Hughes, (James) Langston (Vol. 15)
Hughes, (James) Langston 1902–1967
Hughes was a black American poet, novelist, short story writer, playwright, author of children's books, editor, and translator. Original, insightful, and musical in his verse, he became the "poet laureate of Harlem" during its literary renaissance of the twenties. A poet of the city, he wrote of racial injustice, social struggle, and interracial relations in poetry which has its roots in jazz and the blues. Hughes's style is simple and colloquial in its use of slang, dialect, and humor. Many of his poems have been set to music. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 5, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
Edward E. Waldron
In his blues poetry Langston Hughes captures the mood, the feel, and the spirit of the blues; his poems have the rhythm and the impact of the musical form they incorporate. Indeed, the blues poems of Langston Hughes are blues as well as poetry….
[The] blues reflects the trials and tribulations of the Negro in America on a secular level, much as the spirituals do on the religious level. Both expressions are, certainly, necessary releases. In one of his "Blues for Men" poems in Shakespeare in Harlem …, Hughes dramatizes the necessity for this release…. [In "In a Troubled Key"] we see the blues maker turning his despair into song instead of into murder, and, one has the feeling that the mood of the blues is often one step away from death—either murder or suicide—and that the presence of the blues form makes it possible for the anguished one to direct his sorrow inward into song and find happiness in the release. (p. 140)
The blues … is an integral part of Black American culture. It is fitting that one of America's greatest poets chose this form to express himself in so many poems.
While Langston Hughes certainly did not limit himself to any one form or subject, his concern with the common man—the source of the blues—makes his use of the blues form especially "right." There seems to be a real marriage of artist and creation in the blues that this man composed. That Hughes...
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Phillis R. Klotman
Jesse B. Semple is certainly no romantic hero, protest victim or militant leader, no charismatic character for the young to emulate…. Simple reached a wide, appreciative black audience because he appeared in newspapers readily available to black readers, and he reached white readers when Hughes began to publish the tales in book form. What is Simple's appeal? My contention is that the popularity of the tales is based on the narrative technique of the artist; that is, on the artistic devices used by Langston Hughes, a writer who not only knew his medium, but also knew the people whom he addressed through that medium: 1) the sure fire appeal of the skit technique, 2) an apparent artlessness and simplicity in the development of theme and character, 3) reader identification, and 4) the intermittent sound of the blues in prose.
The skit technique, adapted to the demands of the newspaper column, is a natural form for the tales. The oral tradition of the Afro-American was carried on in the vaudeville and burlesque routines which were so popular in the twenties and thirties. Those routines had elements that we also see in the Simple stories: two stand-up comics playing against and to each other, fast paced dialogue and a quick exit. Each of the tales is self-contained and is almost entirely in dialogue; each gives Simple a chance to make some comment, flavored with his unique malapropisms, about the world of Harlem or the world in general....
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R. Baxter Miller
In a difficult or disorganized structure, illustrating fused time, The Big Sea interweaves the themes of paradox and eternality.
The Big Sea preserves a history of events less well than a history of persons…. Often giving historical fact, [Hughes] has his own loose and confusing way of presentation…. Actually the history of the work stretches from Hughes's birth in 1902 to the death of A'Lelia Walker in 1931 and the Scottsboro case of the same year….
Just as it reminds one of literary history, The Big Sea reminds one of the Western Movement, which characterized America in the 1800s and which ended in the 1890s. (p. 39)
His movement to Lincoln, Illinois, in 1916 is an example of the great migration of that decade, when Blacks pulled up roots in the South and journeyed north in hope of better jobs and better pay. His family becomes a symbol of all the restless and wandering Blacks then….
This work, moreover, preserves not only the social realities of its time, but the contemporary literature…. Viewing literary figures through The Big Sea allows the reader to experience time multi-dimensionally, to see the new poetry movement of 1912 through the eyes of Hughes the narrator, who becomes twenty-one in 1923….
One reads The Big Sea less for its recording of the discriminations against Blacks after World War I than for its...
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Richard K. Barksdale
Hughes's Ask Your Mama conforms in many respects to [a certain] concept of jazz poetry. Throughout the twelve sections of the volume there are elaborate notes calling for the reciprocal interplay of music and poetry. The dominant theme that in "the Quarter of the Negroes" life is full of waiting and hesitating is stressed musically by "The Hesitation Blues," an old blues number used as a recurring leitmotif throughout Ask Your Mama. Moreover, the ringing indictments of social and moral injustice customarily found in the usual jazz poem are in full evidence in the volume. These are delivered with that peculiar Hughesian blend of anger, irony, and humor. (pp. 110-11)
[In] "the Quarter of the Negroes"—itself a phrase full of anger and irony—tribal togetherness has been replaced by a pervasive hatred of oppressive institutions, mandates, and regulations. This hatred has become the only "umbilical cord" tying one black person to another, but it provides no tribal shelter for the unwed mother, the unwanted child, the unemployed father, or for any of those who "just wait" in the "shadow of the welfare."
In other respects, Ask Your Mama is not a typical jazz poem. Certain passages are obscure and recondite and hence lack the direct clarity of statement usually found in the jazz poem. (p. 111)
Hughes also complicates his communication problem in Ask Your Mama by making...
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