Langston Hughes Biography

Biography (History of the World: The 20th Century)

ph_0111201225-Hughes.jpgLangston Hughes Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: While Hughes’s greatest achievement was his poetry, which related and celebrated the African American experience, he was also a novelist, dramatist, short story writer, and journalist, making him one of the most versatile black American writers to grow out of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s and 1930’s.

Early Life

James Mercer Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902 to parents who would soon separate. His father, contemptuous of racist barriers that kept him from achieving his professional goals, settled in Mexico, where he prospered as a lawyer and landowner. His mother, refusing to accompany her husband, moved wherever work was available. She had an interest in the arts that she conveyed to her young son. She also valued a good education and, while living in Topeka, Kansas, insisted that her son be enrolled as a first grader in a white school rather than a black school. In 1909, when economic necessity demanded that she seek employment elsewhere, she took the seven-year-old child to live with his grandmother in Lawrence, Kansas.

A solitary child, Hughes spent his early years reading and listening to his grandmother’s stories about the black people’s heroic quest for freedom and their noble, unflinching determination to achieve liberty and justice. After her death in 1914, Hughes moved to Lincoln, Illinois, to live with his mother and stepfather. He finished elementary school and, as the elected class poet, read his first poem at his graduation ceremony. He then moved with his family to Cleveland, Ohio, where he attended high school. Hughes read voraciously, developed a keen interest in poetry, music, and art, and served as editor of the class yearbook.

In 1920, Hughes went to live with his father in Mexico where he taught English to the children of wealthy Mexicans. In spite of fact that his materialistic father had little regard for his son’s artistic aptitude and wanted him to go abroad to continue his education, Hughes began to publish in National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) periodicals. When his poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” appeared in The Crisis in 1921, the young writer became more determined than ever to grow both intellectually and aesthetically. Compromising with his father, he enrolled in Columbia University in 1921, only to leave after one year because of the bigotry he experienced there.

Hughes continued to write as he worked in a series of menial jobs while living in Harlem in Manhattan to help support himself and his mother. In 1923, he shipped out on a freighter bound for West Africa as a cabin boy, a journey that also took him throughout Europe, where he met such writers as Theodore Dreiser, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Lillian Hellman, Ernest Hemingway, and Pablo Neruda. Upon returning to the United States in 1924, Hughes lived with his mother in Washington, D.C., where he served as a research assistant for black historian Carter G. Woodson. More important, while working as a hotel bus boy, he was “discovered” by noted poet Vachel Lindsay, who publicly hailed him as the “bus boy poet.”

With his experiences abroad and in Harlem (where he would have a permanent residence from 1947 until his death in 1965), his intimate sense of the joys and agonies of his fellow African Americans, and his love for the music and mood of African American language, Hughes was primed to began creating some of his most enduring literature.

Life’s Work

Hughes began to publish poems with the same passionate language and rhythms contained in the jazz and blues music he had heard in Harlem and Paris nightclubs. He started to win literary prizes for his work, which brought him the praise of critic Carl Van Vechten, who helped him publish his first book of verse, The Weary Blues (1926). The poems in the collection convey the musical and heated nightlife of Harlem, as well as the agonies of racial conflict and poverty.

After enrolling in Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1926 and graduating in 1929, Hughes continued to write not only poetry but also short stories and essays for black publications. In 1927, he and some other black writers founded Fire!, a literary journal of African American culture. In that same year a second volume of poetry, Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), appeared. This book contained poems depicting the harsh, often violent underside of Harlem life, and its realism brought Hughes the financial patronage that allowed him to complete his first novel, Not Without Laughter (1930).

In 1932, Hughes went to the Soviet Union, where he worked as a journalist. During this time he read D. H. Lawrence’s stories and was inspired to write more of his own. After returning to the United States, he published The Ways of White Folks (1934), his first collection of stories. However, Hughes’s most notable achievements in short fiction are the morality sketches dealing with the joys and sorrows of black life in the United States that also satirize the hypocrisy and foibles of all Americans and human nature in general. These stories originally appeared in the Chicago Defender, an African American publication. Their initial compilation into book form was, perhaps, inspired by Hughes having to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which found him apologizing for some of his own early prosocialist writings. Over the years these stories were collected and published in Simple Speaks His Mind (1950), Simple Takes a Wife (1953), Simple Stakes a Claim (1957), and Simple’s Uncle Sam (1965).

