Study Guide

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes Essay - Hughes, Langston (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hughes, Langston (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

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 stories) 1953
The Glory Round His Head (libretto) 1953
Famous American Negroes (juvenilia) 1954
The First Book of Rhythms (juvenilia) 1954
The First Book of Jazz (juvenilia) 1955
The Sweet Flypaper of Life [with Roy DeCarava] (nonfiction) 1955
The First Book of the West Indies (juvenilia) 1956
I Wonder As I Wander: An Autobiographical Journey (autobiography) 1956
A Pictorial History of the Negro in America [with Milton Meltzer] (nonfiction) 1956
Simple Stakes a Claim (short stories) 1957
Simply Heavenly (drama) 1957
Famous Negro Heroes of America (juvenilia) 1958
Tambourines to Glory (novel) 1958
Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (poetry) 1959
The First Book of Africa (juvenilia) 1960
The Best of Simple (short stories) 1961
Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz (poetry) 1961
The Ballad of Brown King (libretto) 1961
Fight for Freedom: The Story of the NAACP (nonfiction) 1962
Something in Common and Other Stories (short stories) 1963
Tambourines to Glory (drama) 1963
The Prodigal Son (drama) 1965
Simple's Uncle Sam (short stories) 1965
The Panther and the Lash: Poems of Our Times (poetry) 1967
Black Magic: A Pictorial History of the Negro in American Entertainment [with Milton Meltzer] (nonfiction) 1967
Black Misery (nonfiction) 1969
Good Morning Revolution: Uncollected Social Protest Writings by Langston Hughes (nonfiction) 1973
The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (poetry) 1994
The Sweet and Sour Animal Book (juvenilia) 1994

Criticism

James Presley (essay date Autumn 1963)

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.

The American Dream may have come dramatically true for many, Hughes says, but for the Negro (and other assorted poor people) the American Dream is merely that—a dream. If the critics and would-be censors had read further they would have noted that for Hughes the American Dream has even greater meaning: it is the raison d'être of this nation. Nevertheless, Hughes was still a regular target for right-wing barbs as recently as the 1960's, having been anathema to the right wing for decades.

Long before the Chicago summer during World War I Hughes had experienced the plight of the Negro in America. Although he was not born in the South where conditions probably were worse, the boy Langston had faced the practical prejudices of the Middle West and the North. In Topeka, Kansas, he was to have been dispatched across town to a Jim Crow school, but his determined mother complained so vigorously to the school board that Hughes was enrolled, the only Negro pupil, in the elementary school nearest his home. And there the American Dream of equal treatment for everyone shone through almost perfectly. But a shadow fell: while most of the teachers were kind to him, one kept referring to his color in the classroom. On occasions when the teacher had singled him out for his brownness, several of his classmates would climax the day by throwing stones or epithets at him. There was a great stain on the American Dream.

All was not stain, though. While one teacher exercised her prejudices and some classmates poked fun and more tangible objects at him, other classmates championed his cause. Consequently the youth Langston was never completely alienated, and despite his poverty and darkness in a sea of white he was to know that there were others who believed in equality and justice for him too. Later on, in integrated Cleveland, Ohio, he was named poet of his high school class. Ever since those moments out of a sensitive childhood the future poet has maintained his faith in the American Dream, while confirming his enmity to the stifling and transmogrification of it. In pursuing the Dream, Hughes has followed a course very similar to that of the American Negro in general: the Dream is fine—if realized.

Langston Hughes was born February 1, 1902, at Joplin, Missouri. The three races of America—Indian, Negro, and Caucasian—contributed to his bloodlines: slaves, warriors, planters. His cultural heritage was a proud and lively one. His earliest memories were of his grandmother, a copper-skinned woman of strong Indian ancestry, sitting on the same platform with President Theodore Roosevelt at a public commemoration of the Harper's Ferry raid. She was the last surviving widow of John Brown's historic raid. Her husband, a free Negro, had been one of the first to die in the raid. Young Langston at an early age learned to prize freedom highly.

