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James Mercer Langston Hughes

Page history last edited by PBworks 17 years, 9 months ago

Langston Hughes, photographed by Nickolas Muray, 1923


James Mercer Langston Hughes


Born in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri, Langston Hughes grew up mainly in Lawrence, Kansas, but also lived in Illinois, Ohio, and Mexico.


He himself recalled being driven early by his loneliness 'to books, and the wonderful world in books.


Leaving Columbia in 1922, Hughes spent the next three years in a succession of menial jobs. But he also traveled abroad. He worked on a freighter down the west coast of Africa and lived for several months in Paris before returning to the United States late in 1924. By this time, he was well known in African American literary circles as a gifted young poet.




His major early influences were Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, as well as the black poets Paul Laurence Dunbar, a master of both dialect and standard verse, and Claude McKay, a radical socialist who also wrote accomplished lyric poetry. However, Sandburg, who Hughes later called "my guiding star," was decisive in leading him toward free verse and a radically democratic modernist aesthetic.


His devotion to black music led him to novel fusions of jazz and blues with traditional verse in his first two books, The Weary Blues (1926) and Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927). His emphasis on lower-class black life, especially in the latter, led to harsh attacks on him in the black press. With these books, however, he established himself as a major force of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1926, in the Nation, he provided the movement with a manifesto when he skillfully argued the need for both race pride and artistic independence in his most memorable essay, 'The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain."


By this time, Hughes had enrolled at the historically black Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, from which he would graduate in 1929. In 1927 he began one of the most important relationships of his life, with his patron Mrs. Charlotte Mason, or "Godmother," who generously supported him for two years. She supervised the writing of his first novel, Not Without Laughter (1930)--about a sensitive, black midwestern boy and his struggling family. However, their relationship collapsed about the time the novel appeared, and Hughes sank into a period of intense personal unhappiness and disillusionment.


One result was his firm turn to the far left in politics. During a year (1932-1933) spent in the Soviet Union, he wrote his most radical verse. A year in Carmel, California, led to a collection of short stories, The Ways of White Folks (1934). This volume is marked by pessimism about race relations, as well as a sardonic realism.


With World War II, Hughes moved more to the center politically. His first volume of autobiography, The Big Sea (1940), written in an episodic, lightly comic manner, made virtually no mention of his leftist sympathies. In his book of verse Shakespeare in Harlem (1942) he once again sang the blues. On the other hand, this collection, as well as another, his Jim Crow’s Last Stand (1943), strongly attacked racial segregation.


In the 1950s he constantly looked to the musical stage for success, as he sought to repeat his major coup of the 1940s, when Kurt Weill and Elmer Rice had chosen him as the lyricist for their Street Scene (1947). This production was hailed as a breakthrough in the development of American opera; for Hughes, the apparently endless cycle of poverty into which he had been locked came to an end. He bought a home in Harlem.


The Simple books inspired a musical show, Simply Heavenly (1957), that met with some success. However, Hughes's Tambourines to Glory (1963), a gospel musical play satirizing corruption in a black storefront church, failed badly, with some critics accusing him of creating caricatures of black life. Nevertheless, his love of gospel music led to other acclaimed stage efforts, usually mixing words, music, and dance in an atmosphere of improvisation. Notable here were the Christmas show Black Nativity (1961) and, inspired by the civil rights movement, Jericho--Jim Crow (1964).




For Hughes, writing for children was important. Starting with the successful Popo and Fifina (1932), a tale set in Haiti and written with Arna Bontemps, he eventually published a dozen children's books, on subjects such as jazz, Africa, and the West Indies. Proud of his versatility, he also wrote a commissioned history of the NAACP and the text of a much praised pictorial history of black America. His text in The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955), where he explicated photographs of Harlem by Roy DeCarava, was judged masterful by reviewers, and confirmed Hughes's reputation for an unrivaled command of the nuances of black urban culture.


In many ways Hughes always remained loyal to the principles he had laid down for the younger black writers in 1926. His art was firmly rooted in race pride and race feeling even as he cherished his freedom as an artist. He was both nationalist and cosmopolitan. As a radical democrat, he believed that art should be accessible to as many people as possible. He could sometimes be bitter, but his art is generally suffused by a keen sense of the ideal and by a profound love of humanity, especially black Americans. He was perhaps the most original of African American poets and, in the breadth and variety of his work, assuredly the most representative of African American writers.


Literary Works



The Weary Blues. Knopf, 1926

Fine Clothes to the Jew. Knopf, 1927

The Negro Mother and Other Dramatic Recitations, 1931

Dear Lovely Death, 1931

The Dream Keeper and Other Poems. Knopf, 1932

Scottsboro Limited: Four Poems and a Play. N.Y.: Golden Stair Press, 1932

Shakespeare in Harlem. Knopf, 1942

Freedom's Plow. 1943

Fields of Wonder. Knopf,1947

One-Way Ticket. 1949

Montage of a Dream Deferred. Holt, 1951

Selected Poems of Langston Hughes. 1958

Ask Your Mama. Hill & Wang, 1961

The Panther and the Lash: Poems of Our Times, 1967

The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. Knopf, 1994




The Best of Simple by Langston Hughes, 1961. Without Laughter. Knopf, 1930

Popo and Fifina, with Arna Bontemps. 1932

The Ways of White Folks. Knopf, 1934

Simple Speaks His Mind. 1950

Laughing to Keep from Crying, Holt, 1952

Simple Takes a Wife. 1953

Sweet Flypaper of Life,photographs by Roy DeCarava. 1955

Simple Stakes a Claim. 1957

The Best of Simple. 1961

Simple's Uncle Sam. 1965

Something in Common and Other Stories. Hill & Wang, 1963

Short Stories of Langston Hughes. Hill & Wang, 1996




The Big Sea. New York: Knopf, 1940

Famous American Negroes. 1954

I Wonder as I Wander. New York: Rinehart & Co., 1956

A Pictorial History of the Negro in America, with Milton Meltzer. 1956

Famous Negro Heroes of America. 1958

Fight for Freedom: The Story of the NAACP. 1962


Major Plays


Mule Bone, with Zora Neale Hurston. 1931

Mulatto. 1935 (renamed The Barrier in 1950)

Troubled Island, with William Grant Still. 1936

Little Ham. 1936

Emperor of Haiti. 1936

Don't You Want to be Free. 1938

Street Scene, contributed lyrics. 1947

Simply Heavenly. 1957

Black Nativity. 1961

Five Plays by Langston Hughes. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963.

Jericho-Jim Crow. 1964

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