Hughes was also involved in the theater. He wrote such plays as Mulatto (1935), Little Ham (1935), and Tambourines of Glory (1963). His dramas dealt with the economic and social difficulties inherent in modern, urban black life as well as the abiding dignity of African Americans and their tenacious will to survive. The plays also exhibited Hughes’s sensitivity to and appreciation for African American culture and language and were often staged in nontraditional ways.

Hughes also wrote operas. The Barrier (1950) was based on some of his earlier writings, including his play Mulatto, and was produced on Broadway in 1950. Another opera, Esther (1957), was brought to the stage by Boston’s New England Conservatory. His light musical, Simply Heaven (1957), based on the sketches in Simple Takes a Wife, also had a run on Broadway. However, some viewers were disappointed in the musical’s popularized portrayal of Simple as an entertaining fool rather than the wily folk philosopher of the stories. During these years, Hughes also founded the Harlem Suitcase Theatre, the Skyloft Players of Chicago, and the New Negro Theatre in Los Angeles so that black playwrights and actors would have opportunities to perfect their crafts.

In addition, Hughes wrote two autobiographies. The first, The Big Sea (1940), recounts how he strove to overcome the racism that pushed hard to stifle his and other African Americans’ creativity. Among other things, it relates how the young Hughes rejected his materialistic father’s attempts, with the lure of wealth and security, to persuade his son to give up the idea of becoming a poet of his people. It also tells how Hughes again resisted the temptation of being artistically controlled when he rejected the easy financial patronage offered by a person who sought, in the bargain, to interfere with what and how Hughes wrote. He preferred to be a poor wanderer, free to live and write as he wished.

Hughes’s second autobiography, I Wonder as I Wander (1956), further recounts his seemingly rootless, wandering life, from his trip to Africa in 1923 through his travels in Europe and his exposure to many great modern writers and artists. Like The Big Sea, the book was also nonconfessional in the sense that little was revealed about Hughes’s very private life. Why he remained unmarried is never really discussed, and no significant intimate relationships are recounted, leaving the question of Hughes’s sexuality unanswered and leading some to speculate that he was homosexual.

Hughes’s greatest achievement was in poetry, and he continued to publish collections. Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951) pictured a Harlem life that had changed drastically from its renaissance years of jazz and vibrant life in the 1920’s and 1930’s to a postwar ghetto of violence and blighted poverty. Stylistically, the velvety rhythms of the blues that permeated his earlier poetry were often replaced by angular rhythms of sharp contrast like those emanating from a modern bebop jazz session. The poems in Ask Your Mama: Or, Twelve Hoods for Jazz (1961) explore the issue of segregation and, among other things, picture a time when Martin Luther King, Jr., is governor of Georgia and a former white segregationist governor has been relegated to the position of caretaker “mammy” for little black children.

Hughes’s last collection of poetry, The Panther and the Lash: Or, Poems of Our Times (1967), was published posthumously and contained harsh criticisms of the state of race relations in the United States and abroad. The works are, in part, a response to the black power movement in an era of change wherein the desirability of integration, long held essential by black people of Hughes’s generation, was questioned by some African Americans.

Summary

During his phenomenally creative life, Langston Hughes published seventeen books of poetry, seven short story collections, twenty-six dramatic works, two novels, and two autobiographies. He also edited anthologies and translated works of other writers.

While some criticize Hughes for remaining limited by his persistent focus on the folkways, language, and basic issues surrounding lower-class African Americans and regret that his portrayals of common black life sometimes failed to present a progressive view of his race, Hughes himself always insisted that he was an honest, social poet who did not know enough about upper-class black people to write about them. He felt that while the poor black residents of Harlem may not have worn shined shoes, been to Harvard, or listened to classical music, “they seemed to me,” he said, “good people” who possessed a life force, survival instinct, and dignity worthy of his artistic efforts and personal sympathy.

