Authors: Langston Hughes

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Harlem Renaissance poet, dramatist, and essayist

February 1, 1902

Joplin, Missouri

May 22, 1967

New York, New York

Biography

Few authors of the twentieth century are more significant than Langston Hughes. The length of his career, the variety of his output, his influence on three generations of African American writers, his concern for the “ordinary” African American, and his introduction of the jazz idiom to American poetry assure his status. Hughes’s father, James Nathaniel Hughes, left his family when Hughes was a baby and eventually became a prosperous lawyer and rancher in Mexico. Langston Hughes’s mother, Carrie Mercer Langston Hughes, who had attended college and had an artistic temperament, had great difficulty supporting her family. As a result, much of Hughes’s childhood was spent in Lawrence, Kansas, with his maternal grandmother, Mary Sampson Patterson Leary Langston, a proud woman who was the last surviving widow of John Brown’s 1859 raid at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. He also stayed briefly with his mother in Topeka, Kansas, and in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and he traveled with her to see his father in Mexico when he was seven.

After his mother married Homer Clark, the family moved to Lincoln, Illinois, and then to Cleveland, Ohio. There Hughes published poems in his high school magazine and edited the yearbook. After graduation, he spent an extended period of time with his father in Mexico, where he had articles, poems, and a children’s play accepted for publication. In 1921 he enrolled at Columbia University but quickly lost interest in his studies. Two years later Hughes traveled to Africa and Europe as a sailor.

Langston Hughes

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(Library of Congress)

In 1925 he won an Opportunity poetry prize. A conversation with Carl Van Vechten at the awards ceremony led to the publication of The Weary Blues. Reaction to his book in the white press was generally positive, but many middle-class African American publications were angered by Hughes’s depictions of common African American life and dialect. With the assistance of patrons, Hughes attended Lincoln University and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1929. His first novel, Not Without Laughter, was published the following year.

Determined to earn his living as a writer, Hughes used a Rosenwald Fund grant to tour black colleges in the South. His readings were sometimes controversial, but the exposure helped to establish him as the major poetic voice of black America. He also traveled to the Soviet Union, but despite sympathy for many achievements of the Russian Revolution, Hughes never became as deeply involved in leftist politics as did some of his contemporaries.

In the late 1930’s Hughes used grant money to establish African American theatrical groups in Harlem and Chicago that produced several of his plays. In 1943 he wrote the first of his Simple columns for the Chicago Defender. After the war he published Cuba Libre, a book of translations, and edited The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1949, with Arna Bontemps. During the 1950’s Hughes wrote a series of history texts, some aimed at children, on African Americans and black culture.

During his long career Hughes was harshly criticized by blacks and whites. Because he left no single masterwork, such as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) or Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), and because he consciously wrote in the common idiom of the people, academic interest in him grew only slowly. Despite that criticism, Hughes did receive some recognition for his work during his lifetime, including a 1935 Guggenheim Fellowship for fiction and the 1960 Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Furthermore, the importance of his influence on several generations of African American authors is indisputable and widely acknowledged.

Hughes battled prostate cancer and died of complications of the illness in New York City on May 22, 1967. In the decades following Hughes's death, respect for the late writer grew and volumes of previously unpublished correspondence and collections of his activist and political writings were made publicly available. The 1990s and 2000s saw the republication of several of his most famous poems as illustrated children's books, bringing his legacy to a new generation of readers.

