Langston Hughes

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Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hughes, (James) Langston 1902–1967

Hughes was a black American poet, novelist, short story writer, playwright, children's book author, editor, and translator. Original, insightful, and musical in his verse, he became the "poet laureate of Harlem" during its literary renaissance of the twenties. A poet of the city, he wrote of racial injustice, social struggle, and interracial relations in poetry which has its roots in jazz and the blues. Hughes's style is simple and colloquial in its use of slang, dialect, and humor. Many of his poems have been set to music. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)

Julian C. Carey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If, as other critics suggest, [Simple, the protagonist of Hughes's The Best of Simple,] is the universal-black man in the street, the average and typical Afro-American, the cause of his (their) problems is not his lack of cultural awareness of his misdirected efforts to champion his négritude: "White folks is the cause of a lot of inconveniences in my life." White America has tried to give him a false sense of culture and to replace his black pride with a desire to be white. In both instances, Jesse B. Semple, the prototype for black Americans, has repulsed white America's efforts. (pp. 162-63)

If Langston Hughes's character has any shortcoming it is that while Simple is laughing to keep from crying, most of his readers are only laughing—laughing and failing to recognize the tragic ethos that Simple symbolizes. His efforts to acknowledge the cultural, social, and political assets of négritude are challenged by lovers, friends, states, and institutions. Nevertheless, he perseveres, he endures. He refuses to believe that Negroes are "misbred, misread, and mislead." He is not sophisticated enough to diagnose the racist psyche, but he does know that he is not the problem. Simple is not made for defeat. He is just simple, and in his simplicity and compassion and bufoonery he exposes his soul, truly hurt by a racist country; he illustrates, sometimes too humorously, the reason he is lonesome inside himself. He knows he is equal; what he wants is to be treated equal. He prays a prayer that we learn to do right, that we learn to get along together because he "ain't nothing but a man, a working man, and a colored man at that." (p. 163)

Julian C. Carey, "Jesse B. Semple Revisited and Revised," in Phylon, XXXII (copyright, 1971, by Atlanta University), Second Quarter (June), 1971, pp. 158-63.

Stanley Schatt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Langston Hughes is generally acknowledged to be the major Afro-American poet of the twentieth century, yet the myth persists that despite his over nine hundred published poems he was more an entertainer than a serious poet…. Because so many of his early volumes are out-of-print and available only in rare book collections, the general public and many critics are unaware of the vast number of revisions Hughes has made over the years.

These changes vary from minor alterations in punctuation to additions of entire stanzas reflecting changes in Hughes's philosophical stance. (p. 115)

Selected Poems contains twenty-two revised poems from The Weary Blues and Fine Clothes to the Jew, Hughes's first two volumes of poetry. In most cases the revisions consist merely of eliminating commas preceding dashes at the end of lines. Another revision found often in poetry from these two volumes is the elimination of a Dunbar-like dialect that Hughes had enjoyed using in his late teens and early twenties. In his autobiographical The Big Sea Hughes revealed that the first real poems he wrote were "little Negro dialect poems like Paul Lawrence Dunbar's and poems without rhyme like Sandburg's…." (pp. 115-16)

Many of Hughes's revisions reflect his realization that certain passages had become outdated and obscure. (p. 116)

Often Hughes's changes make his poems more specific. In "Sinner" … Hughes describes the sinner as "Po' an' bowed." In Selected Poems this is changed to "Po' and black," more nearly reflecting Hughes's experience...

(The entire section is 3,867 words.)