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date: 01 July 2022

Hughes, Langstonfree

(01 February 1902?–22 May 1967)

Hughes, Langstonfree

(01 February 1902?–22 May 1967)
  • Steven C. Tracy

Langston Hughes

Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1936.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-42503).

Hughes, Langston (01 February 1902?–22 May 1967), writer, was born James Langston Hughes in Joplin, Missouri, the son of James Nathaniel Hughes, a stenographer/bookkeeper, and Carrie Mercer Langston, a stenographer. Left behind by a frustrated father who, angered by racism, sought jobs in Cuba and Mexico, and also left often by a mother searching for employment, Hughes was raised primarily in Lawrence, Kansas, by his maternal grandmother, Mary Sampson Patterson Leary Langston. In 1915 he went to reside with his mother and stepfather, Homer Clark, in Lincoln, Illinois, later moving with them to Cleveland, Ohio.

Hughes spent the summers of 1919 and 1920 with his father in Mexico, writing his first great poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” aboard a train on his second trip. By the time he entered Columbia University in September 1921, Hughes already had poems published in Brownies’ Book and the Crisis. He left Columbia after one year, traveled as a dishwasher and cook’s assistant on freighters to Africa and Holland and at Le Grand Duc in Paris, and later worked as a busboy in Washington, D.C. With financial help from the philanthropist Amy Spingarn, he entered Lincoln University in 1926 as an award-winning poet who had taken first place in an Opportunity contest and second and third places in a contest in the Crisis the year before. By the time he graduated in 1929, he had published two volumes of poetry, The Weary Blues and Other Poems (1926) and Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), and had helped to launch the daring African-American literary journal Fire!! He had also completed a reading tour in the South with the writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, had become friends with other leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance, and had interested white socialites, artists, and patrons in his work.

For developing his artistic and aesthetic sensibilities, however, Hughes credited those people he dubbed admiringly as the “low-down folks.” He praised the lower classes for their pride and individuality, that “they accept what beauty is their own without question.” Part of the beauty that attracted him most was their music, especially the blues, which Hughes had heard as a child in Kansas City, as a teen in nightclubs in Chicago, Harlem, and Washington, D.C., on his trips through the South, and even as a young man in Europe. To Hughes, the blues were, as he wrote in “Songs Called the Blues” (1941), songs that came out of “black, beaten, but unbeatable throats.” They were the sad songs of proud and wise people who, through the mixture of tears and laughter (often their response on hearing the lyrics) demonstrated a vivacity, wisdom, and determination. This inspired Hughes to attempt to capture the pulse and spirit of the blues tradition as a way of interpreting his people both to the rest of the world and to themselves. Hughes was galvanized by the music of his people, whether blues, jazz, or religious. The music provided him with themes, motifs, images, symbols, languages, rhythms, and stanza forms he would use in his writing throughout his career. As early as 1926, he was trying to schedule blues music as part of his poetry readings; in 1958 he recorded his poetry to the accompaniment of jazz groups led by Henry “Red” Allen and Charles Mingus. At Hughes’s funeral, a program of blues was performed.

At the beginning of his writing career, Hughes was encouraged by the writer and editor Jessie Fauset; W. E. B. Du Bois; James Weldon Johnson, one of the judges who awarded Hughes his first poetry prizes and later anthologized some of Hughes’s work; and Alain Locke, whose 1925 issue of the Survey Graphic, later revised into the groundbreaking volume The New Negro (1925), included some of Hughes’s work. Through both the intellectual leadership of the highbrows and the invigorating atmosphere provided by the low-down folks in Harlem, Hughes found himself encouraged and gaining in fame. Vachel Lindsay’s praise in 1925 of poems left by his plate in the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington by a “busboy poet” precipitated a flurry of interest and brought Hughes a wider audience for his poetry. But it was arts patron Carl Van Vechten who gave Hughes’s career its biggest boost in the white world by taking Hughes’s first book to Knopf and establishing contacts for Hughes that would serve him personally and professionally. Hughes repaid Van Vechten’s assistance most directly with his support of and contributions to Van Vechten’s novel Nigger Heaven; the two remained friends until Van Vechten’s death in 1964.

