Suzanne Cope on Langston Hughes’ “Salvation”

cope berklee photo (2)Suzanne Cope is the author of Small Batch: Pickles, Cheese, Chocolate, Spirits and the Return of Artisanal Food (Rowman & Littlefield) and has published essays and articles in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Time, as well as numerous literary journals. Scholarly articles are upcoming in New Directions in Teaching and Learning, Modern Language Studies, and The Italian American Review. Suzanne has a PhD in Adult Learning with a focus on Creative Writing Studies and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction. She teaches writing at Manhattan College and University of Arkansas, Monticello MFA Program.

In Composition classes and Creative Writing courses, with continuing education students meeting on Saturdays and eighteen year olds still tanned by summer sun, I have started a class early in the semester by reading aloud Langston Hughes’s short but powerful essay “Salvation”, about the moment he began to question religion – and by extension many of the truths of his small town southern upbringing. I can never quite do it justice in my oral presentation – the cadence of the language and distinctive word choice point to Hughes’s deftness in the art of poetry as well as prose, such as the preacher’s sermon “all moans and shouts and lonely cries and dire pictures of hell, and then he sang a song about the ninety and nine safe in the fold, but one little lamb was left out in the cold.”  But what I love about teaching “Salvation”, in addition to its evocative language, is that it illustrates so beautifully the key elements of a strong narrative essay within relatively few words, enabling us to delve deeply into the work’s artistry and craft decisions in one class period.

Hughes starts, “I was saved from sin when I was going on thirteen. But not really saved. It happened like this,” previewing for his reader the narrative arc of his essay and identifying the tension that drives the story and its larger cultural implications. What does it mean to be saved?, he questions. And what does it mean not to be saved? He also, in these staccato sentences, introduces us to both our narrator’s perspective as well as our protagonist at age twelve, and provides an immediate contrast between exposition and in-scene writing.

Prior to reading “Salvation” we, as a class, have come up with a list of terms – craft terms like “character” and “narrative point of view”, and well as a more general list of words that come to mind or tongue when talking about the writing and discussion of literature. Words like “feel” and maybe “music” or “flow”. Or more obscure terms like “verisimilitude” or poetic devices such as “alliteration”. And what I love about “Salvation” is that there is not a word from our list that students can’t relate to Hughes’s prose in some way. We feel as if we know the congregation members – “old women with jet-black faces and braided hair, old men with work-gnarled hands” – and feel the tension of Langston waiting for the spirit to move him to be saved, through his use of sentence length, repetition, and decision to begin some sentences with conjunctions. Hughes writes, “And I kept waiting serenely for Jesus, waiting, waiting – but he didn’t come. I wanted to see him, but nothing happened to me. Nothing! I wanted something to happen to me, but nothing happened,” and every time I read this I – and I trust most of my class – feels the anguish as Hughes intended.

In 889 words he presents to us a master class in the personal essay: a setting we can feel and smell and hear – a “hot, crowded church” alive with “singing, praying, and shouting” – and a not-quite-yet-young man whose internal struggle feeds the tension of the piece and propels us, the readers, forward. Economical dialogue, the perfect details that helps characters come alive in a few words, leading to a climax that comes in a four word paragraph:”So I got up.” Students can identify these passages, creating a map of best practices in essay writing for them to try to emulate. And then it ends, in a clear resolution that also demonstrates that the best are not without complication, that introduces our young protagonist to our adult narrator, a man who is at once everyman and also an exceptional example of what this kind of discomfort and inquiry can result in. This ending of the muffled tears of young Langston, crying because he “didn’t believe there was a Jesus anymore,” and the implied import that this tale of myriad struggle – between truth and falsehood, heart versus mind, blind faith versus critical inquiry – that helped mold one of the greatest minds and artists of his generation, brings us back to the first words of the piece. We understand the many ways that our narrator and the character of young Langston were both saved and not, as they, in the final words of the piece, come together as one.

Like the best personal essays we have taken a journey with our author, tracing the steps of his younger self to his own moment of discovery and reflection. Without those prolonged moments on the mourner’s bench – perhaps where Hughes said goodbye to the blind faith of his childhood – Hughes would not have had the opportunity to consider his decision and its implications then, as a twelve year old, nor decades later when he recounts this story within the framework of his essay. He is illustrating the very essence of reflection – the hallmark of narrative nonfiction versus fiction – both in our young Langston as he lays in bed and weeps for the loss of religion as unquestioned comfort, as well as in our narrator, the adult Hughes who, in a few sentences makes it clear how those moments on the mourners bench changed him irrevocably. He says, “That night, for the first time in my life but one for I was a big boy twelve years old – I cried,” the narrator filling in the years between this pivotal moment and the adult he would become in a single sentence. We see here how Langston has changed from the start of this essay – and anyone familiar with Hughes’s life story can intuit how this moment led him to continue questioning the world he was born into to help create new opportunities for himself and others.

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