Author Works Poetry: The Weary Blues, 1926 Fine Clothes to the Jew, 1927 Dear Lovely Death, 1931 The Negro Mother, 1931 The Dream Keeper, and Other Poems, 1932 Scottsboro Limited: Four Poems and a Play in Verse, 1932 A New Song, 1938 Shakespeare in Harlem, 1942 Jim Crow’s Last Stand, 1943 Lament for Dark Peoples, 1944 Fields of Wonder, 1947 One Way Ticket, 1949 Montage of a Dream Deferred, 1951 Selected Poems of Langston Hughes, 1959 Ask Your Mama: Or, Twelve Moods for Jazz, 1961 The Panther and the Lash: Or, Poems of Our Times, 1967 Don't You Turn Back, 1969 (Lee Bennett Hopkins, compiler; art by Ann Grifalconi) The Poems: 1921-1940, 2001 (volume 1 of The Collected Works of Langston Hughes Dolan Hubbard, editor) The Poems: 1941-1950, 2001 (volume 2 of The Collected Works of Langston Hughes Hubbard, editor) The Poems: 1951-1967, 2001 (volume 3 of The Collected Works of Langston Hughes Hubbard, editor) Let America Be America Again, 2004 (illustrated by Antonio Frasconi) Long Fiction: Not Without Laughter, 1930 Tambourines to Glory, 1958 Short Fiction: The Ways of White Folks, 1934 Simple Speaks His Mind, 1950 Laughing to Keep from Crying, 1952 Simple Takes a Wife, 1953 Simple Stakes a Claim, 1957 The Best of Simple, 1961 Something in Common, and Other Stories, 1963 Simple’s Uncle Sam, 1965 The Return of Simple, 1994 (Akiba Sullivan Harper, editor) Drama: Troubled Island, pr. 1935 (opera libretto) Mulatto, pb. 1935 Little Ham, pr. 1935 When the Jack Hollers: Or, Careless Love: A Negro-Folk Comedy in Three Acts, 1936 (with Arna Bontemps) Joy to My Soul, 1937 Soul Gone Home, 1937 Colonel Tom's Cabin: Or, Little Eva's End, 1938 Don’t You Want to Be Free?, pb. 1938 Front Porch, 1938 Limitations of Life, 1938 The Em-Fuehrer Jones, 1938 The Organizer, 1939 The Sun Do Move, 1942 Freedom’s Plow, pb. 1943 Street Scene, pr., pb. 1947 (lyrics; music by Kurt Weill and Elmer Rice) The Barrier, 1950 (opera libretto) Simply Heavenly, pr. 1957 (opera libretto) Black Nativity, pr. 1961 Tambourines to Glory, pr., pb. 1963 Five Plays, pb. 1963 (Walter Smalley, editor) Jerico-Jim Crow, pr. 1963 The Prodigal Son: A Gospel Song-Play, pr. 1965 Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life, 1991 (with Zora Neale Hurston; George Houstan Bass and Henry Louis Gates Jr., editors) The Political Plays of Langston Hughes, 2000 (Susan Duffy, editor) Nonfiction: The Big Sea: An Autobiography, 1940 Famous American Negroes, 1954 Famous Negro Music Makers, 1955 The Sweet Flypaper of Life, 1955 (with Roy De Carava) A Pictorial History of the Negro in America, 1956 (with Milton Meltzer) I Wonder as I Wander: An Autobiographical Journey, 1956 Famous Negro Heroes of America, 1958 Fight for Freedom: The Story of the NAACP, 1962 Black Magic: A Pictorial History of the Negro in American Entertainment, 1967 (with Milton Meltzer) Black Misery, 1969 (illustrations by Arouni) Good Morning, Revolution: Uncollected Social Protest Writings, 1970 (Faith Berry, editor) Arna Bontemps—Langston Hughes Letters, 1980 Langston Hughes and the "Chicago Defender": Essays on Race, Politics, and Culture, 1942-62, 1995 (Christopher C. De Santis, editor) Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, 1925-1964, 2001 (Emily Bernard, editor) Langston Hughes and the South African Drum Generation: The Correspondence, 2010 (Shane Graham and John Walters, editors) Selected Letters of Langston Hughes, 2015 (Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel, editors) Letters from Langston: From the Harlem Renaissance to the Red Scare and Beyond, 2016 (Evelyn Louise Crawford and MaryLouise Patterson, editors) Children’s/Young Adult Literature: Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti, 1932 (story with Arna Bontemps) The First Book of Negroes, 1952 The First Book of Rhythms, 1954 The First Book of Jazz, 1955 The First Book of the West Indies, 1955 The First Book of Africa, 1960 Carol of the Brown King: Nativity Poems, 1998 (illustrated by Ashley Bryan) Thank You, M'am, 1991 The Dream Keeper and Other Poems, 1994 (illustrated by Brian Pinkney) Langston Hughes, 1994 (Arnold Rampersad & David Roessel, editors; illustrations by Benny Andrews) The Sweet and Sour Animal Book, 1994 (illustrations by Harlem School of the Arts students) The Block: Poems, 1995 (art by Romare Bearden) Negro Speaks of Rivers, 2009 (illustrated by E. B. Lewis) I, Too, Am America, 2012 (illustrated by Bryan