To Langston Hughes, Harlem was much more than just a geographical location, for the author the city was an entity in itself. During the rebirth of Harlem, there was electricity, a resonance that was clear to those residing there. Harlem was the centre of black life in New York City. It was alive with jazz and importantly the mood was one of progress, hope, and possibility. Harlem was its own music, its own place and Hughes and others were well aware of the effect the city had on them.
As a multi-layered community fluent in its own kind of blues, the city became a haven for black Americans and even today it reflects a certain character and representation of blackness in America that is still strongly felt.
Hughes once same of himself ‘I am a Negro: Black as the night is black, Black like the depths of my Africa’ (Hughes, 2001, P. 22). This rather personal statement shows the reader exactly what Hughes’ thought processes were regarding his social ethnicity.
The words, ‘My Africa’ indicate a sense of pride in knowing and being aware of his ethnic background but also a clear understanding of a sense of belonging. In his writing, he typically combines the realistic admission of temporary or past defeat for his race with an optimistic conviction that the United States can before long fulfil the Negro’s hopes and dreams through his mostly character filled poems and short stories.
Likewise, Dublin born James Joyce places his characters within the suburbs of his home town.
Joyce seems to share his sense of ‘place’ just like Langston Hughes, as he shows us how his characters live their lives in the shadow of Joyce’s footsteps. He reflects life in Ireland at the turn of the last century, however by rejecting euphemism, unlike Hughes, he reveals to the Irish their unromantic realities. He also shows the reader a city that is slow decline with a lack of employment opportunities in total contrast to the ever-changing and evolving New York, with its restrictive routines and therefore the repetitive, mundane details of everyday life that mark the lives of Joyce’s Dubliners and trap them in circles of frustration, restraint, and sometimes violence.
National images connect Lenehan’s and Corley’s desperate and shallow lives with Ireland itself, the harp, a conventional image of Ireland, appears in Two Gallants. Outside a club, the men pass a harpist who is playing for money ‘the notes of the air sounded deep and full’ (Joyce, 1905, P. 36). The harpist’s melodies later follow Lenehan and pace his steps, Lenehan personifies and mimics the notes as he walks through Dublin. This parallel suggests that Lenehan is in some ways guilty of the same swindling as Corley, and due to a lack of work, they both take advantage of a woman. This ambiguous association between Lenehan and a harp is typical of Joyce’s national references. Lenehan later enjoys the meagre feast of peas and ginger beer and reflects on his directionless life, while sitting in a bar. This is simple meal reflects the colours of the Irish flag, the green peas, and the orange ginger beer. Such associations link the maligned life to an image of the country, but with no conclusive sense of cause and effect, with no potential for a solution.
Within the poems ‘Summer Night’ and ‘Harlem Night Song’ by Langston Hughes it is difficult to make out any form of traditional symbolism in comparison to James Joyce’s celebration of Irish cultural life. However, Hughes supplies the reader with a sensory exploration of nightlife from a leisurely aspect contained within the New York district called Harlem. Both of these poems show a personalised view of nightlife that is seen and heard from a first-person perspective. Curiously we are not informed if either of the narrators is male or female, but each of these poems exemplifies scenes of loneliness but are full of positivity and hope. There is a passionate sense of the need to join in and be with people to break what on first glance appears to a sense of desire and longing ‘Needing someone’ (Reading supplement, 2018, P. 174).
Hughes’ attempt to bring traditionalism to his poetry can be seen by the use of music that is prevalent within his two poems. Unlike Joyce’s solitary harp player Hughes writes about groups of people who are congregating together to play in bands. He even tells us what type of music is being played, Jazz ‘Jazz boy blues’ (6). This type of music is often fast and joyous it brought people together to dance and celebrate. Jazz is also an improvised form of music that is often expressed through emotion with the intention to show a sense of freedom, no matter what the black or, white public thought. Langston Hughes incorporated the syncopated rhythms and repetitive phrases of blues and jazz music into his writing. The heady scene at the start of ‘Summer Night’, however, is tempered by the narrator talking to us in the dead of night while clearly alone, he or she is listening to the pulse of life all around telling us of the need for something else that is just unattainable.
Hughes’s ‘Harlem Night Song’ also shows a romanticised view of NewYork from the first person view but of someone who has found love and is celebrating. Strong imagery is used to show us the sheer passion these two characters have for each other. Again, he uses music as a theme to exemplify the atmosphere of the NewYork Night with his characters being urged to ‘sing’ (3, 16). The metaphors that Hughes uses are of natural imagery that helps to romanticise the short poem, such as ‘Night sky is blue’ (8). This captures the tone of the summer night seen through the eyes of his characters, in the way that the sun never quite sets during midsummer and leaves a blue hue on the horizon, even while being surrounded in an urban environment.
There could be considered a comparison of traits with both Joyce’s characters and the two lovers in ‘Harlem Night Song’. Twice the lovers are urged to ‘Roam the night’ (2,16) which has connotations with searching for something. The OED definition of roam is ‘travel aimlessly or unsystematically'(OED, 2019, Online). This is also an activity that Lenehan and Corley actively participate in with their search for the young lady on whom their desires are wrongly placed. While Hughes’s lovers are simply carrying out their primal nocturnal desires during their leisure time, the two men are actively ‘working’ on a plan to swindle money using devious means.
