Hughes, Langston (Contemporary Literary Criticism)
Langston Hughes 1902–1967
(Full name James Mercer Langston Hughes) American poet, dramatist, novelist, nonfiction, and short story writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Langston Hughes's career through 1995. See also Langston Hughes Criticism (Volume 1) and Volumes 5, 10.
Langston Hughes is one of the best known African-American writers of the twentieth century and a figure at the forefront of the Harlem Renaissance. Through his poetry Hughes expressed the voice of many African Americans, capturing the language, experiences and strength of common people. While Hughes is known as the poet laureate of Harlem, he has also been recognized for his depictions of the African-American struggle in his prose, plays, and literature for children.
Hughes was born February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri. While he was an infant his parents split and he moved to Lawrence, Kansas where he was cared for by his grandmother. His mother worked in Kansas City as an actress and his father practiced law in Mexico. When Hughes's grandmother died he moved briefly to Illinois before settling in Cleveland, Ohio where he attended Central High School. There he ran on the track team and was the class poet, publishing poems in the school newspaper. After he graduated he lived for a year with his father in Mexico and then attended Columbia University for one year. Hughes took various jobs and traveled the world. In 1926 he published his first book of poems The Weary Blues. He attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, earning a B.A. in 1929. In 1930 his first novel Not Without Laughter won the Harmon gold medal for literature and Hughes decided to pursue a career in writing. He lectured across the country and lived in New York City, writing prolifically. Throughout the 1930s Hughes became involved with the political Left and in 1953 he was investigated by the Senate subcommittee chaired by Joseph McCarthy for his alleged involvement in selling books to libraries abroad. Hughes died in New York City May 22, 1967.
Hughes published works in many genres but was primarily known as a poet. He published his first collection of poems The Weary Blues in 1926, containing one of his most famous poems "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." Other important volumes of poetry are Fine Clothes for the Jews (1927), Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951), Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (1959), and Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz (1961). In his poetry Hughes renders the voices, experiences, emotions, and spirit of African Americans. In his attempt to capture the lives of everyday African Americans he deals with subjects like prostitution, racism, lynchings, and teenage pregnancy. Hughes is well known for the influence of jazz and bebop music in his poetry, both as a subject matter and as a structure. Critics have noted his skill in imitating the sound, cadence, and rhythms of the blues style as well as capturing the humor, despair, and loneliness depicted in the music. Hughes's most famous fiction involved a character named Jesse B. Semple, often called Simple. These short stories provided Hughes with another opportunity to showcase the problems facing African Americans. In Hughes's many plays he captures the vernacular of African Americans and is able to employ such innovative techniques as theatre-in-the-round and audience participation.
Throughout his career, Hughes encountered mixed reactions to his work. Many black intellectuals denounced him for portraying unsophisticated aspects of lower-class life, claiming that his focus furthered the unfavorable image of African Americans. However, other critics have noted the uneven quality of his writing. Critics agree that Hughes is at his best when he depicts the everyday experiences of African Americans and that these depictions are often their best in his most simple and direct poetry. Critics also praise Hughes's innovative ability to imitate the sounds and the mood of jazz and the blues. Reviewing Fine Clothes for the Jews, Julia Peterkin writes, "He has taken the joys and woes of dishwashers and bell-hops, crap-shooters and cabaret girls, broken women and wandering men, and, without losing their strong racial flavor, he has molded them into swift patterns of musical verse." Later in life, Hughes was criticized for failing to address controversial issues and to reflect the more militant fight for civil rights. However, later critics note that Hughes remained constant in his focus on the problems of racism and the failure of African Americans to realize the American Dream. James Presley argues that Hughes promoted the idea that "the Negro's bed has been lined with injustices, but eventually the American Dream will triumph."
The Weary Blues (poetry) 1926
Fine Clothes to the Jew (poetry) 1927
Not Without Laughter (novel) 1930
Dear Lovely Death (poetry) 1931
The Negro Mother and Other Dramatic Recitations (poetry) 1931
The Dream Keeper and Other Poems (poetry) 1932
Scottsboro Limited: Four Poems and a Play in Verse (poetry and drama) 1932
Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti [with Arna Bontemps] (juvenilia) 1932
A Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia (nonfiction) 1934
The Ways of White Folks (short stories) 1934
Mulatto (drama) 1935
Little Ham (drama) 1936
When the Jack Hollers [with Arna Bontemps] (drama) 1936
Don't You Want to Be Free? (drama) 1938
A New Song (poetry) 1938
The Big Sea: An Autobiography (autobiography) 1940
Shakespeare in Harlem [with Robert Glenn] (poetry) 1942
Freedom's Plow (poetry) 1943
Jim Crow's Last Stand (poetry) 1943
Lament for Dark Peoples and Other Poems (poetry) 1944
Fields of Wonder (poetry) 1947
One-Way Ticket (poetry) 1949
Troubled Island (libretto) 1949
Simple Speaks His Mind (short stories) 1950
Montage of a Dream Deferred (poetry) 1951
Laughing to Keep from Crying (short stories) 1952
The First Book of Negroes (juvenilia) 1952
Simple Takes a Wife (short...
