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An influential figure of the Harlem Renaissance, a period during the 1920s of unprecedented artistic and intellectual achievement among black Americans, Hughes devoted his versatile and prolific career to portraying the urban experience of working-class blacks. Called ”the Poet Laureate of Harlem” by Carl Van Vechten, Hughes integrated the rhythm and mood of jazz and blues music into his work, and used colloquial language to reflect black American culture. Hughes’s gentle humor and wry irony often belie the magnitude of his themes. Having been a victim of poverty and discrimination, Hughes wrote about being seduced by the American Dream of freedom and equality only to be denied its realization. Speaking of Hughes’s wide range of works, Theodore R. Hudson stated: ”Dipping his pen in ink, not acid, [Hughes’s] method was to expose rather than excoriate, to reveal rather than revile.”
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Several factors led to the emergence of the Harlem Renaissance, the African American artistic movement of the 1920s and early 1930s. Prior to the Renaissance, thousands of blacks migrated from southern states to the Northern industrial cities due to increased employment opportunities brought about by World War I. The black middle class was also growing and more and better educational opportunities were becoming available to blacks. Another important factor was that a new radicalism among blacks was emerging at this time. The black magazines that were being published—including The Crisis, published by the NAACP and edited by W. E. B. Du Bois—helped spur a ”new consciousness” about racial identity. Finally, Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, began spreading radical ideas of an independent black economy and racial purity. Hughes contributed works of poetry, fiction, and drama that gave literary expression to these themes of racial pride, a desire for social and political equality, and an interest in the twentieth-century African American experience. The Renaissance was so named for the diversity of artistic forms, including painting, music, and theater, that characterized the movement. Hughes’s contribution is significant because of the range of artistic forms he experimented with, as well as the quality of his body of work.
Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, to James Nathaniel and Carrie Mercer Langston Hughes, who separated shortly after the boy’s birth. His father left the United States for Cuba and later settled in Mexico, where he lived the remainder of his life as a prosperous attorney and landowner. In contrast, Hughes’s mother lived a transitory life, often leaving him in the care of his maternal grandmother while searching for a job. In 1920, Hughes decided to travel to Mexico for the summer, a decision his mother greeted angrily. The misery of his parting from her not only persisted but generated some of his early published work. ”I felt pretty bad when I got on the train,” he wrote about this episode. ”I felt bad for the next three or four years, to tell the truth, and those were the years when I wrote most of my poetry.” On the way to Mexico, as the train crossed the Mississippi River to St. Louis, he jotted down on the back of an envelope one of his best known poems, ”The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” Through the images of water and pyramid, the verse suggests the endurance of human spirituality from ancient Egypt to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Hughes enrolled at Columbia University in New York City in 1921, favoring classes in English literature. Subjected to teachers he found boring as well as to bigotry on campus—he was assigned the worst dormitory room because of his color—Hughes often missed classes in order to attend shows, lectures, and readings sponsored by the American Socialist Society. Following his freshman year, Hughes dropped out of college and worked at a series of odd jobs while supporting his mother, who had recently moved to Harlem. In 1923, he signed on as a cabin boy on a merchant freighter en route to West Africa. His first sight of Africa was an emotional experience that he would refer to again and again: ”My Africa,” he wrote in ”The Big Sea” (1940), ”Motherland of the Negro peoples! And me a Negro! Africa! The real thing.” At the same time, though he did not feel its force until later in life, Africa provided the young Hughes with a sharp object lesson in white colonialism and black subjugation; it was an Africa of ”white men with guns in their belts” which taught him that ”civilization” survives only through exploitation. It was also, ironically, an Africa which rejected him as a black: in spite of his protestations, Africans insisted he was white.
The Busboy Poet
Hughes spent the majority of the following year overseas. After resigning his position on the S. S. McKeesport in the Netherlands, he lived in virtual poverty in France and Italy. Returning to the United States in 1925, he resettled with his mother and half brother in Washington, D.C. He continued writing poetry while working menial jobs, experimenting with language, form, and rhythms reminiscent of the blues and jazz compositions he had heard in Paris nightclubs. In May and August of 1925, Hughes’s verse garnered him literary prizes from both Opportunity magazine and The Crisis. In December, Hughes, then a busboy at a Washington, D.C., hotel, attracted the attention of poet Vachel Lindsay by placing three of his poems on Lindsay’s dinner table. Later that evening, Lindsay read Hughes’s poems to an audience and announced his discovery of a ”Negro busboy poet.” The next day, reporters and photographers eagerly greeted Hughes at work to hear more of his compositions.
Shortly thereafter, with the help of critic and art patron Carl Van Vechten, Hughes published his first book, The Weary Blues (1926), a collection of poems that reflect the frenzied atmosphere of Harlem nightlife. Hughes also included several pieces about his travels in Africa, as well as ”The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” a much-anthologized poem Hughes wrote during his second visit to Mexico in 1920. The Weary Blues received mixed reviews, with some critics questioning the motives and appropriateness of using blues and jazz verse to describe Harlem life.
In the spring of 1927, Hughes published his second collection of verse, Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927). During the late 1920s, Hughes met Mrs. R. Osgood Mason, an elderly white widow whom he called ”Godmother” and who served as both his literary patron and friend. Strongly committed to developing the talents of young black artists, Mason supported Hughes while he wrote his first novel, Not Without Laughter (1930). Following this book’s publication, however, Hughes and Mason suffered a dramatic and bitter break in their relationship. Hughes later reconstructed these events in his short story ”The Blues I’m Playing.”
