[August 2nd marks the 100th anniversary of inventor Alexander Graham Bell’s death. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy some famous phones in American culture, leading up to a special weekend post on AGB’s life and legacies!]
On a funny and fun poetic voice and character, and the layers of meaning she reveals.
Across his nearly 50 years writing and publishing poetry (among other genres), American treasure Langston Hughes went through a number of different stages and series. One of the more unique were the Madam Alberta K. Johnson poems—originally created by Hughes in “Madam and the Number Runner” (later revised to “Number Writer”), published in the Autumn 1943 issue of Contemporary Poetry, Johnson would go to serve as the speaker/persona for nearly 20 more of his poems (all titled in that same “Madam and the” style) over the next few years. Johnson was a confident, no-nonsense Harlem matriarch, a woman navigating with humor, resilience, and serious attitude both contemporary and universal challenges of economics and survival, gender and relationships, race and community, and many more. As with almost all of Hughes’ works, the Madam poems are deceptively straightforward, highly readable and engaging but with significant layers and depth (of literary elements and cultural/historical contexts alike) that reward our close readings.
The one that I’ve close read the most often, as I teach it in my American Literature II course alongside a couple other Hughes poems, is “Madam and the Phone Bill” (1944). Like most of the Madam poems, this one is presented as part of a dialogue, but with the reader only getting Johnson’s half of the conversation. In this case that conversation is with a representative of the “Central” phone company who has contacted Johnson to make her pay for a long-distance call from her wandering (in both senses) significant other Roscoe. The first stanza immediately establishes every aspect of that situation along with Johnson’s unique and witty voice and perspective: “You say I O.K.ed/LONG DISTANCE?/O.K.ed it when?/My goodness, Central/That was then!” Effortlessly using poetic elements like rhythm and rhyme, as well as typographical ones like capitalization, italics, and punctuation, Hughes locates us within his speaker’s voice, in the middle of this phone conversation (or rather argument) in progress, and with an immediate sense of the problem facing our put-upon heroine. The voice and humor only deepen from there, as in the poem’s middle stanza (the 5th of 10): “If I ever catch him,/Lawd, have pity!/Calling me up/From Kansas City.”
But like all the Madam poems, and as I said all of Hughes’ poems and works period, there’s a lot more to “Phone Bill” than just that fun and funny feel. Certainly the poem offers a glimpse into Johnson’s fraught negotiation of gender dynamics, such as the contradictions between her desire to maintain her status as an independent woman and her worries about what “them other girls” might offer Roscoe (perhaps especially while he’s hundreds of miles away in KC). Written in the shadow of the recently ended Great Depression (a frequent Hughes topic), the poem likewise reflects the fraught dynamics of an individual’s conversations with the corporations who could with a single bill (or instead with an understanding waiving of that bill) profoundly change their economic situations. And I would say that it’s particularly relevant that the bill in question is a phone bill—the period’s increasingly ubiquitous telephones, and more exactly evolving technological possibilities like long-distance calling, symbolized at once greater social and communal connections and yet another way in which individuals were beholden, to grasping corporations and distant but still needy significant others alike. Like it or not, Alberta, those are debts we’re all “gonna pay!”
Last famous phone tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Famous cultural phones you’d highlight?