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SOURCE: "The American Dream of Langston Hughes," in Southwest Review, Vol. 48, No. 4, Autumn, 1963, pp. 380-86.
[In the following essay, Presley looks at the theme of the American dream in Hughes's poetry, drama, prose, and nonfiction.]
One summer in Chicago when he was a teen-ager Langston Hughes felt the American Dream explode in his face; a gang of white youths beat him up so badly that he went home with blacked eyes and a swollen jaw.
He had been punished for cutting through a white neighborhood in the South Side on his way home from work. That night as he tended his injuries young Hughes must have mused disturbed thoughts about fulfilment of his American dream of freedom, justice, and opportunity for all.
A few years after that traumatic Chicago afternoon Hughes inaugurated a prolific and versatile writing career. Over the four decades separating then and now, his reaction to the American Dream has been one of his most frequently recurring themes. For many years Hughes, often hailed as "the poet laureate of the Negro people," has been recognized by white critics as an author-poet of the protest genre. Others, more conservative and denunciatory, have assailed Hughes as radical and leftist, to mention the more polite language. In both instances the critics referred to Hughes's treatment of imperfections in the American Dream that we, as a nation, hold so dear....
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SOURCE: "The Black Woman as a Freedom Fighter in Langston Hughes's Simple Uncle Sam," in CLA Journal, Vol. 18, No. 2, pp. 273-83.
[In the following essay, Dandridge explores the portrayal of women as active civil rights freedom fighters in Simple Uncle Sam.]
Despite her historical significance, the black woman as a fighter for the liberation of her people from racial injustice is just beginning to emerge as an important character in the literature of black American writers. She appears as a devoted Negro maid who becomes a revolutionary killer in Ed Bullins' play, "The Gentleman Caller" (1968). In Ted Shine's play, "Contribution" (1968), Mrs. Love, who is in her seventies, befriends whites opposed to the black man's struggle for freedom and then poisons them by putting "special seasoning" in the food she gives them. Nettie McCray's play, "Growin' into Blackness" (1969), introduces Pearl, an articulate black nationalist, who urges her girlfriends to fight against the genocidal tactics of the white man by having babies in order to build a strong black nation for the future. The final pages of Ernest Gaines' novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), focus on Miss Jane, a one-hundred-and eight-year-old ex-slave, who protests with others in her community the jailing of a black girl who drank from a water fountain intended for whites only.
Although the black woman as...
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SOURCE: "'Wondering About the Art of the Wanderer': Langston Hughes and His Critics," in The Langston Hughes Review, Vol. 5, No. 2, Fall, 1982, pp. 19-23.
[In the following excerpt, Hodges explores the issue of consistency in Hughes's writing, and critical reaction to his work.]
Me, I always been all tangled up in life—which ain't always as sanitary as we might like it to be …
The Sweet Flypaper of Life
One of the most prolific and versatile writers of the twentieth century, James Mercer Langston Hughes, produced, during his literary career of over forty-five years, a corpus as impressive in its range as in its sheer quantity. He experimented in all the major forms of literary art, from poetry to the novel and from autobiography to literary criticism. Perhaps it should not be at all surprising that such an enormous and multifarious body of literature would, in turn, generate a body of criticism equally as diverse and varied in its range. Countee Cullen and James Baldwin criticized Hughes for failing to exercise discipline and control in certain of his writings, while Sterling Brown and Richard Wright praised him for his versatility and range. To some of his contemporaries Hughes was "the poet laureate of the Negro people"; to a few others, "the poet low rate of Harlem."...
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SOURCE: "Langston Hughes and His Critics on the Left," in The Langston Hughes Review, Vol. 5, No. 2, Fall, 1986, pp. 34-40.
[In the following essay, Rampersad argues that the Leftist critics failed Hughes.]