At the end of her review of The Weary Blues in the Crisis in 1926, Fauset said of Hughes that “all life is his love and his work a brilliant, sensitive interpretation of its numerous facets.” Not all reviews of Hughes’s first book were so laudatory. Although the white press largely responded positively to Hughes’s poetry, some black reviewers, seeking middle-class respectability from their “Talented Tenth” writers rather than Hughes’s more realistic portrayal of the range of African-American life, reacted negatively. They particularly opposed the blues and jazz poems of the opening section of the book. In his review in Opportunity in February 1926, the poet Countée Cullen characterized the book as “scornful in subject matter” with “too much emphasis here on strictly Negro themes.” Hughes naturally identified with the black masses, but at the same time he aligned himself with the modernist predilection for experimentation and frank treatment of themes previously banished from polite literature. Thus Hughes is both avant-gardist and traditionalist in his approach to his art. Surely he must have appreciated Locke’s review in Palms in 1926, which stated that some of the lyrics “are such contributions to pure poetry that it makes little difference what substance of life and experience they are made of.” Clearly, however, the substance of life and experience of which they were made also was paramount to Hughes. The lives and dreams of African Americans found intimate expression in Hughes’s poems such as the heritage-laden “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” “Mother to Son,” with its doggedly determined narrator, “To Midnight Nan at Leroy’s,” with its evocation of Harlem nightclub life, and the longingly hopeful “Dream Variation.” The volume was an auspicious beginning that established Hughes’s ideological and artistic leanings and conflicts that recurred amplified in his later work.

The responses to Fine Clothes to the Jew were even more extreme. Hughes realized that the book was, as he told the Chicago Defender, “harder and more cynical.” He braced himself nervously for the reviews, encouraged by positive responses from Amy and Arthur Spingarn and George Schuyler. Again many black critics believed that Hughes had presented a cheap, tawdry portrait, far from the respectable Negro they longed to see in their literature. The “poet ‘low-rate’ of Harlem” the reviewer for the Chicago Whip dubbed him; “Sewer Dweller” sneered the headline of the New York Amsterdam News review; “piffling trash” pronounced the historian J. A. Rogers in the Pittsburgh Courier. Attacks on the short-lived Fire!! and Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven, which Hughes supported and for which he wrote blues lyrics following a lawsuit against Van Vechten for copyright infringement, compounded Hughes’s embattled aesthetic consciousness at this time. However, Hughes continued undeterred, in spite of the volume’s failure to sell well. In winter 1927, Alain Locke introduced Hughes to “Godmother” Charlotte Mason, an elderly, wealthy widow with a newfound interest in African-American authors, who became his benefactress, offering both financial support and opinions about his work. After reading and lecturing in the South in summer 1927, during which he met up with Hurston in Biloxi, Mississippi, Fauset in Tuskegee, Alabama, and Bessie Smith in Macon, Georgia, Hughes returned to Harlem and the directive of Mason to write a novel, Not without Laughter (1930).

Initially Hughes and Mason got along well, but the artistic and social demands she made on him were at times stultifying, and even the stipend she provided placed him in uncomfortable surroundings that impeded his artistic progress. The social “upward mobility,” the economic support for his mother and half brother Gwyn Clark, the free apartment, the patron-funded trip to Cuba—all were mixed blessings. After their relationship was ruptured in 1930, Hughes, hurt and angry, wrote about the situation in the story “The Blues I’m Playing” (1934) and in the first volume of his autobiography, The Big Sea (1940). Winning the Harmon Foundation Prize in 1930 brought him welcome cash, and he occupied some of his time by collaborating with Hurston on the play Mule Bone and traveling to Haiti, but the break with Mason was both psychologically and physically trying for Hughes.

Hughes dedicated Not without Laughter to his friends and early patrons, the Spingarns; his Dear Lovely Death was privately printed by Amy Spingarn in 1931. At the same time he was losing Godmother, difficulties with Hurston concerning Mule Bone put a chasm between them and a distrust of Locke, who was vying for Godmother’s favor, separated Hughes from him as well. Hughes avoided dealing with these personal difficulties by going first to Florida, then Cuba, and on to Haiti, where he met with Haitian poet Jacques Roumain, who, inspired by Hughes, later wrote a poem titled “Langston Hughes” and received a letter of support from Hughes when he was sentenced to prison for alleged procommunist activity. Hughes, of course, had always identified with the masses, and he had a distinct influence on writers like Roumain and Nicolás Guillén, whom Hughes had inspired in 1929 to employ the rhythms of native Cuban music in his poetry. A 1931 reading tour partially sponsored by the Rosenwald Fund reintroduced Hughes to the rigid segregation and racism of the South, as did the much-publicized trial of the Scottsboro Boys. Hughes, the poet who initially had not been radical enough for the Marxist New Masses but who later published poems in that journal while at Lincoln, now began writing more controversial and directly political poems, such as “Christ in Alabama,” which caused a furor that swelled his audience and increased sales of all his work.

In June 1932 he left for the Soviet Union with a group interested in making a film about race relations in America. Although the film, proposed by Soviet authorities and backed by the black communist James W. Ford, was never made, Hughes’s travels in the Soviet Union showed him the lack of racial prejudice he longed for and a peasant class that he sought out and admired. Both The Dream Keeper and Popo and Fifina, children’s books, were released to acclaim while he was in Russia. After visits to Japan, where Hughes was both questioned and put under surveillance because he was a “revolutionary” just come from Moscow, and Hawaii, Hughes returned to wealthy arts patron Noel Sullivan’s home in Carmel, where he worked on the short-story collection The Ways of White Folks (1934), which was published shortly before his father died in Mexico.

