Langston Hughes Biography
Langston Hughes is, probably, one of the most prominent African-American authors of the first half of the twentieth century. He made a major contribution to the development of African-American literature. More specifically, Langston Hughes was one of the founders of the movement called Harlem Renaissance. Roughly put, Harlem Renaissance was a period when the African-American culture started to blossom and the African-American artists began announcing themselves to the world. There is no denying the fact that Hughes contributed to the cause of the African-Americans as a social group within the complex and multicultural society of the United States. On the other hand, the fact that Langston Hughes was also a children’s author is often left out of account. The purpose of this essay is to familiarize oneself with the author’s biography and his body of work. The investigation will base on the premise that Langston Hughes’s personal and professional lives were interconnected and on the assumption that the writer’s personal experiences prepared him for the career of a writer.
James Mercer Langston Hughes, who is also known as Langston Hughes, was born on the 1st of February, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri. His parents separated when he was a young child. Langston Hughes was raised by his grandmother. At the age of thirteen, he moved to Lincoln, Illinois, to live with his mother who got married for the second time. Eventually, the family settled down in Cleveland, Ohio. However, young Langston Hughes began writing poetry while still in Lincoln. Hughes spent a year in Mexico after he had graduated from high school. A year at Columbia University in New York City followed. At that time, Hughes was working as a launderer, an assistant cook, and a busboy. The evidence does support that Hughes worked as a seaman and visited Europe. Hughes graduated from a college at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1929.
Langston Hughes’s professional career as a writer began in the middle of the 1920s after he had moved to Washington, D.C., in November of 1924. Hughes’s first book of poetry entitled The Weary Blues was published in 1926 by Alfred A. Knopf. Alfred A. Knopf also published Hughes’s debut novel, Not Without Laughter, in 1930. The same year, Not Without Laughter earned the young writer the Harmon gold medal for literature. Thus Hughes came to prominence and thus his way to recognition began.
At this point, it is essential to mention the authors who inspired and influenced Langston Hughes most. According to the writer himself, among those who influenced his writing style most were Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, and Paul Lawrence Dunbar (“Poet. Langston Hughes”). Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes are both known for their astute and penetrating portrayal of the life of ordinary people in America. Hughes, in his own turn, portrayed the black life in America from the 1920s to the 1960s in a way that is commonly defined as insightful and colorful (“Poet. Langston Hughes” ).
Hughes’s body of work includes poetry, dramatic works, short stories, novels, and books for children. Hughes’s “engagement with the world of jazz” is, probably, one of the most distinctive features of his writing style and creative manner. Jazz, in its own turn, influenced Hughes’s writing in a major way. His Montage of a Dream Deferred, which is a poem the length of a book published in 1951, is a vivid illustration of the influence of jazz on the author’s professional and personal life. Langston Hughes's personal and professional lives, that is to say, his life and work, were intimately related. Critics, biographers, and specialists in the history of literature agree that Hughes’s life and work played an unprecedentedly important role in the formation, foundation, and development of the Harlem Renaissance period (“Poet. Langston Hughes” ). Together with Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, and some others, Langston Hughes belonged to the group of authors who founded the Harlem Renaissance movement. They all were famous African American poets of the first half of the twentieth century. In regards to that, Hughes’ principal difference from his colleagues consisted in his unwillingness to distinguish his personal experience from that of the rest of black America, much to other African-American writers’ disapproval, since the writer sought to portray the reality adequately (“Poet. Langston Hughes” ). Hughes addressed virtually all of his works straight to the audience, specifically, to his fellow African-Americans. It is a shining example of appreciating the black culture and paying a tribute to the African-American community for their suffering, for all the hardships they have been through, but also for their remarkable resilience and love of art.
Hughes’s creative manner and writing style should be explored within the context of socio-economic, political, and cultural conditions that existed at that time. Meditating on the features that could shape the American culture in the 1920s, the critic Donald B. Gibson makes a statement that at that time the audience of readers was decreasing while the authors were turning inward (qt. in “Poet. Langston Hughes”). African-American artists (and most especially authors) made no exception for that matter. More specifically, Gibson has to say this about Hughes’s role in the socio-cultural process in America in the 1920s. While many prominent American authors kept themselves closed, Hughes remained open striving for creating the works of literature that not merely depicted the life of his compatriots, but also those which were relatable and might potentially empower them. His poetry is existential, transcendental, and outward (“Poet. Langston Hughes” ). Langston Hughes can be regarded as one of the most relatable African-American writers of the first half of the twentieth century. His works are dripping with the aura of sophistication while they are quite simple structurally, stylistically, and contextually.
Langston Hughes died in New York on the 22nd of May, 1967, of complications from abdominal surgery. New York City Preservation Commission gave his residence at 20 East 127th Street in Harlem a landmark status (“Poet. Langston Hughes” ). Langston Hughes’s body of work includes dramatic, poetic, and prose pieces beyond count. The writer edited a collection of African-American poetry and translated Jacques Roumain’s novel Masters of the Dew from French into English (“Poet. Langston Hughes” ). However, given the subject of the research, one should pay close attention to Hughes’s works for children in particular.