Radicalism is one of the main points of pressure in Langston Hughes's reputation, like—for example—the question of whether or not he believed in God, or whether or not he was a communist. The matter of radicalism has left a specific wound, one never to be healed completely, on his reputation. His virtual surrender before Senator Joseph McCarthy's committee lingers uncomfortably in the mind, as well as his omission of W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robeson from certain of his writings later in his life, in the aftermath of his encounter with McCarthy. My purpose here is to look at one aspect of Hughes and radicalism between roughly the start of his adult career and 1940, the year of his autobiography The Big Sea. That aspect concerns Hughes's reception by literary critics of the left. How was he treated by them? Did this reception have an impact on his work? In trying to answer these basic questions, perhaps we can learn something more about the art of Langston Hughes, as well as something more about the practice of literary criticism among certain radicals.
If this analysis involves the adverse criticism of some literary figures on the left at one point in Hughes's career, I hope...
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SOURCE: "Religion in the Poetry of Langston Hughes," in Phylon, Vol. 48, No. 3, pp. 240-45.
[In the following essay, Culp asserts that Hughes's poetry emphasizes the diverse role that religion plays in the African- American community.]
Langston Hughes lived basically in terms of the external world and in unison with it, making himself one with his people and refusing to stand apart as an individual. His poetry reflects collective states of mind as if they were his own, merging the poet's personality with his racial group. He as sumes various personae—sometimes he is the spirit of his race, at other times he is a spittoon polisher, a black mother, a prostitute, a black man without job or money—but there is a commonality among the various experiences presented in his poems which gives them a kind of consistent persona.
As a folklorist Hughes sought to capture the essence of every aspect of black culture, including its religion. Religious feeling is always interdependent with racial feeling in his poetry. He views religion in the larger context of black culture, presenting it variously as a source of strength for the oppressed, an opiate of the people, the religion of slavery, and an obstacle to emancipation. When asked in an interview about his own religious views, Hughes responded:
I grew up in a not very religious family, but I had a foster aunt...
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SOURCE: "'Midnight Ruffles of Cat-Gut Lace': The Boogie Poems of Langston Hughes," in CLA Journal, Vol. 32, No. 1, September, 1988, pp. 55-68.
[In the following essay, Tracy analyzes Hughes's use of the boogie-woogie form in five poems from Montage of a Dream Deferred.]
The influence of the blues tradition on Langston Hughes's poetry is by now an oft-discussed and readily accepted fact, although the depth and breadth of his employment of the tradition has not often been discussed with a similar depth and breadth. A close examination of a related sequence of Hughes's blues poems offers the opportunity to explore his fusion of oral and written traditions and to examine his tremendous skills as a literary-jazz improviser. That is not to suggest that Hughes's poems are spontaneous creations. Improvisation is normally thought of as a spontaneous act, but the jazz or blues musician's improvisations are in fact bounded by several things: the musician's "vocabulary"—style, patterns, techniques, and riffs; the accepted conventions of the specific genre (even if those conventions are deliberately violated, they are, in a large sense, at work); and the boundaries of the individual piece being performed. For example, boogie-woogie pianist Pete Johnson, in his 1947 version of "Swanee River Boogie," performs the melody of the song to a boogie-woogie beat, thereafter improvising solos built around the song's chord...
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SOURCE: "Langston Hughes and Approaches to Modernism in the Harlem Renaissance," in The Harlem Renaissance: Revaluations, Garland Publishing, 1989, pp. 49-72.
[In the following essay, Rampersad argues that Hughes's use of the blues form in his poetry places him in the modernist tradition.]
In 1936, certainly after the end of the Harlem Renaissance, one highly literate young black student, a junior at Tuskegee Institute, saw no connection between modernism and black American verse even as he recognized a link between modernism and black culture. "Somehow in my uninstructed reading of Pound and Eliot," he later wrote, "I had recognized a relationship between modern poetry and jazz music, and this led me to wonder why I was not encountering similar devices in the work of Afro-American writers." In 1936, however, the youth came across a poem by a young black Communist based in Chicago, published in New Masses. Although the poem "was not a masterpiece," he would write, at last "I found in it traces of the modern poetic sensibility and techniques that I had been seeking."
The student was Ralph Ellison; the Communist poet, Richard Wright. The point is that Ellison, following the Harlem Renaissance, could see nothing of literary modernism in its writing, but had to depend for a glimpse of modernism in black poetry on a writer who not only had nothing to do with either Harlem or its...
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SOURCE: "Dead Rocks and Sleeping Men: Aurality in the Aesthetic of Langston Hughes," in The Langston Hughes Review, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1992, pp. 1-5.