Hughes’s interest in drama, as shown by his collaboration on Mule Bone, finally bore fruit with the 1935 production of his play Mulatto at the Vanderbilt theater on Broadway and the Gilpin Players’ 1936 production of Troubled Island. He received financial support from a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1935 and worked in Spain as a correspondent for the Baltimore Afro-American in 1937. Following the death of his mother in 1938, Hughes founded the Harlem Suitcase Theatre that same year, the New Negro Theatre in Los Angeles in 1939, and the Skyloft Players in Harlem in 1942. During this period he had plays produced in Cleveland, New York, and Chicago, among them Little Ham (1936), Soul Gone Home (1937), Don’t You Want to Be Free? (1938), The Organizer (with music by James P. Johnson, 1939), and The Sun Do Move (1942), and he collaborated on a play with Arna Bontemps, When the Jack Hollers (1936). His experience with Hollywood, writing the script for Way Down South (1939), was a bitter disappointment. Still, Hughes managed to establish his importance as an African-American dramatist and continued to write plays and libretti for the rest of his career.

The year 1939 found Hughes back in Carmel working on his autobiography, The Big Sea, which dealt with his life up to 1931. Positive response to the work was overshadowed by fevered excitement over Richard Wright’s Native Son, but Hughes did receive a Rosenwald Fund Fellowship at a point when his repudiation of his poem “Goodbye Christ” had turned some of his leftist friends against him. The Rosenwald money allowed Hughes to focus on writing rather than on financial matters. His blues-inflected Shakespeare in Harlem (1942) picked up where he had left off with Fine Clothes to the Jew in 1927 and provoked the same divided response as the earlier volume. Following an invitation to the writers’ colony Yaddo, where he met Carson McCullers, Katherine Anne Porter, and Malcolm Cowley, he contacted the Chicago Defender about being a columnist and was hired. In 1943 Hughes created the beloved comic character Jesse B. Semple (“Simple”), the assertive and lively “low-down” hero who appeared in many of his Defender columns over the next twenty years. Also in 1943 he published the prose poem Freedom’s Plow (introduced with a reading by Paul Muni, with musical accompaniment by the Golden Gate Quartet and later performed publicly by Fredric March) and Jim Crow’s Last Stand, a leftist, patchwork book of poetry.

In 1945 Hughes began to work on lyrics for Elmer Rice’s Street Scene, with music by Kurt Weill, which opened to strong reviews in 1947. Hughes, however, opted to work as a visiting writer in residence at Atlanta University that year, seeing his book of lyric poems Fields of Wonder released to mixed reviews and the publication of his translation, with Mercer Cook, of Roumain’s Masters of the Dew. Receiving a regular salary from Atlanta and $1,000 from a National Institute and American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in 1946, plus royalties from Street Scene, provided him more financial stability, thus leaving time for him to edit with Bontemps a reissue of James Weldon Johnson’s Book of American Negro Poetry. He was also able to publish a translation (with Ben Frederic Carruthers) of Nicolás Guillén’s Cuba Libre and prepare another collection of poetry, One-Way Ticket (1949). A return to jazz- and blues-saturated poetry, this volume contains Hughes’s celebrated “Madam” poems and the song “Life Is Fine,” trumpeting perseverance and optimism. When the opera Troubled Island opened in 1949, Hughes was busy trying to find a publisher for the second volume of his autobiography and a new volume of poems. The production of The Barrier (1950), an opera based on the play Mulatto, yielded little money, though the collection of Simple stories Simple Speaks His Mind (1950) sold 30,000 copies and received general critical acclaim. Hughes was becoming better known, and translations of his work and critical essays were becoming extant.

Yet as success loomed, Hughes’s masterful jazz-imbued Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951), a book-length poem in five sections depicting the rhythms of bop, boogie, and blues of the urban African-American experience in the context of continued deferment of the promises of American democracy, was critically panned. However, his short-story collection Laughing to Keep from Crying (1952) fared better with critics. Prolific throughout his career in multiple genres, Hughes began work on a series of children’s books for Franklin Watts, which released The First Book of Negroes (1952), The First Book of Rhythms (1954), The First Book of Jazz (1955), The First Book of the West Indies (1956), and The First Book of Africa (1960). He also published other historical nonfiction works, Famous American Negroes (1954), Famous Negro Music Makers (1955), A Pictorial History of the Negro in America (with Milton Meltzer, 1956), Famous Negro Heroes of America (1958), Fight for Freedom: The Story of the NAACP (1962), and Black Magic: A Pictorial History of the Negro in American Entertainment (with Meltzer, 1967). The quality and success of these books established Hughes’s importance as a popular historian of African-American life. The second volume of his autobiography, I Wonder as I Wander (1956), emphasized Hughes’s determination to survive and prosper undaunted by the adversity and suffering he had faced in his travels in this country and around the world.

