Langston Hughes

Milton Meltzer - Published 1968

Milton Meltzer was born on May 8, 1915, in Worcester, Massachusetts. Both of his parents immigrated to the United States during the great exodus of Europeans in the last decades of the 19th century, and his father was employed as a window cleaner when Meltzer was born. He grew up in a multinational neighborhood near Boston and attended a public school designed to encourage a strong sense of American identity among children of various backgrounds. His family was Jewish but rarely attended religious services, and Meltzer remembers that he identified his own cultural background far
more with England than any other country.

Meltzer attended Classical High School, a college preparatory school, and entered Columbia University in 1932 to prepare for a career in education. He studied with such famous professors as anthropologists Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict, and the philosopher John Dewey. He also became an avid theater-goer. He married a young woman from Boston during his junior year, but the marriage did not last long. Because the economic conditions of the Depression made it highly unlikely that he would find a teaching job, he dropped out of Columbia during his senior year. He lived on government relief until his interest in the theater led to a job with the Federal Theater Project. He had listed his occupation as 'unemployed writer' on the application, and he worked on the project until the government abolished the program in 1939.

As World War II began in Europe, Meltzer traveled around the U.S. with two friends, augmenting his university education with visits to mining and logging camps, factories, and migrant worker villages. He returned to New York in 1941 and, after marrying Hilda Balinsky, worked at a variety of odd jobs in the journalism field until he was drafted in 1942. He served in the Army Air Corps for three years as a control tower operator in the U.S., and he continued to develop his skills as a writer by contributing to service magazines and delivering lectures on the nature of democratic and fascist political systems. In 1945 he combined his theatrical and journalistic interests when he got a job with CBS radio interviewing soldiers returning from the war.

In 1946 he left CBS to work on a committee promoting the unsuccessful presidential candidacy of Henry Wallace, the secretary of agriculture, in the 1948 election. After the 1948 election, he continued to work as a freelance writer and editor, producing a daily radio program for a national union and writing a column for a labor newsletter. In 1950 he accepted an assignment as a technical writer for the Pfizer pharmaceutical firm and succeeded in placing a long essay, written with Berton Rouché, in the New Yorker. Pfizer was sufficiently impressed to ask him to develop a public relations staff for the firm, and Meltzer successfully worked in that field for the next few years.

In 1955, the year he turned 40, he felt that although he was enjoying success in the world of business, he was no longer contributing to the social realm. In an expression of midlife dissatisfaction, Meltzer said that he felt there was nothing enduring about his writing. He decided to write about the history of black people in America and, in a stroke of great fortune, persuaded the writer Langston Hughes to collaborate on the project. This was the start of a friendship that lasted until Hughes's death. The book they worked on, A Pictorial History of the Negro in America, was published in 1956. Between 1960 and 1968, Meltzer wrote 13 books, including several volumes for young adults. During this time, he was also the founder and editor in chief of Pediatric Herald, and he continued to work at Pfizer, as well.

In 1968, a year after Hughes's death, Meltzer published a biography of his friend and collaborator. It was nominated for the National Book Award, and Meltzer decided to resign from Pfizer to devote more time to writing. In addition to writing biographical and historical works, he became a planner for several publishers, developing the 25-volume Women in America series for Crowell, the Zenith Black Culture series for Doubleday, and the Firebird History series for Scholastic Books. He also wrote scripts for radio, television, and documentary films, and delivered many seminars at various universities, a source of satisfaction for a man who never completed his own college degree. In 1973 he became a member of the editorial board of Children's Literature in Education.

Reflecting on his career, Meltzer cites a reviewer's comment that he shows a strong 'interest in the underdog' and says that he would characterize his books as examinations of 'human aspiration and struggle.' His biographies are generally devoted to people who fought for unpopular social or political causes.