Also criticized by a new, more militant generation for supposedly not successfully addressing the issues and politics of black power, Hughes’s writings, nonetheless, continue to speak to readers who value his clear, vividly rendered, and honest vision of his people. They value his celebration of their language, culture, and spirit so beautifully permeated, in his most memorable poems, by the rhythms of blues and jazz. Hughes’s rich, sensitive rendering of an authentic black voice and his fatherly role as mentor for a whole generation of aspiring African American literary artists assure his place as one of the most influential African American poets and writers of the twentieth century.

Bibliography

Berry, Faith. Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem. Westport, Conn.: Lawrence Hill, 1983. Solid critical biography of Hughes covering his education, politics, involvement in the Civil Rights movement, and his many books and pamphlets. Contains extensive chapter notes.

Emanuel, James A. Langston Hughes. Boston: Twayne, 1967. An overview of Hughes’s life and art, including critical readings of his poetry, drama, and fiction. Contains a selected bibliography and life chronology.

Leach, Laurie F. Langston Hughes: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004. An overview of Hughes’s life and development as a playwright, poet, and journalist.

Miller, R. Baxter. The Art and Imagination of Langston Hughes. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1989. An examination of Hughes’s development as a poet focusing on his autobiographical, apocalyptic, lyrical, political, and tragicomic imaginations. Includes extensive chapter notes and a selected bibliography.

Mullen, Edward J., ed. Critical Essays on Langston Hughes. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986. Includes essays on Hughes’s poetry, prose, and drama, as well as reviews of his works.

Ostrom, Hans. Langston Hughes: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993. Includes critical analyses of Hughes’s short fiction; excerpts from his essays and speeches on his life, racial issues, and writings; and remarks from critics on his works. Contains a life chronology and selected bibliography.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. The definitive biography of Hughes, tracing his life and work from 1902 to 1967. Deals extensively with his personal, political, public, and artistic concerns and accomplishments.

Schwarz, A. B. Christa. Gay Voices of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003. Schwarz examines the work of four leading writers from the Harlem Renaissance--Countée Cullen, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Richard Bruce Nugent--and their sexually nonconformist or gay literary voices.

Trotman, C. James, ed. Langston Hughes: The Man, His Art, and His Continuing Influence. New York: Garland, 1995. A fine collection of essays dealing with such topics as the Harlem Renaissance, “Race, Culture, and Gender,” and Hughes’s continuing influence on poetry, fiction, and drama.

Langston Hughes Biography (Poets and Poetry in America)

James Mercer Langston Hughes (the first two names were soon dropped) was born in Joplin, Missouri, on February 1, 1902. His parents, James Nathaniel Hughes and Carrie Mercer Langston Hughes, separated when Hughes was young; by the time he was twelve, he had lived in several cities: Buffalo, N.Y.; Cleveland; Lawrence and Topeka, Kansas; Colorado Springs, and Mexico City (where his father lived). Until 1914, however, Hughes lived mainly with his maternal grandmother in Lawrence.

Hughes began writing poetry during his grammar school days in Lincoln, Illinois. While attending Cleveland’s Central High School (1916-1920), Hughes wrote his first short story, “Mary Winosky,” and published poems in the school’s literary publications. The first national publication of his work came in 1921, when The Crisis published “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” The poem had been written while Hughes was taking a train on his way to see his father in Mexico City, a visit that the young man dreaded making. His hatred for his father, fueled by his father’s contempt for poor people who could not make anything of themselves, actually led to Hughes’s being hospitalized briefly in 1919.

Hughes’s father did, however, send his son to Columbia University in 1921. Although Hughes did not stay at Columbia, his experiences in Harlem laid the groundwork for his later love affair with the city within a city. Equally important to Hughes’s later work was the time he spent at sea and abroad during this period of his life. His exposure to American blues and jazz players in Paris nightclubs and his experiences in Europe, and especially in Africa, although brief, provided a rich source of material that he used over the next decades in his writing.