Nevertheless, Hughes found himself increasingly under the siege of McCarthyism and was forced to appear in March 1953 before Joseph R. McCarthy’s Senate subcommittee not to defend his poetry but to repudiate some of his zealous leftist activities and work. Hughes’s Simple stories continued to draw positive critical response and pleased his readers, although the Simple collections, Simple Takes a Wife (1953), Simple Stakes a Claim (1957), The Best of Simple (1961), and Simple’s Uncle Sam (1965) did not sell well. The play Simply Heavenly began a reasonably successful run in 1957, landing on Broadway and on the London stage. That same year his translation of Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral appeared, followed in 1958 by his selection and revision of his writings, The Langston Hughes Reader, and in 1959 by Selected Poems of Langston Hughes and his rousing play Tambourines to Glory, which he had converted into a novel of the same title in 1958.

Certainly by the sixties Hughes was an elder statesman of his people and a literary celebrity, adding to his publications stagings of his dramas, recordings, television and radio shows, appearances at conferences (in Uganda and Nigeria and at the National Poetry Festival in Washington, D.C., in 1962), jazz clubs, and festivals. He received honorary doctorates from Howard University in 1963 and Western Reserve University in 1964. The poetry was still flowing, with Ask Your Mama (1961) and The Panther and the Lash (1967) demonstrating that Hughes’s satiric and humanitarian impulses were undiminished, as were his dramatic juices, evidenced by the critical success of the gospel play Black Nativity (1961). Always eager to help younger writers, he edited New Negro Poets: USA (1964).

Indeed, the final years of his life were filled with activity: the production of his play The Prodigal Son (1965), a two-month State Department tour of Europe lecturing on African-American writers, work on The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers (1967), and trips to Paris (with the production of Prodigal Son) and to Africa (as a presidential appointee to the First World Festival of Negro Arts), along with readings and lectures, filled his days. In the midst of this frenetic life, Hughes was admitted to the hospital with abdominal pains, later found to be caused by a blocked bladder and an enlarged prostate. Despite a successful operation, his heart and kidneys began to fail, and Hughes died in New York City.

Langston Hughes praised the “low-down folks” in the essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (Nation, 23 June 1926) for furnishing “a wealth of colorful, distinctive material” and for maintaining “their individuality in the face of American standardizations.” Hughes’s own life and career might be viewed in the same light. The variety and quality of his achievements in various genres, always in the service of greater understanding and humanity, and his specific commitment to depicting and strengthening the African-American heartbeat in America—and to helping others depict it as well—gave him a place of central importance in twentieth-century African-American literature and American literature generally. Hughes sought to change the way people looked not only at African Americans and art but at the world, and his modernistic vision was both experimental and traditional, cacophonous and mellifluous, rejecting of artificial middle-class values, and promoting emotional and intellectual freedom. He demonstrated that African Americans could support themselves with their art both monetarily and spiritually. Hughes published over forty books in a career that never lost touch with the concerns of sharecroppers and tenement dwellers as it provided inspiration for not only African-American writers but for all working people.


Hughes’s papers are in the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Arnold Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes, vol. 1 (1986) and vol. 2 (1988), and Faith Berry, Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem (1983), are the standard biographical treatments, to be supplemented by interesting glimpses in the correspondence included in Charles Nichols, ed., Arna Bontemps—Langston Hughes Letters, 1925–1967 (1980). Thomas A. Mikolyzk, comp., Langston Hughes: A Bio-Bibliography (1990), presents annotated references, and The Langston Hughes Review, which first appeared in 1982, continues to publish and document important work on Hughes. Important contemporary critical assessments include Onwuchekwa Jamie, Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry (1976); Richard K. Barksdale, Langston Hughes: The Poet and His Critics (1977); Therman B. O’Daniel, ed., Langston Hughes: Black Genius (1971); R. Baxter Miller, The Art and Imagination of Langston Hughes (1989); Edward J. Mullen, ed., Critical Essays on Langston Hughes (1986) and Langston Hughes in the Hispanic World and Haiti (1977); Steven C. Tracy, Langston Hughes and the Blues (1988); and Harold Bloom, Langston Hughes: Modern Critical Views (1989). Berry also edited a valuable and fascinating collection, Good Morning Revolution: Uncollected Writings of Social Protest by Langston Hughes (1973, repr. 1992). An obituary is in the New York Times, 24 May 1967.