Hughes, Langston (Poetry Criticism)
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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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 already been noted. Hughes's second volume of poetry, Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), was unequivocally condemned by a section of the black press. The Pittsburgh Courier called “LANGSTON HUGHES' BOOK OF POEMS TRASH.” The New York Amsterdam News called Hughes himself “THE SEWER DWELLER,” while the Chicago Whip named him “The poet lowrate of Harlem.” Even his friend, Wallace Thurman, almost agreed with his critics that Hughes wrote “trash” when he suggested that Langston Hughes “needs to learn the use of the blue pencil and the waste-paper basket.”
Thurman, nevertheless, offers one of the reasons why most of the Negro literati could not have approved of some of Langston Hughes's...
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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 me as a young writer. She also introduced me to her own agent, Monica McCall, and told me to send my first batch of poems from my book, Once, to The New Yorker, a magazine I'd never read.
Years afterwards she and I would come to a parting of the ways—inevitable, I now see, because we were so unequal: she was white, I was black; she was in her fifties, I was twenty; she had money, prestige as a poet and a teacher; I was poor, a student, and just recently up from the very painful South. At times I felt confused and somewhat smothered by her concern. Or, to put it another way, it was sometimes hard for me to act as grateful as I felt. In any event, she told me how annoyed she was that I chose to give Langston...
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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 possibilities of the culture and consciousness of black culture.
Hughes came from a separated family; and by the time he was 13, the young boy had lived in Buffalo, Cleveland, Lawrence (Kansas), Mexico City, Topeka (Kansas), Colorado Springs, and Kansas City, before returning to Cleveland for high school. He started writing verses there, and fortunately, his creative talents were encouraged by a perceptive teacher. Then in 1921 he went to live with his father in Mexico, where Langston taught English in two Mexican schools. His first prose piece was published while he was still in Mexico. Called “Mexican Games,” it appeared in the Brownies Book, the innovative children's series edited by the distinguished black...
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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.
But however beautiful its cadences, the poem is remembered primarily because it is Hughes's most frequently anthologized work. The fact is, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is one of Hughes's most uncharacteristic poems, and yet it has defined his reputation, along with a small but constant selection of other poems included in anthologies. “A Negro Speaks of Rivers,” “A House in Taos,” “The Weary Blues,” “Montage of a Dream Deferred,” “Theme for English B,” “Refugee in America,” and “I, Too”—these poems invariably comprise his anthology repertoire despite the fact that none of them typifies his writing. What makes these poems atypical is exactly what makes them appealing and...
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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 inaccuracies in the Hispanic view of the North American poet. This “other” Whitman has been debunked and/or repressed (depending upon how you look at it) in the United States since the 1950s as part of the effort to bring his poetry into the academy during an era of formalism, hostility to political writing or propaganda, and emphasis upon confessional aspects of poetry. It was felt that Whitman had to be saved from his disciples as well as from the criticism of scholars who found his work to lack “form.”
The second concept I have in mind is closer to Borges's, that of Whitman as a poetic “other” to all of us for the very reason that he is each one of us when we respond to his call, a ubiquitous signifier always slipping...
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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 of human blood in human veins. In a similar poem, “Negro,” Langston Hughes wrote:
I am a Negro: Black as the night is black, Black like the depths of my Africa.
Again, in a poem entitled, “My People,” he wrote: “The night is beautiful So the faces of my people.” (Poems 13)
Articulating an aesthetic of Black is Beautiful, the poetic consciousness of Langston Hughes resonates with affirmation and celebration of black people. For this achievement, Hughes earned the singular distinction of poet laureate of African American people. Sarah Webster Fabio asserted that for fifty years Langston Hughes was...
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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 could any Hughes lover do anything but immerse his or her life in the volume, so full of treasures, old and new, offering many more rewards than even enthusiasts might expect.
