Hughes, (James) Langston 1902–1967
Black American poet, novelist, dramatist, and translator. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)
The importance of Hughes as a literary figure far transcends that of his only novel, Not without Laughter…. Primarily a poet, his verse was influenced thematically by the social realism of Lindsay, Masters, and Sandburg, and technically by the rhythms of jazz. His first two volumes of poems, The Weary Blues … and Fine Clothes to the Jew…, provoked a fierce controversy because of their forthright and sympathetic treatment of lower-class Negro life. Hughes, perhaps more than any other author, knows and loves the Negro masses.
Robert A. Bone, in his The Negro Novel in America, Yale University Press, revised edition, 1965, p. 75.
Certain elements of style … are typical of [Langston Hughes' stories]: irony, fragments for pictures, exclamations in exposition, contrasts, ambiguities, and paradoxes. Not everywhere is the style felicitous. Some dialogue in gaining brevity loses realism; the several uses of "terribly" and "awfully" are dated; and a few fresh metaphors grow stale through repetition. But the ambiguity is often finely drawn. (p. 62)
Hughes, in imaginatively expressing the many features of prejudice, exhibits the range of merit usual in his poetry and fiction. His most representative works trace the byways of this large theme. His reputation as the writer whose ear is the most harmoniously tuned to reverberations in the Negro quarter is confirmed in the substantial agreement between his emphases and those found in representative public expressions of Negroes. Discrimination in education, employment, and housing, for example, has for years been stressed by Negroes as their fundamental deprivation. White hostility to intermarriage is at the very bottom of the list of Negroes' grievances, and Hughes almost never mentions it. The miracle of American history is the steadfast hopefulness of the Negro people, despite the incredible inhumanity displayed toward them. Hughes again and again returns to this optimistic theme in poetry and prose. (p. 87)
[Hughes'] poems and stories reveal the author's comprehension of Negro folk culture, his awareness of historical and individual forces at work in Southern life, and his implicit vision of a decisive moral encounter that will bring brotherhood to America. In his poems on racial exploitation and brutality, he reveals abomination as well as sensitivity to human weakness and valor. In his poems on religion, he shows the road not taken by the Negro folk in the wake of faltering Christianity (for "Goodbye Christ" and "Christ in Alabama" can be so understood); and he preserves authentic cameos of old-style Negro believers, bound to common people the world over by the simplicity and durability of their faith. From his related short stories, which powerfully condense and transform the central anguish of a whole race, one might say, remembering Yeats's contemplation of seemingly needless death, that "a terrible beauty is born." (pp. 117-18)
Hughes's lyrical hope for America fuses natural color and fragrance in objects and people, transformed by the "kind fingers" of creative love. Life, love, and joy blow a clean wind of optimism through much of Hughes's poetry. (p. 128)
Hughes … has recorded a poetic transcription of Negro folk life, with sensitive nonracial excursions. Although direct and clear (and sometimes sentimental) when traditional, he is stylistically most interesting when experimental. Through be-bop and folk slang, his "cool bop daddies," "aceboys," and women who "put de miz on" their men come alive. Night club names, newspaper headlines, visual patterns, and multiple protagonists shape or alter meanings. Plodding lines about nature, instructional and remonstrative verses about Negroes, and even intraracial scandal—according to some Negro critics—have come from Hughes. Yet, his quite typical "Dressed Up," in the same Fine Clothes to the Jew for which he was called, a "sewer-dweller," has the straightforward charm and unplanned emotional appeal that predominate in his work. His best poems, and those numerous ones that faithfully portray the talk, moods, and habits of his urban folk, enrich our culture with a unique complex of truth. (p. 174)
Hughes's chief virtues as a writer of fiction—and more references to his two novels would not alter the conclusions—lie mostly in his style. The dialogue responds unerringly to facts of race. Hughes shapes its substance to the cadences, accents, and ductile phrases familiar to most Negroes; and he weaves incident, personality, and racial history into recurrent patterns. Interspersed songs feed into the stories a thumping rhythm that outlasts the passages admitting them. His Chekhovian endings, not an artifice of technique, are of a piece with the complexity of his themes, often leaving the reader nonplussed at the stubborn encounter between tradition and the individual. (p. 176)
With humor, one of his rare gifts, Hughes injects comfortable chuckles into much of his poetry and prose. Often his humor has a cutting edge that pares down the social substance of horse-laughs and uproarious mirth—notably in the Simple books and columns—to a residual, mordant satire. It flexes in antic phrases, expressive of a creative joy linguistic in nature. In the mouths of Negro characters, that humor is often their way of transforming the ugliness in their environment. As the author's own interpretive style, it reveals a mind that steadily revolves the contradictions, the pretenses, and the bumptious weaknesses of mankind. (p. 177)
As "the Poet Laureate of the Negro People," Hughes has earned the affection of black America…. An intimate account of his reality is summed up in the many lines of poetry written to him or about him. His humanity mellows the stern comprehensiveness of the factual world he reveals; it reflects the whole man, native to a culture demanding of him emotional range and resiliency, fully responsive to the pressures uniquely felt by Negroes. (p. 179)
James A. Emanuel, in his Langston Hughes, Twayne, 1967.