Langston Hughes has accurately been described as 'the Laureate of Black America,' and Meltzer's biography is an excellent introduction to his life and work. Hughes's collaboration with Meltzer, first on A Pictorial History of the Negro in America and then on Black Magic: A Pictorial History of the Negro in American Entertainment, led to the development of a solid working relationship that grew into friendship. Hughes recognized that Meltzer's experience in writing and research prepared him for the task of organizing material accumulated over a lifetime, and that Meltzer's essential decency made him an unusually sensitive interpreter of the complexities of race relations in the United States. He felt confident that Meltzer would present his life with fairness and insight when he agreed to Meltzer's request to assist with the writing of a short biography, and he answered Meltzer's questions with as much accuracy as could be expected from a man who has been described as 'so private as to conceal his innermost emotions even from himself.' Hughes's sudden death while the project was under way made Meltzer realize that his book would be something of a semiofficial obituary tribute, and although the book is not comprehensive, its concluding chapter offers a concise summary of those aspects of Hughes's life and work that Meltzer especially admired.

The recent publication of the first two volumes of Arnold Rampersad's The Life of Langston Hughes (1986, 1988) has revealed an elusive man even more complex than the portrait in Meltzer's book, but Rampersad's exceptional study has not undermined the essential points that Meltzer makes. In showing the social, familial, and economic pressures Hughes confronted in his quest to become a poet, Meltzer adroitly captures the struggle against constant racial bigotry that all black Americans have faced. Hughes's success as an artist is doubly impressive because of the social obstacles he overcame and because he had little black American literature upon which to draw and few black writers to serve as figures of inspiration.

Since Hughes was born in 1902, his involvement in the major events of the century permits Meltzer to write a historical commentary on the progress of black Americans toward legal guarantees of full constitutional rights from the perspective of a poet who was also an active agent in the struggle, although never a leader. As Meltzer makes clear, Hughes's generally low-key but persistent attempts to address both the artistic and political necessities of black culture represent the kind of quiet strength that contributed as much to the emergence of black consciousness and pride in the 1960s as did the more publicized efforts of other activists.

Hughes's greatest achievements, of course, were as a writer. Throughout his career, he was often neglected by the mass media, which generally focused on only one black literary artist at a time. Although Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin enjoyed more of the spotlight, Hughes's best work has gradually gained recognition as an important element in modern American literature. His best short stories, such as 'On the Road' (1952), have been anthologized, and his poetry, as noted by critic Kenneth Rexroth, was so deceptively simple and clear that it confused academics who felt great poetry had to be ambiguous and obscure. Hughes was part of an American poetic renaissance, not just a black or Harlem renaissance, and his best poems have an enduring interest. His poems encompass both the experimentalism of his contemporaries, such as e. e. cummings and Marianne Moore, and the more popular lyricism of poets such as Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg.

Ultimately, Hughes expressed the psychological condition of black Americans in the 20th century with a sharp eye, in a language that combines the rhythms of street speech with the elegance of a skillfully crafted formal poem. He was a pioneer in introducing fundamental aspects of black culture to a larger audience. His relationships with writers, musicians, and dramatists demonstrate how artists—always outsiders to an extent—support and inspire each other. For Hughes, this community, and the community of black people, served as a kind of psychological refuge, a 'home' of sorts. And from this position of relative security, he opened the way, as Richard Wright has said, for realism and honesty in 20th-century black literature.


Richard Wright said that Langston Hughes lived by a rule of 'ceaseless movement,' a remark possibly inspired by Hughes's comment to Wright that 'six months in one place is long enough to make one's life complicated.' The title of the second volume of Hughes's autobiography, I Wonder as I Wander, serves as a motto for Hughes's nomadic life. In Langston Hughes, Meltzer describes Hughes's early life with his mother moving among relatives throughout the Midwest, his father fleeing to Mexico, and Hughes himself being sent to stay with other relatives when his mother cannot care for him. Hughes's constant traveling in his adult years can be seen as a search for home ground, a search made more burdensome by the difficulties encountered by any black American hoping to feel at home in the United States.

Some of the choices Hughes makes about where he lives are economically motivated, while others are influenced by artistic curiosity. Born in Missouri in 1902, Hughes spends his early years in Kansas City, Cleveland, and Chicago, living with his father in Mexico for a short time during Emilio Zapata's revolution, and then moving to New York to live in Harlem while he attends Columbia University for one year. Harlem becomes a kind of home base while he travels to Africa, France, and Italy on a freighter. After losing his papers in Genoa, he returns to the United States on a freighter and lives briefly in Washington, D.C., before entering Lincoln University, the 'black Princeton,' in Pennsylvania.

