By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Langston Hughes (1901-67) was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance in New York in the 1920s. A prolific writer, he was a novelist, playwright, social activist, and journalist, among many other things (he even wrote a musical).
In his poetry, he took his inspiration from Walt Whitman, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Carl Sandburg (whom he referred to as ‘my guiding star’). Some of his short stories, such as the brief piece ‘Thank You, Ma’am’, are widely studied in schools and colleges in the US.
Below, we have gathered together some of the most interesting key facts concerning Langston Hughes’ life and work.
1. In 2018, it was revealed that Langston Hughes was a year older than previously thought.
Although biographers agreed that Hughes was born on 1 February, 1902, in 2018 that all changed, and new evidence came to light showing that Hughes had been born a whole year earlier.
The American poet Eric McHenry told the New York Times that he was trawling through digitised local newspaper archives when he spotted a note on the society page of the African American weekly newspaper, the Topeka Plaindealer, which mentioned a ‘Little Langston Hughes’ who had been ill but was ‘improving’. That article was published on 20 December 1901, around six weeks before Hughes was supposed to have been born!
Further digging in the archives confirmed that Hughes was indeed born on 1 February 1901 – not 1902.
2. Hughes’ mother was also a poet.
Langston’s mother, Carrie Langston Hughes, also wrote poetry and was an amateur actress. Hughes later recalled how his mother took him to see all of the plays that were put on in Topeka, Kansas, where he spent some time growing up. He and his mother shared a love of plays – and books. Hughes’ parents separated when he was small, and his father emigrated to Mexico.
3. He began publishing poetry at a young age.
The precocious Hughes, influenced by – among others – the African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and the nineteenth-century free-verse pioneer Walt Whitman, began publishing poems and short stories while still in high school. These early works appeared in Central High Monthly Magazine and the Belfry Owl.
4. He had an itinerant childhood, living in a number of US states.
Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri and raised in a number of states: Missouri, but also Kansas, Illinois, and Ohio. He even lived in Mexico with his father in 1919, and again in 1920-21, before he enrolled at university to study engineering.
5. He attended Columbia University for a year in 1921-22, but left because of racial prejudice.
Hughes tried hard to fit in at Columbia, which was still overwhelmingly white and middle-class at the time. He published poetry in the Columbia Daily Spectator under a pen name. But he ended up leaving the university in 1922 because of racial prejudice from students and teachers. He was even denied a room on campus because he was black.
6. He travelled extensively.
After he left Columbia without a degree, Hughes travelled around South America and Europe. In the early 1920s, following his departure from Columbia, he worked at a range of odd jobs, including kitchen worker, delivery boy, vegetable farmer, mess boy on a ship on the Hudson River, and even a crew member on a merchant steamer bound for Africa.
He returned to the US and settled in Washington, D. C. in 1925, but later moved to New York.
7. However, he spent relatively little time living in New York.
Despite being a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes spent just a couple of years living in New York, between 1928 and 1930 (in addition to his year at Columbia University).
He wrote well about Harlem in his fiction and poetry, and one of his most famous poems is simply titled ‘Harlem’. In his 1940 autobiographical work The Big Sea, he recorded his impressions of the Harlem Renaissance.
8. He wrote one of his best-known poems in Italy, while waiting for a ship home.
He wrote his short lyric poem ‘I, Too’ following his experiences trying to gain passage aboard a ship from Italy back to the United States in 1924; he was repeatedly passed over for a place on board numerous ships while white sailors were welcomed aboard. Racial inequality, then, is obviously a key theme in Hughes’ poem.
In this poem, with its an allusive nod to Walt Whitman’s poem ‘I Hear America Singing’, Hughes – describing himself as the ‘darker brother’ – highlights the plight of African Americans at the time, having to eat separately from everyone else in the kitchen when guests arrive, but determined to strive and succeed in the ‘Land of the Free’.
9. Another of his best-known poems was composed on a train ride when he was still a teenager.
Hughes wrote ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’, one of his finest and deepest poems, while crossing the Mississippi river by train on his way to Mexico to stay with his father. This poem was published in the influential journal the Crisis, and Langston Hughes’ literary career was launched. He was just nineteen when he wrote the poem.
This is another poem that bears the influence of Whitman, though Hughes does something very different with the expansive free verse style he learned from that nineteenth-century American verse pioneer.
10. He was called to testify before Senator Joseph McCarthy during the McCarthy ‘witch hunts’ of the 1950s.
Langston Hughes had written a number of journalistic pieces in support of the Republican cause during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. He also expressed sympathy for American Communists, and wrote a poem, ‘Good Morning Revolution’ (1932), in support of Communist revolution in the US.
So in 1953, Hughes found himself testifying before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s committee investigating ‘Un-American’ activities. This can hardly have come as a shock to Hughes, especially after one of his most divisive political poems, ‘Goodbye Christ’, had been published (without his permission) in the Saturday Evening Post.
This poem dismisses Jesus Christ as an obsolete figure whose message had been subverted and distorted by money-grubbing churchmen. Instead, people should follow a ‘real’ person, such as Lenin, Stalin, or even the poet himself.
11. As well as his numerous poems, short stories, and longer prose works, Hughes also wrote a musical.
Simply Heavenly was a musical comedy based on one of Hughes’ novels, Simple Takes A Wife. Hughes wrote the book (the dialogue) and the lyrics to the songs, with David Martin providing the music. The musical premiered in 1957.