Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
The themes of “Ballad of the Landlord” come out of a vital American literary tradition: The poem taps the energy and meaning of much of the social protest literature of the 1930’s. Poems, stories, and essays about tenant evictions, rent protests, and similar activities were common fare in the social realist American literature of the 1930’s. In that tradition, Hughes represents the unfair advantage of society in this struggle: The landlord has only to call the tenant a communist (“He’s trying to ruin the government/ And overturn the land!”) for the police to throw the tenant in jail. Another example of the influence of radical 1930’s literary roots is the abrupt form of the last three stanzas and, particularly, the capitalized words of the last stanza, which may remind readers of the “newsreels” in John Dos Passos’s trilogy of novels, U.S.A. (1930-1936), in which he creates montages of newspaper headlines to construct a realistic background for his fictional narratives. Nowhere was this 1930’s social realism stronger than in the African American literary tradition, which goes back to the Harlem Renaissance (1920-1929), a literary, musical, and artistic movement that included Hughes as one of its major practitioners: His first collection of poetry, The Weary Blues (1926), is one of the landmarks of the movement.
What makes “Ballad of the Landlord” unique is Hughes’s own special treatment of this incident. In the early stanzas, he establishes the justice of the tenant’s claims against his landlord but closes realistically with American society’s typical response to protests similar to the tenant’s, especially in the 1930’s: eviction and jail. There is no justice in this society, Hughes complains, particularly for African Americans. The landlord has all the weight of the police and the judicial system on his side; the tenant has only truth and moral rightness. Like many traditional ballads about folk heroes fighting for justice (Robin Hood, for example), Hughes’s “Ballad of the Landlord” honors the struggle of the poor and disenfranchised. However, the title of the poem ultimately and ironically tells readers who the hero of the poem in this society really is and who will finally win this struggle.