Hughes, Langston 1902–1967
Langston Hughes 1902–1967
A pioneer of modern black literature, Langston Hughes devoted his lengthy and diverse writing career to revealing the attitudes, experiences, and language of everyday black Americans. Famous for such acclaimed poems as “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “Harlem,” Hughes was also the author of the much-admired Jesse B. Semple stories, as well as plays, song lyrics, children’s books, essays, a novel, and two autobiographies. Dubbed the “Negro Poet Laureate” and the “Poet Laureate of Harlem,” he focused on the lives of urban blacks and was especially known for his sardonic and witty depictions of racism in the United States. Hughes rose to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and was one of the first black writers to infuse his work with colloquial language as well as the structures and rhythms of blues and jazz music. Hughes’s “greatest value” noted George E. Kent in Langston Hughes, “is in the range of notes that he was able to play regarding the souls and strivings of black folks.... His gift was also to catch the shifting tones of the times and to sense the continuity of old things among the new. Thus he always seems current with the newer forces that arise with each decade.”
While Hughes is regarded as one of the most influential of modern black writers, his work has been disparaged—by black and white critics alike—as lacking in depth and for depicting themes and characters considered low-brow. In his famous essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” published in the Nation in 1926, Hughes stated that his poetry was concerned with the commonfolk, the people who inhabited Chicago’s South State Street or Harlem’s Lennox Avenue, “people who have their hip of gin on Saturday nights and are not too important to themselves or the community, or too well fed, or too learned to watch the lazy world go round.” Hughes related his art to an intense pride and delight in his race: “We younger Negroes who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear of shame....... We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”
The circumstances of Hughes’s life profoundly influenced his career as a writer. As Christopher Hitchens wrote in the Observer, “Not only was he born black in the era of Jim Crow, but he was born to a family that was extremely conscious of its responsibilities to ’The Race.’” Hughes was descended from a prominent black family that included
Born James Mercer Langston Hughes, February 1, 1902, in Joplin, MO; died of congestive heart failure, May 22, 1967, in New York City; son of James Nathaniel (a businessman, lawyer, and rancher) and Carrie Mercer Hughes (a teacher; maiden name, Langston). Education: Attended Columbia University, 1921-22; Lincoln University, A.B., 1929.
Author of poetry, long and short fiction, plays, nonfiction, and autobiography. In early years, worked as assistant cook, launderer, busboy, and at other odd jobs; worked as seaman on voyages to Africa and Europe; lived at various times in Mexico, France, Italy, Spain, and the Soviet Union. Madrid correspondent for Baltimore Afro-American, 1937; visiting professor in creative writing, Atlanta University, 1947; poet-in-residence, Laboratory School, University of Chicago, 1949.
Member: Authors Guild; Dramatists Guild; American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP); PEN; National Institute of Arts and Letters; Omega Psi Phi.
Awards: First prize for poetry, Opportunity magazine, 1925; first prize for poetry, Witter Bynner undergraduate contests, Lincoln University, 1926; Amy Spingarn Award, Crisis; Intercollegiate Poetry Award, Palms magazine, 1927; Harmon Gold Medal for literature, 1931; Guggenheim fellowship, 1935; Rosenwald fellowship, 1941; Litt.D., Lincoln University, 1943; American Academy of Arts and Letters grant, 1947; Anisfield-Wolf Award, 1954; NAACP Spingarn Medal, 1960.
his grandmother’s first husband, Charles Howard Langston, who was killed in John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, and Hughes’s great uncle John Mercer Langston, a noted abolitionist who became the first black to serve in the U.S. Congress. His grandmother Mary Langston, who in 1910 was honored by President Theodore Roosevelt as the last surviving widow of the Harpers Ferry insurgents, regularly told the young Langston accounts of his family history, giving her grandson many early examples of their resilience and determination. As Hughes recounted in his autobiography The Big Sea, “Through my grandmother’s stories always life moved, moved heroically toward an end. Nobody cried in my grandmother’s stories. They worked, or schemed, or fought.... Something about my grandmother’s stories (without her ever having said so) taught me the uselessness of crying about anything.”
