> The Things You Can Read: Harelm Renaissance: "Early Autumn" by Langston Hughes

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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Harelm Renaissance: "Early Autumn" by Langston Hughes

Flash fiction goes by many names, including microfiction, microstories, short-shorts, short short stories, very short stories, sudden fiction, postcard fiction, and nanofiction.
While it can be difficult to pinpoint an exact definition of flash fiction based on word count, consideration of several of its features can help provide clarity about this compressed form of short story.

A Plot Involving Exes

Two former lovers, Bill and Mary, cross paths in Washington Square in New York. Years have passed since they last saw each other. They exchange pleasantries about their jobs and their children, each of them perfunctorily inviting the other's family to come visit.

When Mary's bus arrives, she boards and is overwhelmed by all the things she has failed to say to Bill, both in the present moment (her address, for instance), and presumably, in life.
Point of View

The story begins with a brief, neutral history Bill and Mary's relationship. Then it moves to their current reunion, and the omniscient narrator gives us some details from each character's point of view.

Almost the only thing Bill can think about is how old Mary looks. We are told, "At first he did not recognize her, to him she looked so old." Later, Bill struggles to find something complimentary to say about Mary. "'You're looking very . . .' (he wanted to say old) '. . . well,' he said."

Bill seems uncomfortable ("a little frown came quickly between his eyes") to learn that Mary is living in New York now. We get the impression that he hasn't thought much about her in recent years and is not enthusiastic about having her back in his life in any way.

Mary, on the other hand, seems to harbor affection for Bill, even though -- or perhaps because -- she was the one who left him and "married a man she thought she loved." When she greets him, she lifts her face "as if wanting a kiss," but he just extends his hand. She seems disappointed to learn that Bill is married. Finally, in the last line of the story, we learn that her youngest child is also named Bill, which indicates the extent of her regret for ever having left him.

The Story's Title

At first, it seems obvious that Mary is the one who is in her "autumn." She looks noticeably old, and in fact, she is older than Bill.

Autumn is a time of loss, and Mary clearly feels a sense of loss as she "desperately reach[es] back into the past." Her emotional loss is emphasized by the setting of the story. The day is almost over. It's getting cold. Leaves fall inevitably from the trees, and throngs of strangers pass Bill and Mary as they talk. Hughes writes, "A great many people went past them through the park. People they didn't know."

Later, as Mary boards the bus, Hughes re-emphasizes the idea that Bill is irrevocably lost to Mary, just as the falling leaves are irrevocably lost to the trees from which they have fallen. "People came between them outside, people crossing the street, people they didn't know. Space and people. She lost sight of Bill."

But the word "early" in the title is tricky. Bill too will be old one day, even if he can't see it at this moment. If Mary is undeniably in her autumn, Bill might not even recognize that he is in his "early autumn." Bill is the one most shocked by Mary's aging. She takes him by surprise at a time in his life when he might have imagined himself immune to winter. He's like a boy in school who wonders how he got behind a desk when it was summer only yesterday.
"Chains of Misty Brilliance"

Overall, "Early Autumn" feels very sparse, like a tree nearly bare of leaves. The characters are at a loss for words, and as a reader, you feel it.

But there is one moment in the story that feels noticeably different from the rest: "Suddenly the lights came on up the whole length of Fifth Avenue, chains of misty brilliance in the blue air."

This sentence marks a turning point in many ways.

First, it signals the end of Bill and Mary's attempt at conversation, startling Mary into the present.

If we take the lights to symbolize truth or revelation, then their sudden brightness might represent the irrefutable passage of time and the impossibility of ever recovering -- or re-doing -- the past. That the lights run "the whole length of Fifth Avenue" further emphasizes the completeness of this truth; there is no way to escape the passage of time.

But it's worth noting that the lights turn on right after Bill says, "You ought to see my kids" and grins. It's a surprisingly unguarded moment, and it's the only expression of genuine warmth in the story. Perhaps you'll find my interpretation unforgivably sentimental, but I think his children -- Mary's too -- might be those lights, the brilliant chains that link the past with an ever-hopeful future.

Don't Forget To Be Awesome!

I am an educator with over 25 years of teaching experience; I currently teach English in the public school system of Virginia. In my spare time, I am an avid reader. writer, reviewer, blogger, writing/art journaler, beekeeper, grad student, and MOTHER. - See more: Here

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