not to read more of his own words about that life, but I am very glad that I have these two volumes in my library, and I am looking forward immensely to reading Short Stories of Langston Hughes, which I ordered a day or so ago, and I will be on the lookout for his poetry books as well.

This book and his first autobiography, The Big Sea, were for me excellent introductions to Hughes and his work. I highly recommend them both.
Profile Image for Frank.
300 reviews
April 30, 2015
This is an unexpectedly dense book, compared to Hughes's fast-paced first autobiography The Big Sea. That earlier book covers Hughes' childhood to early adulthood; this one details his travels around the world and between the wars, from 1931 to New Years' Day 1938. Freshly spurned by his erstwhile patron Charlotte Mason, Hughes takes $400 he earned from his first novel and heads to the sunny Caribbean where he notes the existence of color prejudice not only in American-controlled Cuba but also in Haiti, renowned as the place where black people had thrown off their slavemasters. Coming back to the States, Hughes finds himself short of cash and, encouraged by Mary McLeod Bethune, embarks on on nationwide poetry-reading tour of black colleges, culminating in San Francisco. There, he receives an invitation to help write a film in the USSR, and he travels with a large group of African Americans to Moscow to await the beginning of the project. It eventually gets lost in Soviet bureaucracy and abandoned, but Hughes remains in the Soviet Union for more than a year, traveling to Uzbekistan, where he rooms with Arthur Koestler for a time and writes journalistic reports from this region transformed by the Communist revolution. Koestler becomes increasingly disillusioned with Communism (and later would go on to write Darkness at Noon and other scathing portraits of Communist totalitarianism). Hughes notes the shortcomings and even the crimes of the new regime, yet his experience as a Negro in Jim Crow America gives him a more immediate appreciation for the praiseworthy aspects of the new ideology:

Koestler and Grasdani both had told me that the jails of Tashkent were full of political prisoners. I, myself, had seen the long lines of relatives outside the OGPU prison, waiting with food for their loved ones on visiting days. Perhaps, as Grasdani claimed, many there were unjustly imprisoned. But some behind bars, I felt sure, were those who had not wished to see the Jim Crow signs go down—both whites and Asiatics who would prefer that the old freewheeling days of plunder and power came back, when the strongest lived in luxury and devil take the hindmost, when a rich man might have a hundred wives and a poor man no wife at all, when a kid like Tajaiv could never dream of the building of a dam to light his world. Life in Tashkent was far from comfortable and perfect, and the near approximation to comfort was only in the upper-echelon hotels or the homes of the very top commissars, engineers, writers, or dancers. But I could not bring myself to believe, as Grasdani did, that life was not better for most people now than it had been in the days of the Volga boatmen, the Asiatic serfs and the Jim Crow signs.

The Uzbekistan section, at times a bit tedious, in retrospect is the emotional heart of the book—the part in which Hughes comes face to face with the best that Communism has to offer as well as its ultimate limitations. Hughes returns to Moscow, thence to Japan and China, and back to San Francisco. When his father dies in Mexico, Hughes must travel there to attend to his estate, and he concludes his narrative with a description of his months in Spain during the Civil War, living in cities besieged by the Fascist forces of Franco and listening to the stories of American blacks who have traveled to this foreign land to fight against oppression.

This book is a fascinating historical document, firsthand testimony from one of our most humane literary voices. Hughes saw the world at a unique point in human history—with Communism at its most promising, Fascism on the rise, Imperialism reaching its tentacles everywhere, and Jim Crow clicking along apparently unimpeded. Amid these huge socio-political forces, Hughes manages to find personal connections to the people he meets, to find humor and pleasure and friendship no matter where he is. This is not a quick read, but it's a rewarding one.

