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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes was one of the most original and versatile of twentieth-century black writers. Born in Joplin, Missouri, to James Nathaniel and Carrie Mercer Langston Hughes, he was reared for a time by his grandmother in Lawrence, Kansas, after his parents’ divorce. Influenced by the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Carl Sandburg, he began writing creatively while still a boy. After his graduation from high school in Cleveland, he spent fifteen months in Mexico with his father; upon his return to the United States in 1921, Hughes attended Columbia University for a year. Disillusioned with formal education, in 1923 he joined the crew of the SS Malone bound for Africa, where the ship visited thirty-odd ports. Before returning to New York, Hughes lived in Paris, Venice, and Genoa.

Despite the celebrated story of Hughes’s being “discovered” by the white poet Vachel Lindsay while working as a hotel busboy in 1925, by that point Hughes had already established himself as a bright young star of the New Negro Renaissance. One of his most famous and innovative poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (dedicated to W.E.B. Du Bois), appeared in the Crisis in 1921; and in 1923, the New York’s Amsterdam News carried his “The Weary Blues.” Two years later, his first collection, also entitled The Weary Blues, was published.

The most important stage in Langston Hughes’s development as a writer was his discovery of New York, of Harlem, of the cultural life and literary circle of the “New Negro” writers: Countee Cullen, Arna Bontemps, Wallace Thurman, Zora Neale Hurston, Eric Walrond and others. The black revue Shuffle Along was on Broadway, and Harlem was the center of a thriving theater and the new music—jazz. Hughes steeped himself in the language, music, and feeling of the common people of Harlem. Proud of his folk heritage, Hughes made the spirituals, blues, and jazz the bases of his poetic expression. Hughes wrote, he contended, “to explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America.” As his friends said of him, “No one enjoyed being a Negro as much as Langston Hughes.” He portrayed the humor, wit, endurance, and faith of his people with extraordinary skill. Subjected to discrimination and segregation, he remained steadfast in his devotion to human rights. His well-known defense of black writers was typical: “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark skinned selves without fear or shame....”

The versatility of Langston Hughes is evident in his capacity to create in every literary genre—poetry, fiction, drama, essay, and history. He was also the most prolific of black writers; more than 12 volumes of his poetry appeared in his lifetime. Hughes won several prizes, awards, and fellowships, and was in constant demand for readings and lectures throughout the world. His fiction is equally distinguished. In addition to his fine coming-of-age novel, Not Without Laughter (1930), Langston Hughes created the character of Jesse B. Simple, a lively embodiment of urban black life, whose folk wit and wisdom allowed Hughes to undermine the bourgeois pretentions of our society while pointing out the hypocritical nature of American racism. Like Whitman, Hughes enhances our love of humanity, our vision of the just society with a spiritual transcendence and ever-widening horizons of joy and hope. In its spontaneity and race pride, his poetry found a response among poets of Africa and the Caribbean; and in his own country Hughes served as both an inspiration and a mentor for the younger black writers who came of age in the 1960s. With his rich poetic voice, nurturing generosity, warm humor, and abiding love of black people, Langston Hughes was one of the dominant voices in American literature of the twentieth century and the single most influential black poet.

Charles H. Nichols
Brown University

In the Heath Anthology
The Negro Speaks of Rivers (1921)
Negro (1922)
Dream Variations (1924)
I, Too (1925)
The Weary Blues (1925)
The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain (1926)
Bad Luck Card (1927)
Johannesburg Mines (1928)
Come to the Waldorf-Astoria (c.1930)
The English (1930)
Drum (1931)
Goodbye Christ (1932)
The Same (1932)
Air Raid over Harlem (1935)
Big Meeting (1935)
When the Negro Was in Vogue (1940)
Freedom Train (1947)
Harlem (1951)
Thank You, Ma'm (1959)
Radioactive Red Caps (1961)

Other Works
Fine Clothes to theJew (1927)
Not Without Laughter (1930)
The Dream Keeper (1932)
The Ways of White Folks (1934)
The Big Sea (1940)
Shakespeare in Harlem (1942)
Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951)
I Wonder as I Wander (1956)
The Best of Simple (1961)
Something in Common and Other Stories (1963)

Cultural Objects
Image fileThe Negro Speaks Rivers

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The Langston Hughes Review
Site introducing the journal published by the Langston Hughes Society.

Langston Hughes
Several poems in audio format, read by Ossie Davis.

Langston Hughes's Lawrence
A spatial biography locating Hughes in different parts of Lawrence, Kansas during his lifetime.

Poet Heroes
A general introduction to Hughes's life and work, with relevant links.

Secondary Sources

Richard Barksdale, Langston Hughes: The Poet and His Critics, 1998 [1977]

Faith Berry, Before and Beyond Harlem, 1983

Tish Dace, ed., Langston Hughes: The Contemporary Reviews, 1997

James A. Emanuel, Langston Hughes, 1967

Joseph McLaren, Langston Hughes: Folk Dramatist in the Protest Tradition, 1921-1943, 1997

R. Baxter Miller, Bio-Bibliography of Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes, 1978

Therman B. O'Daniel, Langston Hughes, Black Genius: A Critical Evaluation, 1971

Jemie Onwuchekwa, Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry, 1976O

strom, Hans, Langston Hughes: A Study of the Short Fiction, 1993

Arnold Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes, Vol. I, 1986 and Vol. II, 1988