The word “home” carries connotations of safety, security, and family; however, for Roy Williams in Langston Hughes’s “Home” (1933), his return to Missouri presents him with a confrontation that ultimately leads to his death at the hands of the white townspeople. Today, I want to look at Hughes’s story in relation to Ernest Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Home” from In Our Time (1925). Both stories deal with young men returning from Europe, albeit at different times and under different circumstances. The African American Roy returns home after experiencing a level of freedom in Europe as he toured the continent playing music. Harold Krebs, in Hemingway’s story, comes back home after the Great War, an experience that alienates him from his family and those in the town. Apart from homecomings, what ties these two stories together? Should we even look at them in relation to one another?
According to Gary Holcomb and Charles Scruggs in their introduction to Hemingway and the Black Renaissance (2012)
, Hughes, and other African American authors of the Harlem Renaissance looked to Hemingway for stylistic and thematic inspiration. Specifically, Holcomb and Scruggs argue that these authors looked to Hemingway for his focus on the prevalence of violence in the modern world and notably in America. For these authors, “[v]iolence and warfare were themes that African American writers knew something about,” and this link can be seen in texts that litter the interwar period (Holcomb and Scruggs 10). The violence that Krebs experiences does not occur at home; instead, the memories of the atrocities and gruesomeness he encountered manifest themselves in his memories as he tries to relate to the “unchanged” town that he left. Roy, on the other hand, comes into contact with a European society struggling to bounce back after the war: “Folks catch hell in Europe . . . I never saw people as hungry as this, not even Negroes a home” (34). Roy does not experience racism in Europe; he encounters humanity and openness. This, though, causes him forget his “home” when he returns to Missouri.
Upon arriving home, townsfolk greet Krebs with respect and honor. They want to know about what he, and other soldiers, saw and did during the war. Even though he returned “much too late,” Krebs makes up stories to tell the people in town. This does not appease him, or others. Telling the lies, and even thinking about the war, causes Krebs to be depressed, not wanting to do anything with anyone in the town. Unlike Krebs, Roy returns to leers and racism from the moment he disembarks the train. Some call him “[a]n uppity nigger,” and when he sees Charlie Mumford, a white playmate from childhood, Roy offers his hand, forgetting he has returned to America and the South (36). Observing this, and Roy’s comment that he has returned home to see his mother, another “white loafer” tells him, “I hope she’s gladden to see yuh than we are” (36). Krebs’s alienation comes from the affects of war, and Roy’s rise from recognition of the color of his skin: “For the first time in half a dozen year [Roy] felt his color. He was home” (37).
Both Krebs and Roy return home to their mothers, and both women play an important role in the stories. For Krebs, his mother tries to comfort him and make the transition home smooth. However, Krebs refuses the support and flatly tells his other that he does not love her and that he does not know how to pray anymore. Roy’s sickness causes him to come home in order to see his mother. He sits with her, listens to her, and he even plays in the church when she asks him to. For Krebs, his mother and the prayer represent the past, something that modernity and the war has obliterated, rendering it useless to anyone trying to survive in the new world. To Roy, these provide a place of solace and repose, a space where he can come to rest his soul during a time of sickness and struggle.
Returning to the idea of violence and war mentioned earlier, Krebs does not come into contact with either violence or war at home; they remain at arms length. Violence and war, though, do cause Krebs to flee the past that he knew, and he ultimately decides to leave his hometown for Kansas City, hopefully to start a new life. Unfortunately, Roy does not have this opportunity. The violence and war that exist at a distance from Krebs occur at home for Roy. His time in Europe causes him to forget the way he is “supposed” to behave around whites at home. Encountering Miss Reese in the street, Roy “[forgot] he wasn’t in Europe, [and] he took off his hat and his gloves, and held out his hand to this lady who understood music” (47). This simple act causes those who see it to react with extreme vitriol. They throw bricks and beat Roy senseless because they perceive his actions as “insulting [to] a White Woman–stacking a WHITE woman–RAPING A WHITE WOMAN” (47-48). The crowd’s deep ingrained racism lead them to jump to ludicrous conclusion and to eventually lynch Roy.
While Hughes’s story does not stylistically resemble Hemingway’s in its entirety, it thematically relates to the ideas of violence and war that Hemnigway portrays through the character of Harold Krebs. What are your thoughts? What other texts from the Harlem Renaissance, or the interwar period, would you suggest looking at in relation to Hemingway and the themes of violence and war? Let me know in the comments below.
Hemingway, Ernest. “Soldier’s Home.” In Our Time. New York: Scribner, 1996. 69-77.
Holcomb, Gary and Charles Scruggs. “Hemingway and the Black Renaissance.” Hemingway and the Black Renaissance. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2012.1-26.
Hughes, Langston. “Home.” The Ways of White Folks. New York: Vintage Classics, 1990. 33-49.