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Glory and Trouble: Hughes in Chapel Hill

Friday from the Archives: “A Week or 3 Days in Chapel Hill: Faulkner, Contempo, and Their Contemporaries” by Jim Vickers from NCLR Issue 1 (1992)

In honor of the upcoming presentation “Langston Hughes 1931 Visit to Chapel Hill” at the Chapel Hill Library and sponsored by Carolina Public Humanities, we are sharing this week what was written about that very visit in our first issue from 1992.

The whole piece is about the history of Contempo magazine, a leftist publication by Ab Abernethy and Anthony J. Buttitta, published in 1931-34 in Chapel Hill. “Before it ceased publication in February 1934, Contempo had published two former and six future Nobel Prize winners – George Bernard Shaw (1925), Sinclair Lewis (1930), Luigi Pirandello (1934), Eugene O’Neill (1936), T. S. Eliot (1948), William Faulkner (1949), Boris Pasternak (1958), and Samuel Beckett (1969) – along with a catalog of American and European literary icons: e. e. cummings, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Nathanael West, Hart Crane, John Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiser, James T. Farrell, Sherwood Anderson, Erskine Caldwell, Malcolm Cowley, S. J. Perelman, Paul Green, Robinson Jeffers, Langston Hughes, Aldous Huxley, Countee Cullen, D. H. Lawrence, and James Joyce.” Abernathy’s history was secured by his association with William Faulkner during a three-day bender on campus.

In the midst of the piece Vickers writes, “While Faulkner carefully nurtured his binge in New York, in Chapel Hill Ab and Tony prepared an explosive issue of Contempo. After learning in October that UNC professor Guy Johnson had invited Langston Hughes to the campus and that Hughes would arrive on 19 November, Ab contacted Hughes, asking for contributions to Contempo. Hughes accommodated with the submission of a poem, “Christ in Alabama,” and an essay, “Southern Gentlemen, White Prostitutes, Mill-Owners, and Negroes,” dealing with the infamous Scottsboro Case.”

Vickers says, “Hughes spoke to four UNC audiences on 19 November without incident, three classes during the day and in the evening to a gathering of 250 packed into Gerrard Hall. He enjoyed a courteous and enthusiastic reception at each event, where those attending could pick up copies from a Contempo printing of some 6,000 that included in the center of the front page a silhouette of a black Christ holding up punctured hands above the provocative poem “Christ in Alabama.” (See illustration.)”

Hughes would leave NC and travel to Alabama to write more about the case, leaving Abernethy and Buttitta to deal with the conservative uproar over that particular issue of Contempo. Vickers cunningly points out, “…most contributors responded favorably. Sinclair Lewis sent $25 with the note: “If nothing else would make me subscribe, the charming praise of Contempo from Gastonia does.” Dr. Ben L. Reitman, author of Second Oldest Profession, a study of pimps, considered the edition a “KNOCK OUT. You are on your way to glory and trouble.” And Upton Sinclair wrote the editors: “I hope the Governor of N. C. does not take over your magazine. I am sure there are enough dull publications in N. C. already.” Hughes wrote from Scottsboro: “Dear Contempo-raries – Why don’t you set up here and get tarred and feathered?””

Read the whole article: order the first issue for your collection.