Study Guide

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes Essay - Hughes, Langston (Poetry Criticism)

Hughes, Langston (Poetry Criticism)

Introduction

Langston Hughes 1902-1967

(Full name: James Mercer Langston Hughes) African American poet, short-story writer, dramatist, essayist, novelist, and autobiographer.

The following entry presents criticism of Hughes's life and career from 1981 through 2000.

A seminal figure of the Harlem Renaissance, a period during the 1920s of unprecedented artistic and intellectual achievement among black Americans, Hughes devoted his career to portraying the urban experience of working-class blacks. Fellow Harlem Renaissance writer Carl Van Vechten called Hughes “the Poet Laureate of Harlem.” He published prolifically in a variety of genres but is perhaps most widely remembered for his innovative and influential jazz-inspired poetry. Hughes integrated the rhythm and mood of blues and bebop music into his work and used colloquial language to reflect black American culture. Gentle humor and wry irony often belie the seriousness and magnitude of Hughes's themes, including black Americans' ongoing pursuit—and consistent denial—of racial equality and the American dream of freedom.

Biographical Information

Hughes was born February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri. During his infancy, his parents separated, and he moved to Lawrence, Kansas, where he was raised primarily by his grandmother. His mother worked as an actress in Kansas City; his father practiced law in Mexico. Following the death of his grandmother, he settled in Cleveland, Ohio, where he attended high school. His young adult years included a stint of living with his father in Mexico and a year of study at Columbia University, followed by an assortment of jobs and traveling. His first book of poems, The Weary Blues, was published in 1926 to warm critical reception, and his second, Fine Clothes to the Jew, followed the next year. He graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania with a B.A. in 1929, and in 1931 he won the Harmon Gold Medal for Literature with his first novel, Not without Laughter (1930). With this literary success, Hughes decided to pursue a career in writing. Throughout the 1930s Hughes became increasingly involved with the political Left in the United States. In 1953, he was investigated by the Senate subcommittee chaired by Joseph McCarthy for allegedly participating in the selling of books to libraries abroad. He remained active as a writer and lecturer into the 1960s, and died in New York City of congestive heart failure on May 22, 1967.

Major Works

Despite his prolific output in other genres, Hughes was known primarily as a poet. He sought to capture in his poetry the voices, experiences, emotions, and spirit of African Americans of his time. Determined to reflect the everyday lives of the working-class culture, he dealt with such controversial topics as prostitution, racism, lynchings, and teenage pregnancy. Hughes also used the vernacular in his verse, drawing heavily upon the themes, rhythms, and cadences of jazz, blues, and gospel music. One of his most frequently anthologized poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” appeared in his first collection, The Weary Blues. His second collection, Fine Clothes to the Jew, recognized the everyday struggles of urban black Americans in Harlem who, in pursuit of the American Dream, left behind the overt oppression of the Deep South only to find their dreams denied or set aside indefinitely. This struggle is characterized in his 1951 book-length poem, Montage of a Dream Deferred. In 1959, the poet oversaw the compilation of Selected Poems of Langston Hughes. Two years later Hughes saw the final collection of his own poetry in print, Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz. The Panther and the Lash: Poems of Our Time (1967) was in press at the time of his death and, in 1973, Good Morning Revolution: Uncollected Social Protest Writings by Langston Hughes posthumously brought to public attention the depth and range of Hughes's politically controversial verse, essays, and other works from earlier in the century. Yet the definitive volume of Hughes's poetic output is considered by many critics to be The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (1994).

Hughes's literary reputation was built not just on his work as a poet, but on his skill as a prose writer, as well. One of his most beloved fictional characters, Jesse B. Semple (shortened to Simple), was a stereotypical poor man living in Harlem, a storyteller eager to share his tales of trouble with a writer-character named Boyd, in exchange for a drink. Through the popular tales of Jesse B. Semple, Hughes offered astute commentary on the problems of being a poor black man in a racist society. The stories first appeared in his columns in the Chicago Defender and the New York Post; many were later published in book form, in collections including Simple Speaks His Mind (1950), Simple Takes a Wife (1953), Simple Stakes a Claim (1957), and Simple's Uncle Sam (1965).

