Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 638

Hughes was surprised when his story ‘‘Slave on the Block’’ was accepted for publication in the distinguished and well-established magazine Scribner's. Other mainstream magazines hesitated to publish the stories he wrote in this period, particularly those referring to interracial sexual relationships. In 1934 Hughes collected the stories and published them a volume called The Ways of White Folks, his first book of short fiction. Its title is a reference to W. E. B. DuBois's influential 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk, famous for its claim that"the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line''—that is, the problem of the division between the black and white races. As a group, Hughes's stories address the new complications in interactions between the races in the early twentieth century, largely drawing from his own experiences with liberal whites, and in particular, with the white patron from whom he broke early in his career. In The Life of Langston Hughes, biographer Arnold Rampersad describes the critical response to The Ways of White Folks as generally very favorable. He reports that at the time it was published, reviewers considered it not only his finest work to date, but some of the best writing to have appeared in the country in years. However, the book was not without its critics. Negative responses to the collection centered around Hughes's apparent anger and bitterness toward white people. Rampersad quotes one of the leading voices of the Harlem Renaissance, Alain Locke, saying that ‘‘greater artistry, deeper sympathy, and less resentment would have made it a book for all times.’’ Sherwood Anderson, a white writer who moved in Hughes' s circle, wrote in a review for the Nation, "The Negro people in these stories of his are so alive, warm, and real, and the whites are all caricatures.... Mr. Hughes, my hat is off to you in relation to your own race but not to mine.’’ According to Rampersad, prominent white liberal Martha Greuning had a similar criticism, reproaching Hughes for representing white people as "either sordid and cruel, or silly and sentimental.’’

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In "The Practice of a Social Art,'' Maryemma Graham quotes Hughes in an interview given thirty years after the publication of The Ways of White Folks. Responding to criticisms of his representation of whites, Hughes explains his intentions: ‘‘Through at least one (maybe only one) white character in each story, I try to indicate that they are human, too.... What I try to indicate is that circumstances and conditions make it very hard for whites, in interracial relationships, each to his own self be true.'’’

With the advantage of historical hindsight, recent scholars have been able to argue that the direct and angry portraits of race relations in The Ways of White Folks anticipated the cultural changes of the 1960s, including both the Civil Rights Movement and the development of the more radical style of Black Aesthetics. Rampersad says that The Ways of White Folks ‘‘set a new standard for excellence for black writers'' and describes it as "a striking original, daring to say what had never been said so definitively before.’’ Rampersad describes Hughes's writing in this collection, compared to his earlier work, as "far more adult and neurotic, more militant and defensive, and thus more modern and accurate as a description of the Afro-American temper as it was emerging.'' In his Langston Hughes: A Study of the Short Fiction, Hans Ostrom writes that the lack of uniform critical praise for The Ways of White Folks is largely due to the fact that "it addresses questions of racial, class and sexual conflict so directly, uses fierce, even bitter, irony, and reflects Hughes's notions about short fiction, which were not altogether mainstream.’’ Thus such criticism, Ostrom writes, ‘‘is in a sense only another measure of the book's distinctiveness.’’

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