Born in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri, Langston Hughes grew up mainly in Lawrence, Kansas, but also lived in Illinois, Ohio, and Mexico.
By the time Hughes enrolled at Columbia University in New York, he had already launched his literary career with his poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" in the Crisis, edited by W E. B. Du Bois. He had also committed himself both to writing and to writing mainly about African Americans.
Hughes's sense of dedication was instilled in him most of all by his maternal grandmother, Mary Langston, whose first husband had died at Harpers Ferry as a member of John Brown's band, and whose second husband (Hughes's grandfather) had also been a militant abolitionist. Another important family figure was John Mercer Langston, a brother of Hughes's grandfather who was one of the best-known black Americans of the nineteenth century. At the same time, Hughes struggled with a sense of desolation fostered by parental neglect. He himself recalled being driven early by his loneliness 'to books, and the wonderful world in books.’
Leaving Columbia in 1922, Hughes spent the next three years in a succession of menial jobs. But he also traveled abroad. He worked on a freighter down the west coast of Africa and lived for several months in Paris before returning to the United States late in 1924. By this time, he was well known in African American literary circles as a gifted young poet.
His major early influences were Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, as well as the black poets Paul Laurence Dunbar, a master of both dialect and standard verse, and Claude McKay, a radical socialist who also wrote accomplished lyric poetry. However, Sandburg, who Hughes later called "my guiding star," was decisive in leading him toward free verse and a radically democratic modernist aesthetic.
His devotion to black music led him to novel fusions of jazz and blues with traditional verse in his first two books, The Weary Blues (1926) and Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927). His emphasis on lower-class black life, especially in the latter, led to harsh attacks on him in the black press. With these books, however, he established himself as a major force of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1926, in the Nation, he provided the movement with a manifesto when he skillfully argued the need for both race pride and artistic independence in his most memorable essay, 'The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain."
By this time, Hughes had enrolled at the historically black Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, from which he would graduate in 1929. In 1927 he began one of the most important relationships of his life, with his patron Mrs. Charlotte Mason, or "Godmother," who generously supported him for two years. She supervised the writing of his first novel, Not Without Laughter (1930)--about a sensitive, black midwestern boy and his struggling family. However, their relationship collapsed about the time the novel appeared, and Hughes sank into a period of intense personal unhappiness and disillusionment.
One result was his firm turn to the far left in politics. During a year (1932-1933) spent in the Soviet Union, he wrote his most radical verse. A year in Carmel, California, led to a collection of short stories, The Ways of White Folks (1934). This volume is marked by pessimism about race relations, as well as a sardonic realism.
After his play Mulatto, on the twinned themes of miscegenation and parental rejection, opened on Broadway in 1935, Hughes wrote other plays, including comedies such as Little Ham (1936) and a historical drama, Emperor of Haiti (1936). Most of these plays were only moderate successes. In 1937 he spent several months in Europe, including a long stay in besieged Madrid. In 1938 he returned home to found the Harlem Suitcase Theater, which staged his agitprop drama Don't You Want to Be Free? The play, employing several of his poems, vigorously blended black nationalism, the blues, and socialist exhortation. The same year, a socialist organization published a pamphlet of his radical verse, "A New Song."
With World War II, Hughes moved more to the center politically. His first volume of autobiography, The Big Sea (1940), written in an episodic, lightly comic manner, made virtually no mention of his leftist sympathies. In his book of verse Shakespeare in Harlem (1942) he once again sang the blues. On the other hand, this collection, as well as another, his Jim Crow’s Last Stand (1943), strongly attacked racial segregation.
Perhaps his finest literary achievement during the war came in the course of writing a weekly column in the Chicago Defender that began in 1942 and lasted twenty years. The highlight of the column was an offbeat Harlem character called Jesse B. Semple, or Simple, and his exchanges with a staid narrator in a neighborhood bar, where Simple commented on a variety of matters but mainly about race and racism. Simple became Hughes's most celebrated and beloved fictional creation, and the subject of five collections edited by Hughes, starting in 1950 with Simple Speaks His Mind.
After the war, two books of verse, Fields of Wonder (1947) and One-Way Ticket (1949), added little to his fame. However, in Montage of a Dream Deferred(1951) he broke new ground with verse accented by the discordant nature of the new bebop jazz that reflected a growing desperation in the black urban communities of the North. At the same time, Hughes's career was vexed by constant harassment by right-wing forces about his ties to the Left. In vain he protested that he had never been a Communist and had severed all such links. In 1953 he suffered a public humiliation at the hands of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who forced him to appear in Washington, D.C., and testify officially about his politics. Hughes denied that he had ever been a party member but conceded that some of his radical verse had been ill-advised.
Hughes's career hardly suffered from this episode. Within a short time McCarthy himself was discredited and Hughes was free to write at length about his years in the Soviet Union in I Wonder as I Wander (1956), his much-admired second volume of autobiography. He became prosperous, although he always had to work hard for his measure of prosperity and sometimes called himself, with good cause, a 'literary sharecropper.’
In the 1950s he constantly looked to the musical stage for success, as he sought to repeat his major coup of the 1940s, when Kurt Weill and Elmer Rice had chosen him as the lyricist for their Street Scene (1947). This production was hailed as a breakthrough in the development of American opera; for Hughes, the apparently endless cycle of poverty into which he had been locked came to an end. He bought a home in Harlem.
The Simple books inspired a musical show, Simply Heavenly (1957), that met with some success. However, Hughes's Tambourines to Glory (1963), a gospel musical play satirizing corruption in a black storefront church, failed badly, with some critics accusing him of creating caricatures of black life. Nevertheless, his love of gospel music led to other acclaimed stage efforts, usually mixing words, music, and dance in an atmosphere of improvisation. Notable here were the Christmas show Black Nativity (1961) and, inspired by the civil rights movement, Jericho--Jim Crow (1964).
For Hughes, writing for children was important. Starting with the successful Popo and Fifina (1932), a tale set in Haiti and written with Arna Bontemps, he eventually published a dozen children's books, on subjects such as jazz, Africa, and the West Indies. Proud of his versatility, he also wrote a commissioned history of the NAACP and the text of a much praised pictorial history of black America. His text in The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955), where he explicated photographs of Harlem by Roy DeCarava, was judged masterful by reviewers, and confirmed Hughes's reputation for an unrivaled command of the nuances of black urban culture.
The 1960s saw Hughes as productive as ever. In 1962 his ambitious book-length poem Ask Your Mama, dense with allusions to black culture and music, appeared. However, the reviews were dismissive. Hughes's work was not as universally acclaimed as before in the black community. Although he was hailed in 1966 as a historic artistic figure at the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal, he also found himself increasingly rejected by young black militants at home as the civil rights movement lurched toward Black Power. His last book was the volume of verse, posthumously published, The Panther and the Lash (1967), mainly about civil rights. He died in May that year in New York City.
In many ways Hughes always remained loyal to the principles he had laid down for the younger black writers in 1926. His art was firmly rooted in race pride and race feeling even as he cherished his freedom as an artist. He was both nationalist and cosmopolitan. As a radical democrat, he believed that art should be accessible to as many people as possible. He could sometimes be bitter, but his art is generally suffused by a keen sense of the ideal and by a profound love of humanity, especially black Americans. He was perhaps the most original of African American poets and, in the breadth and variety of his work, assuredly the most representative of African American writers.
From The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Copyright © 1997 by Oxford University Press.