Robin's Reviews > I Wonder as I Wander: An Autobiographical Journey

I Wonder as I Wander by Langston Hughes
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's review
Jul 05, 2009

it was amazing
bookshelves: biography, cultural-studies, history-us, history-world, politics

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.
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