Hughes published a variety of books about African American culture for young readers, including The First Book of Negroes (1952), Famous American Negroes (1954), and Fight for Freedom: The Story of the NAACP (1962). He also published two volumes of autobiography: The Big Sea in 1940, and I Wonder as I Wander, which appeared in 1956.

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. His second poetry collection, Fine Clothes to the Jew, was well received by mainstream literary critics but roundly criticized by his African American peers and critics—in part for its title, but largely for its frank portrayal of urban life in a poor, black Harlem neighborhood. While some critics accused Hughes of bolstering negative racial stereotypes through his choice of subject matter, others faulted him for employing vernacular speech and black dialect in the portrayal of the Harlem streets. In response to both sets of critics, Hughes once wrote, “I felt the masses of our people had as much in their lives to put into books as did those more fortunate ones who had been born with some means and the ability to work up to a master's degree at a Northern college. … I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren't people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard of Bach. But they seemed to me good people, too.”

During the 1960s some of Hughes's younger literary peers were of the opinion that he did not fully embrace the Civil Rights movement. The increasingly strident, militant rhetoric of the mid-1960s stood in sharp contrast to Hughes's bluesy, gospel song-inspired cadences and gentle tenacity; in a review of The Panther and the Lash critic Laurence Lieberman wrote, “we are tempted to ask, what are Hughes' politics? And if he has none, why not? The age demands intellectual commitment from its spokesmen.” Yet contemporary critic David Littlejohn writes of Hughes, “His voice is as sure, his manner as original, his position as secure as, say Edwin Arlington Robinson's or Robinson Jeffers' … by retaining his own keen honesty and directness, his poetic sense and ironic intelligence, he maintained through four decades a readable newness distinctly his own.”

Principal Works

The Weary Blues 1926

Fine Clothes to the Jew 1927

Dear Lovely Death 1931

The Negro Mother and Other Recitations 1931

The Dream Keeper and Other Poems 1932

Scottsboro Limited: Four Poems and a Play 1932

A New Song 1938

Shakespeare in Harlem [with Robert Glenn] 1942

Freedom's Plow 1943

Jim Crow's Last Stand 1943

Lament for Dark Peoples and Other Poems 1944

Fields of Wonder 1947

One-Way Ticket 1949

Montage of a Dream Deferred 1951

Selected Poems of Langston Hughes 1959

Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz 1961

The Panther and the Lash: Poems of Our Times 1967

Good Morning Revolution: Uncollected Social Protest Writings by Langston Hughes (poetry and prose) 1973

The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes 1994

Mule Bone [with Zora Neale Hurston] (drama) 1930

Not without Laughter (novel) 1930

The Ways of White Folks (short stories) 1934

Little Ham (drama) 1935

Mulatto (drama) 1935

The Big Sea (autobiography) 1940

Simple Speaks His Mind (short stories) 1950

The First Book of Negroes (juvenilia) 1952

Simple Takes a Wife (short stories) 1953

Famous American Negroes (juvenilia) 1954

I Wonder as I Wander (autobiography) 1956

Simple Stakes a Claim (short stories) 1957

Simply Heavenly (drama) 1957

Tambourines to Glory (novel) 1958; adapted as a drama, 1963

Fight for Freedom: The Story of the NAACP (nonfiction) 1962

Something in Common and Other Stories (short stories) 1963

Simple's Uncle Sam (short stories) 1965

Black Misery (nonfiction) 1969

Criticism

Chidi Ikonne (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Ikonne, Chidi. “Affirmation of Black Self.” In Modern Critical Views: Langston Hughes, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 151-67. New York, N.Y.: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989.

