Langston Hughes was well known for his gentle nature, honest voice, and triumphant spirit, all of which are well reflected in this biography by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Alice Walker. First published in 1974, Langston Hughes: American Poet tells the story of Hughes's childhood and his development into one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. It also introduces readers to some of Hughes's earliest works by including two of his poems in the text.
Hughes's childhood was hardly idyllic, much of it spent in Kansas with his grandmother while his mother searched for work and his father grew rich and embittered on a ranch in Mexico. He faced many obstacles in trying to achieve his dream of one day becoming a writer, including racial injustice, oppressive poverty, and a pervasive loneliness. In the hands of a less experienced writer, Hughes's background and experiences might seem depressing. But Walker describes the man's gentle perseverance, unflappable determination, and eventual achievement of his dream in a way that is both heartwarming and inspirational. Yet while Walker's affection for her subject clearly shines through, she avoids sugarcoating when she talks about Hughes's pain over his parents' broken marriage, his dismay at being victimized by racism, or his disgust at realizing that his own father was a bitter snob and a terrible bigot.
Walker's telling of Hughes's story is plenty powerful on its own, but the book packs an even greater wallop thanks to Catherine Deeter's evocative illustrations, paintings rich with color, detail, and emotion. Thanks to this combined effort, future generations of readers will come to know Hughes and his work and understand how he came to be one of the great writers of our time. (Beth Amos)