The years between 1919 and 1929 have been variously referred to as the Harlem Renaissance, the New Negro movement, and the Harlem Awakening. They were years of rich productivity within the black artistic community, and Hughes was an important element in that renaissance. While working as a busboy in the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C., in 1925, Hughes showed some of his poems—“Jazzonia,” “Negro Dancers,” and “The Weary Blues”—to Vachel Lindsay, who read them during one of his performances that same evening. The next day, Hughes was presented to the local press as “the busboy poet.” With that introduction, and with the aid of people such as writer Carl Van Vechten and Walter White (of the NAACP), Hughes’s popularity began to grow. He published The Weary Blues in 1926 and entered Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where he completed his college education. The 1920’s also saw the publication of his second volume of poems, Fine Clothes to the Jew, and the completion of his first novel, Not Without Laughter.

During much of the early 1930’s, Hughes traveled abroad. He went to Cuba and Haiti during 1931-1932 and joined a group of young writers and students from Harlem on a film-making trip to Russia in 1932-1933. Publishing articles in Russian journals enabled him to extend his own travels in the Far East; he also began to write short stories during that time. By 1934, he had written the fourteen stories that he included in The Ways of White Folks.

During the mid-1930’s, several of Hughes’s plays were produced: Mulatto and Little Ham were among them. In the course of having these plays performed, Hughes started the Harlem Suitcase Theatre (1938), the New Negro Theatre in Los Angeles (1939), and the Skyloft Players of Chicago (1941).

After the publication of his first autobiographical volume, The Big Sea, Hughes spent time in Chicago with the group he had founded there. When America entered World War II, Hughes produced material for the war effort, ranging from “Defense Bond Blues” to articles on black American participation in the war. In addition, during the 1940’s, he began work on his translations of the poetry of Guillén, wrote essays for such diverse magazines as the Saturday Review of Literature and Negro Digest, wrote the lyrics for Street Scene, and published volumes of poetry, including Shakespeare in Harlem, Fields of Wonder, and One Way Ticket.

Also in the 1940’s, Hughes “discovered” Jesse B. Semple. Drawing inspiration from a conversation he had in a bar with a worker from a New Jersey war plant—during which the man complained to his nagging girlfriend, “You know white folks don’t tell colored folks what cranks crank”—Hughes developed the framework for his Simple stories. He combined his own authorial voice, the voice of Simple’s learned interrogator (eventually named Boyd), and the voice of Simple himself to weave a mixture of folk humor that has direct ties back to the “old southwest” humor of Mark Twain and his contemporaries.

The next decades saw continued production of poetry and other writing by Hughes. He wrote his pictorial histories and his “first books” for children. He continued his public readings, often accompanied by piano or jazz orchestra—a prototype of the Beat poets. His second volume of autobiography, I Wonder as I Wander, was published in 1956, and The Langston Hughes Reader, an extensive collection of his work in several genres, appeared two years later. The last two volumes of new poetry, Ask Your Mama and The Panther and the Lash, continued his experimentation with incorporating jazz and folk elements in his poetry.

Hughes spent the last years of his life living and working in Harlem. He encouraged younger black writers, publishing several stories by newcomers in his The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers, as well as including works by established older writers such as Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright. Hughes died on May 22, 1967, in Harlem, the city that so inspired and informed his best work. No one caught the magic that Harlem represented during his lifetime in quite the way that Hughes did.

Langston Hughes Biography (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

James Mercer Langston Hughes came from an educated family whose energies were spent primarily in entrepreneurial efforts to combat poverty and institutionalized racism in order to survive. His life repeats a well-known pattern of early twentieth century African American families: a resourceful mother who rented out their home to boarders, a father who had to leave home to find work, a grandmother who cared for him during his early years, and a stepfather. He grew up in the Midwest—Kansas, Illinois, and Ohio—and participated in athletics as well as in literary activities in high school.

Graduating from Central High School in Lincoln, Illinois, in 1920, Hughes attended Columbia University before shipping out on liners bound for Africa and Holland. He also traveled extensively in Europe before returning to the United States in 1925. Then, in 1929, he received a B.A. from Lincoln University, Pennsylvania. Hughes at first subsisted with the help of patrons, but gradually began to earn a living on the proceeds from his writings and his poetry readings. Although mainly basing himself in Harlem, New York City, Hughes continued to travel extensively. He won numerous prizes, grants, and fellowships for his literary achievements before his death in 1967.

