Langston Hughes Hughes, (James) Langston (Vol. 1)

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Hughes, (James) Langston (Vol. 1)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1,645 words.)