The Art and Imagination of Langston Hughes

The Art and Imagination of Langston Hughes

R. Baxter Miller
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 172
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Art and Imagination of Langston Hughes
    Book Description:

    Langston Hughes was one of the most important American writers of his generation, and one of the most versatile, producing poetry, fiction, drama, and autobiography. In this innovative study, R. Baxter Miller explores Hughes's life and art to enlarge our appreciation of his contribution to American letters.

    Arguing that readers often miss the complexity of Hughes's work because of its seeming accessibility, Miller begins with a discussion of the writer's auto-biography, an important yet hitherto neglected key to his imagination. Moving on to consider the subtle resonances of his life in the varied genres over which his imagination "wandered," Miller finds a constant symbiotic bond between the historical and the lyrical. The range of Hughes's artistic vision is revealed in his depiction of Black women, his political stance, his lyric and tragi-comic modes.

    This is one of the first studies to apply recent methods of literary analysis, including formalist, structuralist, and semiotic criticism, to the work of a Black American writer. Miller not only affirms in Hughes's work the peculiar qualities of Black American culture but provides a unifying conception of his art and identifies the primary metaphors lying at its heart.

    Here is a fresh and coherent reading of the work of one of the twentieth century's greatest voices, a reinterpretation that renews our appreciation not only of Black American text and heritage but of the literary imagination itself.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5743-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-v)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vi-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-ix)
    (pp. x-xx)
    R. Baxter Miller

    Langston Hughes knew that the written life and life of writing are ever incomplete, for authors must subsume what they learn. By revising insights for new appeals to new generations, they restructure the fine designs. If they are honest, they admit where they have erred.

    The last decade of Hughes studies benefits from the critical emergence of Donna Akiba Sullivan Harper (Not So Simple1995) and solid contributions by Joseph McLaren (Langston Hughes, Folk Dramatist in the Protest Tradition, 1921–19431997). Especially the children’s work (Dianne Johnson) and the political writings (Christopher De Santis) round out a completeness of...

  6. Introduction to the Original Edition
    (pp. 1-7)

    What Langston Hughes experienced in Paris on New Year’s Eve in 1937 revealed the most telling patterns in his literary imagination. Having gone to an opera, he had planned to catch up with some friends of Leon Damas, the French Guiana poet and protégé of André Gide, and proceed to a party in the Latin Quarter. On his way down stairs to the Metro, however, he found that he had left the address for the party back at his hotel, so he turned instead down the nearly deserted streets leading toward the Madeleine. Carefully he watched the approach of a...

  7. 1 “FOR A MOMENT I WONDERED” The Autobiographical Imagination
    (pp. 8-32)

    In his Soliloquy on Viewing My Life, W.E.B. Du Bois writes brilliantly about the verbal form that fuses myth and history.

    Autobiographies do not form indisputable authorities. They are always incomplete, and often unreliable. Eager as I am to put down the truth, there are difficulties; memory fails, especially in small details, so that it becomes finally but a theory of my life, with much forgotten and misconceived, with valuable testimony but often less than absolutely true…. Prejudiced I certainly am by my twisted life; by the way in which I have been treated by my fellows, by what I...

  8. 2 THE “CRYSTAL STAIR” WITHIN The Apocalyptic Imagination
    (pp. 33-46)

    Langston Hughes empowered his various renditions of the Black woman with a double-edged vision. At once it heroically faced the Jim Crow discrimination in the early part of the twentieth century, taking in some comic detachment as well, and showed Blacks transcending the social limitations some whites would impose upon them. What Hughes sensed in the folk source of woman was the dynamic will to epic heroism in both the physical and spiritual dimensions, and while the compulsion revealed itself in varying forms—the disciplined application to labor, the folk trickery that allows comic wit to circumvent defeat, the direct...

  9. 3 “DEEP LIKE THE RIVERS” The Lyrical Imagination
    (pp. 47-66)

    For many who have rightfully honored Langston Hughes as a cultural historian and poet of the people, the insight of W.R. Johnson, who spoke about the lyrical imagination, could provoke much reconsideration; it would seem indeed inappropriate:

    We want the pictures, yes, but we also want the hates and loves, the blames and the praise, the sense of a living voice, of a mind and heart that are profoundly engaged by a life they live richly, eagerly. Art, then, any art, is not a reproduction of what is seen: it is a highly complex action (action both by artist and...

  10. 4 “OH, MIND OF MAN” The Political Imagination
    (pp. 67-98)

    The reader who would most reconsider the lyrical imagination of Langston Hughes would probably dislike a fine poem such as “Madrid—1937.” The formalist would argue for the universal autonomy and preeminence of verbal technique; the politician would likely propose an inflexible bond between literature and society. Neither would experience fully the literary richness of Langston Hughes, who rebelled inherently against a world where literary form displaces human life or, indeed, one where history displaces the importance of literary imagination. Though Hughes accepted explicitly the Marxist belief that history produces events and men—namely, the doctrine of Darwinian determinism—he...

  11. 5 “I HEARD MA RAINEY” The Tragicomic Imagination
    (pp. 99-118)

    The three-act tragedyTroubled Island(1936)¹ implies a theory for the literary imagination of Langston Hughes. Over the years the writer had developed an interest in Haiti, the country for which his great-uncle had once been the American minister, and he himself had come to read a tragic pattern in the lives of the heroes there. Though Toussaint L’Ouverture, Dessalines, and Christophe had each projected great dreams for the nation, including some visions for freedom and for a homeland all their own, each faced an unfortunate end. Toussaint, tricked into boarding a French battleship, was taken by Napoleon to prison...

    (pp. 119-124)

    Wonder, for Langston Hughes, meant the freeing of the speaker from tragic time temporarily, yet it marked the conflict or tension that gave intellectual depth as well as feeling to the aesthetic world. Often the reader encounters the oppositions of fact and truth when the world provokes conflict between conscience and power. Though Hughes inherited the modern tradition of the confessional self, which speaks through the varied forms of autobiography, lyric, and short fiction, he drew upon the ancient idea of literary discourse as a public and communal performance. His was a dynamic ritual that celebrated life and ancestry as...

  13. NOTES
    (pp. 125-134)
    (pp. 135-143)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 144-150)