Langston Hughes

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Hughes, (James) Langston (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 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,...

(The entire section is 2,049 words.)