While at Lincoln, Hughes first visits the South—where segregation is required by law—for a poetry reading in Nashville, Tennessee, thus beginning his extensive career as a touring poet. His subsequent travels take him to Haiti, Russia, Asia, Mexico, Los Angeles, Spain, and Chicago.


Meltzer expresses his themes in the form of a three-fold journey, as he follows Hughes's life through the inner landscape of artistic and personal development, through the outer landscape of much of the northern hemisphere, and across the chronological landscape of the first seven decades of the 20th century. The three paths of Hughes's journey constantly intertwine, his goals as an artist and as a man draw him across continents and oceans and to many of the major historic events in America's emergence as a world power. Underlying the entire process is the inescapable issue of racial identity. In the course of his journey Hughes meets or works with many of the outstanding black American writers of his era, and is introduced to many less prominent teachers or social exemplars whose determination and decency contribute to the gradual progress of black Americans toward the relative equality achieved in the last quarter of the century.

Because the narrative focuses exclusively on Hughes, the other characters in the story are seen only when they play an active role in his life or when Hughes writes about them. Consequently, none of the other characters appear in any depth, although Meltzer often gives a brief sketch of the most important people in Hughes's life. The people Hughes worked with emerge in a literary, political, or historical context, while Meltzer subjects the members of Hughes's family—his father, James Nathaniel Hughes; his mother, Carrie Mercer Langston; and his grandmother, Mary Langston—to a degree of psychological analysis. Meltzer shows how Hughes's father's self-hatred and obsession with money, his mother's love for literature, and his grandmother's iron strength affected the boy in his formative years. Although Hughes sees himself as a 'passed-around boy,' the writings of men such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, combined with the living example of dedicated black teachers such as Helen Chestnutt, give him a sense of his entire race as a kind of 'family.'

At the early age of 18, Hughes is already able to express this feeling eloquently with the poem 'The Negro Speaks of Rivers.' At age 24 he becomes actively involved in the literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance and begins to meet such prominent contemporaries as Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, and Claude McKay. Although still shy about his work, he leaves a few poems at the hotel where the celebrity-poet Vachel Lindsay is staying while on a reading tour, and Lindsay's encouragement leads Hughes to imagine an audience beyond the black American community. As his career develops, Hughes travels in a kind of international bohemian ambience, meeting the writer Arthur Koestler in the former U.S.S.R. and sharing a flat with the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson in Mexico. Even at college, he is already in touch with people whose abilities in their youth indicate their potential for greatness, such as the musician Cab Calloway and the future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall. Their courage in the face of adversity gives Hughes a strength that helps him to continue writing when his work is misunderstood or ignored by both black and white readers and critics.

Meltzer's depiction of Hughes registers the seemingly inevitable contradictions in the life of a complex man of exceptional artistic ability besieged by the continuing inequity of life for a black artist in the U.S. When Hughes leaves Columbia University after one year and heads for Africa on a freighter, Meltzer mentions that he throws all his books overboard, anxious to rid himself of the influence of a segregated society. (In fact, as Rampersad's biography points out, Hughes saved Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass.) He feels unsure about how he will support the war effort in 1941, but as Meltzer puts it, 'If Hitler won, there would be no chance for the survivors to fight oppression anywhere.' In a typical accommodation to the possible, Hughes writes verses to help sell bonds and produces articles for the Writers War Board telling the country what black soldiers are doing to help win the war. Hughes has a clear picture of the economic oppression caused by discrimination and a strong sense of the effects of the Depression on people of all races, but he refuses to join the Communist party in the 1930s, wondering if the apparent improvements in the U.S.S.R. could have been made by less violent means.

Hughes's realistic view of what can be accomplished allows him to adjust reasonably well to many rebuffs, but those adjustments exact a high psychological toll at which Meltzer only hints. Meltzer portrays a generally genial Hughes with a 'great gift for friendship,' but as poet Rita Dove comments, 'His famous capacity for laughter was as much a shield as an invitation,' and something of his suppressed bitterness might be detected in his description of himself as the first black 'literary sharecropper.' Meltzer tends to stress the more positive aspects of Hughes's life but offers enough moments of reflection, discouragement, and dejection to suggest the more somber demeanor that Rampersad reveals in his book.