Langston Hughes Biography (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

A prominent African American writer, Langston Hughes led an active literary life. His writings extend from the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s to the Black Arts movement of the 1960’s. Hughes’s father abandoned his wife and infant son in 1903 to seek wealth in Mexico. His mother, unable to find menial labor in Joplin, moved frequently to look for work. In his youth, Hughes lived predominantly with his maternal grandmother in Lawrence, Kansas. Hughes understood poverty, dejection, and loneliness, but from his grandmother he learned the valuable lessons of perseverance and laughter. Her resilience and ingenuity made a lasting impression upon Hughes’s imagination, and she seems the prototype of his self-assured female characters.

After his grandmother’s death, Hughes reunited with his mother in Lincoln, Illinois, but for a time was placed with his Auntie Reed and her husband, religious people who pressured Hughes into joining their church. Hughes marked this unsuccessful attempt at conversion as the beginning of his religious disbelief, as illustrated in the story “Salvation.”

Hughes later moved to Cleveland, where his intellectual growth began in earnest. His earliest poems were influenced by Paul Laurence Dunbar and Carl Sandburg. He read the German philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche and was introduced to socialist ideas. When Hughes’s father, having become prosperous, asked Hughes to join him in Mexico in 1920, Hughes rode a train across the Mississippi River at St. Louis and penned the famous “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” on the back of an envelope.

In Mexico, Hughes became dissatisfied with his father’s materialism and his plans to send him to a European university. Hughes escaped and attended bullfights and studied Mexican culture. He wrote little of these experiences, although a few pieces were published in The Brownies’ Book, founded by W. E. B. Du Bois’ staff at Crisis, the official journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

In 1921, Hughes enrolled at Columbia University. He was quickly disillusioned with Columbia’s coldness and spent more time in Harlem and at Broadway productions. Consequently, Hughes failed most of his classes and dropped out. He worked odd jobs while devoting his free time to the shaping forces of the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes led a nomadic life for two years as a cabin boy on freighters that took him to Europe and Africa. On his initial voyage, he threw away his books because they reminded him of past hardships. He discovered how cities such as Venice had poor people too. These voyages and observations became the genesis of his first autobiography, The Big Sea. Hughes made many influential friends, among them Countée Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, Carl Van Vechten, and Arna Bontemps. Van Vechten helped Hughes find a publisher for his work. Bontemps and Hughes later collaborated on numerous children’s books and anthologies.

Hughes matriculated at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1926, the year that his first book, The Weary Blues, was published. This book was soon followed by many others. During the 1930’s, Hughes made trips to Haiti and to the Soviet Union. In 1937, he was a correspondent in Spain during that country’s civil war. He wrote about these excursions in his second autobiography, I Wonder as I Wander. During the 1940’s, he wrote columns for the Chicago Defender, formulating the humorous persona Jesse B. Semple, or “Simple,” who would later become the basis of the “Simple” stories. In the 1950’s, his politically edged writings made Hughes a brief target of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s hunt for communists. In the last years of his life, Hughes continued to produce volumes of edited and creative work. Hughes died following prostate surgery at Polyclinic Hospital in New York City.

Langston Hughes Biography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

James Mercer Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, on February 1, 1902, to James Nathaniel and Carrie Mercer Langston Hughes. In 1903, Langston’s father, angered and frustrated by a series of events, including the all-white Oklahoma examining board’s refusal to let him take the bar examination, left the United States for Mexico, where he prospered and eventually sent money for the support of his son.

Hughes says in his first autobiography, The Big Sea (1940), that he hated his father, that his father was interested only in making money, and that his father was contemptuous of black people, Mexicans, and anyone who was poor. Langston’s mother, who refused to accompany his father to Mexico, was unable to find work, despite her year of college at the University of Kansas. Consequently, she moved from city to city, sometimes taking Langston with her. She worked at poorly paid clerical jobs that provided insufficient income to support her and her child. Mostly, Langston lived with his grandmother in Lawrence, Kansas, for almost nine years, until her death in 1912.

