Essay Preview: Langston Hughes
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Langston Hughes achieved fame as a poet during the burgeoning of the arts known as the Harlem Renaissance, but those who label him “a Harlem Renaissance poet” have restricted his fame to only one genre and decade. In addition to his work as a poet, Hughes was a novelist, columnist, playwright, and essayist, and though he is most closely associated with Harlem, his world travels influenced his writing in a profound way. Langston Hughes followed the example of Paul Laurence Dunbar, one of his early poetic influences, to become the second African American to earn a living as a writer. His long and distinguished career produced volumes of diverse genres and inspired the work of countless other African American writers.
Although his youth was marked with transition, Hughes extracted meaning from the places and people whence he came. The search for employment led his mother and step-father, Homer Clark, to move several times. Hughes moved often between the households of his grandmother, his mother, and other surrogate parents. One of his essays claims that he has slept in “Ten Thousand Beds.” Growing up in the Midwest (Lawrence, Kansas; Topeka, Kansas; Lincoln, Illinois; Cleveland, Ohio), young Hughes learned the blues and spirituals. He would subsequently weave these musical elements into his own poetry and fiction.
In a Cleveland, Ohio, high school, Hughes was designated “class poet” and there he published his first short stories. He became friends with some white classmates, yet he also suffered racial insult at the hands of other whites. He learned first-hand to distinguish “decent” from “reactionary” white folks, distinctions he would reiterate in his book Not Without Laughter and in his “Here to Yonder” columns in The Chicago Defender. Seeking some consolation and continuity in the midst of the myriad relocations of his youth, he grew to love books. His love of reading developed into a desire to write as he sought to replicate the powerful impact other writers from many cultures had made upon him. In his writing, Hughes accomplished an important feat. While others wallowed in self-revelation as a balm for their loneliness, Hughes often transformed his own agonies into the sufferings endured by the collective race and sometimes all of humankind.
After graduating from Central High School in Cleveland in 1920, he moved to Mexico City to live with his father for one year. His mother fumed about his departure, and his father offered him little warmth. Yet, with his unique gift for writing, Hughes turned the pain engendered by his parents conflict into the noted poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” published by Crisis in 1921.
Hughes gathered new impressions