Following the classic pattern of biographical form, Meltzer proceeds in a generally chronological fashion, presenting Hughes's early years and initial education as a background for the formation of his character, then turning to the development of his craft, and eventually following Hughes's literary career through its rather uneven stages of accomplishment. By juxtaposing the text of some of Hughes's poems with descriptions of the personal experiences that inspired them, Meltzer demonstrates how an artist transforms life in art.

The thrust of the narrative provides a general sense of social progress and details Hughes's widening reputation as a writer, but both Hughes's life and work are marked by setbacks and reverses. Nonetheless, as the narrative advances, an optimistic tone informs the action so that Hughes's life is offered as a successful and ultimately satisfying artistic struggle.

Meltzer renders a faithful account of the facts and spirit of Hughes's life. He begins the book with the chapter 'Wandering' and ends with 'I Used to Wonder,' a literary framing technique that explicitly acknowledges Hughes's autobiographical work, I Wonder as I Wander. Divided into 23 succinct chapters, Meltzer's narrative comes alive with colorful images and sensory detail. Particularly memorable scenes include Hughes as a little boy sitting on the front porch in the summertime watching the stars come out and listening to his grandmother's stories; Hughes at his after-school job cleaning tobacco slime out of the brass spittoons at a local hotel; and Hughes as a young man trying to earn money for tuition by sorting dirty clothes at a wet-wash laundry in Washington, D.C. Both the introduction and the postscript lend additional authenticity to the biography, establishing Meltzer as Hughes's devoted and affectionate friend.


Like many other children of parents who immigrated to the U.S. to escape political oppression, Meltzer has a special appreciation for the guarantees of freedom inherent in the American social contract. Consequently, he is especially aware of the injustice of denying constitutionally mandated rights to any citizen. His biography of Langston Hughes resembles a historical record of the twentieth-century struggle against racial oppression in the United States, uniting Hughes's life as a poet with its inseparable complement—his life as a black American advocate for social justice and individual freedom. Meltzer discusses the racism that has cursed American society in a steady, reasonable tone, avoiding the hysteria of extremists on both sides of the issue while clearly demonstrating the costs of bigotry to all those involved.

Meltzer maintains that Hughes's poetry 'voiced the condition of the black American. He listened closely and heard; he saw, and understood; he touched and felt.' Drawing examples from Hughes's experiences, Meltzer shows that when a person is denied a job without regard for his individual qualifications, when he is attacked on the street for being from the wrong neighborhood, when he is refused service in a restaurant, when he has to pretend to be a Mexican in Texas to find a place to sleep, the words of the Declaration of Independence are mocked. Beyond this, Meltzer reveals how the evils of racial bias are more subtle and widespread than readers might suspect; he portrays status being measured in the black community by shades of skin color, a black college where no black professors teach or black trustees serve, black people who are ashamed of poems about blacks, and middle-class black leaders who say, 'We educate, not protest.'


1. Why does Langston Hughes become a writer?

2. How do Hughes's travels influence his writing?

3. What is the Harlem Renaissance? Who are some of the figures involved? How is Hughes connected to this movement? How is Hughes connected to the American poetic renaissance associated with the work of e. e. cummings and Marianne Moore?

4. What are Hughes's goals as a writer? Does he achieve them? Why or why not?

5. Which writers influence Hughes? How can you detect their influence?


1. What are the most significant characteristics of Langston Hughes's style as a poet?

2. Examine Hughes's political activities in terms of his ideas and concerns about social justice.

3. Discuss Hughes's artistic collaboration with other writers and musicians.

4. Analyze a particular poem to show how Hughes used language, image, rhythm, and sound.

5. How does Hughes represent black American culture?

6. Examine the critical responses of various reviewers to Langston Hughes's writing. Which critic's views do you agree with most? Least? Why?

7. Select a short story by Langston Hughes and show how Hughes uses plot, character, and mood to develop his themes.

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