The title of this story, Two Gallants, is ironic as a result of what Corley and Lenehan actually do to make ends meet they are anything but fine, ‘gallant’ men! Lenehan repeatedly asks Corley if he thinks she is right for their business, this launches Corley into a brief lecture on the utility of a decent maid, or ‘slavey’ (Joyce, 1905, P. 35). Joyce’s use of the word ‘business’ indicates a work ethic that is designed to make money. The only work that the two men actively participate in is not carried out by them but the maid who pilfers for them.
Both of the writers inform us through their writing about a sense of loneliness that the characters experience when participating in their leisure time. For example, the unnamed person in ‘Summer Night’ tells us of an unrequited desire to be with someone ‘Aching emptiness,’ (16). Hughes’ character does leave the reader with a sense of hope as by the end of the night his character knows that the sun will rise again and with it comes another new day. This metaphorical use of the sun could also indicate a hope that the person does indeed find what is missing in its life but, more importantly, could also be seen as a symbol of the progression of black rights within America that Hughes believed could one day happen. In ‘Harlem Night Sky’ Hughes alludes to this belief by finally putting two unnamed people together possibly to indicate a time when unity of black/white people would actually happen as he invites the couple to roam freely ‘together’ (2,16).
Joyce’s character Lenehan however, is surrounded by the inhabitants of Dublin throughout The Two Gallants. It is while Lenehan is in the public house that the reader learns that he wishes for a more normal or regulated life, just like Hughes’s characters.
In some ways this can be important as Joyce could also be suggesting that Lenehan is aware that how he conducts his affairs or lives his life, by taking advantage of others, is not right.
However, by the end of the story, any probability of redemption or change for Lenehan is lost once he stands with Corley staring at the gold coin, the reward from Corley’s apparent ‘work’ with the girl (Joyce, 1905, P. 41). It is also significant that Ely Place, the street that both Corley and Lenehan end up is a dead end. Again this implies that both men are going nowhere. It is attainable that Joyce is suggesting, through the movement of both Corley and Lenehan that Ireland and also the Irish people too, are going nowhere or are in a state of paralysis.
The apparent lack of hope and positivity that is evident throughout The Two Gallants is polarised by Hughes’s hope for a better future for America. Both writers subconsciously use colour to show moods and opinions. Joyce could be indicating his idea through the woman that Corley meets, this is significant, particularly how she is dressed. Joyce has her wearing a blue dress and a white sailor hat (Joyce, 1905, P. 36). These colours are important because they are the colours that would usually be associated with the Catholic Virgin Mary. This may well show the political division within Ireland during the 1920s between the Anglo/Catholic divide. But by the end of the story, both Corley and Lenehan are standing on the side of the road looking at a gold coin, that is yellow in colour. Joyce may again be suggesting that both men remain paralysed, living dissolute lives in which they continue working to take advantage of others.
The warm Harlem night allows people to relax and be friendly with each other. By doing this Hughes creates a sense of pathetic fallacy within all his characters as the climate effects the mood within the setting of each poem. Hughes also uses colour throughout both his poems, the most obvious being black represented by the night. This could be shown to represent black people and how they seem to ‘own’ the night with their celebratory nocturnal leisure activities carried out by the music they create. In ‘Harlem Night Song’ the night sky is also blue (8) possibly to indicate that the sun hardly sets during the summer months and with this comes a connotation that as long as there is still racial inequality within America then the struggle for acceptance will never fade away. Metaphorically the stars are romantically described as ‘golden dew’ (10) which could be represented as something naturally occurring on a lawn or backyard. Possibly Hughes is making a statement regarding Harlem seen as a home, of sorts, for all of the displaced black people of America and one that they should all care for and nurture.
Joyce also sets his short story, The Two Gallants during a month of summer, August. However, his description of the streets of Dublin appears to be far less positive with ‘A grey warm evening’ being mentioned (Joyce, 1905, P. 33) when compared to the intoxicating Harlem night. He also seems to foreshadow the future of Ireland by stating a number of relatively negative phases ‘a memory of summer’ and shops that were ‘shuttered’ within the first paragraph. His streets are populated with crowds of people perambulating the city within their own leisure time during a Sunday evening. These streets feel crowded and noisy, even for a Sunday with the mass of people compared to a ‘living texture’ (P. 33) which would be constantly moving, there is also a sensory description of ‘unceasing murmur’ (P.33). All of his descriptions of Dublin help to provide a slightly claustrophobic sensory experience for the reader as we trace the two characters on their journey through the streets of the city towards their ‘reward’.
From all of the contexts that are intertwined within the short story and the two poems,
It is possible to see how Langston Hughes’s experiences of work and leisure show far more positivity and hope for the future when compared to James Joyce. Simply put, Joyce’s representation of Ireland through characterisation is one of achieving reward through lack of any skill and getting others to do things through cohesion. No matter how hard Ireland worked towards unity it would face a strenuous battle to achieve this due to the upheavals of religious segregation and politics. Hughes’s vision of the future is one of togetherness by working and playing as a group, even if the group is just a band playing symbolic jazz. The hope for a better future could be achieved by participating in a united common goal or simply as a loving couple who are exploring a new future together.