All nations need reminders that even their best ideals, though worth defending, do not earn them chosen nation status. Reading C.S. Lewis’ “That Hideous Strength” and Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again” in light of each other could rouse those in need of both a restoration of confidence in the goodness of the American dream and a renewal of national humility.

Readers of C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength may remember a surprising disclosure in the final chapters of that novel: The character Mr. Dimble reveals that “we discovered that the Arthurian story is mostly true history.” He clarifies that the sixth-century Arthurian realm of Logres was “a moment when something that is always trying to break through into this country nearly succeeded.” This Logres, it turns out, never died out of England. In fact, Dimble says, after discovering the reality of Arthur and Logres, “we began to see all English history in a new way. We discovered the haunting.”[1] This concept of the haunting of Britain is central to the plot of the novel, and its revelation so late in the novel ties up many loose ends. More broadly, though, the haunting explains how the conflict between good and evil carries on within a culture or nation.

When he shares this discovery about Logres, Dimble has gathered with other members of his circle around the Director of St. Anne’s; they are discussing the impending departure of that Director, a man called Elwin Ransom, Mr. Fisher-King, and the Pendragon at different points in The Space Trilogy, which this novel concludes. The Director is awaiting being taken to “the Third Heaven,” or Perelandra, and some members of the company begin to question how Logres is connected to all the space adventures that have led up to this culminating departure. It is a good question. At the end of That Hideous Strength, readers as well as characters may wonder how it is that Merlin comes to be a major character in a book set in the mid-1940s, whose prequels take the protagonist to Mars (Malacandra) and Venus (Perelandra) and whose evil characters are a group of technocrats. In his 1945 critical review of the novel, George Orwell deplores how the “supernatural keeps breaking in,” for a central plot point is the N.I.C.E.’s plan to dig up the body of Merlin in order to harness his “pre-Christian magic” for use in their diabolical plan to destroy organic life upon the planet.[2]

Orwell would have preferred the novel stick to the material conflicts between good and evil rather than a supernatural contest between “God and the Devil” that is spoiled by the reader’s knowledge of “which side is going to win.” Readers familiar with Orwell’s novels of the 1940s will understand this critique, for in Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1949) the powers of good receive no supernatural support, and evil wins. On the other hand, Lewis’ novel, and the trilogy it concludes, pulls the supernatural into the contest, and the result is a comic, though at-times chaotic, triumph of good.

The haunting of Britain by Logres is part of Lewis’ explanation of how a motley group of nobodies manages to prevail over the efficient, organized, and influential N.I.C.E. Orwell is right that this triumph would be impossible without the intrusion of the supernatural. Just what form and channels that supernatural takes and follows are murky until Dimble’s explanation of Logres at the end of the novel. He clarifies to the group (and to readers), “something we may call Britain is always haunted by something we may call Logres. Haven’t you noticed that we are two countries? After every Arthur, a Mordred; behind every Milton, a Cromwell.” Dimble claims that after returning from Perelandra, Elwin Ransom was called to the deathbed of an old man in Cumberland who was “the Pendragon, the successor of Arthur… Then we learned the truth. There has been a secret Logres in the very heart of Britain all these years.” And the Pendragons, with the small groups each gathered around him, “gave the tiny shove or the almost imperceptible pull, to prod England out of the drunken sleep or to draw her back from the final outrage into which Britain tempted her.”[3] When, in the course of the explanation, Dimble grows a little too exuberant in his praise of Logres, the Director admonishes him. And Dimble then admits that “this haunting is no peculiarity of ours. Every people has its own haunter. There’s no special privilege for England—no nonsense about a chosen nation.”[4] He goes to claim that the haunting of each nation stems from the reality that though there are universal rules of good, the way that each individual person or nation conforms to those rules is unique. “The whole work of healing Tellus [Earth] depends on nursing that little spark, on incarnating that ghost, which is still alive in every real people, and different in each.” By way of example, Dimble calls the haunting of France that of “Reason, the divine clearness” and China that of “the order of Heaven.”[5]

The clarification that there is no special chosen nation was especially important in 1945 when the world had been torn apart by the pretensions of certain states to being special and superior. But the broader concept of a haunting was also pertinent in 1945. Many of the countries of the world had to be confident enough of their rightness to justify war against aggressors who threatened their autonomy as a nation and culture. Yet these same countries had to avoid claiming their own special status as superior to others. Once a nation falls into that trap, if it is successful against its enemies, it will trample upon and destroy others. In That Hideous Strength the temptation Britain offers is one of power gained by unrestrained scientific research and pitiless efficiency. The Logres that haunts Britain must be “the little spark that is true to the nation’s ideals” that pushes back against this threat, but, readers are warned, Britain “will rise again.”

