If "The Bitter River," written at a time of disillusionment for Hughes in the early '40s, suggests no lasting vision of mass revolution, "Come to the Waldorf-Astoria" demonstrates a point in Hughes' career when such possibilities seemed not only feasible, but likely. I'd like to add to Shulman's observations about the poem's last "Christmas Card" section which, as he points out, takes on similar subject matter and tone as the later "Goodbye Christ"--the section that fully acknowledges his hope for an emerging revolutionary "salvation" which, Shulman also notes, presents communism as a new "religion" in itself. Let me start by talking about how Hughes tries to draw a revolutionary response from the oppressed subjects he writes about.
The entire piece, of course, works as a stinging social commentary on the "fruits" of capitalism--the satiric descriptions of the "swell board," the "Apartments in the Towers," the "undercover driveways," all of which are paid for by "the men and women who get rich off of [the poor's] labor." Hughes intends every bit of the poem's inflammatory tone. His representation of an utterly hypocritical yet heretofore unaccountable "upper crust" targets as its audience not only the rich and privileged within the capitalist system, but also those whose indignation is most warranted: the potentially powerful, dynamic "mob," those hit hardest by the Depression or other circumstances who have the potential to effect real change. Though Hughes divides this "advertisement to action" into distinct sections, addressing the "Hungry Ones," "Roomers," "Evicted Families," and "Negroes" alike, the penultimate heading, "Everybody," unites them in a common cause. The implicit threat--the possibility for strength in numbers--that exists in organizing those who should be able to "draw" their *own* "dividends," rather than reliquish them to the ones "who clip coupons with clean white fingers," can be seen in the class juxtapositions satirically offered throughout the poem.
The unseen observer-speaker presents a stark realism in conjunction with the absurdity of "Tak[ing] a room at the new Waldorf," "choos[ing] the Waldorf as a background for your rags," and inviting black Harlem to "Drop in at the Waldorf this afternoon for tea." Certainly the most invasive image for the privileged readers against whom the poem is directed would be that of "Mary, Mother of God . . . turned whore because her belly was too hungry to stand it any more" birthing her child in a "nice clean bed" at the Waldorf (though, as Shulman notes, critics of the later "Goodbye Christ" overlooked this seemingly volatile image). What does Hughes intend with these improbable juxtapositions? The image of an oppressed poor enjoying the luxuries of the rich they support, perhaps even spoiling or remaking those goods, "de-sophisticating" them (as the Harlem mob "shak[ing] hips" at the Waldorf would change the tenor of the dance, and the soiled bedclothes of the new Conception would literally and spiritually dim all surrounding grandeur), works as an intentionally threatening vision of unified change, one which foresees a *new* "background for society." Class lines are simultaneously blurred and reinforced through this technique; the reality of a capitalist nation sharpens those lines (imagine what would happen if black Harlem really *did* come to the Waldorf to dance), while the potential for a Communist future erases them, bringing the destitute within reach of what has long been their due.
The conversational, yet bitingly sarcastic, tone of the speaker's voice--juxtaposed with black vernacular under the section entitled "Negroes"--comes to its peak in "Christmas Card," the final stanza of the poem. Here the speaker of "Goodbye Christ" is, in some sense, born, rejecting the "old" Christ and offering himself as the new secular Messiah ("Make way for a new guy with no religion at all-- / A real guy named / Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME--"). The "new born babe" wrapped "in the red flag of Revolution" will start anew for a better cause, minus the capitalist "baggage" associated with the former Savior: "nobody's gonna sell ME / To a king, or a general, / Or a millionaire." This child, too, must be born in "the best manger we've got" right now, the finely wrought arches of capitalism--but arches, the speaker hopes, that the child will one day perhaps demolish or appropriate for different uses.
The speakers sees a new day dawning, and the "Christmas Card" attempts to send a powerful message of potential redemption and rebirth to those who would receive it--the decision must be to "follow him" or, more broadly, to follow the revolutionary impulse.
Copyright © 2001 by Heather Zadra