"THERE IS A BITTER RIVER FLOWING THROUGH THE SOUTH… THAT STRANGLED MY DREAM": FIRST EDITION OF LANGSTON HUGHES' CONTROVERSIAL VOLUME OF POETRY, JIM CROW'S LAST STAND, 1943
HUGHES, Langston. Jim Crow's Last Stand. (New York): Negro Publication Society of America, (1943). Slim octavo, original printed wrappers, staple-bound as issued; pp. 30. $1600.
First edition, exceedingly scarce first printing, of a seminal work by Hughes—“poet laureate of the wartime civil rights movement”—a pivotal volume of 23 poems, together in print for the first time, featuring his epic poem, “The Bitter River,” dedicated “to the memory of Charlie Lang and Ernest Green, each 14 years old when lynched together."
Here, as in all his poetry, Langston Hughes "issues powerful substantive challenges to the official renderings of the principles of equality and liberty… as Whitman did before him, he gazes out at the great landscape of America… [yet] unlike his predecessor, Hughes' vision of hopefulness is tinged with a profound sadness" (Tsai, "Ethics of Melancholy Citizenship," 566-571). This slim but influential volume of 23 poems was especially controversial in its "fusillade of verses in the long war on Jim Crow" (Rampersad, Life V.II, 60). He voices outrage over the denial of Black voting rights, the betrayal implicit in FDR's Four Freedoms, racism by the police and in the courts, and segregation during WWII that persists not only in buses, but also in the "Jim Crow Army, and Navy, too." Not long after publication Hughes would be targeted by the FBI and was soon attacked in Congress by the Special Committee on Un-American Activities.
At the book's heart is his poem, "The Bitter River," which Hughes dedicates "to the memory of Charlie Lang and Ernest Green, each 14 years old when lynched together beneath the Shubata Bridge over the Chicasawhay River in Mississippi, October 12th, 1942." America's "poet laureate of the wartime civil rights movement," Hughes transforms that river into an epic symbol of African American suffering, death—and resistance. "I've drunk of the bitter river," he writes. It is "mixed with the blood of the lynched boys… and my grandfather's back with its ladder of scars." In 1955 the murder of Emmett Till brought him back to the memory of Lang and Green. "For Hughes, as for many who protested the Hanging Bridge lynchings, grief and despair fueled protest politics." The poem, which appeared in the Baltimore Afro-American less than two weeks after the lynchings, is printed here in book form for the first time. "No one ever stood trial for the lynchings… but in Green's and Lang's death, the Black press searched not only for symbolic resistance but for divine retribution" (Ward, in Death and the American South, 247-48). First edition, first printing: with uncorrected misaligned "Belt… 19" on Contents page. No. 2 in the Race and Culture Series. Bruccoli & Clark, 160. Not in Blockson. Small inked numerical notation to copyright page.
Text very fresh with trace of edge-toning, faint soiling to front wrapper. A very scarce about-fine copy.