Profile Image for The Scrivener's Quill.
305 reviews91 followers
April 25, 2012
I did not know much about Langston Hughes, but this autobiography helped fill some of that gap. I found it to be a humorous and insightful book. He provides a human touch to Russia, a few of the Soviet states, Haiti, Spain and the United States. It was a fascinating time in the US and his books gives the history some interesting spice.
Profile Image for David.
645 reviews235 followers
February 18, 2017
A important job of a poet should be to speak plainly. This is easy to forget if you look at some of folderol which passes for poetry sometimes in our benighted times. So, when the book club chose a memoir by a poet, I cringed and prepared myself for some fancy writin', which only goes to show how wrong a person (OK, I) can be. This is a wonderful book and a pleasure to read from beginning to end. It is yet another demonstration (as if one were needed) that books often are have all of the advantages of conversing with the most interesting person you've ever met, with none of the drawbacks.

For example – Advantage: the poet has been to more interesting places, at more interesting times, than you or I will ever to be able to experience personally, and yet can convey the atmosphere concisely and with a self-deprecating good humor. Drawback avoided: You don't have to make embarrassing, transparently-false excuses when you're sleepy and want to go home. (If you are me, you are already in bed when reading.)

Now that the poetry of Langston Hughes is being weaponized as a small part of the current unpleasantness in the United States, it is interesting to look back on the poet's experience. He endures the indignities of segregation with good humor. What real choice did he have? He also notes its strange contradictions – Americans who would not let him into the front door of their store in El Paso, Texas, will happily sit on the next barstool a short distance away in Juarez, Mexico, and think nothing strange about it.

The surprise appearance, out of nowhere, of a young, pre-fame Arthur Koestler provides an interesting moment to reflect about justice, now and then. Hughes runs into Koestler, whom he does not know, in former Soviet Central Asia, and for a time they travel together. Koestler is writing journalism. He invites Hughes to watch a show trial in progress. After observing, Hughes says that the defendant looks like a bit of a thug, and therefore could be guilty. Koestler very reasonably thinks this is an inappropriate reaction to a clear miscarriage of justice, but Hughes doesn't really take Koestler's implied criticism very seriously. From our time, we can recognize that this is the very same reaction used to justify a sense of apathy by the majority culture in the face of the senseless shootings of African-Americans which create headlines with dreary regularity, because, if we convince ourselves that the victim somehow looked as if he was potential threat, well, the tragedy is diminished to a level where we can forget it by lunchtime.

In addition to a long and often surprisingly comic visit to Stalinist Soviet Union, and a less comic visit to the Jim Crow south, Hughes seems to have spent a little bit of time everywhere, met a load of interesting people, collected telling anecdotes and observations, and gave the impression of having a high old time at every moment.

At this distance, it's easy to forget what an influence (sometimes for the better) Ernest Hemingway was at the time of writing. I think it's easy to see the Hemingway influence here, especially in the last section when Hughes visits Spain during the civil war, and meets Hemingway himself. However, I think of the poet's storytelling as Hemingway Improved – all of the clarity with none of the mannerisms, as well as a happy lack of macho posturing and misogyny.

To summarize, a surprisingly fun and uplifting book which also can engage the old coconut on serious issues, should you be so inclined. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Illiterate.
1,692 reviews31 followers
May 6, 2019
Hughes is a generous and humorous observer of a fascinating age.
Profile Image for Robin.
810 reviews21 followers
February 8, 2011
Langston Hughes’ autobiography from the years 1931 through New Year’s Day 1938 covers his early years as a professional writer during the Great Depression, in which he travels extensively and observes practices and politics as well as the status of black people throughout the world. He crafts his stories with compassion and humor, and writes in an entertaining and easy-to-read style. From disentangling from an amorous, married Muscovite actress on the Trans-Siberian Express, to touring Japan’s geisha houses and prostitution districts with two Australian men, to writing “Mailbox for the Dead” as his father (unbeknownst to him) was dying, to learning the social customs of Uzbek lovemaking, his stories never fail to entertain.

He begins with a short chapter about travels in Cuba and Haiti, where he goes to recover from confusion and sadness after being abandoned by his former patroness. He observes race and class lines, and enjoys friendships, balmy weather and native music. Through his friend’s mishaps, he returns to Daytona with no funds to get home. Mrs. Bethune, leader of a black junior college and former cotton field worker, helps by providing a car and accompanying him and his friend, stopping at her friends’ homes for food and shelter.

