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Langston Hughes

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James Mercer Langston 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. He was one of the most original and versatile of the twentieth - century black writers. Influenced by Paul 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. His grandmother embedded Hughes' sense of dedication. 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, Hughes 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 different books.

"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 Walt 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


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"



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