Langston Hughes 1902–1967
(Full name James Mercer Langston Hughes) American poet, dramatist, novelist, nonfiction, and short story writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Langston Hughes's career through 1995. See also Langston Hughes Criticism (Volume 1) and Volumes 5, 10.
Langston Hughes is one of the best known African-American writers of the twentieth century and a figure at the forefront of the Harlem Renaissance. Through his poetry Hughes expressed the voice of many African Americans, capturing the language, experiences and strength of common people. While Hughes is known as the poet laureate of Harlem, he has also been recognized for his depictions of the African-American struggle in his prose, plays, and literature for children.
Hughes was born February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri. While he was an infant his parents split and he moved to Lawrence, Kansas where he was cared for by his grandmother. His mother worked in Kansas City as an actress and his father practiced law in Mexico. When Hughes's grandmother died he moved briefly to Illinois before settling in Cleveland, Ohio where he attended Central High School. There he ran on the track team and was the class poet, publishing poems in the school newspaper. After he graduated he lived for a year with his father in Mexico and then attended Columbia University for one year. Hughes took various jobs and traveled the world. In 1926 he published his first book of poems The Weary Blues. He attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, earning a B.A. in 1929. In 1930 his first novel Not Without Laughter won the Harmon gold medal for literature and Hughes decided to pursue a career in writing. He lectured across the country and lived in New York City, writing prolifically. Throughout the 1930s Hughes became involved with the political Left and in 1953 he was investigated by the Senate subcommittee chaired by Joseph McCarthy for his alleged involvement in selling books to libraries abroad. Hughes died in New York City May 22, 1967.
Hughes published works in many genres but was primarily known as a poet. He published his first collection of poems The Weary Blues in 1926, containing one of his most famous poems "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." Other important volumes of poetry are Fine Clothes for the Jews (1927), Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951), Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (1959), and Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz (1961). In his poetry Hughes renders the voices, experiences, emotions, and spirit of African Americans. In his attempt to capture the lives of everyday African Americans he deals with subjects like prostitution, racism, lynchings, and teenage pregnancy. Hughes is well known for the influence of jazz and bebop music in his poetry, both as a subject matter and as a structure. Critics have noted his skill in imitating the sound, cadence, and rhythms of the blues style as well as capturing the humor, despair, and loneliness depicted in the music. Hughes's most famous fiction involved a character named Jesse B. Semple, often called Simple. These short stories provided Hughes with another opportunity to showcase the problems facing African Americans. In Hughes's many plays he captures the vernacular of African Americans and is able to employ such innovative techniques as theatre-in-the-round and audience participation.
Throughout his career, Hughes encountered mixed reactions to his work. Many black intellectuals denounced him for portraying unsophisticated aspects of lower-class life, claiming that his focus furthered the unfavorable image of African Americans. However, other critics have noted the uneven quality of his writing. Critics agree that Hughes is at his best when he depicts the everyday experiences of African Americans and that these depictions are often their best in his most simple and direct poetry. Critics also praise Hughes's innovative ability to imitate the sounds and the mood of jazz and the blues. Reviewing Fine Clothes for the Jews, Julia Peterkin writes, "He has taken the joys and woes of dishwashers and bell-hops, crap-shooters and cabaret girls, broken women and wandering men, and, without losing their strong racial flavor, he has molded them into swift patterns of musical verse." Later in life, Hughes was criticized for failing to address controversial issues and to reflect the more militant fight for civil rights. However, later critics note that Hughes remained constant in his focus on the problems of racism and the failure of African Americans to realize the American Dream. James Presley argues that Hughes promoted the idea that "the Negro's bed has been lined with injustices, but eventually the American Dream will triumph."