Langston Hughes: A Biography Critical Context - Essay

Milton Meltzer

Critical Context

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Meltzer’s biography was published during the active years of the Civil Rights movement and about one year after Hughes died, and the book reflects its era. For young adults, it provides a useful introduction to an African American who became a scholar in spite of the fact that he often had to earn a living in other ways besides writing. As a writer with a largely noncommercial audience, Hughes needs some explanation for younger readers, but he can also be seen as a pioneer. Hughes’s career serves for students as an example of love for writing and of intellectual heroism.

Two adult biographies of Hughes published in Paris preceded Meltzer’s work. Elisabeth P. Myers’ Langston Hughes: Poet of His People and Charlemae H. Rollins’ Black Troubadour: Langston Hughes followed Meltzer’s account in 1970, emphasizing the distinctively African-American message in individual works and in Hughes’s career achievement.

The information in Meltzer’s book is mostly a re-creation of Hughes’s own autobiographical works. An addition by Meltzer is his admiration and his defense of Hughes’s position on issues within artistic communities of color: the place of folk art, the use of dialect or street language, the political uses of art, and the separation of African-American artistic values from society as a whole. These subjects are presented in nontechnical ways that a young lay person can understand. Meltzer is able to make the always-controversial Hughes intriguing to youths because of that controversy, and he provides enough samples of Hughes’s works to lead a curious reader to seek out the originals for study.