Collier) Lullaby (for a Black Mother): A Poem, 2013 (illustrated by Sean Qualls) Sail Away: Poems, 2015 (illustrated by Ashley Bryan) That Is My Dream!, 2017 (illustrations by Daniel Miyares) Translations: Masters of the Dew, 1947 (of Jacques Roumain with Mercer Cook) Cuba Libre, 1948 (of Nicolás Guillén with Ben Carruthers) Gypsy Ballads, 1951 (of Federico García Lorca) Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral, 1957 Edited Texts: The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1949, 1949 (with Arna Bontemps) The Book of Negro Folklore, 1959 (with Bontemps) African Treasury: Articles, Essays, Stories, Poems, 1960 Poems from Black Africa: Ethiopia, South Rhodesia, Sierra Leone, Madagascar, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Kenya, Gabon, Senegal, Nyasaland, Mozambique, South Africa, Congo, Ghana, Liberia, 1963 New Negro Poets: U.S.A., 1964 The Book of Negro Humor, 1966 The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers: An Anthology from 1899 to the Present, 1967 Screenplay: Way Down South, 1939 (with Clarence Muse) Miscellaneous: The Langston Hughes Reader, 1958 Langston Hughes in the Hispanic World and Haiti, 1977 (Edward J. Mullen, editor) The Collected Works of Langston Hughes, 2001-2002 (12 volumes Dolan Hubbard and Arnold Rampersad, editors) Vintage Hughes, 2004 Bibliography Als, Hilton. "The Sojourner: The Elusive Langston Hughes." The New Yorker, 23 Feb.–2 Mar. 2015, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/02/23/sojourner. Accessed 23 Mar. 2017. Discusses Hughes's upbringing, his sexuality, and his identity. Examines a couple of poems and mentions his relationships with other writers of his time, including W. E. B. Du Bois. Berry, Faith. Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem. New York: Wings Books, 1995. The first biography based on primary sources and interviews, which sets out to re-create the historical context in which Hughes lived and worked. Berry quotes an unusual number of poems in their entirety and includes extensive discussions of his poetry throughout the biography. Bloom, Harold, ed. Langston Hughes. New York: Chelsea House, 1989. Collection of some of the best literary criticism of Hughes’s works, with several articles on his poetry. Unfortunately, these reprinted essays do not have notes. Supplemented by a useful bibliography and an index. Borden, Anne. “Heroic ‘Hussies’ and ‘Brilliant Queers’ Genderracial Resistance in the Works of Langston Hughes.” African American Review 28 (Fall, 1994): 333-345. Discusses Hughes’s focus on the interrelationship between gender and racial issues, as well as his treatment of gender issues within the black community—particularly the ways in which gender affects the struggle to maintain community in racist society. Chinitz, David. “Rejuvenation Through Joy: Langston Hughes, Primitivism, and Jazz.” American Literary History 9 (Spring, 1997): 60-78. Argues that in freeing himself from the primitivist movement, Hughes struggled to undo ideas long fused in primitivist discourse and attempted to rescue elements of primitivism that he continued to find meaningful, especially those pertaining to African American jazz. Cooper, Floyd. Coming Home: From the Life of Langston Hughes. New York: Philomel Books, 1994. A thoughtful look at Hughes’s life and works. Dickinson, Donald C. A Bio-Bibliography of Langston Hughes, 1902-1967. 2d ed. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1972. With its preface by Arna Bontemps, a major scholar and critic of the Harlem Renaissance and a contemporary of Hughes, the reader has both older and updated assessments of Hughes’s achievement. Part 1 is the biography, which incorporates information throughout Hughes’s life; part 2 includes all of his work through 1965, except short newspaper articles, song lyrics, and phonographic records. Even a glance at the bibliography gives an indication of the range of Hughes’s imaginative achievement. Emanuel, James A. Langston Hughes. New York: Twayne, 1967. This survey of Hughes’s work as a poet and fiction writer emphasizes the reflection of African American speech patterns, rhythms, and idiomatic expressions in Hughes’s work, as well as the folk culture behind these, which he turned into literary devices. The book also points out pan-African themes and the peculiar struggle of a writer with Hughes’s background in both the sociological and literary contexts. Harper, Donna Sullivan. Not So Simple: The “Simple” Stories by Langston Hughes. