illustrated portrait of American poet and author Langston Hughes

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Hughes, (James) Langston (Vol. 5)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2049

Hughes, (James) Langston 1902–1967

Hughes, a Black American poet, also wrote a novel, short stories, and the humorous "Simple" sketches for which he is best known. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)

Not Without Laughter deserves notice … as an antidote to the many shrill and artificial Harlem Renaissance novels.

It is not easy to define Hughes' achievement without making him sound corny or soft. Formulations of his work come out like Faulkner's stodgy explanations of his own novels, even to the motifs of "affirmation" and "endurance." Not Without Laughter belongs with the fiction of its simpler time. It is a gentle sequence of well-sketched social views, like so many Negro novels of the period—the family gatherings, the colored ball, the pool hall. It even includes the standard caricature of the Episcopalian, anti-watermelon dicty.

Its special value, like that of DuBois' social essays, lies in its completeness and truth, its control and wide humanity. It is probably the most genuine inside view of Negro life available in the fiction of the period, comparable to later works like Ann Petry's. Like almost all of Hughes' work it is sad, to a degree, but never violent or bitter; it is touching, but never falsely sentimental. It is very small, really, in outline—a collection of the more or less connected stories of a family of very average, very attractive small-town Negroes in Kansas; but the stories flow with the warmth of genuine life. (p. 52)

Langston Hughes … remains the most impressive, durable, and prolific Negro writer in America. His voice is as sure, his manner as original, his position as secure as, say, Edwin Arlington Robinson's or Robinson Jeffers'. He is the one sure Negro classic, more certain of permanence than even Baldwin or Ellison or Wright. By molding his verse always on the sounds of Negro talk, the rhythms of Negro music, by retaining his own keen honesty and directness, his poetic sense and ironic intelligence, he has maintained through four decades a readable newness distinctly his own…. Hughes is a true professional, like the hero of his fictions only deceptively "Simple."… He has … produced, for the white reader, a convincing, singing source book on the emotional life-style of the lower-class urban Negro in America, as valid as the blues. (pp. 54-5)

Langston Hughes is as skillful and durable a storyteller as he is a poet, a master at the ironic little social comedies of Negro life—a type he seems almost to have invented, so sure now is his hold and possession. His work lives as a potent reminder to the critic of the enduring primacy of "the story." He is an ingenious and happy craftsman in the best tradition of Somerset Maugham or O. Henry; his stories can be read, enjoyed, and understood by the man of simple common sense who dwells, presumably, in everyone. It would be folly to condescend; to suggest, effetely, that one is past such things: one never is. There is much to be admired in a small perfect circle. If Langston Hughes' stories are not deeply, endlessly resonant, or are not richly laden with awesome suggestion, they are still honest, deft, amusing, and provocative, reading after reading. They endure. He is lesser than Ellison or Baldwin only because his scope is so much smaller, not because his work is cheaper or less complete. But comparisons are foolish for a writer so attractive and secure…. He really "tells stories" rather than writes fiction, and he rarely makes mistakes. Although he has written of many things, his most comfortable subject...

(This entire section contains 2049 words.)

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is the urban Northern American Negro, his jobs, his play, his churches, his women. He can deal with various classes, but seems most at home with the poor. His text for Roy de Carava's rich photo essay,The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955), is as total an example of Langston Hughes, of his bittersweet participation in the lives of his people, as anything else he has written. There seems to be no distance, really, between author and subject, no artist's detachment—which is doubtless the effect of very careful art.

His tone has that intimate, elusive, near-tragic, near-comic sound of the Negro blues, and is equally defiant of analysis. His theme is not so much white oppression, as the Negro's quiet resistance to it. His writings typify (and probably support) the famous and useful myth of Negro endurance—the knowing grin, half-smile half-smirk, of the bowing but unbeaten. They may thus not find favor with more militant Negroes, who regard the very myth of endurance as treacherously pacifist, supported if not invented by whites.

The "Simple" stories, one or two pages long, offer little barbed home truths about Harlem life, the cost of living, domestic unbliss, and especially the various ludicrous paradoxes of America's racial double standard. Jesse B. Simple is a sort of comic no-good (a stereotype turned to use, written by a Negro for Negroes) with perpetual lady troubles, cadging beers off the straight man who tells the stories in exchange for another of his twisty bits of folk wisdom about "the ways of white folks."

On the whole, Hughes' creative life has been as full, as varied, and as original as Picasso's, a joyful, honest monument of a career. There is no noticeable sham in it, no pretension, no self-deceit; but a great, great deal of delight and smiling irresistible wit. If he seems for the moment upstaged by angrier men, by more complex artists, if "different views engage" us, necessarily, at this trying stage of the race war, he may well outlive them all, and still be there when it's over. Much of the greatness of the three major Negro novelists derives from their singularity, their essential aloneness; Hughes' at least seems to derive from his anonymous unity with his people. He seems to speak for millions, which is a tricky thing to do. (pp. 144-47)

David Littlejohn, in his Black on White: A Critical Survey of Writing By American Negroes (copyright © 1966 by David Littlejohn; reprinted by permission of Grossman Publishers), Viking, 1966.

