In the Guise of Telling the Truth [essay] by Thomas Larson

In Langston Hughes’ little story, “Salvation,” he tells us that “going on thirteen” he was saved from sin “but not really.” At church, charged with the expectation that he would “see and hear and feel Jesus in your soul,” Langston waited while the minister asked the children, the “little lambs,” to come forward. Many did; a few hesitated. Most went to the altar. And were saved. But not Hughes and another boy, Westley. Neither budged. But it was hot, the mission kept dragging on, and Westley finally capitulated: “God damn! I’m tired o’ sitting here. Let’s get up and be saved.” So he went to the front of the church. And was saved. Now Langston’s family besieged him, the last straggler, to get up: they prayed for him, “in a mighty wail of moans and voices.” And, though he thought he wanted to receive the Lord, nothing happened. He waited again. But he still couldn’t see Jesus. Seeing the other boy, happily swinging his legs up front, Langston wondered: “God had not struck Westley dead for taking his name in vain or for lying in the temple.” So Langston got up and sauntered to the front of the church. And he was saved. All the dominoes fallen. That night, however, after all the hurrahs had settled and he was alone in bed, he cried. His aunt heard him and came in. His tears were the Holy Ghost reminding him that he had seen Jesus. The overwhelming everlasting. But no, Hughes thought, his tears were his shame for lying: “I couldn’t bear to tell her,” he writes, “that I had lied, that I had deceived everybody in the church, that I hadn’t seen Jesus, and that now I didn’t believe there was a Jesus any more, since he didn’t come to help me.”

How simply wrought and religiously portentous this 1940 confession is. Several things are true. Langston is saved in the church members’ eyes, the initiation passed, the emotional purge exacted; he is saved by his conscience, the opposite of his testimonial before the churchgoers; and he is saved by the querulous surprise of his self-disclosure. He knows that what they believe and what he believes—which each would swear to—are the same as they are different. Salvation and faked salvation—river and bank, sun and moon. Doesn’t it happen when we are tapped to bow our heads in prayer for the dearly departed or to stand for the seventh-inning rendition of “God Bless America”? How many of us, caps in hand, embarrassed faces, feel nothing of what we’re supposed to, though that doesn’t mean we don’t stir with some land-that-I-love fervor. The degree to which we feel the absence of belief is also the degree to which we long for that absence be heard, acknowledged, if not by them, then by us. But where? In our mendacious hearts? As the song climaxes on “God,” there is the certainty that there is no God except the God who isn’t there, a strangely satisfying hollow, the toweringly stained glass of unbelief. Reverse salvation—that which does not fill us with blessings we get away with not feeling while no one recognizes our having gotten away with it. How American to be of it and not in it. How American to have to pretend to be attached to what you seek to be free from so much so that the pretending becomes the freedom. How odd that the writer confesses his strength as a failure, translates actuality into fiction when he no doubt knew its autobiography would have hurt those gospel women who raised and loved him, who never suspected the real reason for his torment, and with whom he could never be his apostate self except in the guise of telling the truth slant so that, indispensable to the artist, he would have the truth whole by being partial.

 

Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: This story put the editors in mind of the poem “Live Your Way into the Answer” by Sue Swartz.]

Image by Winold Reiss

Journalist, book/music critic, and memoirist, Thomas Larson is the author of three books: The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease, The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings,’ and The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative. He is a staff writer for the San Diego Reader. He teaches in the MFA Program at Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio, and is the Book Review editor for River Teeth. His website is www.thomaslarson.com.