(James) Langston Hughes

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Author: David Roessel
Editors: A. Walton Litz and Molly Weigel
Date: 1998
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Biography; Critical essay
Length: 14,395 words

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IN 1924, WHEN at the age of twenty-two Langston Hughes found himself broke in the Italian city of Genoa, he composed one of the most famous poetic statements in twentieth-century American literature, "I, Too":     I, too, sing America.     I am the darker brother.     They send me to eat in the kitchen     When company comes,     But I laugh,     And eat well,     And grow strong.     Tomorrow,     I'll be at the table     When company comes.     Nobody'll dare     Say to me,     "Eat in the kitchen,"     Then.     Besides,     They'll see how beautiful I am     And be ashamed ·     I, too, am America.

The poem stands as both a social and poetic credo, a public and private declaration. And just as from the public perspective, speaking for all African Americans, Hughes's "I" is still waiting to sit equally at the American table, so Langston Hughes is still waiting to be fully acknowledged as one of America's great poets.

Many critics, both white and black, would not disagree with Harold Bloom's comment, in an introduction to a volume of essays on Hughes. Bloom all but apologizes to the reader for editing such an enterprise, saying that "social and political considerations... will provide something of an audience for Hughes's poetry." Such social and political considerations · a kind of reverse discrimination · we can assume, were what caused Bloom to include Hughes in the series Modern Critical Views. Hughes is at Bloom's literary table because an African American poet is needed, despite deep reservations about whether he belongs. Hughes may have had a larger popular audience since the 1930s, that "something of an audience" as Bloom dismissively terms it, than Bloom's own favorite modern American author, Wallace Stevens , but the scholars and critics who pass judgment on writers have, like Bloom, usually not seen how beautiful Hughes is, nor have they been ashamed of their assessments.

Why is there such resistance to Hughes? One reason is that Hughes is viewed as a folk poet who found his material in the lives of the people around him and simply transferred that world to the page. Hughes, in this view, functions as something of a journalist; his poetry serves as a good barometer of African American social and political opinions, but rarely transmutes these views into "art." Hughes's forthright expression of the frustration of African Americans in a segregated world violated the New Critical maxim that a poem should not mean but be. Many of Hughes's most famous poems "mean," like "Merry-Go-Round" (collected in Shakespeare in Harlem, 1942), which opens:     Where is the Jim Crow section     On this merry-go-round,     Mister, cause I want to ride?

or the well-known "Harlem" section of Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951):     What happens to a dream deferred?     Does it dry up     like a raisin in the sun?     Or fester like a sore ·     And then run?     Does it stink like rotten meat?     Or crust and sugar over ·     like a syrupy sweet?     Maybe it just sags     like a heavy load.     Or does it explode?


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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1479001548