Following Mrs. Bethune’s advice, Langston embarks on a book tour of the US south, reading his poetry and selling books at black colleges and churches. As an educated northerner, he is surprised and sad to experience segregation and racial hatred. He cannot use public restrooms, stay in hotels, or approach any whites during his tour. He stays in private homes. His hosts are duly impressed with his writing and invite friends and neighbors to parties in his honor, and as pleased and cordial as he is, he longs for an occasional night of rest and quiet in a rented private room—off limits to a black man at that time.

Next, Hughes tours the USSR with a group of blacks hired to make a movie that is a Communist spin on race relations in the US. Written by an Austrian, the script is flawed and will not make a plausible movie, and the northern-educated actors have little interest in enacting in the “Negro spiritual” musical score, little talent in singing and dancing, and indeed little acting experience. As the project falls apart, the actors stay in five-star hotels and are treated respectfully as “comrades” who have been oppressed. They travel freely and enjoy theater, music, and other cultural experiences without limits, as they cannot do in the US. Despite the movie project being canceled, the actors are paid and offered a complimentary tour of the USSR. The actors insist upon going to the newly-Communist Asiatic part of the USSR (to meet other people of darker skin), which the Soviets are reluctant to oblige. Eventually, Hughes spends quite a bit of time in Uzbekistan and its surrounds, and writes a fascinating account of his friends and cultures of various ethnic groups in this region. His USSR-sponsored visit to a dangerous frontier town Permetyab is a frightful highlight.

Hughes then tours Japan and China, and experiences a polite but firm interrogation by the Japanese police. He lauds Japan’s respect for people of all colors. However, he firmly states his belief that no country should hold colonies, and as Japan is colonizing China, he is considered an enemy of the state and asked to leave. His account of the final days before his ship leaves, tailed by Japanese men charged with keeping an eye on him, is quite humorous.

In another chapter Hughes sequesters himself in a friend’s cabin in Carmel to write. He is interrupted by the death of his father and his aunt’s insistence (verbal and financial) that he travel to Mexico to hear the will read. Although disinherited, Hughes loves Mexico and delays his return to the US and his writing while enjoying Mexican culture and characters, most notably the three distinctly different sisters who were his father’s servants and “adopt” Hughes during his stay.

The last chapter is about Hughes’ experiences as war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War. He details most graphically the middle year of the siege of Madrid: the artillery barrages, the scarcity of food, the Americans volunteering for the Republic, the hospitals, and the residents who carry on with their lives. In the end, safe in Paris, Hughes contemplates war and peace, life and death on the brink of WWII.

I highly recommend this book. It’s a fascinating slice of history, plainly, intelligently and humorously written.
Profile Image for Drick.
816 reviews26 followers
May 29, 2017
In the late 1930's Langston Hughes traveled to Russia, across Asia into China and Japan, spent time in California and then served as a reporter in the Spanish civil war. This book is his travelogue of those years. He tells stories of people and places he visited, and it reveals him as truly a global person, always rooted in the lives and experiences of black people all over the world. A simple and easy read, but interesting to those attracted to Hughes' poetry and prose.
Profile Image for Dee Molloy.
4 reviews6 followers
January 6, 2018
Beautiful memoir by a poetic genius, of what it was like to be a black man, building a writing career and traveling the world in the era of the Great American Depression, Stalin's Russia, the Spanish Civil War. His trajectory is inspired by an interest in folk traditions of the African diaspora. In this research, has great adventures. He is interested in dances, songs, oral and written stories and other cultural activities such as wakes.

While Hughes seems to enjoy solitude and quiet, he also and has a gregarious side. He uses music (jazz on his gramophone), performance and writing to connect with people. We learn about serious, dangerous discrimination and bigotry in his journey through the American south. Hughes interest in culture and his humanity make him very egalitarian. He has a talent for mixing with all classes of people. Indeed he fraternises with many famous and soon to be famous artists. Fascinating also to get insights into the daily lives of these people... Henri Cartier-Bresson, Diego Rivera, and many more.