Today Hughes is recognized as one of the world's outstanding Negro authors of the 20th century, attaining that position not only because of the high quality of his writing but also because he was a dedicated spokesman for the Negro people. Hughes' works—poems, plays, novels, essays, and several anthologies and histories—often deal with the tribulations of his race, as well as with their consoling joys….
[Jesse B.] Simple, a genial, fun-loving, talkative Harlem Negro, is probably the most beloved of all characters in contemporary Negro literature and has found his way into books, radio, television, and even the musical comedy stage….
Much of Hughes' writing, like his life, was dedicated to improving the condition of American Negroes, and he saw great progress among the race in his lifetime. And yet he lived to see his gentle approach to Negro problems rejected and ridiculed by strident voices, noisy marches, and violence. To angry young Negroes who sought quick answers to old, complex, and often prejudice-ridden questions, Langston Hughes was old fashioned and outmoded, a relic of less turbulent times.
And although the final verdict rests in the future, Hughes, with his messages couched in gentle irony and compassionate humor, may well have the last laugh…. And because he believed that only through democratic processes can the Negro become a fully accepted member of society, his writing often combines the realistic admission of temporary or past defeat for his race with an optimistic conviction that the United States will soon fulfill the Negro's hopes and dreams.
Bernard Dekle, "Langston Hughes: Dedicated Negro Poet," in his Profiles of Modern American Authors, Charles E. Tuttle, 1969, pp. 125-30.
Few writers have been as prolific in their attempt to describe and interpret Negro American life as Langston Hughes….
[The forced isolation of the majority of black people] is the theme of Hughes' powerful one-act play, Soul Gone Home. In less than four pages of text he presents a tragic and poignant picture of a people so isolated from each other that the establishment of meaningful emotional relationship is no longer possible.
The theme of isolation is not, of course, original with Hughes. What is original in Soul Gone Home, however, is the manner in which this theme is treated. The play is a fantasy in both situation and structure. Reality as we commonly experience it is replaced by the unreal, the dreamlike; the usual physical laws governing life and death are suspended. Yet the emphasis of the play is clearly on things as they exist in actuality….
Through the skillful combination of situation, structure, character and symbol, Hughes has produced a compact and powerful play of a people so isolated that even the ordinarily secure relationship between mother and son is impossible. And while this thematic consideration is immediately relevant to the Negro American, Soul Gone Home does achieve a sense of universality in that its social commentary relates to any oppressed minority.
William Miles, "Isolation in Langston Hughes' Soul Gone Home." in Five Black Writers, edited by Donald B. Gibson, New York University Press, 1970, pp. 178-82.
Hughes chose to work in the idiom of the black American, and in a number of his poems we find the rhythms and that special knowledge which characterize black American folk expression. Hughes's canon is so extensive and his range is so great that it would be impossible to do him justice in the brief review given here. Other poems which show both his range and technical virtuosity, however, include "I, Too," "Montmarte," "Refugee in America," and "Brass Spittoons." In addition to writing poetry, Hughes, like Cullen, made notable contributions to the field of drama, and both his novel Not without Laughter and his collection of short stories The Ways of White Folk show a good deal of talent in prose.
Hughes's foremost (or most widely known) prose works, however, are the "Simple" stories which deal with the experiences and viewpoints of the urban black American—viewpoints and experiences which come from the mind and mouth of the memorable Harlem figure, Jesse B. Simple.
Houston A. Baker, Jr., in his Black Literature in America, McGraw, 1971, p. 10.