Langston Hughes was the most influential and innovative of the writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance, and his prolific output included 15 volumes of poetry, as well as novels, short stories, plays, children's books, biographies, two autobiographies, histories, opera librettos, essays, articles, radio scripts, and songs for musicals. He also translated works from Spanish and French, and edited several anthologies. Hughes was the first black writer to make a living entirely from his writing, and a vital inspiration and mentor for many young black writers of the 1960s.
"Most of my own poems are racial in theme and treatment, derived from the life I know," Hughes wrote in his 1926 essay "The Negro Artist and the
Racial Mountain." In this essay Hughes describes the cultural pressures that he felt black writers faced to conform to white norms, and to see writing about black customs and black artistic expression as inferior subject matter to the white equivalents. He goes on to defend the characteristic use in his own poems of language and forms derived from jazz, blues, and other musical forms - an interest that he was to develop in innovative ways in his writing over the next 40 years. In an introductory paragraph to his 1951 long poem Montage of a Dream Deferred he described one version of this synthesis:
In terms of current Afro-American popular music and the sources from which it has progressed - jazz, ragtime, swing, blues, boogie-woogie, and be-bop -this poem on contemporary Harlem, like be-bop, is marked by conflicting changes, sudden nuances, sharp and impudent interjections, broken rhythms, and passages sometimes in the manner of the jam session, sometimes the popular song, punctuated by the riffs, runs, breaks, and disc-tortions of the music of a community in transition.
Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, but his parents separated shortly afterwards and he grew up with his mother and maternal grandmother in Lawrence, Kansas. Upon his mother's remarriage, he went to school in Illinois, and then Cleveland, Ohio, where he began publishing verse and short stories in the school magazine. Upon graduation Hughes spent a year living with his father, now a successful businessman in Mexico, although the two clashed about Hughes's ambition to be a writer. His father supported him when he enrolled at Columbia University in September 1921, but Hughes withdrew after his first year. Hughes's poem "Theme for English B" recalls his time at Columbia and his living in Harlem. Given an assignment to write a "page" that will "come out of you," the resulting poem is an exploration of difference and similarity between black student and white instructor, the associated cultural and community tensions, and the implications for America itself as a multi-cultural community.
In his essay, "When the Negro was in Vogue," Hughes claimed that "the main reason I wanted to go to Columbia" was to see the black musical review Shuffle Along (among the many names associated with the show later to become famous, Eubie Blake co-wrote the music and Josephine Baker was in the chorus). Certainly the sojourn in New York proved important for Hughes's introduction to some figures associated with the Harlem Renaissance. He published one of his best-known poems, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," in The Crisis the summer before attending Columbia, and met its editors Jessie Fauset and W. E. B. Du Bois, as well as meeting Countee Cullen. This poem reflects Hughes's reading of Carl Sandburg, whose work, along with that of Paul Laurence Dunbar, was an important early influence.
In a series of lines both celebratory and elegiac, the poem traces a proud heritage back to "the Euphrates when dawns were young," and the building of the pyramids alongside the Nile, while also incorporating the narrative of forced displacement, slavery, and emancipation marked by "the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans."
After withdrawing from Columbia, Hughes continued to publish poems in The Crisis, supporting himself with various jobs. 1923-4 saw him take two voyages as a seaman, the first on a steamship trading along the west coast of Africa, and a second during which he jumped ship to spend some months in Paris and Italy. In 1925 Hughes lived for a year with his mother in Washington, DC. He had already written and published some of his best-known early poems when he left a few examples beside the plate of Vachel Lindsay at the Wardman Park Hotel, where he was working as a busboy, and Lindsay, impressed, went on to help publicize his work.
