illustrated portrait of American poet and author Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

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Last Updated on September 20, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 577

In addition to his prolific production of poetry, Langston Hughes wrote, translated, edited, and collaborated on works in a number of other genres. He wrote two novels, Not Without Laughter (1930) and Tambourines to Glory (1958), and produced several volumes of short stories, including The Ways of White Folks (1934), Laughing to Keep from Crying (1952), and Something in Common, and Other Stories (1963). Hughes’s short fiction also includes several collections of stories about his urban folk philosopher, Jesse B. Semple (Simple): Simple Speaks His Mind (1950), Simple Takes a Wife (1953), Simple Stakes a Claim (1957), The Best of Simple (1961), and Simple’s Uncle Sam (1965).

Hughes published several works for young people, including the story Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti (1932), with Arna Bontemps; biographies of black Americans in Famous American Negroes (1954), Famous Negro Music Makers (1955), and Famous Negro Heroes of America (1958); and a series of “first book” histories for young people, such as The First Book of Negroes (1952), The First Book of Jazz (1955), and The First Book of Africa (1960).

Hughes’s histories for adult readers include Fight for Freedom: The Story of the NAACP (1962) and two pictorial histories in collaboration with Milton Meltzer, A Pictorial History of the Negro in America (1956) and Black Magic: A Pictorial History of the Negro in American Entertainment (1967). Other experimental volumes of photo essays are The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955), with photographs by Roy DeCarava, and Black Misery (1969), with illustrations by Arouni.

Major translations by Hughes include Cuba Libre by Nicolás Guillén (1948), with Ben Carruthers; Gypsy Ballads by Federico García Lorca (1951); and Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral (1957).

Hughes was also productive as a playwright, although his plays did not enjoy much critical or financial success. They include Mulatto (pb. 1935), Little Ham (pr. 1935), Simply Heavenly (pr. 1957), based on the characters in his Simple stories; and Tambourines to Glory (pr., pb. 1963), adapted from his novel. The last play was billed as a “gospel song-play,” and Hughes created several other plays in that category: Black Nativity (pr. 1961), Jerico-Jim Crow (pr. 1964), and The Prodigal Son (pr. 1965). These productions are of interest mainly because they underscore Hughes’s heartfelt sympathy with the black folk life of America, a love affair he carried on throughout his works.

Hughes wrote the libretti for several operas, a screenplay—Way Down South (1939), with Clarence Muse—radio scripts, and song lyrics. His most famous contribution to musical theater, however, was the lyrics he wrote for Kurt Weill and Elmer Rice’s musical adaptation of Rice’s Street Scene (pr., pb. 1947).

Over the years, Hughes also wrote several nonfiction articles, mainly focused on his role as a poet and his love of black American music—jazz, gospel, and the blues. Perhaps his most important article was his first: “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” published in The Nation on June 23, 1926, in defense of the idea of a black American literary style, voice, and subject matter.

Anthologies of Hughes’s work include The Langston Hughes Reader (1958), and Five Plays (1963), edited by Walter Smalley. Hughes himself edited many volumes of work by black American writers, including The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1949 (1949), with Arna Bontemps; The Book of Negro Folklore (1959), also with Bontemps; New Negro Poets: U.S.A. (1964); The Book of Negro Humor (1966); and The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers: An Anthology from 1899 to the Present (1967).

He also wrote two volumes of autobiography, The Big Sea: An Autobiography (1940) and I Wonder as I Wander: An Autobiographical Journey (1956). A planned third volume was not completed.


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All the works of Langston Hughes illustrate the depth of his commitment to a celebration of black American life in all its forms and make immediately evident the reason why he has been proclaimed the poet laureate of black America. As a young poet, he won prizes in contests sponsored by The Crisis and Opportunity, and his first two volumes of poetry, The Weary Blues and Fine Clothes to the Jew, won critical acclaim. He won the Witter Brynner Prize for best poetry by an undergraduate (1926), a Harmon Gold Award (1930) for his novel Not Without Laughter, a Guggenheim Fellowship (1935), a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award (1946), an Anisfeld-Wolfe Book Award (1954) for Simple Takes a Wife, and the Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1960. Hughes’s receipt of a Rosenwald Fund Fellowship in 1941 enabled him to make his first cross-country reading tour. He became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1961.

