Langston Hughes American Literature Analysis
Hughes, whose writing career spanned more than half a century, was diverse in his themes, which included connectedness, transitoriness, racism, integration, poverty, myth, history, and universal freedom. Particularly unique to his work was his integration of his writing with blues and jazz. He wrote operettas, and many of his poems were set to music.
Although Hughes, like most writers, objected to reducing authors to labels, such as “black” or “woman” or “American,” his name is inevitably linked to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s and 1930’s; this movement, centered in New York City, marked an awakening of black American artists. In addition, many of Hughes’s books, such as A Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia (1934), Famous American Negroes (1954), Famous Negro Music Makers (1955), The First Book of Negroes (1952), and Famous Negro Heroes of America (1958), focus on race. His ancestry was a combination of black, white, and American Indian.
Among numerous anthologies edited by Hughes are collections of black American poets and short-story writers. For example, Alice Walker’s first short story was published in Hughes’s The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers (1967). Still, Hughes’s point about labels is well taken; writers create their art from what they know, and Hughes believed his writing would illuminate truths about all humanity.
Despite Hughes’s diversity, he is primarily known for his poetry and short stories rather than for his plays, novels, anthologies, or translations. One of his most popular books, The Negro Mother, and Other Dramatic Recitations (1931), was written specifically to reach “the hearts of the people.” In a letter written October 13, 1931, to William Pickens, Hughes says:I have felt that much of our [black artists’] poetry has been aimed at the heads of the high-brows, rather than at the hearts of the people. And we all know that most Negro books published by white publishers are advertised and sold largely to white readers, and little or no effort is made to reach the great masses of the colored people. I have written “THE NEGRO MOTHER” with the hope that my own people will like it, and will buy it.
Hughes succeeded. The public bought and liked The Negro Mother. As Bontemps acknowledged in a preface to Donald C. Dickinson’s A Bio-Bibliography of Langston Hughes (1972), Hughes, because he earned his living by writing, had to be diverse and had to write books that would sell. Naturally, the quality of the work varies. Criticism of Hughes’s work, however, is not especially helpful in determining which writing is his strongest. As Hughes himself realized, most of the early critics were middle-class white men whose views were restricted by their own expectations. Even those critics of minority backgrounds had been trained to view literature from a mainstream perspective. Predictably, Hughes’s works attacking white views were poorly received by critics, as were works aimed at the “hearts of the people.” Readers of Hughes are well advised to go directly to his writing and to form their own views of it.
Hughes’s poetry and short stories are set among real people, mostly black Americans, mostly poor people. Typical of such characters is Jesse B. Simple, a black laborer, who is the central figure of a weekly column that Hughes wrote for the New York Post. Simple has an estranged wife, a party-loving woman friend, a curious landlady, a third-floor apartment, and tired feet that he claims tell the story of his life. He cares about people and justice and integrity. Even in his bitter moments, he is saved from becoming maudlin by a sort of innocent humor. For example, in “Simple Prays a Prayer,” he becomes embittered by the insensitivity of American white society and concludes, “I hope He [God] smites white folks down!” Yet he adds, “I hope he lets Mrs. Roosevelt alone.”
Hughes says in his introduction to The Best of Simple (1961), that people tell him they have known his...
(The entire section is 3,528 words.)