Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 507

Compared with the poetry, little critical attention has been paid to Hughes’s prose, and the novel Tambourines to Glory has yet to receive serious critical analysis. In fact, several reference works completely overlook Tambourines to Glory, listing Not without Laughter (1930) as Hughes’s only novel. But, because of Hughes’s importance, the novel was widely, if not always favorably, reviewed upon publication in the most important periodicals of the day.

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Most critics admired the novel’s humor and liveliness, and were captivated by the author’s obvious affection for his characters. In the Saturday Review, Richard Gehman wrote that the novel “develops with a natural, effortless simplicity and an unassuming authority,” and that it “is full of vitality, earthiness, joy, unashamed religious feeling, and humorous perspective.” Arna Bontemps, in a review for the New York Herald Tribune, called the writing “as ribald, as effortless, and on the surface as artless as a folk ballad,” and commented on the “fondness and humor” with which Hughes created his characters. Reviewers were nearly universal in feeling that even though Essie and Laura and Buddy made mistakes and caused some mischief, it was impossible in the end not to like them.

Even the most favorable reviews considered the novel only a slight work. Critics who found weaknesses in the novel generally faulted the plot itself, especially the violent ending. In the New York Times Book Review, Gilbert Millstein acknowledged “the consistently high quality of Hughes’s production over the years,” but described Tambourines to Glory as a “minor effort . . . with an industriously contrived climax.” LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka), himself a well-regarded African American writer, was much harsher in his Jazz Review article, describing the novel’s “horribly inept plot.”

For readers of all colors in the 1950s, novels by African American writers or featuring African American characters were something of a novelty. A few of the reviews by white writers are interesting now, more than fifty years after they were written, because of the dated language and ideas they express, even as they praise Tambourines to Glory. Marion Turner Clarke, for example, writing in the Baltimore Evening Sun, admired the novel as “rough and unvarnished but pulsing with the life of a vigorous race.” Marty Sullivan, in the Fort Wayne News Sentinel, called the novel a “blessed exception” to a trend toward didacticism in novels with African American characters, and also finds it “a fine look into the colorful, earthy and endlessly inventive Negro speech.”

When Tambourines to Glory was reissued in 2001 in Volume 4 of The Collected Works of Langston Hughes, critics again had an opportunity to consider the long-neglected novel, which had gone out of print. Reviewing the volume for the Journal of Modern Literature, Roland L. Williams Jr. finds more to praise in Hughes’s intentions “to honor and hearten blacks” than he does in the actual writing. Still, he admires the novel’s presentation of an important period in history, and assures readers that “they will come to dig the roots and branches of black music.”

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