The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“Harlem” is a short, reflective poem, somber in tone, with an ominous, pointedly italicized ending. It appeared originally as the first poem in the last sequence of poems (“Lenox Avenue Mural”) in the book Montage of a Dream Deferred. Sometimes Montage of a Dream Deferred has been reprinted in its entirety (as in Hughes’s Selected Poems); sometimes “Lenox Avenue Mural” has been reprinted separately; often “Harlem” has been reprinted alone.
The poem can stand alone. Although it is part of a suite of six poems (“Lenox Avenue Mural”) and of a book of ninety-one poems (reduced to eighty-seven in Selected Poems), it is self-contained and autonomous. It consists of seven short sentences, the last six of which respond to the opening question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” Of the six responses, all but one are themselves framed as rhetorical questions. The whole of Montage of a Dream Deferred is set in Harlem, yet only two of its ninety-one poems mention Harlem in their titles (“Harlem” and “Night Funeral in Harlem”). Simply being titled “Harlem” gives this particular lyric a special recognition in the sequence.
The “dream deferred” is the long-postponed and, therefore, frustrated dream of African Americans: a dream of freedom, equality, dignity, opportunity, and success. This particular poem does not define or give examples of the dream (many other poems in...
(The entire section is 488 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
The most striking features of “Harlem” are the vivid, even startling, metaphors that Hughes introduces as possible answers to the poem’s opening question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” Each metaphor could be taken as suggesting a pattern of behavior. Drying “up/ like a raisin in the sun” could refer to the gradual shriveling of a dream or a person, still sweet but wrinkled, desiccated. (Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun, ruminates on this sort of response to a dream deferred—taking its title from Hughes’s poem.)
To “fester like a sore—/ And then run” suggests something considerably more unappealing—and dangerous—than drying up: a wound not healing. Eventually a limb or a life may be lost. Worse still among its implications is that it will “stink like rotten meat,” for now life is gone from the organism entirely and putrefaction has set in. “Stink” is used as an intentionally offensive, vulgar word, suitable for the occasion.
So far there has been a kind of logical progression, from dehydration to localized decay (“fester”) to wholesale decomposition, but here the poem takes a surprising turn. To “crust and sugar over—/ like a syrupy sweet” seems anticlimactic at first, after rot; “sugar” and “sweet” recall the concentrated sweetness of a raisin.
Hughes may have been thinking of a false, “syrupy sweet” form of behavior—what Paul Laurence...
(The entire section is 516 words.)
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Berry, Faith. Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem. New York: Wings Books, 1995.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Langston Hughes. New York: Chelsea House, 1989.
Chinitz, David. “Rejuvenation Through Joy: Langston Hughes, Primitivism, and Jazz.” American Literary History 9 (Spring, 1997): 60-78.
Cooper, Floyd. Coming Home: From the Life of Langston Hughes. New York: Philomel Books, 1994.
Harper, Donna Sullivan. Not So Simple: The “Simple” Stories by Langston Hughes. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995.
(The entire section is 162 words.)