Hughes resiliently endures many discomforts on his journey through life and the world: overcrowded, segregated train carriages, rude bigots, a drenching on a primitve bus, sleeping in a drain by the side of the road. There even rare days where he doesn't even have enough to eat. Despite having apparently no money, he can still by cheap seats in the Paris Opera. Due to his artistic connections it seems he's invited to most of the shows and parties worth attending, with or without money. He is also a guest of honour in universities, artistic circles, and the homes of wealthy patrons and well wishers. This makes for a book of dramatic and thrilling contrasts. Its not a comfortable life, but its rich in meaning and sensation. He's really operating on the space time continuum, traveling and living.

I had the great pleasure to listen to this audiobook while on a one-year creative journey myself. Despite all the hardships he encounters, I envy him his male privilege – being able to travel so freely without constantly fearing for his physical safety. He can essentially sleep as soundly in a concrete drain, or shirtless on the open deck of a ship, as he can in a mansion. He can jump off a train in the middle of a desert, miles from the nearest people or town, and talk to fishermen, soldiers, peasants without fear of being mistaken for some kind of easy sexual opportunity. He doesn't worry too much when he gets down to his last few dollars, and nor does he worry that his attire could be seen as an invitation to harassment. This freedom creates a lot of spontaneity, adventure and resilience.

I'm reminded of a quote,
“Beware of artists. They mix with all classes of society and are therefore most dangerous."
— Queen Victoria.”
This of course is also what makes them interesting.
Profile Image for Paris Chanel.
308 reviews26 followers
January 15, 2023
In his first memoir, The Big Sea, Langston Hughes unveils his self-portrait as a depressed, vulnerable young world traveler in his 20s in the 1920s, aiming to understand his family and sense of self against the barriers of society. His gift of words and will to finally be leads to his self-discovery, awakening, and budding friendships in the midst of examining the racial construct and class structures around him in various countries.

I Wonder As I Wonder is a continuation of his wanderlust spirit around the world into the 1930s. Langston paints a portrait of societal structures and cultures around the world (even witnessing dictatorships and the Spanish Civil War) and in the US, while making his imprint as a gifted wordsmith during the The Great Depression and meeting new/familiar faces along the way.

Just as The Big Sea, I Wonder As I Wonder is a layered sensory book. You feel like you’re right there in the past as a curious world traveler, seeing through his eyes, taking field notes, witnessing the shaping of various countries and the way it translates to the daily lives of the people, and how it all compares/contrasts to today.

It's funny that upon concluding this memoir, Langston still writes about wanting to be a writer: “But that is what I want to be, a writer, recording what I see commenting upon it, and distilling from my own emotions a personal interpretation.” The thought of doing while actually doing. Journeying through the preceding pages with him, you understand it's really his longing to make his passion a successful earning career in spite of barriers. He did indeed.
Profile Image for Joseph Reiner.
17 reviews
February 16, 2021
Wow. Langston Hughes’ amazing account of his travels in a few short years (1931-1938) left me feeling somewhat jealous of this stalwart poet and visionary. Hughes was gifted with the ability to strike up friendships in any corner of the world and his keenness to seek out meaningful connections regardless of his physical accommodations is endearing, to say the least.

From a summer jaunt with a friend in Cuba and Haiti, a coast-to-coast speaking tour in the US, a yearlong excursion in the USSR and Soviet Asia for a film that never was, short adventures in Imperial Japan and pre-Mao China, a luxurious retreat in Carmel, CA, to Mexico City, Cleveland, Paris, and finally a war-torn Spain, Hughes finds the time to appreciate the little things while also reflecting on the big picture and doing quite a bit of wondering in his wanders. Highlights include brushing shoulders with august figures such as Diego Rivera, Josephine Baker, Madame Sun Yat-sen, and Ernest Hemingway to enjoying a non-linguistic friendship with a young Uzbek he simply called “Yeah Man” as they bonded over Louis Armstrong records from the victrola that Hughes’ lugged to every dank, dusty corner of the planet.