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995. An analysis of Hughes’s tales. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Haskins, James. Always Movin’ On: The Life of Langston Hughes. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1993. This biography of Hughes highlights Hughes's recurrent theme of everyday heroism throughout his literary work. Hokanson, Robert O’Brien. “Jazzing It Up: The Be-bop Modernism of Langston Hughes.” Mosaic 31 (December, 1998): 61-82. Examines how Hughes uses be-bop jazz to challenge both the boundaries between music and poetry and the distinctions between popular and high culture; argues that Hughes’s work constitutes a distinctively “popular” modernism that uses jazz to ground its poetic experimentation in the vernacular tradition of African American culture. Jemie, Onwuchekwa. Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976. This study of the collected poems omits a number of later works but focuses on the poetic techniques and themes of Hughes. Jemie defends Hughes against charges of being merely popular and emotional, pointing out the African oral tradition as well as African American music as influences on Hughes’s poetry and Hughes’s role in the development of a black consciousness in American poetry. "Langston Hughes." Poetry Foundation, 2017, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/langston-hughes. Accessed 23 Mar. 2017. A brief profile of Hughes and bibliography of his works. Also links to articles by and about him. Leach, Laurie F. Langston Hughes: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004. An overview of Hughes’s life and development as a playwright, poet, and journalist. Ostrom, Hans. Langston Hughes: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993. Includes critical analyses of Hughes’s short fiction; excerpts from his essays and speeches on his life, racial issues, and writings; and remarks from critics on his works. Contains a life chronology and selected bibliography. Rager, Cheryl R., and John Edgar Tidwell, eds. Montage of a Dream: The Art and Life of Langston Hughes. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007. Most of the essays here were previously unpublished and all offer new ways of looking at Hughes’ writing. Included in the discussion are many of his lesser-known works, including his autobiographies and translations. Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986-1988. This major critical biography illustrates not only the triumphs but also the struggles of the man and the writer. The importance of Hughes in the Harlem Renaissance and his symbolic significance in the developing artistic and imaginative consciousness of African American writers come alive in concrete examples in volume 1, I, Too, Sing America, and volume 2, I Dream a World. These titles, drawn from Hughes’s poetry, reveal the themes illustrating the writer’s life and the points in his own characterization of his struggle. Schwarz, A. B. Christa. Gay Voices of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003. Schwarz examines the work of four leading writers from the Harlem Renaissance—Countée Cullen, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Richard Bruce Nugent—and their sexually nonconformist or gay literary voices. Tracy, Steven C. Langston Hughes and the Blues. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. This book uses the folk traditions of African and African American culture as background but concentrates primarily on the blues tradition within that culture as a way of interpreting Hughes’s work. The intellectualizing of this tradition and the deliberate incorporation of the blues dimension in imaginative literature is a major emphasis, along with the oral tradition in African culture. This historical survey of the blues as an art form and its application in criticism seeks to counteract the dismissal of some of Hughes’s more popular works by critics such as Donald C. Dickinson. Trotman, C. James, ed. Langston Hughes: The Man, His Art, and His Continuing Influence. New York: Garland, 1995. A collection of essays dealing with such topics as the Harlem Renaissance, “Race, Culture, and Gender,” and Hughes’s continuing influence on poetry, fiction, and drama.

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