Upon his grandmother’s death, Hughes was sent to live with family friends, Uncle and Auntie Reed, key figures in his often-anthologized essay “Salvation,” excerpted from The Big Sea. Uncle and Auntie Reed, while they provided Hughes with a sense of family and with regular meals, were much more zealously religious than Hughes’s family. In “Salvation,” Hughes recounts the loss of his faith when he felt abandoned by Jesus, who did not come to save him during the revival at Auntie Reed’s church. Hughes, who was almost thirteen at the time, pretended that he had seen Jesus, and he says he cried in bed that night because he had deceived everybody in the church.

In 1914, Langston’s mother remarried, and in 1916, Langston joined his mother and stepfather, Homer Clark, in Cleveland, where Clark was then a steelworker. Clark shifted jobs frequently, and often the family was financially insecure or impoverished. Nevertheless, the four years Hughes spent at Central High School were productive in introducing him to music, poetry, and art. Throughout his school years, Hughes was an avid reader, and he was influenced particularly by Carl Sandburg’s poetry.

In 1921, when Hughes arrived as a student at Columbia University, he learned that the school had an unstated policy not to house black students. Though the university’s authorities reluctantly assigned Hughes a room, the event set the tone for the one year that he spent there. Hughes continued his formal education in 1926 when he enrolled at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. During his university years, he published The Weary Blues(1926), Fire (1926), and Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927). He graduated from Lincoln University in 1929.

As an adult, Hughes, like his mother, was a drifter, rarely staying in one place long enough to establish roots. In 1923, Hughes began his world travel with a trip to Africa, a journey that he recounts in The Big Sea. He says, ironically, that Africa was the only place in the world that he was called a white man. He later visited numerous countries, including the Netherlands, Italy, France, the Soviet Union, Spain, Japan, and China. Through his travels, Hughes met a number of other well-known writers; among them were Theodore Dreiser, Vachel Lindsay, Zora Neale Hurston, Ernest Hemingway, Richard Wright, Lillian Hellman, André Malraux, and Pablo Neruda. Few writers have had such expansive world travel combined with such a rich exposure to other writers.

This complex combination of experiences is evident in his second autobiography, I Wonder as I Wander (1956). Hughes once remarked to black American writer Richard Wright that six months in one place was long enough to make life complicated. Despite Hughes’s rootlessness, he published seventeen volumes of poetry, two novels, seven collections of short stories, and twenty-six plays. He also edited anthologies, published historical works, and translated the works of other writers, especially poets.

In 1927 in New York, Hughes met Charlotte Mason, his patron until the winter of 1930, when they had a philosophical falling out regarding their views of the place of black artists. Shortly after this break, Hughes also broke with Zora Neale Hurston (another artist funded by Mason), who had submitted a play written by her and Hughes to her agent without consulting Hughes.

Although several sources credit Hughes as the first black American writer to support himself with his writing, his lifestyle was by no means luxurious. In the 1930’s, Hughes sent most of his earnings to his mother, who had breast cancer. His father, with whom Hughes had a falling out in 1922, died in Mexico in 1934. Hughes learned of the death too late to attend the funeral, and he had been left out of his father’s will. He supported his mother until her death in 1938.

Though some reports of Hughes’s death say he died in New York City’s Polyclinic Hospital, where he was treated as an indigent until the hospital orderly recognized him, Arnold Rampersad in The Life of Langston Hughes debunks that story. Hughes did, in fact, register in the hospital as James L. Hughes, and only one chart listed him as James Langston Hughes. His secretary, Raoul Abdul, however, kept in constant touch with Hughes until his death. Hughes requested that none of his friends except writer Arna Bontemps be informed of his hospitalization. His ill health could not be kept secret, so he received several calls and even a few uninvited visitors while he was hospitalized.

Hughes’s memorial service was a fitting end to his adventurous life. Approximately 275 friends were invited to what was, first and foremost, a concert by blues and jazz pianist Randy Weston, ending with Hughes’s “Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me.” Bontemps read several of Hughes’s poems about death. Later in the day, a small group of mourners gathered at Ferncliff Crematory in Hartsdale, New York, joined hands, bowed their heads, and recited “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” as Hughes’s body was rolled toward the flames.