This book was an easy and romantic read that left me wanting more when I finished, instilling just a bit more love for the beautiful world I have the honor of living in. The seeming ease with which he was able to traipse through the world on very limited funds, never failing to find a good time with fresh faces to spend it with is inspiring. It’s definitely brought to light that one day, when the nail is in the coffin of this pandemic, that I have much wandering of my own to get done!
Profile Image for Lynne.
468 reviews
October 14, 2019
I liked this more than I thought I would. I do like travel stories but more about the natural environment. This is more about people. I did learn quite a bit about how things worked in 1930's Soviet Union and about the war in Spain. The part I didn't like was all the name-dropping of writers, actors, and musicians that he met along the way. And that was constant.
Profile Image for Molly.
384 reviews
September 13, 2020
A lovely memoir by an extraordinary person, this details Hughes' life in the 1930s and travels to the USSR, Japan, China, Cuba, Haiti, and being a correspondent in the Spanish Civil War.
Profile Image for Jim Jones.
372 reviews4 followers
March 22, 2021
Langston Hughes did more in the 8 years this book covers (1929 – 1937) than most of us will do in our lifetimes. He starts he book at his graduation from college, right after the stock market crashes. He quickly realizes that there is not much point in looking for work. He ends up traveling to Cuba and Haiti, always with an eye on how other countries treat blacks, and then ends up going on a poetry reading/lecture circuit amongst the black colleges of the South. Seeing Jim Crow first hand infuriates him, but being the gentle soul he is, he laughs and shakes his head at the whites and at the absurdity of their laws. And this is the crux of the book—Langston is here mainly to observe and not to judge. This is makes him an amiable companion. From the South Hughes goes to Moscow with a group of African Americans asked to make a film about how they are treated in the US. Between endless bureaucracy and pressure from the US to shut down the production, the film is never made. But Hughes is given the chance to see the enormous progress made through Communism and its ability to tackle racism (but he’s also not afraid to criticize it). This leads to the most fascinating part of the book for me—his time in central Asia and then Shanghai and Japan (via the Orient Express). These chapters read like a Hollywood movie that desperately needs to be made! My only wish is that Hughes had been comfortable enough with his sexuality to include that this in the book. One must read between the lines to see whom he has crushes on. Who knows if anything beyond this happened? But that is an anachronistic wish on my part. Hughes ends the book with his time in Spain during the Civil War. And who didn’t he know?--Hemingway, Bricktop, Claude McKay, Auden, Jimmy Cagney—the list is endless. The sad realization I had at the end of this book is that Hughes spent his life hustling for writing jobs and was barred from making the kind of money white writers made (Hollywood would not hire black writers). While he should have been living the life of one of America’s best and most famous writers, he struggled to stay afloat and that is a tragedy.
Profile Image for Marti.
356 reviews11 followers
October 27, 2015
This is actually a follow up to the author's first volume of autobiographical writings entitled "The Big Sea" (which I now want to read as well). The story picks up near the start of the Great Depression with the author casting about for ways to continue to earn a living by writing. A friend and mentor suggests that he could get paid to read his poems at black colleges and churches across the deep South. The tour was wildly successful in terms of generating both income and more importantly, publicity (in spite of the ever present danger of being black during Jim Crow). Suddenly free from immediate financial worry, Hughes then decides to travel and write about places like Cuba, Haiti, Mexico, The U.S.S.R., Central Asia, China and Japan (and a stint covering the Spanish Civil War).

My favorite part was the section on his travels in Russia where he, along with a group unknowns from Harlem with absolutely no acting or movie experience, is recruited as a script doctor for a Russian film about the exploitation of blacks in America (a job he could never get in Hollywood because there were no black writers at the time). The project gets stalled for weeks on end but the group gets paid well to hang out at a first-class hotel in Moscow, being wined and dined by the Socialist Intelligentsia for anti-Capitalist propaganda purposes. What it most reminded me of was a book by Truman Capote called "The Muses Are Heard," where he accompanied a production of Porgy and Bess to the USSR in the 50's. The difference was that Hughes actually found his treatment to be an improvement over what he would have gotten at home.

However, I thought the entire book was filled with great anecdotes about people in the places he visited, most of which were in a state of upheaval.

