Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Not Without Laughter appeared in 1930 at the height of what was called the Harlem Renaissance, a tremendous outpouring of black talent in the arts. Langston Hughes was the premier poet of this cultural movement, and throughout his long career he continued to reflect on and extend its themes. Of central concern was the whole question of black identity, and of how contemporary blacks should deal with the legacy of discrimination.

As Arna Bontemps, a black literary contemporary of Hughes, recalled in the Collier Books reprint of Not Without Laughter, the novel was eagerly awaited as an example of a new, aggressive definition of blackness. Hughes is quoted by Bontemps as saying that the new artists wrote to please themselves, to express an inner freedom that could not be affected by the criticisms of whites or blacks. “The poets had become bellweathers,” Bontemps remarks, and Hughes was the “happy prince” of a cultural movement.

Hughes had to be read because he was leading the way for other artists and followers of the Harlem Renaissance. His exuberance, especially evident in poetry that captures black colloquial speech, invigorated his readers by highlighting contemporary materials that had become suitable for art. Not Without Laughter, his only novel in a distinguished career as a poet, is complemented by several popular collections of short stories; in addition, Hughes edited some widely used anthologies. A scrupulous scholar and artist, Hughes remains one of the most significant figures in the development of Afro-American culture.