Langston Hughes … has perhaps the greatest reputation (worldwide) that any black writer has ever had. Hughes differed from most of his predecessors among black poets, and (until recently) from those who followed him as well, in that he addressed his poetry to the people, specifically to black people. During the twenties when most American poets were turning inward, writing obscure and esoteric poetry to an ever decreasing audience of readers, Hughes was turning outward, using language and themes, attitudes and ideas familiar to anyone who had the ability simply to read. He has been, unlike most nonblack poets other than Walt Whitman, Vachel Lindsay, and Carl Sandburg, a poet of the people. He often employs dialect distinctive of the black urban dweller or the rural black peasant. Throughout his career he was aware of injustice and oppression, and used his poetry as a means of opposing or mitigating them. Two early poems, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" and "I, Too, Sing America," testify to his abiding hope for the fulfillment of the American ideal—not only for black people, but for all the dispossessed of the land. Until the time of his death, he spread his message humorously—though always seriously—to audiences throughout the country, having read his poetry to more people (possibly) than any other American poet. (pp. 7-8)

Donald B. Gibson, "Introduction" to Modern Black Poets: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Donald B. Gibson (© 1973 by Prentice-Hall, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey), Prentice-Hall, 1973, pp. 1-17.

Good Morning Revolution [compiled by Faith Berry] is a collection of selected articles, stories and poems by Langston Hughes. Most have not appeared in book form prior to Faith Berry's creative effort. The wealth of materials brings into sharp focus Hughes the poet, possessed of a powerful social, revolutionary vision, revolution in his work characterizing a creative concern for change in the social process that will guarantee maximum well-being for all men. Here the reader will see how he dared to dream of a sane society, how he focused his hope on creative change, how he yearned for humane treatment for blacks and other oppressed people….

No poet has evidenced deeper concern for the dignity of the masses, freedom, justice and the equality of the sons of man than he did. (p. 29)

James D. Tyms, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), January 5 & 12, 1974.

Negro jazz, itself an obvious convention of the Negro folk—especially during and after their transplantation from the South to the North—almost seems to haunt all of the early verse of Hughes. It appears sometimes in the rhythm and the arrangement of the line. It appears sometimes in the language—which may be, upon occasion, veritably a jazz patois—and sometimes in the mood. And then in both Hughes's blues and his jazz there is almost always something else, a something else that links Hughes and his poetry, and the people presented in his poetry, to a convention seemingly universal in its hold upon ordinary people, all ordinary people. That something else is the technique of the ballad. [Read] Hughes's "When love is gone." Therein a voice speaks; a story is told to us by the character with this voice who informs us as we would be informed in a play. The method, the resort to dialogue or dramatic monologue, is the ballad technique, the same technique which may be found, for example, in a ballad like "Sir Patrick Spens." It is a favorite technique with Hughes. He does write lyric poems. But in his "lyric" persona he is often able to copy this social convention of the Negro folk, their use of the method of the ballad, to tell others how they feel. In this same "lyric" persona, also, he is able to reflect in subject matter the kind of happenings which ordinary Negroes tended to notice during the Renaissance and in theme the issues which those same Negroes tended to discuss in their familiar intercourse with each other.

In Hughes, indeed, the conventional life of the Negro folk is made to come alive, and that, of course, is the life of the Negro folk as they are. It is the life that, in America, has set the Negro masses apart from whites. Why do they act like that? signifies only that a middle-class white has observed a custom which he does not share. It signified for Hughes, who understood much of the why and managed often to incorporate insights into its nature in his verse, that he was, of all the Renaissance poets, the true New Negro of the Renaissance poet's definition. He made his poetry act like that…. [His was the] common touch, the touch that really mattered.

Perhaps, however, Hughes's touch may have been (for he was, of course, not perfect) in his art too much of precisely that, a touch. As he can be related to the ballad, he can also be related to Impressionism. Indeed, it is hardly too much to say that all his poetry ever does is collect impressions. It is highly probable that, in all of Negro literature, he must be accorded the title of the Great Impressionist. Thereto, of course, attaches a limitation. Impressions tend to lack depth, if not also concentrated power. Hughes's impressions do come from the right places. They are taken by an artist who does not stand in his own light. And they do witness to the reality of a group experience of American life. Yet they are still impressions. Hughes was not a genius at synthesizing big things. He could, and yet he could not, quite see the whole forest as some writers do. It may have been his greatest lack and probably the reason he has never seemed as "serious" as writers like Ellison and Wright, or Tolson at his best. Even so he saw enough … to be a leading interpreter of the Negro in twentieth-century America and twentieth-century literature. (pp. 56-8)

Blyden Jackson, in Black Poetry in America: Two Essays in Historical Interpretation, by Blyden Jackson and Louis D. Rubin, Jr. (copyright © 1974 by Louisiana State University Press), Louisiana State University Press, 1974.


Hughes, (James) Langston (Vol. 15)


Hughes, Langston (Contemporary Literary Criticism)