With the assistance of New York literary figure Carl Van Vechten, Hughes found a publisher for his first book of poems, The Weary Blues, which appeared in 1926. The title poem concerns a blues singer on Harlem's Lenox Avenue, and the narrator's response to the performance and the emotion behind it. The poem incorporates, through repetition, sound, and stanza form, elements of the blues genre itself. The performance brings an exhausted relief to the singer, but also produces a community of suffering and release for both performer and narrator. Another well-known poem from the mid-1920s is "I, Too," in which the speaker, the "darker brother," looks forward confidently to a future when "Nobody'll dare / Say to me, / 'Eat in the kitchen,' / Then." This poem, like others in the volume and in volumes to come, allows the colloquial voice to govern the language and structure of the poem, moving black poetry and poetry about black people away from the conventions of dialect and minstrelsy stereotypes into a greater degree of realism. Such speakers also moved Hughes's poetry away from the more conventional diction of such poets as McKay and Cullen. In "Brass Spittoons," for example, the musings of the lowly hotel worker are constantly interrupted by the demands of customers, but the poem conveys in less than 40 lines the pressures of a life lived in near poverty, and the escapes - women, drink, and religion - that make it almost bearable. In his later work Hughes created the memorable Alberta K. Johnson in a series of poems in which she asserts her right to be treated with dignity even within the difficult world of menial employment, greedy landlords, and faithless lovers that her monologues reveal. In prose Hughes created a male counterpart in Jesse B. Semple.
In the same month in which his first book appeared, Hughes enrolled in the historically black Lincoln University, in Pennsylvania, graduating in 1929.
In 1927 he met Charlotte Mason, a wealthy supporter of the arts, who became his patroness for the next three years. In 1931, following his break with Mason, Hughes's work took a marked turn to the left in a series of essays and poems that he published in the radical journal New Masses. He began to take an interest in communism and its commitment to civil rights. He also began the work in a variety of genres that was to mark his output for the rest of his career. His first novel, Not Without Laughter, appeared in 1930, and he began writing plays, as well as poems and stories intended for children, and undertaking some translations. In 1932-3 he traveled to the Soviet Union and China, and in 1936 began a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship. The year 1937 found Hughes in Europe covering the Spanish Civil War for the Baltimore Afro-American and other black newspapers.
Hughes's radical shift in the 1930s produced attacks upon his work in subsequent decades from various conservative groups. One of his most radical poems, "Goodbye Christ," written in the Soviet Union and first published in 1932, became material for a long racist and anti-communist campaign against him in the 1940s and early 1950s. He repudiated the poem in the period of Joseph McCarthy's congressional inquiries into "subversive activities," and was himself called before the McCarthy committee in 1953. In the poem, the church, "kings, generals, robbers, and killers -," the rich, and the mass media are all dismissed as corrupt and manipulative. "Make way for a new guy with no religion at all - / A real guy named / Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME - // I said, ME!" But Hughes's anger and militancy even in the 1930s is tempered by an idealistic strain that is essentially amelioratist. In his well-known "Let America Be America Again," even though "America never was America to me," the loss is also that of the "poor white, fooled and pushed apart," as well as "the Negro" and "red man." The promise of "the dream the dreamers dreamed" is reaffirmed. "And yet I swear this oath - / America will be!"
Hughes's verse collection Shakespeare in Harlem (1942) moved away from the radicalism of the previous decade, returning to the themes and forms of his 1920s poetry. But his career over the next 25 years was marked by the continuing attacks upon his work, initially by conservative, anti-communist forces - and later even by some of the more radical black writers of the 1960s for what they saw as too much compromise. Hughes himself objected to what he saw as the obscenity and profanity of much militant black writing, although he was also opposed to the high formalism of such writers as Melvin B. Tolson. He defended the moderate civil rights approach of the NAACP and Martin Luther King against their more militant critics. Meanwhile Hughes's stature as writer and public figure continued to increase.
He lectured and traveled widely both within the United States as well as in Africa and Europe. The American Academy of Arts and Letters recognized him in 1946 for his distinguished service as a writer, in 1961 he was inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and in 1964 he was honored at the annual dinner of the Poetry Society of America. His prolific and varied literary work continued right up to his death - from complications following prostate surgery in May 1967.
Among Hughes's later work in drama, musicals, and opera libretti, two notable successes were his collaboration on Kurt Weill's Street Scene (1947) and later his own Black Nativity (1961), a musical steeped in gospel music. His Selected Poems appeared in 1959, largely omitting his more radical work, and was criticized in a review by James Baldwin for what he saw as the poetry's too distant stance. Important poetry volumes from these years were Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951) and Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz (1961), although both were initially published to poor reviews. Both books continue Hughes's experiments with combining literary and popular - particularly black - musical forms. Since his death has come broad recognition of his vital contribution, both to African American poetry and to twentieth-century American poetry in general.
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