A Literary Giant

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Langston Hughes was the most versatile, popular, and influential African American writer of the twentieth century. Hughes published scores of books in his lifetime: two novels, plays, collections of short stories and essays, an autobiography, seven children’s books, poetry translations, a number of African American poetry and fiction anthologies, and fourteen volumes of verse. From the 1920’s until his death in May, 1967, Hughes was widely recognized as the unofficial poet laureate of the African American urban experience, its most dedicated and passionately eloquent voice; his international reputation has only grown in the years since.

Hughes’s career as a poet began, rather abruptly, in the spring of 1916. At the age of thirteen, he was elected class poet of his Lincoln, Illinois, grammar school. Even though he had never written a poem, Hughes dutifully produced sixteen poems in praise of his teachers and class, which he read aloud at graduation, to hearty applause. Soon thereafter, Hughes moved to Cleveland, Ohio, with his mother and stepfather. There he attended the city’s Central High School and continued to write poetry, both in the free-verse style of Chicago working-class poet Carl Sandburg and in the dialect style of the African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. In the year after his graduation from high school in 1920, Hughes had his first real publications. A number of poems appeared in succeeding issues of The Brownie’s Book, a junior version of The Crisis, the official journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Writing for The Crisis

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Almost immediately, Hughes was graduated to the parent journal. The June, 1921, issue of The Crisis published “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” Hughes’s first great poem. Written a year earlier, on a train crossing the Mississippi, this short lyric (dedicated to NAACP founder W. E. B. Du Bois) proudly affirms the mystical unity of all persons of African descent, regardless of when or where they happen to live. A poem of praise, rendered in plainspoken free verse, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” shows the clear influence of Carl Sandburg. Another discernible influence is that of Walt Whitman, whom Hughes regarded as the greatest of American poets. Like Whitman’s famous long poem “Song of Myself,” Hughes’s poem features a first-person speaker, an “I” that refers not only to the poet but also to an entire people he identifies with and, in effect, becomes; when the speaker avers that his “soul has grown deep like the rivers,” he assumes the voice of the entire African race throughout history. Finally, in its moving lyricism, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” harks back to the centuries-old tradition of the African American spiritual.

That Hughes, at the age of nineteen, had already established a unique and powerful poetic voice became fully evident over the next year and a half as Jessie Redmon Fauset, literary editor of The Crisis, published another dozen Hughes poems. Among them were poems that were to be Hughes’s most...

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Harlem and the Renaissance

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The move was a watershed event in Hughes’s life, not because of college, which he found uncongenial and quit after his first year, but because it brought him to Harlem, Manhattan’s teeming African American district and the locus for the Harlem Renaissance, a burgeoning cultural revival in which Hughes soon immersed himself. Hughes also explored Harlem’s vibrant nightlife. Early evidence of its impact on his sensibilities is “The Weary Blues,” a 1923 poem about a piano player performing in a Lenox Avenue nightclub. In “a melancholy tone,” the man sings the Weary Blues, a song of thoroughgoing dejection and despair, “far into the night.” Yet, ultimately, the blues seem to have a salutary effect. Once he has completely drained off his own anguish through the music, the singer is able to at least escape his plight by going to bed, to sleep “like a rock or a man that’s dead.” The singer’s struggle to master his pain captures the cathartic essence of the blues—and something of the deeper nature of Harlem in the 1920’s, which was, despite its hectic cabaret life, a place of considerable poverty and hardship.

“The Weary Blues” was a breakthrough for Hughes; it garnered top prize in a literary contest sponsored by the National Urban League in 1925. The award, in turn, won Hughes the support of a prominent literary critic, Carl Van Vechten, who helped Hughes publish his first collection of verse, also entitled The Weary...

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After the Crash

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Harlem Renaissance effectively came to an end when the stock market collapsed in October of 1929. The resulting Great Depression, which lasted throughout the 1930’s, had a severe impact on the already marginal economy of Harlem. Like much of the rest of the country, Depression-era Harlem was the scene of mass unemployment, bread lines, evictions, and, occasionally, riots. Under such conditions, many of America’s leading artists and intellectuals embraced Marxism as an alternative political philosophy. Langston Hughes was no exception. The five books of verse that he published in the 1930’s reveal Hughes as an increasingly militant leftist poet. For example, Scottsboro Limited (1932) is a book of four poems and a play in support of the “Scottsboro boys,” nine young African American defendants in an Alabama rape trial, who were widely thought to be falsely accused. A New Song (1938) is Hughes’s only book of verse composed entirely of social-protest poems.

After a decade of world travel, activism, and political poetry, Hughes literally and figuratively returned to Harlem. The result was a collection of verse entitled Shakespeare in Harlem (1942), which is superficially similar to The Weary Blues and Fine Clothes to the Jew in its exclusive focus on Harlem as subject and its preponderant use of folk-music forms. Depression-ravaged Harlem in the early 1940’s was a vastly different place than it had...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Berry, Faith. Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem. Westport, Conn.: Lawrence Hill, 1983. Sets out to re-create the historical context in which Hughes lived and worked. Quotes an unusual number of poems in their entirety and includes extensive discussions of Hughes’s poetry throughout the biography.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Langston Hughes. New ed. New York: Blooms Literary Criticism, 2008. A collection of some of the best criticism of Hughes’s works, with several articles on his poetry. Supplemented by a useful bibliography and an index.

Emanuel, James A. Langston Hughes. Boston: Twayne, 1967. A concise overview of Hughes’s extraordinary career. Contains a chronology, an annotated bibliography, and notes.

Miller, R. Baxter. The Art and Imagination of Langston Hughes. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1989. Divides Hughes’s imagination into the “autobiographical,” the “apocalyptic,” the “lyrical,” the “political,” and the “tragicomic.” Each chapter focuses on a poem or other work central to an appreciation and understanding of Hughes’s imagination.

Mullen, Edward J., ed. Critical Essays on Langston Hughes. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986. Useful for its generous selection of contemporary reviews of the poet’s work. An extensive and well-documented introduction surveys and analyzes the critical reception of Hughes’s poetry.

Onwuchekwa, Jemie. Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976. Treats Hughes’s poetry in thematic terms, with separate chapters on his “black aesthetic,” the blues, jazz and other musical forms, his social protest verse, his evocation of the ideal (“the dream”), and the poet’s place in the “evolution of consciousness in black poetry.” Bibliography and index.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes, 1902-1941: I, Too, Sing America. Vol. 1. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. Provides acute interpretations of both Hughes’s character and career. Distinguished by its fine style and balance, this volume is the definitive biography of the poet.