Langston Hughes Biography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Hughes, in addition to his significant role in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s and 1930’s and the Black Arts movement of the 1960’s, left much powerful literature that breaks new ground in combining elements of blues and jazz with prose and poetry.

Throughout Hughes’s writing, his integrity and his commitment to clarity are evident. Through his candid depictions of his characters, such as Jesse B. Simple, Roy Williams, Oceola Jones, and Dora Ellsworth, Hughes helps readers understand more about everyday people, about artists, about humanity.

Langston Hughes Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Few authors of the twentieth century are more significant than Langston Hughes. The length of his career, the variety of his output, his influence on three generations of African American writers, his concern for the “ordinary” African American, and his introduction of the jazz idiom to American poetry assure his status. Hughes’s father, James Nathaniel Hughes, left his family when Hughes was a baby and eventually became a prosperous lawyer and rancher in Mexico. Langston Hughes’s mother, Carrie Mercer Langston Hughes, who had attended college and had an artistic temperament, had great difficulty supporting her family. As a result, much of Hughes’s childhood was spent in Lawrence, Kansas, with his maternal grandmother, Mary Sampson Patterson Leary Langston, a proud woman who was the last surviving widow of John Brown’s 1859 raid at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. He also stayed briefly with his mother in Topeka, Kansas, and in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and he traveled with her to see his father in Mexico when he was seven.

After his mother married Homer Clark, the family moved to Lincoln, Illinois, and then to Cleveland, Ohio. There Hughes published poems in his high school magazine and edited the yearbook. After graduation, he spent an extended period of time with his father in Mexico, where he had articles, poems, and a children’s play accepted for publication. In 1921 he enrolled at Columbia University but quickly lost interest in his studies. Two years later Hughes traveled to Africa and Europe as a sailor.

In 1925 he won an Opportunity poetry prize. A conversation with Carl Van Vechten at the awards ceremony led to the publication of The Weary Blues. Reaction to his book in the white press was generally positive, but many middle-class African American publications were angered by Hughes’s depictions of common African American life and dialect. With the assistance of patrons, Hughes attended Lincoln University and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1929. His first novel, Not Without Laughter, was published the following year.

Determined to earn his living as a writer, Hughes used a Rosenwald Fund grant to tour black colleges in the South. His readings were sometimes controversial, but the exposure helped to establish him as the major poetic voice of black America. He also traveled to the Soviet Union, but despite sympathy for many achievements of the Russian Revolution, Hughes never became as deeply involved in leftist politics as did some of his contemporaries.

In the late 1930’s Hughes used grant money to establish African American theatrical groups in Harlem and Chicago that produced several of his plays. In 1943 he wrote the first of his Simple columns for the Chicago Defender. After the war he published Cuba Libre, a book of translations, and edited The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1949, with Arna Bontemps. During the 1950’s Hughes wrote a series of history texts, some aimed at children, on African Americans and black culture.

During his long career Hughes was harshly criticized by blacks and whites. Because he left no single masterwork, such as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) or Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), and because he consciously wrote in the common idiom of the people, academic interest in him grew only slowly. The importance of his influence on several generations of African American authors is, however, indisputable and widely acknowledged.

Langston Hughes Biography (Poetry for Students)

Hughes was born in in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri, to James Nathaniel and Carrie Mercer Langston Hughes, who separated shortly after their son's...

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Langston Hughes Biography (Poetry for Students)

Hughes was born James Langston Hughes in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri, to James Nathaniel and Carrie Mercer Langston Hughes, who separated...

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Langston Hughes Biography (Drama for Students)

Hughes was born on February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri. His African American father left the family to move to Mexico. In addition, his...

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Langston Hughes Biography (Novels for Students)

James Langston Hughes was born on February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri. His unusual middle name had been the birth name of his mother, a...