[In the following essay, Beavers argues that Hughes's role was to amplify the voice of African Americans.]
In his 1940 autobiography, The Big Sea, Langston Hughes discusses the circumstances that lead him, at the puerile age of 19, to the creation of his poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." The poem came into being during a trip to Mexico, Hughes writes, "when [he] was feeling very bad. Thus, he connects poetic inspiration and emotional turbulence, both of which stemmed from his attempt to understand his father's self-hatred. He relates, "All day on the train I had been thinking about my father and his strange dislike of his own people. I didn't understand it because I was a Negro, and I liked Negroes very much." What is striking about the end of this passage is that one finds Hughes adopting a posture both inside and outside the race: he does not make a statement of self-love (e.g. I like myself), rather he indicates through a kind of reflexivity, that he has self-worth. In short, he is unable to articulate self-valuation, he can only construct his positionality as the mirror opposite of his father's racial feeling. But then Hughes shifts the subject and recalls that "one of the happiest jobs [he] ever had," was the time he spent working behind the soda...
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SOURCE: "Symbolizing America in Langston Hughes's 'Father and Son,'" in The Langston Hughes Review, Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 14-20.
[In the following essay, Hubbard discusses Hughes's observations on the mulatto and the culture of race as depicted in the short story "Father and Son."]
Langston Hughes was haunted by a sense of literal kinship between black and white Americans. His preoccupation shows up in much of his writing, even in the poem "I, Too" with its arresting second line that glosses the experience of blacks in America: "I am the darker brother." This ancient and just claim for recognition and acceptance is rooted in the poet's own biography. On his maternal side, Hughes inherited an enhanced perspective of what it means to be loved in a mixed marriage, wherein the claims of family take precedence over artificial claims such as those of race. His great grandfather, Captain Ralph Quarles, was a white plantation owner who fell in love with Lucy Langston, a slave woman of Indian descent. Quarles had received her as chattel on a promissory note for money borrowed by her former owner, but he soon freed her. The two subsequently lived as a married couple on his Louisa County, Virginia, plantation (such a marriage, of course, was technically illegal). Quarles acknowledged paternity of their four children (unlike the iconoclastic patriarch in Hughes's literary productions), and sent...
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SOURCE: "Rage, Repudiation, and Endurance: Langston Hughes's Radical Writings," in The Langston Hughes Review, Vol. XII, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 31-9.
[In the following essay, DeSantis reveals the ways racial injustice and violence influenced Hughes's writings in the 1930s and 1940s.]
In The Big Sea Langston Hughes laments the close of the 1920s and the first years of the 1930s as the end of the period known as the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement of international significance which generated an outpouring of African American art, literature, and criticism. The final chapters of Hughes's autobiography strike a tone of sadness, markedly different from the lively prose describing the writer's early years in vibrant Harlem. Hughes writes: "The generous 1920s were over. And my twenties almost over. I had four hundred dollars and a gold medal." It is fitting that Hughes chose to mention his financial status in closing. With the Depression looming darkly over America, the hands of patrons who sustained many artists during the Harlem Renaissance were withdrawn. The prizes offered to promising writers by African American journals were fewer, and the stipends for submissions were of lesser amounts. Nevertheless, armed with the four hundred dollars that came with the 1931 Harmon Award ("Four hundred dollars! I had never had a job that paid more than twenty-two dollars a week."), Hughes scoffed at...
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SOURCE: "Langston Hughes in Mexico and Cuba," in Latin American Literature and Arts, Vol. 47, Fall, 1993, pp. 23-27.
[In the following essay, Mullen argues that Hughes's experiences in Mexico and Cuba had a significant influence on his writing and identity.]
In his introduction to Do the Americas Have a Common Literature? (Duke University Press, 1990), Gustavo Pérez Firmat underscores the fact that the field of inter-American literary studies is something of a terra incognita. The occasion of the quincentenary, in which so much writing has been directed toward the theme of the identity of the Americas, seems a particularly appropriate juncture to fill in some of the open critical space to which Pérez Firmat refers. The shaping of the American identity has been marked in no small degree by a relatively constant set of discoveries carried out by writers from both sides of the border, from the period of Conquest to the present day. It is no surprise that Robert E. Spiller, in his classic The Cycle of American Literature, credits Columbus's letter of 1493 to the Royal Treasurer of Spain describing his discovery as the earliest genuinely American text. In fact, a list of North American writers who have traveled to Latin America reads like a veritable Who's Who of North American literature: James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, John...