Then, however, I had finished the book. And now I'd read them all, I feared, bereft, that never again would I meet another new poem—well, new to me—by a poet I love so well. Then I cheered up, as I recalled that other Hughes poems do await us because Arnold Rampersad and his associate editor, David Roessel, did not, after all, publish everything. They excluded his several hundred unpublished poems preserved at Yale University's Beinecke Library, those juvenilia published in high school and college magazines (the Central High School Monthly...
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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 most stable, especially when their mission is to move the firmament from the shoulders of Atlas onto their own, to provide some new, revolutionary, and mountainous foundation for our visionary dreams. In the midst of that Modernist revolution we know as the Harlem Renaissance or the New Negro Movement, there was a figure who sought to change the way we looked not only at art and African Americans, but also at the world. His vision was modernistic: experimental, both spontaneous and improvisatory and thoughtfully and carefully crafted, at times primitivistic, disjunctive, and cacophonous, rejecting artificial middle-class values, promoting emotional and intellectual freedom, and, above all, life- and love-affirming—self-affirming. And not...
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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 sharing the other's essence and cherishing it. In our culture, seeing and feeling the dimension of harm done by separating self from other requires somewhat more work. Very little in our language or culture encourages looking at others as parts of ourselves.
—Patricia J. Williams, The Alchemy of Race and Rights
… a subject who points to him or herself as subject-in-process, a work that displays its own formal properties or its own constitution as work, is bound to upset one's sense of identity—the familiar distinction between the Same and the Other since the latter is no longer kept in a recognizable relation of dependence, derivation, or appropriation....
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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 literary read not like refined folk song but like bad poetry. For Oliver, there is no safe passage between this Scylla and Charybdis: the poetry of the blues eludes the self-conscious imitator inevitably (9-14). We need not concur with the absoluteness of this judgment to appreciate its force.
Langston Hughes was the first writer to grapple with the inherent difficulties of blues poetry, and he succeeded—not always, but often—in producing poems that manage to capture the quality of genuine blues in performance while remaining effective as poems. This essay will show how in inventing blues poetry Hughes solved the two closely related problems I have sketched: first, how to write blues lyrics in such a way that they work on...
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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 also emerged as one of the most acclaimed writers of the radical Left.
Hughes never did abandon the language of racial protest; a revealing measure of his influence may be found in famous works whose titles are themselves quotations from his poems, among them James Baldwin's Nobody Knows My Name, Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, and John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me. As such borrowings also suggest, however, Hughes has remained an important writer not for his politics alone, but because of his unusual genius for refining ideology into the language of popular art.
In his own self-estimate, Hughes was something of a “literary sharecropper.” Like his principal mentors,...
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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 serendipity than to practicality. In fact, the chronicle of those months in 1925 when Hughes was out of work and suffering from hunger is a tale of fortunate flukes and unanticipated generosity rather than one of pragmatics. Nevertheless, ten years later Arna Bontemps would assert, with a surprising lack of irony, what eventually became a favorite commonplace of Hughes scholars: “Langston Hughes is the only Negro poet since Dunbar who has succeeded in making a living from poetry.”1 The comparison to Paul Laurence Dunbar, who could find work only as an elevator operator after graduating high school with honors, paid to publish his own first volume of poetry, was subsidized thereafter by white patrons, and died in his early thirties...
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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 arts, so that musical terms like “canto” and pictorial terms like “imagism” have come to be seen as synonymous with the literary modes of the movement. What seems in turn to have initiated the current revisioning of modernism is the way that the notion of barrier-crossing has also come to include breaking down racial and ethnic boundaries, challenging modernism's exclusive association with Euro-American writers and placing renewed emphasis on other voices, especially the African-American writers of the Harlem Renaissance. With such revisioning, perhaps even occasioning it, there also came the recognition of the need to broaden the music/literary interaction to include African-American musical traditions, particularly jazz....
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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.
Mr. Shakespeare in Harlem Mr. Theme for English B Preach on kind sir of Death, if it please—
Langston Hughes proposes a twofold disguise: he will conceal “politics” in “poetry,” and he will suggest that poetry is constitutive of a politics it is often thought to transcend. For Hughes, there are multiple concealments in play: the masking of politics as poetry and the pretense that politics, because it looks like poetry, has been masked. Hughes wanted his writing to be recognized as “art,” and at the same time he sought to show that aesthetic standards are shaped by social institutions and racialized principles of judgment. These competing impulses—the desire for acceptance within a universal tradition and the desire to assert an African...
