Highlights of a Life
Few American authors have made their marks earlier in life, or been more consistently productive thereafter, than Langston Hughes. His first publication, a poem, appeared while he was still in his teens and was followed by a constant stream of some 48 books, a third of which are poetry. While he is remembered today principally as a poet, he published in virtually every genre, including fiction (novels and short stories), non-fiction, autobiography, drama, children’s literature, and letters.
From the start, Hughes discovered freedom of expression in the verse he read by Walt Whitman, Paul Dunbar and Carl Sandburg. His themes, too, were freedom, equality, and the true experience of ordinary Black people. He joined his sense of freedom with the exuberant idiom of African American music and language.
As a central player in the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920’s and 30’s, he was literally a “renaissance man,” not simply as a writer in many forms, but as an American original, experimenting in artistic form, while never forgetting his commitment to relieving the suffering of the poor and oppressed of our society.
Hughes’ early life was unsettled. Born in Joplin, Missouri in 1902, his parents divorced when he was six. For a time he was raised by his grandparents in Lawrence, Kansas, and he spent a year in Mexico, where his father had gone to live. When his mother remarried he lived with her and eventually settled in Cleveland, Ohio.
He was a writer from the word “go.” Even in grade school when he was named “Class Poet,” he attributed this honor jokingly to the fact that white people believed all blacks have rhythm. Later, at Central High School in Cleveland, where he contributed poems to the literary journal, The Belfry Owl, he was chosen as class poet and editor of the year book. It was just after high school when his much anthologized poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” came to him as he rode by train along the Mississippi on his way to Mexico.
The calling to be a writer was clear to him, if not to his father who was unimpressed with his son’s impractical notions. After a year of teaching English in Mexico, he entered Columbia University to study engineering, but really focused his attention to Harlem life. He dropped out of school, shipped out on the USS Malone, and began soaking up experience in Europe and Africa.
Back in the U.S. and living in Washington, D.C., Hughes had some good luck in gaining the attention of people who could help him along. He was working as a busboy in a Washington hotel when Vachel Lindsay, a leading poet of the day, saw merit in Hughes’ poems and later read them at a public performance. Carl Van Vechten, the critic, brought Hughes to the attention of the Knopf family who printed “The Lonesome Blues,” the first of 11 of Hughes’s books that Knopf would eventually publish. Lindsay, who claimed to have “discovered” Hughes, is known today as the author of “The Jungle,” a poem with lots of primitive-sounding rhythmic effects.
Eventually, Hughes found his true artistic home in Harlem. There was also good fortune in Hughes’ timing for his arrival in Harlem, the focal point of African-American art, where music, poetry and visual art by black Americans was having a rebirth. Harlem artists shared the ideal to bring their creativity to the attention of the world, but they did not necessarily agree how to go about achieving their goal. Some thought that a tone of high seriousness should dominate, and did not quite approve of Hughes’s down-to-earth content and language. For him, black was beautiful and independent of high social status or the standards of white America; black dignity did not need to pretend.
Hughes’s poetry is tuned to the rhythms of jazz and the blues, the kind of beat and themes that are charged with the joy and troubles of ordinary lives. As it turned out, his chosen idiom fit in well with the popularity of “primitivism” in the 1920’s, and his style drew favorable recognition early in his career.
In drama, Hughes portrayed what he knew—the authentic experience that the poor and the Black had to contend with. He had worked as a cabin boy, cook, busboy and laundry hand. He helped to found production companies in New York and Los Angeles that staged plays dealing with these themes. His play, “Simply Heaven,” saw production on Broadway and in London.
In 1929 Hughes got around to finishing college at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. By that time he had already established a solid record of prizes and publications. In the late 20’s he became acquainted with other writers who would later become his collaborators, such as Arna Bontemps and Zora Hurston; Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer, and Wallace Thurman were also part of the company.
Through the depression, WWII, the civil rights movement, and the reaction against the Vietnamese war, Hughes’s work for racial equality and human dignity went on uninterrupted.
During the “depression” years, even though he enjoyed widespread acclaim as an author, Hughes never looked away from the plight of those who bore the brunt of the economic collapse. Like many other Americans, black and white, who sought economic and political equality, Hughes wanted to see how the social experiment in the Soviet Union was working. He spent a year in Russia, and some of his writing that came out of this experience was viewed as radical. In 1937 he worked as a correspondent reporting on the Spanish Civil War. When, in 1953 he was summoned to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he disavowed any connection with Communism.
Before he died of heart failure in 1967, Langston Hughes lived to see much progress in the cause for racial equality in America. He is, perhaps most widely known for his poem from Harlem, “A Dream Deferred?” which asks, “Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun, /Or fester like a sore–/ Or does it explode?” In his memory, the grateful city of New York named the Harlem Street where he lived, Langston Hughes Place.