The Devil in a Cadillac: Langston Hughes’ Tambourines to Glory

June 29, 2011 | 1 book mentioned 2 min read

“It’s a singing, shouting, wailing drama about the old conflict between blatant Evil and quiet Good, with the Devil driving a Cadillac. What kind of car have you got?”

coverSo Langston Hughes described his “urban-folk-Harlem-genre-melodrama” Tambourines to Glory, first conceived as a play/musical (1956) and then re-born two years later as a novel (1958).  It’s the novel I recommend—though there are a lot of folk and gospel songs in this too (“Just A Closer Walk With Thee,” “When The Saints Come Marching In,” “A Rock On Which To Stand”) and it is more vivid and arresting as read and sung by Myra Lucretia Taylor for Recorded Books.

Tambourines is the story of the stolid, kind Essie Belle Johnson, and the lusty, flamboyant Laura Reed, two middle-aged women on home relief (welfare), neighbors in a low-rent apartment building in 1940s Harlem, who strike upon the idea of founding a church.  Actually, it’s Laura’s idea, Laura whose motives are not exactly pure: Love of “men, wine, and something fine”–and thoughts of tambourines heaped with coins—inspire her: “This religious jive is something we can  collect on,” she tells Essie. Essie, on the other hand, feels called by God through Laura to do his work—and these conflicted motives, as you might imagine, drive the plot.

With their two commanding voices—Essie’s angelic and Laura’s “deep, strong, wine-rusty, and wild”—and Laura’s glib flare for preaching (she learned at the knee of her “jack-leg preacher” uncle), and a Bible and a tambourine, they begin holding prayer meetings on a corner of Lennox Ave. And the spirit is with them: they’re good, so good that before long their church has moved into a grand old Harlem theater (with a little help from the sly, handsome “motherfouler” Buddy Lomax—Laura’s “king-size Hershey Bar”).

Some critics have called the novel’s plot thin or slight, but that’s missing the point (Paradise Lost isn’t a lesser work because its conclusion is foregone); It’s a failure to appreciate the spare, clean lines of Tambourines‘ morality tale plot and how this plot allows Hughes’ tremendous gifts for poetic language and description, dialogue, and character through voice to come to the fore.  This is a living book—one that summons the age of the Great Migration and Sarah Vaughan and Joe Louis.  And while it’s a morality fable, its characters aren’t the flat allegorical kind: Laura especially (like Milton‘s Satan) is no mere caricature.  Nor is Hughes take on good and evil as easy to parse as the plot’s simplicity suggests—like Milton, Hughes offers a too dull, sedentary vision of “good”—and a too seductive vision of “evil” in the lusty Laura.

is a staff writer for The Millions living in Virginia. She is a winner of the Virginia Quarterly's Young Reviewers Contest and has a doctorate from Stanford. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Times, In Character, VQR, Arts & Letters Daily, and The Daily Dish.