[The following essay, which appeared in Ikonne's From DuBois to Van Vechten: The Early New Negro Literature 1903-1926 (1981), focuses on the aspect of self-expression and race identification in the works of Langston Hughes.]

When Countee Cullen wondered whether some of Langston Hughes's poems were poems at all, he was not alone. Eugene F. Gordon and Thomas Millard Henry's description of The Weary Blues as a “doggerel” and “product of the inferiority complex” has...

(The entire section is 6848 words.)

Alice Walker (essay date fall 1989)

SOURCE: Walker, Alice. “Turning into Love: Some Thoughts on Surviving and Meeting Langston Hughes.” Callaloo 12, no. 4 (fall 1989): 663-66.

[In the following essay, the transcript of a lecture given by poet Alice Walker during the Langston Hughes Festival in 1989, Walker describes her relationship with Hughes.]

If it had not been for the poet Muriel Rukeyser, who was my teacher at Sarah Lawrence in 1965, I would never have met Langston Hughes. It was she who gave him my short story, To Hell With Dying; she who understood the trauma and insight that was at the root of it; she who—in her rather hearty, absent-minded friendliness—was determined to support...

(The entire section is 2167 words.)

Larry Neal (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Neal, Larry. “Langston Hughes: Black America's Poet Laureate.” In American Writing Today, edited by Richard Kostelanetz, pp. 61-72. Troy, N.Y.: Whitson Publishing Company, 1991.

[In the following essay, Neal traces the major themes of Hughes's poetry.]

James Mercer Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, on February 1, 1902. He was one of the most prolific writers in American literary history. His plays, poems, and anthologies have found a permanent place in this nation's literary canon, and his work continues to inform Afro-American literature and theater. For several generations of Afro-American artists, his work has vividly illustrated the creative...

(The entire section is 3349 words.)

Karen Jackson Ford (essay date winter 1992)

SOURCE: Ford, Karen Jackson. “Do Right to Write Right: Langston Hughes's Aesthetics of Simplicity.” Twentieth Century Literature 38, no. 4 (winter 1992): 436-56.

[In the following essay, Ford examines simplicity of form and content in Hughes's poetry and short fiction.]

The one thing most readers of twentieth-century American poetry can say about Langston Hughes is that he has known rivers. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” has become memorable for its lofty, oratorical tone, mythic scope, and powerful rhythmic repetitions:

I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than
          the flow of human blood in human veins....

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George B. Hutchinson (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Hutchinson, George B. “Langston Hughes and the ‘Other’ Whitman.” In The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman, edited by Robert K. Martin, pp. 16-27. Iowa City, Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Hutchinson traces relationships between the works of Langston Hughes and nineteenth-century American poet Walt Whitman.]

By the “other” Whitman in my title I have in mind two distinct but related concepts. One comes from the title of an article published by Leandro Wolfson in 1978, “The Other Whitman in Spanish America,” in which Wolfson criticizes the continued adoration of Whitman in Latin America, pointing out the...

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Calvin Hernton (essay date spring 1993)

SOURCE: Hernton, Calvin. “The Poetic Consciousness of Langston Hughes from Affirmation to Revolution.” Langston Hughes Review 12, no. 1 (spring 1993): 2-9.

[In the following essay, Hernton examines the lesser-known “protest” poems of Langston Hughes.]

The poetry of Langston Hughes is imbued with a consciousness of black people which has always awed and inspired me. In one of his earliest poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” Hughes articulated this abiding consciousness by associating black life with the great rivers of Africa and North America—the Euphrates, the Congo, the Nile, and the Mississippi—rivers that are ancient, dusty, and older than the flow...

(The entire section is 2886 words.)

Tish Dace (essay date November-December 1995)

SOURCE: Dace, Tish. “On Langston Hughes: Pioneering Poet.” The American Poetry Review 24, no. 6 (November-December 1995): 35-8.