Hughes’s early life was equally influenced, however, by disruption and restlessness. His father, James Hughes, who studied as a lawyer but was denied permission to an all-white examining board in Oklahoma, left his family and the United States to settle eventually in Mexico, where he became a wealthy businessman. Hughes’s parents divorced soon thereafter, and his mother, Carrie, traveled from city to city in search of better-paying work. As a result, Hughes was raised mainly by his grandmother in Lawrence, Kansas, yet variously lived with or visited his mother in Kansas City, Topeka, Colorado Springs, Mexico, and other locations. For two years after his grandmother’s death in 1912, he lived with a family in Lawrence named the Reeds, who introduced him to black spirituals. In 1914 his mother remarried and settled in Lincoln, Illinois; Hughes joined her and attended grammar school there.
In 1916, Hughes followed his mother and stepfather to Cleveland, Ohio, where he attended high school, some of the time living on his own in a rooming house. His high school was attended by many recent European immigrants, whom Hughes found to be much friendlier than more established American whites. Through his schoolmates and their families, many of whom were sympathetic to the socialist cause, Hughes was introduced to leftist literature and ideology. He became an active reader and was especially influenced by The Souls of Black Folk, a classic book on racism by W. E. B. Du Bois. Encouraged by a favorite English teacher, Hughes also began studying the works of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Carl Sandburg, Edgar Lee Masters, Friedrich Nietzsche, Theodore Dreiser, and other writers. He emulated Dunbar’s dialect poems as well as Sandburg’s free verse, and published poems in his school’s literary magazine.
In 1920 Hughes visited his father in Mexico, coming face-to-face for the first time with the intense racism of his father, who considered blacks, Indians, and Mexicans as inferior people. Furthermore, his father insisted that Langston would amount to something worthwhile only if he abandoned his dreams of becoming a writer and pursued a practical occupation, such as bookkeeping. Frustrated and depressed, Hughes estranged himself from his father—a rift that was never mended. On the return trip, as Hughes rode a train over the Mississippi River, he began to jot down the lines that would become his most famous poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” In the poem, Hughes relates the struggle of black people to the history of rivers— from the Nile and the raising of the pyramids to the slave trade conducted down the mighty Mississippi. “I’ve known rivers: Ancient, dusky rivers,” the poem states, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” The poem was published in W. E. B. Du Bois’s influential black magazine the Crisis and gained the seventeen-year-old Hughes recognition as a gifted, lyrical poet.
In the early 1920s Hughes devoted more and more time to his writing, and began what would become a lifelong fascination with travel. After teaching English for a year in Mexico, he moved to New York City and enrolled in Columbia University. There he spent as much time as possible among Harlem’s flourishing literary and musical circles and supported himself through a series of odd jobs that included work as a clerk, busboy, flower salesman, and deck hand. After dropping out of Columbia in 1922, he traveled to West Africa aboard a merchant freighter and, as he would later recount in his autobiography The Big Sea, tossed his most precious books into the ocean as an act of releasing himself from his past. Later the same year he traveled to the Netherlands; on a second trip to Europe in 1924, he decided to live in Paris. There Hughes continued to write poems and fiction and became well-versed in the music of many blues and jazz artists who had become famous overseas. During this period, a number of his poems were published in a special Harlem issue of Survey Graphic magazine.
The following year, Hughes returned to the United States to help support his mother, who was living in Washington, D.C. His writing during this period demonstrated the influence of spirituals and the blues. Hughes made numerous trips to Harlem, where he became acquainted with such prominent literary figures as Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, and Ama Bontemps. His career gained an unexpected boost in 1925 while he was working as a busboy at a Washington hotel. Dining at the hotel was the poet Vachel Lindsay, to whom Hughes discreetly gave three of his poems. Lindsay, impressed with the poems, announced that he had discovered the “Negro Busboy Poet,” and the following day Hughes received nationwide publicity. Hughes went on to write many poems in 1925 and 1926, eventually receiving the Amy Spingarn poetry award from the Crisis. During this time, he also enrolled at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where he would earn his bachelor’s degree in 1929. His first book of poems, The Weary Blues, was published by Alfred Knopf in 1926, and while some critics derided Hughes as lacking sophistication, others praised him as a true spokesman for the common people. Reviewer Du Bose Heyward of the New York Herald Tribune wrote that Hughes, “although only twenty-four years old, is already conspicuous in the group of Negro intellectuals who are dignifying Harlem with a genuine art life. Always intensely subjective, passionate, keenly sensitive to beauty and possessed of an unfaltering musical sense, Langston Hughes has given us a ’first book’ that marks the opening of a career well worth watching.”
