Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: Twentieth Century)
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...
(The entire section is 2111 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry: American Poets)
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...
(The entire section is 965 words.)
Biography (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 198 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 620 words.)
Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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,...
(The entire section is 1001 words.)
Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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.
(The entire section is 87 words.)
Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised 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,...
(The entire section is 555 words.)
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.
IntroductionLangston 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.
- Hughes was raised primarily by his grandmother. She told him important stories of the African-American oral tradition that would influence his work.
- 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.
- He graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1929. Among his classmates was future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
- 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.
- 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.