[In the following essay, Dace offers an enthusiastic review of The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes.]

Briefly, I felt desolate.

For weeks I had thrilled while reading from cover to cover The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, reacquainting myself with old friends and, more joyously, meeting the 226 poems never before included in a Hughes collection. Intoxicated, I had reveled in it hour after hour, reluctant to eat or sleep, irritable when the phone called me away, slack when confronted with other duties. How...

(The entire section is 3199 words.)

Steven C. Tracy (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Tracy, Steven C. “Langston Hughes: Poetry, Blues, and Gospel—Somewhere to Stand.” In Langston Hughes: The Man, His Art, and His Continuing Influence, edited by C. James Trotman, pp. 51-61. New York, N.Y.: Garland Publishing, 1995.

[In the following essay, Tracy examines the influence of music—specifically the blues and gospel singing—on the poetry of Langston Hughes.]

The Greek mathematician and inventor Archimedes once said, “Give me somewhere to stand and I will move the earth.” Literary artists, too, must find their places to stand in order to move the earth. And certainly the best of them plant their feet where the ground seems to them to be...

(The entire section is 3612 words.)

David R. Jarraway (essay date December 1996)

SOURCE: Jarraway, David R. “Montage of an Otherness Deferred: Dreaming Subjectivity in Langston Hughes.” American Literature 68, no. 4 (December 1996): 819-47.

[In the following essay, Jarraway focuses critical attention on issues of subjectivity and identity in Hughes's Montage of a Dream Deferred.]

Our identities are often provoked by what we oppose.

—Jeffrey Escoffer, “The Limits of Multiculturalism”

In the Vietnamese language, … [w]hen you talk to someone you establish a relationship. Such a self concept is a way of experiencing the other, of ritualistically...

(The entire section is 10393 words.)

David Chinitz (essay date winter 1996)

SOURCE: Chinitz, David. “Literacy and Authenticity: The Blues Poems of Langston Hughes.” Callaloo 19, no. 1 (winter 1996): 177-92.

[In the following essay, Chinitz credits Hughes with having invented blues poetry.]

While the adaptation of oral culture to literary ends is never uncomplicated, the accommodation of blues to poetry presents particular difficulties. “Blues,” writes folk musicologist Paul Oliver, “is for singing. It is not a form of folk song that stands up particularly well when written down” (8). A poet who wants to write blues can avoid this trap by poeticizing the form—but this is only to fall into another trap, for blues made...

(The entire section is 6722 words.)

Eric J. Sundquist (essay date December 1996)

SOURCE: Sundquist, Eric J. “Who Was Langston Hughes?” Commentary 102, no. 6 (December 1996): 55-9.

[In the following essay, Sundquist discusses the cultural influence of Langston Hughes as a result of his several decades of producing poetry, fiction, drama, autobiographical writings, and other works.]

At the height of his fame, Langston Hughes (1902-67) was esteemed as “Shakespeare in Harlem,” a sobriquet he borrowed for the title of a 1942 volume of poems. By this point in his career, Hughes had already been credited with some of the finest work in the great flowering of African-American literature known as the Harlem Renaissance. Just as significantly, he had...

(The entire section is 3324 words.)

Karen Jackson Ford (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Ford, Karen Jackson. “Making Poetry Pay: The Commodification of Langston Hughes.” In Marketing Modernisms: Self-Promotion, Canonization, Rereading, edited by Kevin J. H. Dettmar and Stephen Watt, pp. 275-96. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Ford examines the various ways in which Hughes acted as a “relentless marketer” of his work throughout a four-decade career.]

In his first autobiography, The Big Sea (1940), Langston Hughes ironically titles a chapter “Poetry Is Practical,” in which he describes meeting his first literary friends and patrons through a sequence of events that owed more to...

(The entire section is 7730 words.)