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SOURCE: "Heroic 'Hussies' and 'Brilliant Queers': Genderracial Resistance in the Works of Langston Hughes," in African American Review, Vol. 28, No. 3, Fall, 1994, pp. 333-45.
[In the following essay, Borden examines how freely Hughes discussed gender and race relations in his works.]
In his writings, Langston Hughes explores the convergence of race and gender in Black men's and women's lives, questioning binary constructions of identity and exploring sensuality in relation to social change. These are the pages, as bell hooks suggests, that lay marked on bedside tables, that become worn with searching fingers, that represent something other than "the Langston Hughes most folks read or remember." They are poems and stories that deal with love among Black men and women, nature, romantic quandary, mother-daughter and father-son relations, friendship, and silences. In discussing Black male and female identity, Hughes speaks of the ways gender uniquely colors these experiences. He writes in a manner which could be described as genderracial, emphasizing how gender and racial identity are intertwined.
In an often cited passage from "The Negro Artist and Racial Mountain," Hughes comments, "One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, 'I want to be a poet, not a Negro poet.'… I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being...
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SOURCE: "He Heard America Jiving," in New York Times Book Review, Vol. XCIX, No. 52, December 12, 1994, p. 15.
[In the following review of The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, Taylor states that the quality of the poems is uneven but the book gives a clear picture of Hughes.]
It is the rare poet whose words enter the culture with the apparent durability of, say, "a dream deferred." Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot's book I've Known Rivers—the titles are phrases from the pen of Langston Hughes, and so is "black like me." To lodge such fragments so broadly and deeply requires not only a gift for poetry but also an unusual affinity with the language of popular speech and song. This gift and this affinity Langston Hughes had, along with an intense if scattered energy that kept him working all his adult life on a variety of projects in prose and verse—essays, columns, librettos, fiction, songs and, most important to him and to most of his readers, poems.
"The Negro Speaks of Rivers," first published in 1921, when Hughes was 19, is still among his best-known poems, though vintage Hughes verse continued to appear; his last volume, The Panther and the Lash, was published shortly after his death in 1967. Dozens of Hughes's poems are in the mode of "Motto," first collected in Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951):...
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SOURCE: A review of The Sweet and Sour Animal Book and Black Misery, in New York Times Book Review, February 12, 1995, p. 18.
[In the following review, Chambers discusses the appeal of Hughes's simple language and life experiences in three books for children.]
Langston Hughes (1902–67) was able to turn sophisticated and complex ideas into very simple language. A lifelong fan of jazz and blues, Hughes shared with musicians the gift of flow. His words could ride above you, breeze by or lift you like Aladdin's magic carpet. He often wrote in the AAB style of blues lyricists: the first line repeated for emphasis, the third line providing the payoff or switch. One of my favorite verses from Blues Montage goes:
Baby, baby, please don't snore so loud.
Baby, baby, please don't snore so loud.
You just a lil' bit of woman …
But you sound like a great big crowd.
In the literary world, poetry with simple rhymes is almost always looked down upon. In his lifetime, Hughes was often derided as not holding African-American arts and letters up to "intellectual" standards. Children, however, love a good rhyme. So it seems only natural that at some point in a 40-year career, which produced books of poetry, plays, novels and short...
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Anderson, Sherwood. "Paying for Old Sins." The Nation 139, No. 360 (11 July 1934): 49-50.
Considers The Ways of White Folks a worthwhile book but believes Hughes's writing is hurt by his hatred for whites.
Davis, Thadious M. "Reading the Woman's Face in Langston Hughes's and Roy De Carava's Sweet Flypaper of Life." The Langston Hughes Review XII, No. 1 (Spring 1993) 22-8.
Discusses the role of change in Sweet Flypaper of Life.
Dodson, Owen. "Carousels and Rain." Poetry 71 (1948): 279-81.
Favorably reviews Fields of Wonder.
Evans, Nicholas M. "Langston Hughes as Bop Ethnographer in 'Trumpet Player: 52nd Street'." Library Chronicle of the University of Texas 24, No. 1-2 (1994): 119-35.
Analyzes Hughes's portrayal of the jazz subculture in his poetry.
Ford, Karen Jackson. "Do Right to Write Right: Langston Hughes's Aesthetics of Simplicity." Twentieth Century Literature 38, No. 4 (Winter 1992): 436-56.
Argues that Hughes's strength lies in his simple poems.
Harper, Donna Akiba Sullivan. "'The Apple of His...
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