During the rest of the 1920s, Hughes established himself as a writer in the black folk tradition. In 1926 he met folklorist Zora Neale Hurston and the next year accompanied her on a car trip through the South collecting black folklore. (Later the two collaborated on the play Mule Bone, which was not published or produced until 1991, due to a falling-out between the authors.) His second book of poems, Fine Clothes to the Jew, was published in 1927 and received mixed reviews, especially from black critics who felt that Hughes’s concentration on the black lower classes ran contrary to the goal of racial integration.
In the spring of 1927, Hughes met a wealthy white woman, Charlotte Mason, who became his literary patron and provided him with a steady income while he worked on his first novel, Not without Laughter. Hughes eventually broke off his relationship with Mason as the two began to differ on the subject matter of his writing. Mason was unhappy with the tone of open protest in some of Hughes’s poems, including “Advertisement for the Waldorf Astoria,” which condemned the fact that blacks were allowed to work at the famous New York hotel but could not be admitted as guests.
During the 1930s, Hughes further established himself as a poet of the people. In 1931, at the urging of black educator Mary McLeod Bethune and with a $1000 grant from the Rosenwald Foundation, he began a reading tour of the American South. Hughes’s speaking engagements were very popular, and his stature as a writer grew tremendously among black audiences. His concern with the common people and the plight of workers also took him to the Soviet Union, which he visited in 1932 as part of a 23-member black moviemaking group. The group eventually disbanded, and Hughes traveled alone in Central Asia, writing articles for Moscow newspapers. He later traveled to China, Korea, and Japan and was detained and questioned in Tokyo as a suspected Communist spy. During this period, Hughes published more radical and leftist verse, including The Dream Keeper and Other Poems and Scottsboro Limited.
Upon returning to the United States in 1933, Hughes was invited to live rent-free for a year at the cottage of Noel Sullivan in Carmel, California. He wrote prolifically, turning out at least one story or article every week. Many were sold to such periodicals as Scribner’s, the New Yorker, and Harper’s, and Hughes used most of the money to help support his ailing mother. Around the same time, he also completed a book of short stories entitled The Ways of White Folks, whose themes ranged from romantic tales set in Africa to satirical pieces that portrayed disillusionment with white literary patronage. After leaving California, Hughes traveled again to Mexico, where he earned a living tutoring and translating works from Spanish into English. In 1935 he received a Guggenheim fellowship, and later that year he collaborated with future Fisk University librarian and writer Arna Bontemps on a children’s book. Two years later Hughes traveled to Spain and, together with Cuban protest poet Nicolas Guillen, was a correspondent for the Baltimore Afro-American covering the Spanish Civil War. The following year he joined Theodore Dreiser as a U.S. representative at the International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture.
Also during the middle and late 1930s, Hughes began to see many of his plays produced, including Mulatto, which focuses on the conflict between a mulatto son and his white father. Mulatto ran on Broadway for over a year—a record at the time for a play by a black author—and initiated a prolific playwriting period for Hughes. From 1935 through the 1940s, Hughes wrote seven plays, as well as librettos for musicals that included Street Scene, which had a score by German composer Kurt Weill. Many of Hughes’s plays were staged by the Gilpin Players in Cleveland, and Hughes founded three theater companies of his own: the Harlem Suitcase Theater in New York, the New Negro Theater in Los Angeles, and the Skyloft Players in Chicago.
During the 1940s Hughes was firmly established as a leading black poet, fiction writer, and playwright. In 1943 he began writing the short fiction for which he would become most famous, the “Simple” tales, which first began appearing in 1943 as a regular column in the Chicago Defender, a black-owned newspaper. Jesse B. Semple (“Simple”) is a poor man who lives in Harlem, a kind of comic no-good, who tells his stories to the narrator, who serves as Simple’s foil. Simple’s tales of his troubles with work, women, money, and life in general often humorously reveal the problems of being a poor black man in a racist society. “White folks,” Simple reasons, “is the cause of a lot of inconvenience in my life.” The stories, which became very popular, were collected in the volumes Simple Speaks His Mind, Simple Takes a Wife, Simple Stakes a Claim, and The Best of Simple.