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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 and innovative use of language.
No poet better carries the mantle of model and innovator than Langston Hughes, the prolific Duke Ellington of black poetry. Hughes's output alone is staggering. During his lifetime, he published over eight hundred poems. Moreover, he single-handedly defined “blues poetry” and is arguably the first major “jazz” poet. Early in his career he realized the importance of “reading” his poetry to receptive audiences. “When Alain Locke arranged a poetry reading by Hughes before the Playwriter's Circle in 1927 in Washington, a blues pianist accompanied him, bringing Hughes the artist and blues music one step closer together, even though Hughes felt that the piano player was ‘too...
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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 American poet of the twentieth century in black English, but at one point in a 1951 letter went so far as to correct as inauthentic Hughes's own language—the phrase “I ain't got another thing in the U.S.A. on which to lean,” from Hughes's book Simple Speaks His Mind (178). Pound took Hughes to task for allowing artistic sensibilities to interfere in what ought to have been a simple transcription of a natural language: “Dazz L. H.'s musical sense buttin' in” (qtd. in Rampersad 2. 185). However, the comment betrays not the ignorance or arrogance that so often characterizes Pound's letters, but a genuine insight into the workings of Hughes's language. That Pound could “black up” with such ease suggests unexplored alliances...
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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 rhythms, and passages sometimes in the manner of the jam session, sometimes the popular song, punctuated by the riffs, runs, breaks, and disc-tortions of the music of a community in transition.
—Langston Hughes, Introduction to Montage of a Dream Deferred
That is where Bop comes from—out of them dark days we have seen. That is why Be-bop is so mad, wild, frantic, crazy. And not to be dug unless you have seen dark days, too. That's why folks who ain't suffered much cannot play Bop, and do not understaind it. They think it's nonsense
—Langston Hughes, “Bop”
Langston Hughes's 1951 book-length montage of...
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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 early verse. The problem with his unsuccessful poems, Baldwin said, was that they “take refuge, finally, in a fake simplicity in order to avoid the very difficult simplicity of experience.” In succumbing to the idiomatic demands of a sociological perspective—the pressure, that is, to “hold the experience outside him”—they did not fulfill an essential criterion of Baldwin's realism, namely, the evocation of a point of view that stands “within the experience and outside it at the same time.” To argue his point, Baldwin cited the last line of a jazz poem by Hughes called “Dream Boogie,” which first appeared as part of Montage of a Dream Deferred in 1951. “Hughes,” said Baldwin, “knows the bitter truth behind these...
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Bogumil, Mary L., and Michael R. Molino. “Pretext, Context, Subtext: Textual Power in the Writing of Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and Martin Luther King, Jr.” College English 52, no. 7 (November 1990): 800-11.
A critical comparison of three African American literary figures.
Borden, Anne. “Herioc ‘Hussies’ and ‘Brilliant Queers’: Genderracial Resistance in the Works of Langston Hughes.” African American Review 28, no. 3 (fall 1994): 333-45.
A critical analysis of Hughes's literary treatment of gender and racial identity.
Cobb, Martha. “Langston Hughes.” In Modern Critical Views: Langston Hughes, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 103-26. New York, N.Y.: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989.
Cobb offers a critical overview of Hughes's poetic career.
Kaup, Monika. “‘Our America’ That Is Not One: Transnational Black Atlantic Disclosures in Nicolás Guillén and Langston Hughes.” Discourse: Journal for Theoretical Studies in Media and Culture 22, no. 3 (fall 2000): 87-113.
Discussion of the transnational connections and literary parallels between Hughes and Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén.
Miller, Marilyn. “(Gypsy) Rhythm and (Cuban) Blues: The Neo-American Dream in Guillén and Hughes.” Comparative...
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