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.
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.
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.
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.
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.