Hughes’s other accomplishments during the 1940s included translating works by Nicolas Guillen and Haitian writer Jacques Romain (he had traveled to Haiti and Cuba as well), and coediting (with Bontemps) the influential anthology The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1949. He was honored with an American Academy of Arts and Letters grant and served as visiting professor at Atlanta University and as poet-in-residence at the University of Chicago. Hughes’s poetry during this period, influenced by his return to Harlem in 1942, included Shakespeare in Harlem and Fields of Wonder, both of which explore the effects of the Great Depression on the lives of the residents of Harlem. Another book of poetry, One-Way Ticket, displays Hughes’s growing criticism of the treatment of blacks in the United States following World War II.
The 1950s, according to James A. Emanuel in Langston Hughes, “excelled other decades in Hughes’s career in the number and variety of books produced.” In 1951 his first book-length poem, Montage of a Dream Deferred, was published; it portrays the deterioration of Harlem from the prosperity and cultural renaissance of the 1920s to the widespread poverty, drugs, and crime of the 1950s. While Hughes continued to publish plays, fiction, translations, and nonfiction in the 1950s, including a second autobiographical volume, I Wonder as I Wander, most of his writings concerned black history. The Sweet Flypaper of Life and A Pictorial History of the Negro in America were groundbreaking depictions of blacks in American history, from the arrival of slaves during the colonial period to the Montgomery bus boycott of the 1950s. Hughes also wrote a number of books on history and black biography for younger readers, including Famous Negro Heroes of America, which treated such historical figures as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. In addition, he coedited (with Bontemps) The Book of Negro Folklore, which is considered an important collection of black folk material. His varied accomplishments as a writer were reflected in the 1958 book A Langston Hughes Reader, which brought together selections of his fiction, poetry, and nonfiction.
During the 1960s Hughes’s poetry reflected the racial turbulence of the times. Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz contained poems intended for musical accompaniment and offered biting scenarios for resolving racial segregation—such as a South where Martin Luther King, Jr., served as governor of Georgia and Orval Faubus, the Arkansas governor who defied federal orders to desegregate schools, was rendered a mammy in charge of a group of black children. These later poems are generally viewed as piercing variations on Hughes’s career-long themes of humanism, acceptance, tolerance, and integration.
Hughes died of congestive heart failure in 1967. His last book of verse, The Panther and the Lash, was published posthumously. This work contains such protest poems as “Black Panther” and “The Backlash Blues,” as well as poems that explore the independence of African countries.
Hughes is considered one of America’s most enduring black authors. In Black on White: A Critical Survey of Writing by American Negroes, David Littlejohn wrote that Hughes is “the one sure Negro classic, more certain of permanence than even [James] Baldwin or [Ralph] Ellison or [Richard] Wright.... By modeling his verse always on the sounds of Negro talk, the rhythms of Negro music, by retaining his own keen honesty and directness, his poeticsense and ironic intelligence, he maintained through four decades a readable newness distinctly his own.”
The Weary Blues, Knopf, 1926.
Fine Clothes to the Jew, Knopf, 1927.
The Negro Mother and Other Dramatic Recitations, Golden Stair, 1931.
Dear Lovely Death, Troutbeck, 1931.
The Dream Keeper and Other poems, Knopf, 1932.
Scottsboro Limited, Golden Stair, 1932.
(With Robert Glenn) Shakespeare in Harlem, Knopf, 1942.
Jim Crow’s Last Stand Negro Publication Society of America, 1943.
Freedom’s Plow, Musette, 1943.
Lament for Dark Peoples and Other Poems, Holland, 1944.
Fields of Wonder, Knopf, 1961.
One-Way Ticket Knopf, 1949.
Montage of a Dream Deferred, Holt, 1951.
Selected Poems, Knopf, 1959.
Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz, Knopf, 1961.
The Panther and the Lash: Poems of Our Times, Knopf, 1967.
Not without Laughter (novel), Knopf, 1930.
The Ways of White Folks (stories), Knopf, 1934.
Simple Speaks His Mind (stories), Simon and Schuster, 1950.
Laughing to Keep from Crying (stories), Holt, 1952.
Simple Takes a Wife (stories), Simon and Schuster, 1953.
Simple Stakes a Claim (stories), Rinehart, 1957.
Tambourines to Glory (novel), John Day, 1958.
The Best of Simple (stories), Hill and Wang, 1961.
