Langston Hughes was a writer who drew on wide and varied experiences. In his youth he worked as a delivery boy, farm hand, short-order cook, and seaman and began a pattern of restless travel that would take him to Europe, West Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, the Soviet Union, and Asia as well as to more than a dozen American cities and towns he at one time or another called home. Although he wrote novels, short stories, nonfiction, plays, librettos, and essays, he is primarily remembered as a poet who sang of the joys and pains, and the pride and humiliation of being black in America. Along with figures such as Countee Cullen, Richard Wright, and Zora Neale Hurston, Hughes is one of the major voices of the Harlem Renaissance, but in his use of irregular verse forms, vernacular language, and musically inspired rhythms he is also heir to the exalted populism of Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg. (Hughes has justly been called the “original jazz poet” because jazz rhythms and structures—from the raucous blues of the early twenties to the be-bop of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s—are a fundamental influence on his poetry.)
This chronologically ordered collection includes all the poetry (excluding juvenilia) published during Hughes’s lifetime (thus excluding posthumously published poems as well as a large body of unpublished poems). From “THE NEGRO SPEAKS OF RIVERS” of 1921 through the controversial “GOODBYE CHRIST” (1932) and “LET AMERICA BE AMERICA AGAIN” (1936) and on to MONTAGE OF A DREAM DEFERRED (1951) and ASK YOUR MAMA (1961), these 860 poems trace nearly five decades of observation and experience by a man who was devoted to social and political justice and keen to celebrate the ongoing drama of the American experience.
Editor Arnold Rampersad, the author of the two-volume THE LIFE OF LANGSTON HUGHES, and his associate David Roessel provide a detailed chronology and careful annotations that serve as an excellent contextual background for this important volume.