A Poet Turns to Fiction
Langston Hughes was already an accomplished poet when he began writing short stories. Though he had previously published several stories in a Harlem magazine, it was not until 1933 (while sitting in a hotel room in Moscow, after having read D. H. Lawrence’s The Lovely Lady) that he decided the short story was another genre he could master. Hughes became proficient in such a short time that his first collection of stories, The Ways of White Folks, was published in 1934. Despite this initial success, there was a delay of sixteen years before another collection appeared, though after the drought came seven extensive volumes of short stories published between 1950 and 1965. Five of these feature Hughes’s most famous fictional character, Harlem “folk” philosopher Jesse B. Semple, who holds forth on subjects ranging from his landladies to former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Hughes’s short stories in general can be divided into two categories: early ones that follow Hughes’s adapted version of a traditional Aristotelian short-story form, and later ones, most of which utilize a more flexible and generally more entertaining dialogue form. Both categories feature Hughes’s incisive commentary on race relations and demonstrate his career-long search for a form flexible enough to accommodate both his high aesthetic principles and his political interests.
The title of Hughes’s first book of short stories, The Ways of White Folks (1934), is a homage to W. E. B. Du Bois’s classic of African American sociology, The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Du Bois’s work makes the bold claim that the history of the twentieth century will be the history of the color line; Hughes’s work investigates the psychological and sometimes physical consequences of an individual character’s relationship to the color line. Two stories, “Little Dog” and “Father and Son,” show, respectively, the...
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