The same old temptations rear up and the same spark must resist them. If one sees the ideals specific to one’s country as hidden within and fighting against (or “haunting”) the destructive powers operating in the nation at large, then one is free to affirm those ideals while condemning the repeated temptations away from those ideals. Today, as in 1945, there is a need to balance confidence in the good ideals of one’s nation with humble awareness of the failures of that nation that, in any case, cannot claim any special status as superior to other countries.

America of 2020 is a nation at odds with itself—its failures variously identified by different factions. Though many share the belief that something has gone wrong, there is little consensus on what that wrong is. For comfort or guidance during this time, some have turned to literature of the past. One poem that has received renewed interest is Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again,” first published in 1936 and then again in a longer form in 1938. In a 2020 article for The American Scholar, Louis P. Masur notes that this poem began to circulate on social media following the 2016 presidential election and then again after the shooting of George Floyd.[6] It is not surprising that this poem resonates strongly in contemporary America. Written by one of America’s foremost Black literary artists, the poem expresses a longing for an America that has yet to be but also calls for America to “be the dream it used to be” (2). A cursory or politically motivated reading of the poem yields vague meanings easily shoehorned into the reader’s own agenda. But a more careful reading of the poem reveals a “haunting” peculiar to the United States.

Hughes had visited the Soviet Union in 1932 and much of his literature from the 30s more than flirts with Communist ideals. Some, like those on the McCarthy committee who questioned Hughes in 1953, read “Let America Be America Again” looking only for hints of Communist sympathies. (Hughes never joined the Communist party, and his true beliefs about Communism remain unclear.) Others have seen this poem as an embarrassment to Hughes and what “John Steinbeck’s Tom Joad drunk on Marx” might sound like.[7] In 2004, long before Donald Trump came out with his “Make America Great Again” slogan, John Kerry’s campaign tried out the title of this poem as a slogan for his campaign. William F. Buckley called this choice questionable, reading this Hughes’ poem in light of his other more overtly Communist 1930s poetry. Buckley posited that Hughes was calling for “an America realizable in a new and different vision”—one belonging to Marx, Lenin, and Stalin.[8]

Perhaps all readers would do well to be wary of poetry that can be turned into political slogans. Perhaps Hughes more than flirted with Communism during the 1930s. And perhaps this poem is not Hughes’ finest. But the fact remains that “Let America Be America Again” resonates repeatedly with Americans who feel downtrodden and deprived of the dream promised by America.

If one were to apply Lewis’ notion of a national “haunting” to America, one might say that ours is a country haunted by our own ideals of justice and liberty that make possible a universal “pursuit of happiness.” Hughes’ poem draws back the veil shadowing the dream haunting America. “Let America Be America Again” shows that the appeal of the American dream is constant and undying despite the repeated betrayals of that dream.

The poem begins with the simple sentence that is also its title followed by the parallel imperative “Let it be the dream it used to be.”[9] This is the first of several “let it be” statements in the first three stanzas of the poem, which include mention of the “pioneer on the plain / Seeking a home where he himself is free” (3-4), and “that great strong land of love / Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme” (7-8). Three parenthetical statements interrupt each of these “let it be” stanzas with a voice objecting to the celebration of and call for American opportunity, freedom, and liberty. The voice says “America never was America to me” and “It never was America to me” and “There’s never been equality for me, / Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free’” (5, 10, 15-16). The initial speaker then addresses this voice that “mumbles” in the dark (17) asking “who are you?” (18).

