Langston Hughes Essay, Research Paper
A gentle and mild-mannered soul who spent much of his life at the center of controversy, a gregarious spirit who was also zealously private, a writer of social conscience and solidarity who was fundamentally alone, Langston Hughes
devoted his art to the true expression of the lives, hopes, fears, and angers of ordinary black people, without self-consciousness or sugar-coating. And this devotion has been repaid with an extraordinary and continuing popularity, as well as with a still-increasing critical acceptance of the literary artistry with which it was conveyed.
James Mercer Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, on February 1, 1902, to James Nathaniel Hughes, a lawyer and businessman, and Carrie Mercer (Langston) Hughes, a teacher. Their first child, a boy, had died in infancy. Their marriage was in trouble by the time of Langston’s birth, and the couple separated shortly thereafter. James Hughes was, by his son’s account, a cold man who hated blacks (and hated himself for being one), feeling that most of them deserved their ill fortune because of what he considered to be their ignorance and laziness. He went to Cuba and ultimately settled in Mexico. Langston’s youthful visits to him there, although sometimes for extended periods, were strained and painful. James Hughes reluctantly paid for his son to attend Columbia University in 1921-22, but when he died in 1934, he left everything to three elderly women who had cared for him in his last illness, and Langston wasn’t even mentioned in his will.
Hughes’s mother went through protracted separations and reconciliations in her second marriage (she and her son from this marriage would live with him off and on in later years, often seriously depleting his limited funds, until her death in 1938). He was raised by alternately by her, by his maternal grandmother, and, after his grandmother’s death, by family friends. By the time he was fourteen, he had lived in Joplin; Buffalo; Cleveland; Lawrence, Kansas; Mexico City; Topeka, Kansas; Colorado Springs; Kansas City; and Lincoln, Illinois. In 1915, he was class poet of his grammar-school graduating class in Lincoln. From 1916 to 1920, he attended Central High School in Cleveland, where he was a star athlete, wrote poetry and short stories (and published many of them in the Central High Monthly), and on his own read such modern poets as Paul Laurence Dunbar, Edgar Lee Masters, Vachel Lindsay, and Carl Sandburg. His classmates were for the most part the children of European immigrants, who treated him largely without discrimination and introduced him to leftist political ideas.
After graduation in 1920, he went to Mexico to teach English for a year. While on the train to Mexico, he wrote the poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” which was published in the June 1921 issue of The Crisis, a leading black publication. After his academic year at Columbia, he lived for a year in Harlem, where he supported himself by an assortment of odd jobs. In June 1923, he embarked on a six-month voyage as a cabin boy on a merchant freighter bound for West Africa. After its return, he took a job on a ship sailing to Holland. In the middle of his second round trip to Holland, he quit the job in Rotterdam and caught a train to Paris. where he lived for the better part of a year, working as a nightclub doorman and a dishwasher. He also became emotionally close to Mary Coussey, the daughter of a Nigerian-born businessman. Throughout his life, for all his personal warmth and friendliness, Hughes was an intensely private person, and no aspect of his life was more closely guarded than his sexuality: different friends and acquaintances were equally certain that he was heterosexual, homosexual, and asexual. The author of an exhaustively researched, two-volume chronicle of his life could discover no independent evidence to verify any of these conclusions, and remains convinced that the truth about Hughes’s sexuality will never be known.
After being robbed on a train in Italy and working his passage back to New York in November of 1924, Hughes moved in with his mother and brother in a small, unheated apartment in Washington, D.C., where he worked in a laundry. For a time, he worked as an assistant to the distinguished black historian Dr. Carter A. Woodson, but he found the tedious research tasks disagreeable, and he was angered and offended by the harsh, overt segregation of life in the nation’s capital. He also began to make the acquaintance of writers and intellectuals associated with the Harlem Renaissance, the extraordinary flourishing of black arts and culture in the 1920s. He won prizes in poetry contests sponsored by the black journals Opportunity and The Crisis, and also had poems accepted by Vanity Fair, a leading mainstream journal of the arts. In May 1925, Opportunity held a dinner for its award winners, where Hughes was sought out by Carl Van Vechten, whom he had met the previous year. Van Vechten, a white novelist and photographer who had interested himself in the Harlem Renaissance, asked Hughes to show him his manuscript of poetry, which he intended to recommend to his own publisher. Less than three weeks later, The Weary Blues was accepted for publication by the prestigious New York firm of Alfred A. Knopf.