His stature as a humorist grew from his creation of Jesse B. Semple, also known as Simple, a Harlem barstool philosopher in the tradition of American folk humor ranging from Davy Crockett to Mr. Dooley. Hughes wrote about Simple in columns published in the Chicago Defender, begun in the 1940’s and continuing into the 1960’s. His Simple columns also appeared in the New York Post between 1962 and 1965. Publication of his five books of Simple sketches increased the readership of that sage of Harlem with his views on life in white America.

Although Hughes never had any one big seller, his efforts in so many fields of literary endeavor earned for him the admiration and respect of readers in all walks of life. Certainly, too, Hughes is a major poetic figure of his time and perhaps the best black American poet.

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Although perhaps best known for his poetry, Langston Hughes explored almost every literary genre. His prose fiction includes novels, humorous books, historical, biographical, autobiographical, and cultural works, translations, lyrics, librettos, plays, and scripts. His total output includes more than seventy volumes, as well as numerous articles, poems, and stories that have not yet been collected.


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Langston Hughes has been acknowledged both before and after his death as the most influential African American writer in the English-speaking world. As a leader of the Harlem Renaissance, he not only wrote in a variety of genres but also edited and encouraged the literary, dramatic, and musical productions of other people of color. Recognition came during his lifetime as early as 1925, when he won the Poetry Prize given by Opportunity magazine and the Spingarn prizes of Crisis magazine for both poetry and essay writing. His novel Not Without Laughter (1930) won the Harmon Gold Medal in 1931. That year he received his first Rosenwald Fellowship, an award repeated in 1941. The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in 1935, the National Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature in 1946, and the Ainsfield-Wolf Award in 1953 continued to keep him in the forefront of the literary community, particularly in New York, throughout his life. His alma mater, Lincoln University, awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1943, and he received others from Howard University and Case Western Reserve University in 1963 and 1964, respectively.

Discussion Topics

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How do the facts of Langston Hughes’s early life help shape his poem “Mulatto”?

What facts of temperament and circumstances contributed to Hughes’s rootlessness?

What complex of feelings lies behind poems such as “The Weary Blues” and “Trumpet Player”?

What was the Harlem Renaissance and when did it occur? What were Hughes’s main contributions to it?

“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is a short and relatively simple poem, but it is commonly considered one of Hughes’s best. What is the basis of its appeal?

What instances of irony do you find in the story “Home”? How does irony function in the story?


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Berry, Faith. Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem. New York: Wings Books, 1995. The first biography based on primary sources and interviews, which sets out to re-create the historical context in which Hughes lived and worked. Berry quotes an unusual number of poems in their entirety and includes extensive discussions of his poetry throughout the biography.

Dace, Letitia, and M. Thomas Inge, eds. Langston Hughes: The Contemporary Reviews. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Collects critical reviews of Hughes’s work during the time the works were written and published.

Haskins, James. Always Movin’ On: The Life of Langston Hughes. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1993. A good biography of Hughes.

Leach, Laurie F. Langston Hughes: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004. An overview of Hughes’s life and development as a playwright, poet, and journalist.

Ostrom, Hans A. A Langston Hughes Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002. A comprehensive reference work that looks at his life and his works, including his poetry.

Rager, Cheryl R., and John Edgar Tidwell, eds. Montage of a Dream: The Art and Life of Langston Hughes. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007. Most of the essays here are previously unpublished and all offer interesting new ways of looking at Hughes’s writing. Included in the discussion are many of his lesser known works, including his autobiographies and translations.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes. 2 vols. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. This major critical biography illustrates not only the triumphs but also the struggles of the man and the writer. The importance of Hughes in the Harlem Renaissance and his symbolic significance in the developing artistic and imaginative consciousness of African American writers come alive in concrete examples in volume 1, I, Too, Sing America, and volume 2, I Dream a World. These titles, drawn from Hughes’s poetry, reveal the themes illustrating the writer’s life and the points in his own characterization of his struggle.

Schwarz, A. B. Christa. Gay Voices of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003. Schwarz examines the work of four leading writers from the Harlem Renaissance—Countée Cullen, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Richard Bruce Nugent—and their sexually nonconformist or gay literary voices.

Wallace, Maurice O. Langston Hughes: The Harlem Renaissance. New York: Marshall Cavendish Benchmark, 2008. This biography of Hughes covers his life, the Harlem of his time, his legacy, and his major works. Contains a chapter on his poetry.

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