It is not a single voice that answers, but a multiplicity of voices. Many subsequent lines begin with “I am,” and each identifies a different person who has been shut out from the “homeland of the free”: the “poor white, fooled and pushed apart” and “the Negro bearing slavery’s scars” (19-20) begin the list that includes the “red man,” “the immigrant,” “the young man… tangled in that ancient endless chain / Of profit, power, gain, and grab the land” (21, 22, 25, 26). To this company is also added the farmer, the factory worker, the “Negro, servant to you all,” the man who never got ahead, the poorest worker, the dreamer “of our basic dream / In the Old World while still a serf of kings,” the immigrant of long ago and of today, the African dragged to America to build a “homeland of the free” (31-50). To this list is then added the further voices of “the millions on relief today,” those on strike, and those unpaid for their work (52-61). Even if one did not know the publication date of this poem, it would be easy to situate it within the years of the Great Depression when the unemployment rate exceeded 20%, bad weather and extremely low prices overwhelmed farmers, and the Civil Rights Movement was years in the future.

The poem is very much a poem of its time yet it does capture a timeless truth about America: Despite the ideals of justice and liberty and the pursuit of happiness, there are nonetheless a great many Americans whose experiences have been formed by injustice and bondage and adversity. This sadly timeless quality of the poem is behind its recent surges in popularity. Many in 2020 hear their own voices ringing out as one of “the millions who having nothing for our pay— / Except the dream that’s almost dead today” (60-61).

Hughes’ poem concludes with a return to the imperative of its title, but with the added concession that it is “the land that never has been yet” (62-63). The multiple voices come together then in one statement:

O, yes
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be! (75-79)

The poem thus ends with an affirmation of the American dream that has been shared by so many but is yet to be realized. This reaffirmation of the America that could be is likely to appeal to today’s readers who want to see a way out of the conflicts churning within American culture and politics. So the poem gets shares and likes, and the critics of the past who read in this same poem a banal declaration of Marxism are drowned out or forgotten, which is perhaps just as well.

For the critics of the past missed the real appeal of the poem. Regardless of the political beliefs of the author (which are vague) and the artistic merits of the poem itself (questionable), “Let America Be America Again” appeals effectively to the dream of justice and liberty for all and the guaranteed rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Each of the downtrodden voices in the poem is yearning for a good thing, that, like Arthur’s Logres in That Hideous Strength, “haunts” the United States.

The haunting described in Lewis’ fictional work explains how a nation’s dominant powers are always tempting the nation away from its uniquely good ideals. That unique character, or “sap” as Lewis calls it, stays alive within each nation, nourished by a few faithful who refuse to yield to the temptations of power. In That Hideous Strength the small band of Logres seems to do very little other than stand and wait until the moment is ripe for action. But without a real commitment to the ideals of Logres, that standing and waiting can turn into inaction and apathy, and the time for striking against the evils besetting the nation could slide past unnoticed. All nations need reminders that they are indeed haunted by their own best ideals, and Langston Hughes’ poem serves as just such a reminder to all Americans. All nations need reminders that even their best ideals, though worth defending, do not earn them chosen nation status, and C.S. Lewis’ novel, which he subtitled “A Fairy Tale for Grown Ups,” serves as just such a reminder. Reading these two works in light of each other could rouse those in need of both a restoration of confidence in the goodness of the American dream and a renewal of national humility.

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Notes:

[1] Lewis, C.S. That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy Tale for Grown Ups. 1945. Scribner, 2003, p. 367.

[2] Orwell, George. “The Scientists Take Over.” The Complete Works of George Orwell. Ed. Peter Davison. Secker and Warburg, 1998, pp. 250-251. Lewisiana.

[3] Lewis, p. 367.

[4] Lewis, p. 368.

[5] Lewis, p. 369.

[6] Masur, Louis P. “Let America Be America Again: New Life for a Langston Hughes Poem.” American Scholar, vol. 89, no. 4, Oct. 2020, pp. 14–15.

[7] Sundquist, Eric J. “Who Was Langston Hughes?” Commentary, vol. 102, no. 6, Dec. 1996, p. 57. EBSCOhost.

[8] Buckley, William F. “A Campaign Slogan for Kerry.” National Review, vol. 56, no. 12, June 2004, pp. 54–55. EBSCOhost.

[9] Hughes, Langston. “Let America Be America Again.” The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. Harold Ober Associates, Inc., 1995. Poetry Foundation.

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