Robert O'Brien Hokanson (essay date December 1998)

SOURCE: Hokanson, Robert O'Brien. “Jazzing It Up: The Be-bop Modernism of Langston Hughes.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 31, no. 4 (December 1998): 61-82.

[In the following essay, Hokanson focuses on Hughes's Montage of a Dream Deferred to examine the influence of jazz on the structure and style of the poet's work.]

Although few topics in literary studies these days are more complex and contested than the concept of “modernism,” it would seem that there remains a consensus that its dominant note is, “Make it new!” Similarly, critics tend to agree that modernist innovation entails breaking down boundaries between the...

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Rebecca L. Walkowitz (essay date December 1999)

SOURCE: Walkowitz, Rebecca L. “Shakespeare in Harlem: The Norton Anthology, ‘Propaganda,’ Langston Hughes.” Modern Language Quarterly 60, no. 4 (December 1999): 495-519.

[In the following essay, Walkowitz explores Hughes's employment of poetry as a means of social and political discourse.]

Politics in any country in the world is dangerous. For the poet, politics in any country in the world had better be disguised as poetry. … Politics can be the graveyard of the poet. And only poetry can be his resurrection.

—Langston Hughes

Mr. Shakespeare in Harlem
Mr. Theme for English B
Preach on...

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Kalamu ya Salaam (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: ya Salaam, Kalamu. “Langston Hughes: A Poet Supreme.” In The Furious Flowering of African American Poetry, edited by Joanne V. Gabbin, pp. 17-24. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1999.

[In the following essay, ya Salaam offers an analysis of Montage of a Dream Deferred to support his praise of Hughes as a prime innovator and creative force in the development of black poetry.]

For the purposes of this essay, black poetry is poetry that (1) is grounded in the black experience; (2) utilizes black music as a structural or emulative model; and (3) “consciously” transforms the prevailing standards of poetry through an iconoclastic...

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Jonathan Gill (essay date spring/fall 2000)

SOURCE: Gill, Jonathan. “Ezra Pound and Langston Hughes: The ABC of Po'try.” Paideuma 29, nos. 1-2 (spring/fall 2000): 79-88.

[In the following essay, Gill discusses correspondence that took place between Ezra Pound and Langston Hughes from 1931 to 1951.]

For sheer chutzpah, nothing beats Ezra Pound's letters. Pound wrote to Louis Zukofsky in a Yiddish-English that rarely stopped short of offense, addressed James Joyce in a mock Irish-English, and communicated with his publisher James Laughlin in an ornery Yankee-English. Nowhere, though, did Pound test the patience of a correspondent more than with Langston Hughes. Pound not only addressed the premier African...

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John Lowney (essay date June 2000)

SOURCE: Lowney, John. “Langston Hughes and the ‘Nonsense’ of Bebop.” American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography 72, no. 2 (June 2000): 357-85.

[In the following essay, Lowney discusses the emergence of bebop in the Harlem jazz scene and its relationship to the themes and rhythms of Hughes's Montage of a Dream Deferred.]

In terms of current Afro-American popular music and the sources from which it has progressed—jazz, ragtime, swing, blues, boogie-woogie, and be-bop—this poem on contemporary Harlem, like be-bop, is marked by conflicting changes, sudden nuances, sharp and impudent interjections, broken...

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Anita Patterson (essay date December 2000)

SOURCE: Patterson, Anita. “Jazz, Realism, and the Modernist Lyric: The Poetry of Langston Hughes.” Modern Language Quarterly 61, no. 4 (December 2000): 651-82.

[In the following essay, Patterson examines the jazz poetics and the modernistic aspects of Hughes's verse.]

In 1940 Richard Wright, praising Langston Hughes's contribution to the development of modern American literature, observed that Hughes's “realistic position” had become the “dominant outlook of all those Negro writers who have something to say.”1 Nineteen years later James Baldwin faulted Hughes for failing to follow through consistently on the artistic premises laid out in his...

(The entire section is 11599 words.)