Something in Common and Other Stories, Hill and Wang, 1963.
Simple’s Uncle Sam (stories), Hill and Wang, 1965.
Mulatto, New York City, 1935.
Little Ham, Cleveland, 1936.
Soul Gone Home, Cleveland, 1937.
Don’t You Want to Be Free?, New York City, 1938.
(Lyricist) Street Scene (book by Elmer Rice; music by Kurt Weill), New York City, 1947.
Simply Heavenly, New York City, 1957.
Black Nativity, New York City, 1961.
Tambourines to Glory, New York City, 1963.
Five Plays by Langston Hughes, Indiana University Press, 1963.
The Prodigal Son, New York City, 1965.
(With Zora Neale Hurston) Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life, written in 1930, first produced and published in 1991.
The Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia, Co-operative Publishing Society of Foreign Workers in the USSR, 1934.
The Big Sea: An Autobiography, Knopf, 1940.
(Editor with Arna Bontemps) The Poetry of the Negro: 1746-1949, Doubleday, 1949.
(With Roy De Carava) The Sweet Flypaper of Life, Simon and Schuster, 1955.
(With Milton Meltzer) A Pictorial History of the Negro in America, Crown 1956, 4th edition published as A Pictorial History of Black Americans, 1973.
I Wonder as I Wander: An Autobiographical Journey, Rinehart, 1956.
(Editor with Bontemps) The Book of Negro Folklore, Dodd, 1958.
Fight for Freedom: The Story of the NAACP, Norton, 1962.
(With Meltzer) Black Magic: A Pictorial History of the Negro in American Entertainment, Prentice-Hall, 1967.
Black Misery, Paul S. Erickson, 1969.
The First Book of Negroes, F. Watts, 1952.
The First Book of Rhythms, F. Watts, 1954.
Famous American Negroes, Dodd, 1954.
Famous Negro Music Makers, Dodd, 1955.
The First Book of Jazz, F. Watts, 1955, revised edition, 1976.
The First Book of the West Indies, F. Watts, 1956.
Famous Negro Heroes of America, Dodd, 1958.
The First Book of Africa, F. Watts, 1960, revised edition, 1964.
Berry, Faith, Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem, Citadel, 1992.
Bloom, Harold, editor, Langston Hughes, Chelsea House, 1989.
Bruck, Peter, editor, The Black American Short Story in the 20th Century: A Collection of Critical Essays, Grüner Publishing Co., 1977.
Davis, Arthur p., From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers, 1900-1960, Howard University Press, 1974.
Dickinson, Donald C., A Bio-Bibliography of Langston Hughes, 1902-1967, Archon Books, 1967.
Emanuel, James A., Langston Hughes, Twayne, 1967.
Hughes, Langston, The Big Sea: An Autobiography, Knopf, 1940.
Hughes, Langston, I Wonder as I Wander: An Autobiographical Journey, Rinehart, 1956.
Littlejohn, David, Black on White: A Critical Survey of Writing by American Negroes, Viking, 1966.
Meltzer, Milton, Langston Hughes: A Biography, Crowell, 1968.
O’Daniel, Therman B., editor, Langston Hughes: Black Genius—A Critical Evaluation, Morrow, 1971.
Poetry Criticism, Volume 1, Gale, 1991.
Rampersad, Arnold, The Life of Langston Hughes, Oxford University Press, Volume 1, 1902-1941: I, Too, Sing America, 1986, Volume 2, 1941-1967: I Dream a World, 1988.
Short Story Criticism, Volume 6, Gale, 1990.
Essence, February 1992.
Mirabella, March 1991.
Nation, June 23, 1926; July 3, 1967.
Negro American Literature Forum, Winter 1971.
New York Herald Tribune, August 1, 1926.
Observer, January 18, 1987.
Phylon, Spring 1954.
Southwest Review, Winter 1969.
—Michael E. Mueller
"Hughes, Langston 1902–1967." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/hughes-langston-1902-1967
"Hughes, Langston 1902–1967." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved June 26, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/hughes-langston-1902-1967
American author Langston Hughes, a moving spirit in the artistic movement of the 1920s often called the Harlem Renaissance, expressed the mind and spirit of most African Americans for nearly half a century.
Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, on February 1, 1902, to Carrie M. Langston and James N. Hughes. His parents separated soon after his birth, and Hughes was raised mainly by his mother, his grandmother, and a childless couple, the Reeds. He attended public schools in Kansas and Illinois and upon graduating elementary school, Hughes was named class poet, although he had never even written a poem. That title sparked an interest in writing poetry.
Hughes graduated from high school in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1920. His high school companions, most of whom were white, remembered him as a handsome "Indian-looking" youth whom everyone liked and respected for his quiet, natural ways and his abilities. He won an athletic letter in track and held offices in the student council and the American Civic Association.
In high school Hughes was introduced to the works of poet Carl Sandburg (1878–1967), another poet from the Midwest. Also at this time, Hughes himself began writing poetry and developing his unique style. He began submitting his work to magazines, but all were rejected.
A career begins
Hughes spent the year after high school in Mexico with his father, who tried to discourage him from writing. But Hughes's poetry and prose (writings) were beginning to appear in the Brownie's Book, a publication for children edited by W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), and he was starting work on more ambitious material for adult readers. The poem "A Negro Speaks of River," which marked this development, appeared in the Crisis magazine in 1921.
Hughes returned to America and enrolled at Columbia University in New York City. Meanwhile, the Crisis printed several more of his poems. Finding the atmosphere at Columbia unfriendly, Hughes left after a year. He took on odd jobs in New York, and in 1923 he signed on to work on a freighter (a large ship). His first voyage took him down the west coast of Africa; his second took him to Spain. In 1924 he spent six months in Paris, France. He was relatively happy, produced some prose, and experimented with what he called "racial rhythms" in poetry. Most of this verse (poetry) appeared in African American publications, but Vanity Fair, a magazine popular among middle-and upper-class women, published three poems.
Later in 1924 Hughes went to live with his mother in Washington, D.C. He hoped to earn enough money to return to college, but work as a hotel busboy paid very little, and life in the nation's capital, where racial tensions were fierce, made him unhappy. But he was able to write many poems. "The Weary Blues" won first prize in 1925 in a literary competition sponsored by Opportunity, a magazine published by the National Urban League. That summer one of his essays and another poem won prizes in the Crisis literary contest. Meanwhile, Hughes had come to the attention of Carl Van Vechten, a novelist and critic, who arranged publication of Hughes's first volume of poetry, The Weary Blues (1926).
This book projected Hughes's lasting themes, established his style, and suggested the wide range of his poetic talent. It showed him committed to racial themes—pride in blackness and in his African heritage, and the everyday life of African Americans—and democracy (government ruled by the people) and patriotism (the support of one's country). Hughes transformed the bitterness which such themes generated in many African Americans of the day into sharp irony and humor. His casual, folklike style was strengthened in his second book, Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927).
A literary success
Hughes had resumed his education in 1925 and graduated from Lincoln University in 1929. Not without Laughter (1930) was his first novel. The story portrays an African American boy, Sandy, caught between two worlds and two attitudes. The boy's hardworking and respectable mother provides a counterpoint to his energetic, easygoing, footloose father. The mother is oriented to the middle-class values of the white world; the father believes that fun and laughter are the only things worth pursuing. Though the boy's character is blurred, Hughes's attention to the details of African American culture in America gives the novel insight and power.
The relative commercial success of Not without Laughter inspired Hughes to make his living as an author. In 1931 he made the first of what became annual lecture tours. The following year he took a trip to the Soviet Union, the former country that today consists of Russia and other smaller nations. Meanwhile, he turned out poems, essays, book reviews, song lyrics, plays, and short stories. He edited five books of African American writing and worked with Arna Bontemps on another and on a book for children. He wrote some twenty plays, including "Mulatto," "Simply Heavenly," and "Tambourines to Glory." He translated Federico Garcia Lorca, the Spanish poet, and Gabriela Mistral (1889–1957), the Latin American Nobel laureate poet, and wrote two long autobiographical works (a biography about oneself).
As a newspaper columnist for the Chicago Defender, Hughes created "Simple." This enduring character brought his style to perfection and solidified his reputation as the "most eloquent [fluent and persuasive] spokesman" for African Americans. The sketches of Simple, collected in five volumes, are presented as conversations between an uneducated, African American city dweller, Jesse B. Semple (Simple), and an educated but less sensitive African American friend. The sketches that ran in the Defender for twenty-five years are varied in subject and remarkable in their relevance to the universal human condition. That Simple is a universal man, even though his language, habits, and personality are the result of his particular experiences as an African American man, is a measure of Hughes's genius.