Profile Image for C.J..
Author 19 books11 followers
July 17, 2015
A delightful book. This sequel to Langston Hughes's 1st autobiography, "The Big Sea," opens "in the midst of a depression," following the crash of Wall Street & of his near-family closeness with a wealthy patron. He's just begun to make a living as a writer. Now he takes off for Haiti (by way of Cuba), a reading tour of the American South, Paris, the Soviet Union, Japan, China, & the Spanish Civil War, among other adventures. As biographer Arnold Rampersad observes in his introduction, Hughes stresses his simplicity as a writer and a man; his "basic approach...is anecdotal rather than analytical, gently ironic..." We see him ignoring racial barriers or welcomed across them, defying authorities, hanging out with such remarkable people as Arthur Koestler and Henri Cartier-Bresson, without the depth of reaction or insight (contemporary or retrospective) I'd have liked. Rampersad notes that Hughes is "by no means completely candid or detailed about his politics...[with] not a line of the powerful, almost incendiary poems he wrote in the Soviet Union." For me, "I Wonder as I Wander" was a sort of antidote or at least flip side of "guy books" such as "On the Road": Langston Hughes is often broke, stranded, &/or desperate, but always curious, usually good-humored & resourceful, rarely selfish or self-pitying, & never exploitive or nihilistic. I enjoyed it as a travel book and a window into a bygone era, while always feeling there was a lot more going on behind the scenes than Hughes was willing to tell.
Profile Image for Kevin.
5 reviews
June 23, 2019
For someone so well-known for his poetry, Langston Hughes writes more compelling prose than 90% of novelists I've read. This is aided by the fact that he led an incredibly interesting life that took him around the world, as evidenced by the period I Wonder as I Wander reflects upon.

Hughes exhibits a remarkable sense of calm and optimism even when trudging through war zones and authoritarian states, which he does regularly. Perhaps this is because, through all his adventures, Jim Crow continuously is the most sinister force.

It seems that no matter where in the world he goes besides the American South, he is welcomed by locals as a guest like any other. To highlight this contrast, he begins the volume by talking about a poetry reading tour he had through the South before going abroad, showing all the ridiculous situations he went through because of Jim Crow. Situations like accidentally entering a train station that is whites only, but not being able to leave because the exit is also only for whites. He portrays these situations as both comical and tragic in the everyday impact they have on black people.

This is a highly entertaining book that gives personality to the man whose poems are still often read today. It's highly approachable, not too long, and well-worth the time.
Profile Image for Megan.
350 reviews39 followers
October 6, 2012

I probably picked this book up because of my own wandering and wondering tendencies. I'd never heard of it or considered reading it until I found it on the "new arrivals" shelf in the audio book section of the library. I'd never read more than a few poems by Langston Hughes. I had no idea what to expect.

Since then, I have fallen in love. Langston Hughes is thoughtful and observant, endlessly good-humored and kind. He describes his life as he lives and travels in the Jim Crow south, to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, to Stalinist Russia including central Asia and Siberia, to China and Japan (just as Japan was invading China), to Mexico, and to revolutionary Spain. In the process, he meets and befriends dozens of recognizable names including Alfred Koestler, Ernest Hemingway, Diego Rivera, and so on and so forth.

The stories are sometimes funny, sometimes shocking, sometimes heart-wrenching, but always thought-provoking. I feel so lucky to have picked up this gem on a lark. I can't wait to read more of Hughes work.

