The Life of Langston Hughes, 1902-1941: I, Too, Sing America

The Life of Langston Hughes, 1902-1941: I, Too, Sing America

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by Arnold Rampersad

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February 1, 2002 marks the hundredth anniversary of Langston Hughes's birth. To commemorate this occasion, Arnold Rampersad has contributed new Afterwords to both volumes of his highly-praised biography of this most extraordinary American writer.

Poet, playwright, novelist, and grand figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Langston Hughes strove to be the


February 1, 2002 marks the hundredth anniversary of Langston Hughes's birth. To commemorate this occasion, Arnold Rampersad has contributed new Afterwords to both volumes of his highly-praised biography of this most extraordinary American writer.

Poet, playwright, novelist, and grand figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Langston Hughes strove to be the first black to earn his living from his pen, and he ultimately became one of the most important and prolific American writers of this century. In this magnificent biography, based on exhaustive research in archival collections throughout the world but primarily in the Langston Hughes Papers (previously closed to most scholars) at the Beinecke Library of Yale University, Hughes's words and experiences come alive, from his birth in Missouri in 1902 to the winter of 1941.

Hughes's nomadic life led him around the world, from Mexico and France to Africa and the Soviet Union, then through China and Japan to Madrid at the height of the Spanish Civil War. Along the way, he associated with figures ranging from Paul Robeson to Ernest Hemingway, from Zora Neale Hurston to Kurt Weill. However, his But his greatest devotion was always to the word. Inspired by both the democratic chants of Walt Whitman and the vibrant forms of Afro-American culture (most notably the Blues), he became the most original and revered of black poets, and a fiction writer and dramatist of considerable power. Though his political vision was often radical and his sense of injustice acute, he faced the world as an open, laughing, and gregarious man. Yet lurking beneath was a gnawing loneliness that he strove to overcome in his devotion to his art and his ideal vision of America.

In his new Afterword to this volume, Rampersad looks back on the genesis of the project, discusses the many challenges he faced as a biographer of Hughes's early years, and offers a view on how he met those challenges.

Editorial Reviews

Sacred Fire
This two-volume set is the definitive biography of Langston Hughes, the poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance. Beginning with a family history linked to abolitionists, the Underground Railroad, John Brown's attack on Harper's Ferry, and the anti-slavery settlement of Lawrence, Kansas, author Rampersad delves deeply into the context of Hughes's life. From his tumultuous relationship with his father to his travels to the South and abroad, to the largesse and patronage he received from admirers of his work, to his life as a Harlem literary cognoscenti.

That Hughes spoke eloquently for the black masses is well known. Less known are the interesting turns and connections that brought him to recognition. In The Life of Langston Hughes, the stories abound. While on a tour of the South, and as the riveting Scottsboro case exploded onto the international scene, Hughes visited the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "Although UNC was probably the most progressive white university in the South, for a black speaker to be featured there was extraordinary." In advance of his visit, he forwarded an essay about Scottsboro: "Let the Alabama mill-owners pay white women decent wages so they won't need to be prostitutes, he urged. And let the sensible citizens of Alabama (if there are any) supply schools for the black populace of their state, (and for the half-black, too—the mulatto children of the Southern gentlemen. [I reckon they're gentlemen]) so the Negroes won't be so dumb again. As for the jailed men—if blacks didn't howl in protest (and I don't mean a polite howl, either) then let Dixie justice (blind syphilitic as it may be) take its course." Langston "slipped in and out of Chapel Hill" before the response to the essay erupted.

This is a great biography of a complex man who lived fully in defiance of stereotypes of brutish and illiterate black manhood. His life was one of courage, adventure, and amazing creativity. Rampersad captures that life with memorable success.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The second and concluding volume of this biography of the distinguished black writer lives up to the high standard set by its critically praised predecessor. It follows Hughes from the 1940s, a discouraging period when he was ostracized as a radical and feared his career was over, through the 1950s and '60s, when he took hope from the civil rights movement yet felt alienated from younger, angrier writers such as James Baldwin and LeRoi Jones. The author, an English professor at Rutgers, astutely evaluates Hughes's complex personality: the charm that masked an essential aloofness; the intense attachments to younger men that led to a widespread assumption (never verified) that he was homosexual; above all, his love of the warmth and humor of ordinary black men and women. Rampersad is an unsparing but sympathetic analyst of Hughes's life and work; he has written an absorbing critical biography that is also a deft social history of black America in the 20th century. Photos not seen by PW. (October)
Library Journal
With this final volume of his superb biography, Rampersad comes to the racist exclusion and crippling attacks from the right that forced Hughes to scramble for a meager living. Rampersad effectively conveys not only the complex, frustrating difficulties of Hughes's work in poetry, opera, musical theater, children's books, and popular history but the rigors and humiliation of his speaking tours and tormenting trial before the McCarthy committee. Even when he was doing hackwork, the true artist in Hughes created in his Simple stories a beloved character kept brilliantly alive. With volume 1 ( LJ 8/86), this balanced, honest biography offers deep insights into a major artist's personality and work as well as a sweeping view of American culture in his lifetime. Milton Meltzer, New York
From the Publisher
"There can be no question about the importance of Rampersad's biography...without doubt the definitive Hughes biography."—James Olney, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge

"The best biography of Hughes ever written, and in my opinion it is also the best biography of a black American ever written."—Arna A. Bontemps, Hampton University

"Excellent....Mr. Rampersad [leaves] you eager to see what he makes of the rest of the story, and confident that his second volume will be as good as his first."—John Gross, The New York Times

"A near-perfect example of the biographer's art, balanced, and thought-provoking."—Kirkus Reviews

"This is a book I have waited half a lifetime for."—Alice Walker

"[An] exceptional biography."—Voice Literary Supplement

"Throughout this comprehensive and enthralling account of Hughes's life and his development as a writer, Rampersad offers a precise assessment of his work and its importance...This may be the best biography of a black writer we have had."—David Nicholson, The Washington Post Book World

"Absorbing....Readers can certainly applaud this beautifully-produced book and commend its scope."—American Literature

"An exquisite orchestration of the fully lived life."—Michael S. Harper, The Boston Globe

"A very fine first volume of a projected two-volume critical biography of Langston Hughes. Indeed, it is, by every measure, the best biography to date of a black literary figure....It is so well written that ordinary incidents and characters are well-meshed and, at times, almost seem to be creatively plotted....We eagerly await Rampersad's second volume of the Hughes biography. If it is as well-written and as authoritatively informative as this volume, the literary world will indeed be well served."—Resources for American Literary Study

Product Details

Oxford University Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.38(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.58(d)

Meet the Author

Arnold Rampersad is Sara Hart Kimball Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University. He is the author of Days of Grace: A Memoir with Arthur Ashe, Jackie Robinson: A Biography, and he edited Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. He is winner of the Biographers International Organization's 2012 BIO Award.

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The Life of Langston Hughes, 1902-1941: I, Too, Sing America 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Back in the summer of 1987 I purchased this amazing chronicle of America's poetic genius. His life is filled with trial and tribulation yet Langston Hughes transcended his peculiar circumstances to travel and interact with a plethora of personalities and historical figures that added to his existence and become fodder for his works.
Guest More than 1 year ago
With the feelings of a 'real black person' The book bring to life the liffe of Langston Hughes. From his birth to his death there is a feeling that you are the person living in the 1920's and feeling the music.