Langston Hughes Spark Notes

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Langston Hughes




Langston Hughes: Life and Work



Hughes, an African American, became a well known poet, novelist, journalist, and
playwright. During the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes gained fame and respect for his
ability to express the Black American experiences in his works. Langston Hughes was one of
the most original and versatile of the twentieth - century black writers. Influenced by
Laurence Dunbar, Carl Dandburg, and his grandmother Carrie Mercer Langston Hughes,
Langston Hughes began writing creatively while he was still a young boy (Barksdale 14).

Born in Joplin Missouri, Langston Hughes lived with both his parents until they separated.
Because his father immigrated to Mexico and his mother was often away, Hughes was

brought up in Lawrence, Kansas, by his grandmother Mary Langston. Her second husband
(Hughes's grandfather) was a fierce abolitionist. She helped Hughes to see the cause of social
justice. Although she told him wonderful stories about Frederick Douglas and Sojourner
Truth and took him to hear Booker T. Washington, Langston did not get all the attention he
needed. Furthermore, Hughes felt hurt by both his parents and was unable to understand why
he was not allowed to live with either of them. These feelings of rejection caused him to
grow up very insecure and unsure of himself. Because his childhood was a lonely time, he
fought the loneliness by reading.


"Books began to happen to me, and I began to believe in nothing but books
and the wonderful world in books where if people suffered, they suffered
in beautiful language, not in monosyllables, as we did in Kansas"
(Hughes 16).
Langston Hughes began writing in high school, and even at this early age was developing
the voice that made him famous. High school teacher and classmates recognized Hughes
writing talent, and Hughes had his first pieces of verse published in the Central High
Monthly, a sophisticated school magazine. An English teacher introduced him to poets such
as Carl Sandburg and Walk Whitman, and these became Hughes's earliest influences.


In 1921 he entered Columbia University, but left after an unhappy year. Langston was very
fascinated and influenced by Harlem's people and the life itself, there. The Big Sea, the
first volume of his autobiography, provided "such a crucial first person account of the
era" that much of what we know about the Harlem Renaissance we know from Hughes's point of
view. One of his first poems that were affected by Harlem's life, where he lived attending
Columbia University, was called The Weary Blues, which Hughes said was about "a piano
player [he] heard in Harlem." In New York, he wrote poetry, entered it into contest and
was invited to the banquet where he became acquainted with Van Vechten and submitted some
poems to him. These poems were published and appeared in the book The Weary Blues.
Langston received many different prizes for his poetry and essays. He also attended many
parties and banquets and met many well know and wealthy painters as Miguel Covarrubias,
Aaron Douglas, Winold Reiss, and Arthur Spingarn. Langston Hughes met his sister law Amy
Spingarn and she became his secret benefactor. She also financed his education to Lincoln
University, which was an all-male, black college in Pennsylvania. During his stay there,
Hughes wrote many pieces of poetry. Fine Clothes to the Jew was published in February 1927
and had mixed reactions from critics. Many critics objected to the book. To show his
dissatisfaction, J. A. Rogers wrote:


"The fittest compliment I can pay this latest work by Langston Hughes is to
say that it is, on the whole, about as fine a collection of piffling trash as is to
be found under the covers of any book. If The Weary Blues made readers of
a loftier turn of mind weary, this will make them positively sick." (Mullen
47)
Although Fine Clothes to the Jew was not well received at the time of its publication
because it was too experimental many other critics believed the volume to be among
Hughes's finest work. DuBose Heyward, who wrote for New York Herald Tribune Books, stated
that: "In Fine Clothes to the Jew we are given a volume more even in quality . . ."
(Mullen 47). Even as he worked as a deliveryman, a messmate on ships to Africa and Europe,
a busboy, and a dishwasher his poetry appeared regularly in such magazines as The Crisis
(NAACP) and Opportunity (National Urban League). As a poet, Hughes was the first person to
combine the traditional poetry with black artistic forms, especially blues and jazz. As a
leader in the Harlem Renaissance of the twenties and thirties Hughes became the movements
best-known poet. He published two poetry collections, The Weary Blues (1926) and Fine
Clothes to the Jew (1927). Mainly because of the depression Hughes became a socialist in
the 1930s. He never joined the Communist party, but he wrote many radical poems and essays
in magazines like New Masses and International Literature and spent a year in the Soviet
Union (Barksdale 250).

In 1939 Hughes moved away from the political scene. During the war he supported the
Allies with patriotic songs and sketches and published a collection of poems Shakespeare in
Harlem (1942). He attacked segregation, especially in his column in the black weekly Chicago
Defender, where he created a comic but keen black urban every day man, Jesse B. Simple.
In 1947, as a lyricist with Kurt Weill and Elmer Rice on the Broadway opera Street Scene,
Hughes received great success. Hughes still feared for the future of urban blacks. His
point of view became immense and included another book of poetry, almost a dozen
children's books, several opera libretti, four books translated from French and Spanish,
two collections of stories, another novel, the history of the NAACP and another volume of
autobiography, I Wonder As I Wander. He also

continued his work in the theater, pioneering in gospel musical plays.
Blues began in the south and slowly made its way into the great cities of the North. As
the great migration began people took what they knew in south to the north. This included
music. Langston Hughes living in Harlem was caught up in the new rhythm of music and based
many of his poems on it. As a boy he remembers hearing the blues performed in Kansas City.
"Hughes was fascinated with black music, he tried his hand at writing lyrics, and was taken with the
possibilities of performing music and poetry together"
"Besides having both a love of this music and the black people it was created by,
one of the reasons that Hughes began to draw on to the blues tradition for writing his
poetry is that he hoped to capitalize on the blues craze."(qtd. in Barksdale 46) Though
the markets for music and poetry were quite different, he thought he could somehow merge
the two. Langston Hughes employed the structures, rhythms, themes and words of the blues
that he heard in the country, the city, the field, the alley and the stage. When he used
the musical and stanza structures of the blues to write his poetry he most often relied on
the twelve-bar blues structure. That is often called blues in the classic form and about
half of his blues poems fit this structure. Langston said," I tried to write poems like
the songs they sang on

Seventh Street". "Hughes was a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance. He borrowed
extensively from blues and Jazz in his work, and in doing so, set the foundations for a
new tradition of Black literacy influences from Black music."
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