The Block and The Sweet and Sour Animal Book are the two collections of poetry for children by Langston Hughes. Both collections were published after the author’s death. His books for children conclusively prove the author’s position “against a backdrop of visual art” (“Langston Hughes” ). In The Block, six collages by Romare Bearden accompany Hughes’s poems. The Sweet and Sour Animal Book compiles Hughes’s poetic works from the 1930s that were either unpublished previously or rejected repeatedly. The editors of the collection of children’s poetry by Langston Hughes combined the poems with the artworks of the students of the Harlem School of the Arts. As Veronica Chambers put it, The Sweet and Sour Animal Book is a vivid illustration of “Hughes’s childlike wonder as well as his sense of humor” (“Langston Hughes” ). There is no denying the fact that Hughes’s poetic works for children contain within themselves a strong sense of rhythm. A keen observer may notice that Hughes’s rhymes abound with the rhythms of jazz and blues. Many of Hughes’s poems were set to music. A lot of the author’s poetic works were translated into French, German, Spanish, Czech, and Yiddish. All things considered, even though many colleagues criticized Hughes, he managed to receive recognition in his lifetime.
Eventually, Langston Hughes found himself among the supporters of the organization called Council for Interracial Books for Children. The writer was one of the organization’s sponsors. The missions of the supporters of Council for Interracial Books for Children included but were not limited to encouraging non-white authors, supporting them, praising their works for children, and negotiating with potential editors the terms and conditions of the publications of the said works (Larrick 9). Founding an organization such as Council for Interracial Books for Children in the first half of the twentieth century was a necessity and Elinor Sinnette, one of the Council’s organizing members, explained why. Meditating on the position of African-American authors, Sinnette described the American publishers’ actions as “a cultural lobotomy” (Larrick 9). The way the publishers in America behaved in the early twentieth century to Elinor Sinnette herself seemed like quite a plausible explanation of why the history and self-identification of the African-American community had been forgotten. She blamed the American society as a whole for portraying African-Americans as people without the past (Larrick 9). In regards to that, one of the Council’s key objectives was to relieve the situation and, by so doing, to minimize the negative effects and the dire consequences of race-based prejudices that concerned the African-American community in the first place.
Prizing children’s literature to many African-American authors seemed like an effective and adequate measure. Some authors, however, looked at prizing as a means of “infantilizing white patronage system” (Kidd 178). Strangely enough, Langton Hughes, although at some point he declared his position against prizing, was a prize winner himself. He realized the dangers and responsibilities of prizing, but also admitted the power of prizing. The 1920s and 1930s were a period of serious economic instability in the United States of America. Under complicated socio-economic conditions, the deterioration of the financial standing of all groups that made up American society at that time was difficult to avoid. Assuming that the former and latter statements are correct, it seems quite natural that the authors, especially African-Americans authors, were in the need of courting a wider public (Kidd 178). Thus, prizing as a means to an end seemed fairly appropriate.
Probably, one of the reasons why Langston Hughes enjoyed such big popularity was because he had access to major publishing structures greater than any other African-American writer at that time (Kidd 179). Langston Hughes, therefore, used his position and influence to help other African-American artists. Further study of the process of development of the African-American literature as well as the additional research of the matter of prizing may potentially help to better grasp the essence of the African-American literature, its past, present, and potential prospects. Analyzing Langston Hughes's works may be a good place to start an investigation of that kind.
Langston Hughes is known as one of the authors to initiate the Harlem Renaissance movement. The Harlem Renaissance movement was a quintessence of virtually all forms of art the African-American community had an interest in. In a way, Harlem Renaissance taught the world to appreciate cultural diversity. More specifically, Harlem Renaissance was a socio-cultural phenomenon thanks to which broader society in America came to know about the problems of minority groups. Langston Hughes participated actively in the foundation and development of this movement.
Hughes wrote countless works of poetry and prose, including novels, short stories, dramatic works, translations, poems, and collections of verse. Finding out that Langston Hughes also wrote for children was an insightful and enlightening experience. What I admire most about the writer is, first of all, his respectful attitude, his resilience, and good humor. These were the things that shaped his writing style and creative manner. His connections with the life of black Americans, his attempts to describe it in its poems, his understanding of the life of ordinary people deserves great respect. Another thing that one cannot held admiring is Hughes's efforts to support other black writers both by initiating the Harlem Renaissance movement and by supporting the organization called Council for Interracial Books for Children.
Langston Hughes lived a full and meaningful life that most certainly helped him to become a good writer. Before becoming a prominent author, he tried doing different jobs. Hughes traveled a lot and received a proper education. In no way were Hughes’s contributions overlooked. He wrote in a way that can be deemed comprehensive (intelligible), succinct, simple, and complex at the same time. Langston Hughes was an artist capable of combining popular and academic culture, which makes his body of work even more valuable and worthy of additional investigation. He was one of the most relatable and engaging figures in the cultural life of America in the first half of the twentieth century. Hughes’s personal and professional qualities earned him a place in the hearts of children and adults alike.