While waiting for the book’s publication, Hughes was working as a busboy at Washington’s Wardman Park Hotel, where, while serving the poet Vachel Lindsay and his wife at dinner, he left several of his own poems on the table. Lindsay read them that evening to a large audience at his poetry reading, and the story of his “discovery” (he was unaware that Hughes had already published widely in magazines and had a book in press, although he accepted the discovery of these facts quite good-naturedly) was locally and then nationally reported, bringing Hughes a good deal of welcome publicity.
The Weary Blues appeared at the beginning of 1926. Some of its poems were in dialect, on jazz and cabaret themes; others were more traditional and formal in nature, often expressing great loneliness and isolation. The book contained what would become some of his most famous works, including “Mother to Son,” “I, Too,” and the title poem. The reviews were generally favorable in both the black and the white press, including, to Hughes’s surprise, white newspapers in the South. Also early in 1926, Hughes enrolled in tiny Lincoln University in southeastern Pennsylvania, from which he would graduate in 1929. In the spring of that year, he met Charlotte van der Veer Quick Mason, a very wealthy widow who had devoted a good part of her considerable fortune to her interest in Native and African American cultures. She became Hughes’s patron, and would be his main source of financial support for the next four years, until a break that was brought about by his resistance to her attempts to control his work schedule and his career. Thereafter, he continued, as always, to support himself through a succession of jobs rather than steady employment. But now, having established himself as a literary figure, he was able to find the kinds of writing, editing, and lecturing assignments that would become the pattern for the rest of his life.
Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), Hughes’s second book of poetry, was, because of his emphasis on telling the truth no matter how unpleasant some might find it, something of a setback for him. Its title–which alluded to the necessity of bringing one’s wardrobe, in hard times, to a pawnbroker (many of whom were Jewish, especially in black neighborhoods)–was off-putting and somewhat offensive to many white readers, while the poems themselves, straightforward treatments of the harsh and gritty lives of ordinary black people, were offensive to many black critics and intellectuals, who wanted only the most positive and refined images of black life to be presented for the inspection of white audiences. While Hughes was not unsympathetic to the feelings of such critics, he rejected their basic assumptions as a willingness to allow the dominant white society to dictate the terms upon which black people, their values, and their lifestyles would be judged.
During the highly politicized 1930s, Hughes journeyed to the Soviet Union with a group of black filmmakers. Growing disillusioned with the filmmakers and their project, he toured Russia and parts of Asia on his own. Despite his interest in leftist political causes, he apparently never became a communist. After his return to America, he was involved in the founding of several theatrical companies in Harlem, Los Angeles, and Chicago. He also wrote and published some overtly political poetry, including defenses of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black youths in the deep South who had been, under sensational and extremely dubious circumstances, convicted of raping two young white women. His most important later volume of poetry is unquestionably Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951), which weaves lyrics drawn from the lives of the people of Harlem–Hughes’s home from 1947 to the end of his life–into a unified work that gives a remarkably full and vivid portrait of a community, its hopes and fears, its aspirations and frustrations. One of its most famous lyrics would later provide the title for Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun.
Hughes also became an extremely prolific writer of prose, publishing two autobiographies, two novels, several volumes of short stories, and a number of plays. By far his best-known and most beloved fictional creation was Jesse B. Semple, a Virginia native and Harlem resident known affectionately as “Simple.” His complicated love life, his anger and frustration at the indignities of segregation, his innate sorrow in the midst of a humorous and often sardonic approach to life–all of these aspects of his nature were effectively conveyed through a series of brief sketches (ultimately collected in five volumes), in which he traded opinions with a somewhat stuffy and respectable acquaintance, who served as a foil for Simple’s much more unguarded and unconventional views. Both characters were drawn from aspects of Hughes’s own personality. The inspiration for Simple had originally come to Hughes through a conversation with a defense-plant worker in January 1943. The first Simple sketch, intended to serve as pro-war propaganda, appeared a month later in Hughes’s regular column in the Chicago Defender, a black newspaper with a national readership. From the beginning, Simple was a great hit with Hughes’s readers–although, as so often with his work, the sketches drew objections from more “respectable” types–and has remained one of the most enduring aspects of his achievement.