Profile Image for Jodi.
1,658 reviews61 followers
April 25, 2014
This autobiography of a section of poet. Langston Hughes's life was both fascinating and tedious to listen to. The reader was great. I forgot I wasn't listening to Hughes, although I have no idea if they sounded anything alike, but Hughes had a delightful interest in life and the narrator made that clear. Hughes spoke a lot about the color line in the U.S. Where Jim Crow laws are alive and well. But in Europe there is no color line. He was treated like any other person and he liked that. He spent time in Communist Russia, in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, in Paris, and in general all over the world trying to make a living as a writer while being an ambassador, however informally, for Negroes in America. His memoir was at times very interesting but often it was a listing of people he met and some of his adventures are endlessly long. It did make me want to search out his poetry and to regret that this country was so backward as to try to stifle such a brilliant talent.
Profile Image for Bob Schnell.
488 reviews11 followers
May 1, 2014
Though Langston Hughes is best known for his Harlem Renaissance poetry and fiction, this memoir of his travels in Asia, Mexico and Spain deserves just as much recognition. If you enjoyed Mark Twain's travelogues or even "Blue Highways", this should appeal to you as well. Hughes spends significant time in post-revolution Russia, China and Japan often living hand-to-mouth but always running across fellow Americans, from bohemians to celebrities. It seems he is always among friends, new and old and his sense of optimism and humor bloom while away from Jim Crow southern America. He also visits Spain as a corespondent during their civil war, again always hungry but never destitute. As fascinating a history lesson as it is a memoir, "I Wonder As I Wander" is highly recommended.
Profile Image for Sarah.
201 reviews1 follower
April 2, 2012
while i enjoy Langston Hughes' poetry, I am at a loss for how to feel about this. there were bits and pieces that were historically interesting, but even more of it seemed indulgent and annoying. He was halfway through his journey in the USSR and all I could think was get on with it. how many more towns can you visit. noting the exact same thing about each, food was horrible, people were unoppressed but strictly controlled at the same time. the red tape of the government, blah blah blah.. I really had hoped this would be more insightful less rambling. but i guess by the title of the book, it could lean either way, depending on where you put the emphasis.
Profile Image for Bob.
6 reviews4 followers
April 8, 2009
Probably one of my most favorite books. It goes through a good portion of Langston's life going through the South and then heading off to Russia and through Asia and too California and Mexico and it ends up around the Spanish Civil War which is always interesting. If you like really good autobiographies then this is right up your alley and if you are interested in the soviet union and how black people were treated there as well as other places around the world this is also up your alley. He was a great poet and a great writer and this book further proves that.
Profile Image for Crystal.
2,187 reviews112 followers
March 28, 2016
It was truly interesting to see other parts of the world through Langston Hughes's eyes. He noted the similarities and differences in how he was treated in the various countries he visited. In some places there seemed to be very little discrimination based on skin color, but in others, Jim Crowe types of written and unwritten rules were solidly in place.

Langston Hughes was a person with a curious mind. He watched and questioned and explored. It was wonderful to go along with him on his journey.
Profile Image for M.J..
132 reviews3 followers
January 22, 2021
This is my favorite book. Period. Hughes had an amazing life traveling, writing, and meeting all sorts of famous people. The way he writes about his experiences are so clear and relatable. This book never ceases to make me laugh and cry. I look forward to the day I might read it for a 3rd time.
Profile Image for David.
145 reviews8 followers
December 22, 2011
Here Langston Hughes continues telling the story of his colorful life that was filled with wanderlust. He traveled all over the world--Paris, Senegal, Spain,Russia, and the Asiatic Soviet Republics.
Profile Image for Mellie.
96 reviews
November 10, 2020
I really enjoyed this book. I chose to listen to the audio because it made me feel like I was taking a piece of Langston Hughes' beautiful mind with me while I was wondering through town. The narrator had an smooth, calm voice that fit the narration perfectly. The writing was witty, eye-opening, and thought-provoking. The way Hughes described the settings and the people made me feel like I experienced the world of the 1930s along with him.
This was not a quick read for me, as I found myself wanting to research more of the locations and people that he referenced. He really covered a lot of ground in one book, so it is more of a brush of several different places than a detailed canvas, but is a great starting off point for anyone interested in the black experience across the country during the time.
The only thing preventing me from giving this a higher rating is that I did feel that sometimes he labored over inconsequential details (like bartering speaking fees), but then rushed through more interesting tidbits. He has a habit of name-dropping without giving too much additional information, sparking more curiosity and research. The timeline and some of the transitions in locations, were a little nebulous. However, he did a great job of bringing it full circle with his final poignant NYE musings:

So many valuable insights throughout this beautiful and important piece of literature. Definitely worth checking out. And get ready to break out your jazz records, you're going to take a trip with the rich soundtrack of the Harlem Renaissance.
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