Langston HughesJul 28th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Arts & Entertainment
1902-1967 Langston Hughes was an accomplished writer in almost every form and genre, and one of the first African Americans to earn a living from writing professionally. He captured the essential voice of jazz and the blues in his poetry, and used it to express the anguish, joy, and exhilaration of black life in America.
Troubled Childhood, Early Influences
Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902. His parents separated when he was very young, and his mother moved often to find work. As a result, he lived with his grandmother in Lawrence, Kansas, until the age of 13. Upon her death, his mother brought him to live with her in Lincoln, Illinois, where he wrote his first poem and was named “Class Poet” in eighth grade. His mother, now remarried, moved with Hughes one year later to Cleveland, Ohio, where his stepfather had found work.
At Central High School there, Hughes’ poems were published in the school magazine and a teacher exposed him to his earliest influences: Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman. When his mother and stepfather moved on to Chicago, Hughes remained in Cleveland to finish school. He found solace in reading, and developed a passion for writing. During the summer after his junior year, his father summoned him to Mexico where he’d been living. The two had a difficult experience, which seems to have accelerated Hughes’ artistic maturity judging by his subsequent output.
After graduation, Hughes asked his father to subsidize his education at Columbia University in New York. His father agreed, but with the condition that he study engineering as a more reliable career than writing. Hughes lasted only one year, beginning in 1921, but in that time discovered nearby Harlem, and joined the “Harlem Renaissance” of the area’s cultural life. Hughes quickly became a vibrant part of the scene, intimate with all its key figures, and described it with a distinctive style. He also traveled widely in the early 1920s, including trips to Africa and Europe, and began publishing poetry regularly in The Crisis and Opportunity magazines. He won first prize for poetry in Opportunity’s 1925 competition, while living in Washington, D.C., and published his first volume of poems, The Weary Blues, in 1926. In that same year, he returned to Harlem, and his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” appeared in The Nation, condemning black writers “…who would surrender racial pride in the name of a false integration.”
By this time, Hughes’ fondness for blues and jazz music had infiltrated the rhythms of his poetry. Indeed, he enjoyed writing in music clubs, literally soaking up the sound into his writings in a way never before achieved, lending a unique rhythmic feel to his own brand of free verse. Sometimes this unique style was ahead of its time: his second volume, Fine Clothes to the Jew, was considered too experimental upon its publication in 1927 (but is now ranked with his best work).
Under the patronage of Charlotte Osgood Mason, Hughes resumed studies in 1926 at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, one of the first black universities. Mason influenced many of Hughes’ professional choices, and even convinced him to write a novel, Not Without Laughter. He completed his B.A. degree in 1929, but the two had a falling out in 1930. At about that time, Hughes developed an interest in socialism. His work was published in a journal associated with the U.S. Communist Party, and his extensive travels during this period included a 1932 visit with a group of African Americans to the Soviet Union. Like many other Blacks of his era, Hughes was taken with what appeared to be a society free of racism and economic injustice. However, Hughes was targeted by the communist witch hunt of the McCarthy era, and he capitulated under investigation rather than jeopardize his career. In 1935, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Rosenwald Fellowship in 1940.
From the late 1930s into the early 1940s, Hughes turned his seemingly limitless talent to the stage. “Mulatto,” a drama about miscegenation in the south, was the longest running play written by an African American on Broadway until 1958’s “A Raisin in the Sun.” With the U.S. entry into World War II in 1942, Hughes expanded his repertoire to include a regular column for the Chicago Defender newspaper, which appealed to a black readership. In it, he created a character named Jesse B. Semple, popularly known as Simple, who articulated many of the concerns of typical Americans and Blacks during this time. The column would run for 20 years. Hughes received an honorary Lit.D degree from Lincoln University in 1943.
The musical theater was Hughes’ next conquest. His lyrics for the Broadway production “Street Scene” allowed him the financial comfort he’d long sought, and the house in Harlem he’d long desired. There he wrote one of his best known poetry volumes, Montage of a Dream Deferred, which was published in 1951. During this mature stage of his career, Hughes was called the “Poet Laureate of the Negro Race.” He was inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1961, and would write more than 20 additional works by the time of his death in 1967.
His legacy includes 16 books of poems, two novels, three short story collections, four volumes of “documentary” and “editorial” fiction, 20 plays, children’s poetry, musicals, operas, dramas, three autobiographies, 12 radio and television scripts, seven edited anthologies, and countless magazine articles and essays. His Harlem residence was given landmark status and his block on East 127th Street was renamed “Langston Hughes Place.”