English 6923: Working-Class Literature
Whether or not an author has a working-class background is often a key determinant in whether or not he or she will be included in the study of working-class literature. However, Langston Hughes presents a unique challenge to this criterion. Hughes’s grandmother was first married to a man who participated in John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry. Her second husband, Hughes’s grandfather, was a prominent political figure in Kansas. His Great Uncle founded the Howard University Law School and went on to become a Congressman. Despite his family’s proud history, Hughes grew up as most working-class children did. His mother and step-father moved from place to place in search of work. They worked in steel mills, hotels, and restaurants. Hughes’s father was a successful businessman in Mexico, but did not help Langston or his mother financially. Later Hughes’s father offered to pay for Langston to attend college. He attended Columbia for one year and then quit. He did not want to feel obligated to his father, and he hated the oppressive nature of college. But Hughes did stay in New York. He lived in Harlem and got work as a farm hand, a sailor, and a delivery truck driver. He felt that this way of life allowed him the opportunity to interrelate with “real” black people. He used these experiences as inspiration for his writing. He chose to maintain his position in the working- class culture. But as Hughes became a more notable poet, critics discussed him as though he were not a part of the class that he wrote about. They focused, and still do, on the more “prestigious” aspects of his familial background, perhaps as a way of endearing him to the white public.
Langston Hughes is one of the most recognizable names in African- American literature. In the early part of the 1920’s, he moved to Harlem along with a growing number of young African American writers, dancers, musicians, and artists that formed what is now know as the Harlem Renaissance. While there, Hughes composed a significant body of work, including volumes of poetry, plays, short stories, essays, and novels. Hughes used his writing to reflect his thoughts about political injustices, racial oppression, poverty, the black experience, family, and work. He was fearless and unapologetic about the, often times, stark content of his work. He did not want to exalt the black community to a position above reproach, and he did not try to appease the white community by blunting the edges of racism's harsh reality. This attitude did not endear him to blacks or whites. The black critics often condemned Hughes. They thought that he was irresponsibly portraying the black culture as lowly and primitive. They felt that he was sending a poor message to the white community and thereby generating more racial tension. But Hughes loved his race and was proud of his background. He admired the African Americans who lived and worked in spite of adversity. He wrote about what he saw and what he felt, regardless of how his readers would react.
Langston Hughes has also contributed to the formation of working- class literature. This is an aspect of his writing that is often overshadowed by his relationship with African- American literature. However, the working-class theme was central to much of Hughes’s work, because it was central to the black experience in America at that time. The racial tyranny simply locked most blacks into a working-class existence. Most were not given the education or the opportunities to pursue more professional careers. Many times, they were barred from even unskilled labor because of their race. In turn, many blacks, like Hughes’s own family, moved from place to place seeking even a slightly better job. They worked as sailors, as construction workers, as housekeepers, and as wash people. Hughes valued this lifestyle. He valued the people and experiences involved with it because he felt that it was representative of African Americans. As workers and as members of the working-class culture, Hughes believed blacks could maintain their individual cultural identity. They would be free to have their own beliefs and customs, independent from the dictatorial white way of life. Hughes saw the middle class as a facet of the white society that threatened this black culture. He believed that the middle class wanted to impose their belief systems upon the working-class blacks. In turn, he felt that the African-American middle class had, in a way, betrayed their racial heritage by adopting white societal mores.
Hughes drew on his own perception of working-class culture and his life experiences for subject matter and character construction. His characters are almost always workers. They are strong and dependent only on each other. Hughes showed how members of the working class endure the hardships of poverty and despair. But he also showed that they have laughter and a strong sense of family and community. These qualities, though present in much of his work, are most prevalent in his first novel Not without Laughter. The character of Aunt Hagar embodied the spirit and beauty of the working class. She was an elderly wash-woman, who was loved by blacks and whites. But she maintained a strong sense of self. She went to an African- American church and embraced its spiritual beliefs. She took pride in herself and her work. She took care of her neighbors, often using the holistic medicine scoffed at by the more “refined” middle class. She never wanted to be wealthy. She simply wanted to take care of herself and her family. These were the qualities that Langston Hughes admired and sought to attribute to the working class. He emphasized their interdependence, their perseverance, their resistance to the middle class, and the pride they took in their identity. More importantly though, he shattered the notion that working class is something to be feared or escaped. Through his work, people can see that the working-class experience is something to be valued, not ignored or pitied.
Hughes, Langston. The Best of Simple. New York: Hill and Wang,1961.
This book of short stories looks at the life of Jessie B. Semple, a character that Hughes created to depict the lives of everyday working class blacks.
Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea. 1940. 2nd ed. New York: Hill and Wang, 1998.
This book is the first volume of Langston Hughes's autobiography. It discusses his working-class upbringing and the early days of his career. This book is important because it, more than anything else gives readers some insight into Hughes’s literary motivations.
Hughes, Langston. I Wonder As I Wander. 1956. New York: Hill and Wang, 1960.
In the second book of his autobiography Hughes discusses his travels to Russia, Haiti, and China. He also continues to explain his commitment to the status of his race and his place in the ever evolving genre of African-American literature.
Hughes, Langston. Not Without Laughter. 1969. New York: Simon and Schuster Inc, 1995.
This was Hughes’s first novel. It told the tale of a working-class African-American family in Kansas trying to maintain their identity and at the same time survive in a white dominated society.
Hughes, Langston. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel, eds. New York: Alfred A Knopf, Inc, 1999.
This is the only complete collection of all of Hughes’s poetry.
Berry, Faith. Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem. New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1992.
This is probably one of the better critical examinations of Hughes’ life and work. However, it is often dismissed in academic circles because Berry maintains that Hughes was a homosexual.
Mullen, Edward J. Critical Essays on Langston Hughes. Boston MA: G.K. Hall & Co, 1986.
Mullen has anthologized many literary reviews , criticisms, articles and essays written in response to Hughes’s work. These pieces reflect both the public reaction to Hughes’s style and stark content and the expectations placed upon him as a African-American writer and poet.
Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes Vol. 1 1902- 1941: I, Too, Sing America . New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Rampersad is the “official” biographer of Langston Hughes. As such, he had access to documents and details of Hughes’s life that until now were speculative or unknown altogether. This volume talks about Hughes’s childhood and his experience as a poet in the Harlem Renaissance.
Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes Volume 2 1941-1967: I Dream a World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
In the conclusion of this biography, Rampersad discusses Hughes later years and his feelings of estrangement from the angry, new generation of African- American authors.
The Langston Hughes Symposium
This site lists all of Langston Hughes’s works of fiction, poetry, nonfiction, edited works, translations, juvenile literature, theatric works, and biographies. It also lists various books critiquing and reviewing Hughes’s work.
Modern American Poetry
This site discusses and reviews individual pieces, like "The Weary Blues" and "Mulatto" at length.
Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide
This site is extremely helpful as one begins his or her research on Langston Hughes. It offers a complete list of his work. It has listed video and audio information on Hughes. It also offers a wide range of critical books and article. Everything in this site is well- documented and comprehensible.