Langston's Salvation

American Religion and the Bard of Harlem

320 pages

7 black and white illustrations

February, 2019

ISBN: 9781479847396



Add to Cart Available: 1/1/2019

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Wallace D. Best is Professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University. He is the author of Passionately Human, No Less Divine: Religion and Culture in Black Chicago, 1915-1952.

All books by Wallace D. Best

Winner of the 2018 Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in Textual Studies, presented by the American Academy of Religion 
A new perspective on the role of religion in the work of Langston Hughes
Langston's Salvation offers a fascinating exploration into the religious thought of Langston Hughes.  Known for his poetry, plays, and social activism, the importance of religion in Hughes’ work has historically been ignored or dismissed. This book puts this aspect of Hughes work front and center, placing it into the wider context of twentieth-century American and African American religious cultures. Best brings to life the religious orientation of Hughes work, illuminating how this powerful figure helped to expand the definition of African American religion during this time.
Best argues that contrary to popular perception, Hughes was neither an avowed atheist nor unconcerned with religious matters.  He demonstrates that Hughes’ religious writing helps to situate him and other black writers as important participants in a broader national discussion about race and religion in America.
Through a rigorous analysis that includes attention to Hughes’s unpublished religious poems, Langston’s Salvation reveals new insights into Hughes’s body of work, and demonstrates that while Hughes is seen as one of the most important voices of the Harlem Renaissance, his writing also needs to be understood within the context of twentieth-century American religious liberalism and of the larger modernist movement. Combining historical and literary analyses with biographical explorations of Langston Hughes as a writer and individual, Langston’s Salvation opens a space to read Langston Hughes’ writing religiously, in order to fully understand the writer and the world he inhabited.


  • "With close readings of Langston Hughes's poetry and with finely tuned arguments about the place of religion during the early twentieth century, Wallace Best provides what none has offered before: he shows the beautiful mind of Langston Hughes as a 'thinker about religion.' Langston's Salvation heralds a new day, perhaps even a renaissance, not only in the study Hughes and his poetry, but also of liberal religion in the United States. It is impossible to read Langston's Salvation and fail to wonder what other great writers of the past have to offer if we follow Best's lead and approach them as thinkers about religion. This book is like Hughes's poetry: an invitation to see more than what's on the surface."

    —Edward J. Blum, author of W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet

  • "Taking its point of departure from young Langston Hughes’s conversion experience in Kansas that he later described as one of three key moments in his life, Langston’s Salvation gives the reader a full and cogent analysis of the central importance of religion in Hughes’s œuvre, extending from the spiritual themes in his early poems to the 'gospel years' surrounding Tambourines of Glory, and including even Hughes’s most controversial poem, 'Goodbye Christ.' Based on much archival research and a full examination of the vast secondary literature going back to Benjamin Mays and Jean Wagner, Wallace Best offers a reconsideration of Hughes’s often prescient thinking about religion and shows compellingly that Hughes’s work was, at the very least, 'not anti-religious,' as Hughes himself put it."

    —Werner Sollors, Henry B. and Anne M. Research Professor of English, Harvard University

  • "Inspired by his expert knowledge both of African American (and American) religion in general and Langston Hughes in particular, Wallace D. Best offers us here a bold, novel, complex, and yet highly persuasive reassessment of this marvelous writer's mind and art.  Professor Best's book is the product of exhaustive research and scrupulous reasoning.  The result is probably the most exciting study of Hughes—and of the modern, essentially urban interplay between religion and literature epitomized in Hughes’s work—that we have seen in many a year."

    —Arnold Rampersad, Stanford University, author of The Life of Langston Hughes (2 vols.)

  • "As Wallace Best portrays him in this stunning, brilliantly argued and written work, Langston Hughes is a poet and prophet who spoke to the deepest dilemmas of African American Christianity in the uncompromising language of religious and artistic modernism. The road to Langston’s “salvation” was not straight, and as he charts its course over time, Best enlarges the field of American religious history and the meaning of modern 'religion' itself."  

    —Robert A. Orsi, Professor of Religious Studies and History, Northwestern

  • "Best weaves together the varied and often controversial strands of Hughes's life—an unsuccessful religious conversion, progressive politics, and an intriguing but doomed trip to Russia to create a film—in order to paint a more complete picture of a nonconformist and his modern relationship with religion. . . a well-researched argument that offers a vivid perspective on a literary giant."

    Publishers Weekly

  • "Meticulously researched from an interdisciplinary perspective, with attention to the frameworks of religious studies, history, literary criticism, and African American studies, Langston's Salvation is an indispensable guide to Hughes and religion."


  • Langston’s Salvation provides thorough details of Hughes’s transition from a young poet to one who used his message of change and enlightenment in written and spoken form. Best gives an intense perspective of his championing of race issues and quest for religious understanding.  It’s a great book for delving more deeply into the meaning of his works.”

    Reading Religion

  • "[A] meticulous account of Hughes’s religious provocations in his literary work...Offering astounding historical and literary analysis to some of his widely popular and some of his lesser -known works such as “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and Tambourines to Glory respectively, Best explicates Hughes’s works to explore the religious orientation in his writings."

    Black Perspectives