Hughes received numerous fellowships (scholarships), awards, and honorary degrees, including the Anisfield-Wolf Award (1953) for a book on improving race relations. He taught creative writing at two universities; had his plays produced on four continents; and made recordings of African American history, music commentary, and his own poetry. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. His work, some of which was translated into a dozen languages, earned him an international reputation. Forty-seven volumes bear Hughes's name. He died in New York City on May 22, 1967.
For More Information
Cooper, Floyd. Coming Home: From the Life of Langston Hughes. New York: Philomel Books, 1994.
Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea: An Autobiography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1940. Reprint, New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.
Hughes, Langston. I Wonder as I Wander: An Autobiographical Journey. New York: Rinehart, 1956. Reprint, New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.
Meltzer, Milton. Langston Hughes: A Biography. New York: Crowell, 1968.
Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Walker, Alice. Langston Hughes, American Poet. New York: HarperCollins, 1998.
"Hughes, Langston." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/hughes-langston
"Hughes, Langston." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved June 26, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/hughes-langston
American author Langston Hughes (1902-1967), a moving spirit in the artistic ferment of the 1920s often called the Harlem Renaissance, expressed the mind and spirit of most African Americans for nearly half a century.
Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Mo., on Feb. 1, 1902. His parents soon separated, and Hughes was reared mainly by his mother, his maternal grandmother, and a childless couple named Reed. He attended public schools in Kansas and Illinois, graduating from high school in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1920. His high school companions, most of whom were white, remembered him as a handsome "Indian-looking" youth whom everyone liked and respected for his quiet, natural ways and his abilities. He won an athletic letter in track and held offices in the student council and the American Civic Association. In his senior year he was chosen class poet and yearbook editor.
Hughes spent the next year in Mexico with his father, who tried to discourage him from writing. But Hughes's poetry and prose were beginning to appear in the Brownie's Book, a publication for children edited by W. E. B. Du Bois, and he was starting work on more ambitious material dealing with adult realities. The poem "A Negro Speaks of River," which marked this development, appeared in the Crisis in 1921.
Hughes returned to America and enrolled at Columbia University; meanwhile, the Crisis printed several more of his poems. Finding the atmosphere at Columbia uncongenial, Hughes left after a year. He did odd jobs in New York. In 1923 he signed on as steward on a freighter. His first voyage took him down the west coast of Africa; his second took him to Spain. In 1924 he spent 6 months in Paris. He was relatively happy, produced some prose, and experimented with what he called "racial rhythms" in poetry. Most of this verse appeared in African American publications, but Vanity Fair, a magazine popular among middle-and upper-class women, published three poems.
Later in 1924 Hughes went to live with his mother in Washington, D.C. He hoped to earn enough money to return to college, but work as a hotel busboy paid very little, and life in the nation's capital, where class distinctions among African Americans were quite rigid, made him unhappy. He wrote many poems. "The Weary Blues" won first prize in 1925 in a literary competition sponsored by Opportunity, a magazine published by the National Urban League. That summer one of his essays and another poem won prizes in the Crisis literary contest. Meanwhile, Hughes had come to the attention of Carl Van Vechten, a white novelist and critic, who arranged publication of Hughes's first volume of verse, The Weary Blues (1926).
This book projected Hughes's enduring themes, established his style, and suggested the wide range of his poetic talent. It showed him committed to racial themes—pride in blackness and in his African heritage, the tragic mulatto, the everyday life of African Americans—and democracy and patriotism. Hughes transformed the bitterness which such themes generated in many of his African American contemporaries into sharp irony, gentle satire, and humor. His casual-seeming, folklike style, reflecting the simplicity and the earthy sincerity of his people, was strengthened in his second book, Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927).
Hughes had resumed his education in 1925 and graduated from Lincoln University in 1929. Not without Laughter (1930) was his first novel. The story deals with an African American boy, Sandy, caught between two worlds and two attitudes. The boy's hardworking, respectability-seeking mother provides a counterpoint to his high-spirited, easy-laughing, footloose father. The mother is oriented to the middle-class values of the white world; the father believes that fun and laughter are the only virtues worth pursuing. Though the boy's character is blurred, Hughes's attention to details that reveal African American culture in America gives the novel strength.
