If you haven’t read Betsy Partridge’s post to “Fall” do so — it came at a perfect point for me. I’m working on a kind of Life and Times of J. Edgar Hoover, and was struggling with one of the most difficult context problems — the whiplash in the place of Communism in American life — how in the minds of some Americans the Party went from enemy to friend to idealistic dream to enemy to ally to foe in just about a decade — if you track from the late 20s through the Depression and the Scottsboro case to the Hitler-Stalin pact, the Nazi invasion of Russia, the siege of Stalingrad to the Iron Curtain and the Cold War. I had hacked a path through that underbrush but was not happy. My wife suggested I find a person, a kind of parallel to J. Edgar, to personify those drawn to Communism. I did — Langston Hughes. He works perfectly, but reorients other sections of the book. And that gets to Betsy’s post.
Today Hughes is in every poetry collection for middle grade and even younger readers. Whether it is The Negro Speaks of Rivers, or My People, or Mother to Son (“Life ain’t no crystal stair”) he is a beloved and essentially safe voice — a poet-prophet-voice of the African American experience. In 1932 he was writing about Revolution and visiting Russia to make a movie about the solidarity of the working people in the struggle. As angry as he was about Scottsboro, he was silent about the abuse of justice he directly witnessed in the Soviet Union. Hughes is a good voice because some readers will recognize him — yet the man in my story is completely different from the person my readers know.
Writing about Communism in the 30s is like the challenge future historians will have in explaining our time — it was devout American conservatives such as William Casey (for example) who supported the Taliban — because to them devout Islam was better than godless Communism — yet now it is devout American conservatives who oppose the Islamic Center near ground zero — now Islam, not Marxism, is the enemy. This reminds me of when I first began taking serious classes about the medieval period and the early Renaissance. As you may recall, the central political conflict in Dante’s Florence was between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. But as my professor explained the conflict was about parties not positions — in fact sometimes their views completely shifted, they just stayed enemies (think of our political parties and race — the Republicans as abolitionists, the Democrats siding with the slave South, then the Democratic alliance with civil rights against Republican resistance). Whether is the left in the 30s, or the right today, or both sides in 13th century Florence — you can’t tell the players without a scorecard. And that is our challenge in writing history for our readers: first we need to get them to see how different the past was, then supply a guide to make sense of that time and place.