Legacy as a Poet
Despite his success in a variety of genres, Hughes considered himself primarily a poet. In the late 1930s, after producing numerous plays and short stories, he returned to writing poetry. These later collections of verse, however, show an increasingly bleak view of black America. In Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951) Hughes contrasted the drastically deteriorated state of Harlem in the 1950s to the Harlem he had known in the 1920s. Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz (1961) consists of twelve poems that comment on the political turbulence of the early 1960s. Hughes’s final collection of verse, The Panther and the Lash: Poems of Our Times, was published posthumously in 1967.
Works in Literary Context
During the forty-six years between 1921 and 1967, Hughes became well known and loved. Even before he helped to open the doors of the major periodicals and publishing houses to young black writers, he worked to free American literature from the plantation tradition, infusing his technically accomplished writings with self-assurance and racial pride and earning acclaim for his innovations in literary blues and jazz.
Jazz Poetry Hughes is perhaps most famous for the way in which his poetry is informed by jazz music. The genre is characterized by the poet responding to and writing about jazz, or using the musical sounds and structures of jazz as the basis for poetic forms. Like the music it reflects, jazz poetry encompasses a variety of forms, sounds, and rhythms. Beginning with the birth of blues and jazz at the beginning of the twentieth century, jazz poetry can be seen as a constant running through the Harlem Renaissance, the Beat Generation, and the Black Arts Movement. It is still quite vibrant today. From early blues to experimental music, jazz poets use their love of the genre to inspire their poetry. One of the best examples of Hughes’s use of music to inform his poetry can be found in ”The Weary Blues,” one of his most well known poems. The poem is about a piano player in Harlem, and it captures the flavor of the night life, people, and folk forms that became characteristic of the experimental writing of the Renaissance.
Racial and Cultural Pride
Influenced by Alain Locke’s 1925 anthology The New Negro, Hughes responded by reinterpreting the black experience to promote a positive identity for the African American and to subvert white stereotypes of ”Negroes.” He also experimented in order to embrace those the black elite would rather obscure. The criticism each Hughes production brought from one group or another, even within the African American population, shows the difficulty of writing for the stage during this era. African Americans could not agree on what an authentic black production should be, and because of racism prevalent in American culture, they were especially sensitive to what audiences made of black representations. This critical judgment from all sides did not diminish Hughes’s efforts to portray the African American spirit and culture in various ways. Many of Hughes’s dramas remain unproduced—and unpublished in some cases. Increasing critical recognition of his contributions may, however, lead to production and publication of some of these works.
Works in Critical Context
Hughes encountered mixed reactions to his work throughout his career. Black intellectuals often denounced him for portraying unsophisticated aspects of lower-class life, claiming that this furthered the unfavorable image of his race. Toward the end of his life, as the struggle for American civil rights became increasingly widespread, Hughes was also faulted by militants for failing to address controversial issues. Nevertheless, Hughes’s reputation with readers has remained consistently strong, chiefly due to his poetry and short stories.
The Weary Blues
Critical response to The Weary Blues was mixed. Reviews in the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Transcript, New Orleans Picayune, New Republic, and elsewhere were positive; the only negative review in a white publication was in the Times Literary Supplement, in which the reviewer called him a ”cabaret poet.” Reviewing the book in the February 1926 issue of Opportunity, however, Countee Cullen found some of the poems ”scornful in subject matter, in photography and rhythmical treatment of whatever obstructions time and tradition . . . placed before him” and called Hughes one of those ”racial artists instead of artists pure and simple.” Jessie Fauset, writing in the Crisis, praised Hughes’s liberation from established literary forms. No other poet, she said, would ever write ”as tenderly, understandingly, and humorously about life in Harlem.” Admiring the book for its cleanness and simplicity, Alain Locke viewed Hughes, in Palms, as the spokesman for the black masses.
- Bardsdale, Richard K. Langston Hughes: The Poet and His Critics. Chicago: American Library Association, 1977.
- –. ”Langston Hughes: His Times and His Humanistic Techniques.” Black American Literature and Humanism, edited by R. Baxter Miller. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 1981,pp. 11-26.
- Berry, Faith. Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem. Westport, Conn.: Lawrence Hill, 1983.
- Dickinson, Donald C. A Bio-References: of Langston Hughes, 1902-1967. Hamden, Conn.: Shoe String Press, 1967.
- Holman, C. Hugh and William Harmon. A Handbook to Literature. New York: Macmillan, 1986.
- Huggins, Nathan. Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.
- Miller, R. Baxter. Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks: A Reference Guide. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1978.
- Brown, Lloyd W. ”The Portrait of the Artist as a Black American in the Poetry of Langston Hughes.” Studies in Black Literature 5 (Winter 1974): 24-27.
- Davis, Arthur P. ”Langston Hughes: Cool Poet.” CLA Journal 11 (June 1968): 280-296.
- Reuben, Paul P. PAL: Perspectives in American Literature – A Research and Reference Guide – An Ongoing Project. Retrieved September 25, 2008, from http://www. csustan.edu/english/reuben/ pal/chap9/Hughes. html. Last updated February 2,2008.
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