The relative commercial success of his novel inspired Hughes to try making his living as an author. In 1931 he made the first of what became annual lecture tours. He took a trip to Soviet Union the next year. Meanwhile, he turned out poems, essays, book reviews, song lyrics, plays, and short stories. He edited five anthologies of African American writing and collaborated with Arna Bontemps on another and on a book for children. He wrote some 20 plays, including Mulatto, Simply Heavenly, and Tambourines to Glory. He translated Federico Garcia Lorca, the Spanish poet, and Gabriela Mistral, the Latin American Nobel laureate poet, and wrote two long autobiographical works.
As a newspaper columnist, Hughes created "Simple," probably his most enduring character, brought his style to perfection, and solidified his reputation as the "most eloquent spokesman" for African Americans. The Simple sketches, collected in five volumes, are presented as conversations between an uneducated, African American city dweller, Jesse B. Semple (Simple), and an educated but less sensitive African American acquaintance. The sketches, which ran in the Chicago Defender for 25 years, are too varied in subject, too relevant to the universal human condition, and too remarkable in their display of Hughes's best writing for any quick summary. That Simple is a universal man, even though his language, habits, and personality are the result of his particular experiences as an African American man, is a measure of Hughes's genius.
Hughes received numerous fellowships, awards, and honorary degrees, including the Anisfield-Wolf Award (1953) for a book on improving race relations. He taught creative writing at two universities; had his plays produced on four continents; and made recordings of African American history, music commentary, and his own poetry. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. His work, some of which was translated into a dozen languages, earned him an international reputation unlike any other African American writer except Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. Forty-seven volumes bear Hughes's name. He died in New York City on May 22, 1967.
The chief sources of biographical data are Hughes's autobiographical The Big Sea (1940) and I Wonder as I Wander: An Autobiographical Journey (1956); Donald C. Dickinson, A Bio-Bibliography of Langston Hughes, 1902-1967 (1967); James A. Emanuel, Langston Hughes (1967); Milton Meltzer, Langston Hughes: A Biography (1968); and Charlemae H. Rollins, Black Troubadour: Langston Hughes (1970). Hughes gets extensive critical treatment in Saunders Redding, To Make a Poet Black (1939); Hugh M. Gloster, Negro Voices in American Fiction (1948); John Milton Charles Hughes, The Negro Novelist, 1940-1950 (1953); and Robert A. Boone, The Negro Novel in America (1958). Historical background is provided by Benjamin O. Brawley, The Negro in Literature and Art in the United States (1918); John Hope Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans (1947; 3d ed. 1967); and Vernon Loggins, The Negro Author: His Development in America to 1900 (1959). □
"Langston Hughes." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/langston-hughes
"Langston Hughes." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved June 26, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/langston-hughes
Langston Hughes (James Langston Hughes), 1902–67, American poet and central figure of the Harlem Renaissance, b. Joplin, Mo., grad. Lincoln Univ., 1929. He worked at a variety of jobs and lived in several countries, including Mexico and France, before Vachel Lindsay discovered his poetry in 1925. The publication of The Weary Blues (1926), his first volume of poetry, enabled Hughes to attend Lincoln Univ. in Pennsylvania, from which he graduated in 1929. His writing, which often uses dialect and jazz rhythms, is largely concerned with depicting African American life, particularly the experience of the urban African American. Among his later collections of poetry are Shakespeare in Harlem (1942), One-Way Ticket (1949), and Selected Poems (1959). Hughes's numerous other works include several plays, notably Mulatto (1935); books for children, such as The First Book of Negroes (1952); and novels, including Not Without Laughter (1930). His newspaper sketches about Jesse B. Simple were collected in The Best of Simple (1961).
See his autobiographies, The Big Sea (1940) and I Wonder as I Wander (1956); The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (1995) and Selected Letters of Langston Hughes (2015), both ed. by A. Rampersad and D. Roessel; Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten (2001), ed. by E. Bernard; biography by A. Rampersad (2 vol., 1986–88); studies by O. Jemie (1985) and S. C. Tracy (1988).
"Hughes, Langston." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/hughes-langston
"Hughes, Langston." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved June 26, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/hughes-langston
"Hughes, Langston." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 26, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/hughes-langston
"Hughes, Langston." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved June 26, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/hughes-langston