Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download Langston Hughes Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Langston Hughes American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 3,528 words.)