As a child of separated parents Hughes grew up in many different places in the heartland of America—Kansas, Illinois, Ohio, Missouri, Colorado—and began his globetrotting life with a visit to his father in Mexico where the elder Hughes had fled to escape Jim Crow.

After an interlude at Columbia University in the early 1920's Hughes signed on a freight steamer and saw Africa and Europe. In 1925 he worked for Dr. Carter G. Woodson, editor of Journal of Negro History, and in 1926 his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, appeared. As a student at Lincoln University that year he won the Witter Bynner undergraduate poetry prize; he graduated from Lincoln in 1929.

As the depression reached its depth in the early 1930's he had to scratch for new means of earning his living, but he found the perfect way by making poetry pay: he organized a public reading tour of the South. Subsequent travels in the 1930's took him around the world in connection with a movie-making project which never made it to the screen. A Negro company had gone to Russia to film Porgy and Bess under the auspices of the Soviet government. Hughes went as a writer. When the Soviets delayed and delayed so that the movie was never made Hughes converted the opportunity into one to see as much as he could of Russia. When the Spanish Civil War broke out a few years later Hughes covered it for the Baltimore Afro-American. By the time the realities of World War II reached America, Hughes was in his forties and an established Harlem figure busily producing volumes and volumes of poetry, newspaper columns, anthologies, books for juveniles, novels, short stories, and plays.

As might be expected Hughes has written most frequently, though not exclusively, of Negro characters. Consequently the importance of the color line in America is frequently reflected in his work. The effect of the color line on the American Dream is therefore an integral part of his protest. In one of his biographies for young people, Famous Negro Music Makers (1961), Hughes quotes musician Bert Williams as saying: "It is not a disgrace to be a Negro, but it is very inconvenient." In viewing the string of "inconveniences" vitally affecting the dignity of black Americans Hughes voices his reactions to shriveled freedom, dwarfed equality, and shrunken opportunity—blemishes on the essential ingredients of the American Dream. His poetry and prose echo protest and, usually, hope.

Two poems especially reflect his theme of protest and hope. "Let America Be America Again," published in Esquire and in the International Worker Order pamphlet A New Song (1938), pleads for fulfilment of the Dream that never was. It speaks of the freedom and equality which America boasts, but never had. It looks forward to a day when "Liberty is crowned with no false patriotic wreath" and America is "that great strong land of love." Hughes, though, is not limiting his plea to the downtrodden Negro; he includes, as well, the poor white, the Indian, the immigrant—farmer, worker, "the people" share the Dream that has not been. The Dream still beckons. In "Freedom's Plow" he points out that "America is a dream" and the product of the seed of freedom is not only for all Americans but for all the world. The American Dream of brotherhood, freedom, and democracy must come to all peoples and all races of the world, he insists.

Almost invariably Hughes reflects hope, for that is part of his American Dream. However, some of his poems, apparently written in angry protest, are content to catch the emotion of sorrow in the face of hopelessness and gross injustice. One of his most biting is a verse in Jim Crow's Last Stand (1943). Aimed at southern lynch law which had just taken the lives of two fourteen-year-old Negro boys in Mississippi, and dedicated to their memory, the poem cried that "The Bitter River" has

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Rita B. Dandridge (essay date December 1974)

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...

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John O. Hodges (essay date Fall 1986)

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...

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Arnold Rampersad (essay date Fall 1986)

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...

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Mary Beth Culp (essay date Fall 1987)

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...

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Steven C. Tracy (essay date September 1988)

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...

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Arnold Rampersad (essay date 1989)

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...

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Herman Beavers (essay date 1992)

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...

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Dolan Hubbard (essay date Spring 1992)

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....

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Christopher C. DeSantis (essay date Spring 1993)

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...

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Edward Mullen (essay date Fall 1993)

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...

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Anne Borden (essay date Fall 1994)

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...

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Henry Taylor (review date 25 December 1994)

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...

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Veronica Chambers (review date 12 February 1995)

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...

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