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Langston Hughes Biography (Drama for Students)

Langston Hughes Published by Gale Cengage
Zora Neale Hurston Published by Gale Cengage

Zora Neale Hurston was born January 7, 1891, in Eatonville Florida. She was forced to leave school at age thirteen so that she could care for her brother’s children. She was later able to return to school and eventually studied Anthropology at Barnard College and Columbia University. During this time, Hurston began publishing short stories. In 1927, together with Langston Hughes and other artists, she founded a literary magazine, Fire!, which was devoted to African-American culture. The magazine quickly folded, and after graduation, Hurston returned to Florida to complete research for her anthropological studies.

The information she gathered on Negro folklore became the basis for much of her writing. Hurston published her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, in 1934 and a collection of short stories, Mules and Men, in 1935. Her most famous work, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was published in 1937. By the 1940s, Hurston’s career had begun to fail. Publishers, who thought that her recent work lacked the depth and insight of previous efforts, rejected her work. An autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, was published in 1942, and her last published novel, Seraph on the Suwanee, was published in 1948.

Hurston spent the last years of her life in Florida, where she worked variously as a cleaning woman, a librarian, a newspaper reporter, and a substitute teacher. She died penniless at the Saint Lucie County, Florida, Welfare Home January 28, 1960. Hurston was buried in an unmarked grave in the Fort Pierce segregated cemetery.

(James) Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, on February 1, 1902. Hughes’s parents separated shortly after his birth. His father eventually settled in Mexico and his mother left him in the care of his maternal grandmother, who raised Hughes until her death in 1910. For the next four years, Hughes lived with family friends and relatives until he joined his mother and new stepfather in Ohio in 1914.

Having encountered racism at Columbia University, Hughes dropped out of college after his freshman year and began working a series of odd jobs. While working as a bus boy in a hotel in Washington D. C., Hughes placed three poems on poet Vachel Lindsay’s dinner plate. The resulting attention eventually led Hughes to a critic who helped him publish his first collection of poems, The Weary Blues, in 1926. Shortly after this publication, Hughes enrolled in Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where he continued writing.

Hughes’s first collection of short fiction, The Ways of White Folks, was published in 1934, and a series of sketches known as his ‘‘Simple Tales,’’ which were about a black Everyman, were published in the Chicago Defender. The Simple Tales were very popular with black readers and were eventually published in a series of books. Hughes also began writing drama in the 1930s, but he always considered himself primarily a poet. Although his work sometimes received mixed reactions from blacks who were concerned that he emphasized lower-class life and presented an unfavorable image of his race, Hughes’s work was a critical success and he received many honors and awards during his life, including a Guggenheim fellowship for creative work in 1935. Hughes died May 22, 1967, of congestive heart failure in New York City.

Langston Hughes Biography

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Introduction

Langston Hughes was an integral part of the Harlem Renaissance, a period during the 1920s and 1930s that was characterized by an artistic flowering of African-American writers, musicians, and visual artists intensely proud of their black heritage. Langston Hughes contributed to the era by bringing the rhythm of jazz, the vernacular of his people, and the social concerns of the day to his verse. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” in his first collection, The Weary Blues (1926), looks at the past as a source of pride. Other poems capture the rhythm of music and beat of language, such as “Juke Box Love Song.” Still others, like “Theme for English B” and “I, Too, Sing America,” simultaneously express the desire for an integrated world and a warning to those who would try to keep the black race subservient.

Essential Facts

  1. Hughes was raised primarily by his grandmother. She told him important stories of the African-American oral tradition that would influence his work.
  2. Hughes’ father wanted him to become an engineer, so Hughes attended Columbia for a time. He left because of racial intolerance and because he wanted to spend more time writing in Harlem.
  3. He graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1929. Among his classmates was future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
  4. For a number of years, Hughes was attracted to some of the political philosophies of the Communist Party. Though accused of being a member, he never actually joined.
  5. Hughes died of prostate cancer in 1967 at the age of 65. His ashes are buried in Harlem under a special medallion in the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Langston Hughes Biography (Short Stories for Students)

James Langston Hughes was born on February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri. Hughes was the only child of James Nathaniel Hughes and Carrie...

(The entire section is 897 words.)

Langston Hughes Biography (Short Stories for Students)

Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902. His parents divorced, and he grew up with his mother and grandmother, moving...

(The entire section is 442 words.)