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The theme of "Little Old Letter" by Langston Hughes is very similar to that in James Weldon Johnson's "Sence You Went Away."
It might be important to note that both authors were black; Johnson was born in 1871 and Langston Hughes was born in 1902. Both men were considered Harlem Renaissance poets, though Johnson was considered the "elder statesman" of the poetic movement. Johnson was educated at Atlanta University, and while he majored in literature and "European music tradition," upon graduating he first became a school principal, and later U.S. Consul first in Venezuela and later in Nicaragua. Before 1912, he was already a published poet in the U.S. Prior to his death, Johnson was also a professor at Fisk University.
This information is important to the context of the poem. After reading the poem, it makes perfect sense that Johnson had a deep and abiding interest in "African American folk tradition."
While a freshman in college, Johnson took a trip throughout the rural South, igniting his interest in the African American folk tradition.
One of the noteworthy aspects of Johnson's poem, "Sence You Went Away," is the author's uncanny ability to capture the dialect of a poor southern man while making his sorrow over the departure of his sweetheart a theme that anyone can relate to.
Langston Hughes started writing poetry in eighth grade. He received his Bachelor's degree from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. He is credited with inventing "jazz poetry."
In Langston Hughes's poetry, he uses the rhythms of African American music, particularly blues and jazz.
It is probably for this reason that Hughes' poetry has such a unique sound. Hughes found it difficult to earn a living as a writer, but had some success, especially after writing lyrics for a Broadway musical— which enabled him to buy a house in Harlem, a long-standing dream. His writing and reputation grew.
Langston Hughes was, in his later years, deemed the "Poet Laureate of the Negro Race…"
Hughes was a prolific writer, writing well over three hundred poems in his lifetime. His prominence as a poet has grown over the years. Many of his poems are especially appealing in that they describe the pride of being an American, while ironically he also wished he could enjoy the rights of an American.
His poem "Little Old Letter" is especially powerful because of the nature of the two extremes presented in the writing. The speaker also mourns the loss of love in his life. The poem's title is a little misleading, calling the "Dear John" letter a "little old letter," which intentionally misleads the reader. The note is anything but "little," and this point is crystal clear at the end when the speaker notes that the pen is a cruel and destructive weapon:
Just a pencil and paper,
You don’t need no gun or knife—
A little old letter
Can take a person’s life.
Both of these poems reflect the similar theme of lost love. Hughes' poem concentrates on the power of words to destroy love, and is straight-foward and impactful. In Johnson's poem, the heartbreak seeps through each line, eliciting in the reader mournful images—tied to nature—demonstrating the true depth of this man's loss: the stars and sun don't shine as brightly, the sky has paled and the bird has "forgotten his song."
Johnson and Hughes show us that love lost speaks a universal language.
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