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Critical Commentaries On Langston Hughes

dana smith

January 8, 001

Mrs. Gold

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Both as an accomplished author in many genres of literature, and as a public figure to the Black Americans, Langston Hughes is recognized as one of Americas Cultural Heroes. In his poems he talks about folk, jazz and blues rhythm to express his feelings, of the Blacks living in Harlem during the nineteen thirties, forties, and fifties. His poems weren’t only loved and read by many people, they were criticized as well. Hughes set out many points through his numerous plays, short stories, novels, and a few autobiographies. All these literary works are characterized with honesty and humor, with which he approached and felt the painful realities of urban life.

Of all the poems and stories he has written, one of the most controversial and criticized was Fine Clothes To The Jew written in 17. It was the least successful, both in terms of sales and of critical reception, mostly among Black reviewers. This idea was argued though by Arnold Rampersad. He was one of the many who criticized Hughes’ work and disagreed with the viewers. He thought that this was by far Hughes’ greatest collection of verse, and that his collection marked the height of his creative originality as a poet, and that it remains one of the most significant single volumes of poetry that was ever been publicized in the United States. Most of Hughes poems are divided into areas. The first area Hughes was dwelling in were isolation, despair, and suicide. This could be seen in his poem Suicide’s Note. In most of his poems he protests the social conditions of Blacks specifically; some even boldly declare the beauty and dignity of his race. These ideas are shown in his poems The Negro, Dream Variations, and When Sue Wears Red. However, Fine Clothes to the Jew falls outside of these categories. Although all of these poems involve a poetic theme and form, Fine Clothes to the Jew is really based on what a person might acknowledge from it, or a different approach to poetic art. In Fine Clothes to the Jew Hughes tried to work in a way that no Black or White poet had ever attempted to work Deliberately defining poetic tradition according to the standards of the Black masses.

By mid January 17, Hughes had copies of Fine Clothes to the Jew. The first reports were encouraging. Not really objecting to the title, his friend and supporter, Amy Spingarn, liked the book a lot because she stated that it seemed “more out of the core of life.” (Appiah, 60). Her Brother-in-law who was also Jewish, didn’t really like the title, but found that the book was in fact splendid. These were the few people that actually enjoyed the book.

On February fifth, just as Langston Hughes set out on a tour for Negro History Week, the Black critics opened fire. Under a headline proclaiming that Hughes was a “sewer dweller,”(Bloom, 151) William M. Kelley of the New York Amsterdam News, denounced that Fine Clothes to the Jew was “about one hundred pages of trash….it reeks of the gutter and sewer.”(Appiah, 60) The reviewers of the Philadelphia tribune didn’t even think twice before deciding not to publicize it. Another critic by the name of Eustance Gay confessed that Fine Clothes to the Jew disgusted him. In Pittsburgh Courier, Historian J. A. Rogers called it a “piffling trash” that left him “positively sick.”(Mullen, 7) The Chicago Whip sneered at the dedication to Van Vechtin, “a literary gutter-rat” who alone “will revel in the lecherous, lust-reeking characters that Hughes would find time to poeticize about….These poems were unsanitary, insipid and repulsing.’’(Appiah, 60) He was thought of as a low rate poem of Harlem. They never thought that a book could ever be greeted so contemptuously. After this many Black people felt that Hughes had betrayed his own race.

Even with these reviews, Hughes didn’t retreat. First at a church and then before an African Methodist Episcopal Congregation in Philadelphia, he went on to different engagements to read his poems. He even faced Floyed Calvin of the Pittsburgh Courier office. In spite of the reviews, Hughes said he “declined to write about Vanderbilts and Goulds.” He felt that he had the right to portray any side of Negro life that he wished to.

When the Pittsburgh Courier invited Hughes to defend himself against his critics, he was really exited and didn’t hesitate. In his argument he identified some reasons for the attacks and criticism he’s been getting. It was because of the low self-esteem of the Blacks. It was their obsession with being excepted by the whites and the opinion of the whites. He also thought that it was because of their snobbery and their lack of artistic and cultural training.

Hughes wasn’t left without friends in the Black community or press. The New York age found the book Fine Clothes to the Jew to be evocative of the joy, beauty and ugliness of Black Americans. That is probably why this is one of the most criticized works, of Langston Hughes. Theophilus Lewis praised the book in the messenger, and in the Saturday Review of literature Alan Locke was deft about Fine Clothes to the Jew “Its open frankness will be a shock and a snare for the critic moralist who cannot distinguish clay from mire.” (Appiah, 65) Another critic by the name of Claude McKay wrote privately to congratulate Hughes on having written a book that was as great as his first.

Among white reviewers, the most perceptive evaluation came from the young cultural historian by the name of Howard Mumford Jones. He thought that Hughes scraped the blues form of literature deeply, and raised the folk form to literary art. Jones concluded that “in a sense, Hughes has contributed a really new verse form to the English language.” (Appiah, 66) Even Some thought that if Hughes would’ve continued to grow, he would’ve been considered a major American poet. Many reviewers and critics such as V. F. Calverton, Margaret Larkin, Arthur Davison Ficke, Hunter Stagg, Abbe Niles, Babette Deutsch, Julia Peterkin, and a wide range of reviewers praised the simplicity and beauty of most of the verse. Critics understood that Hughes was trying to effect a historic change in poetry by compelling both blacks and whites to admit the power of the black transcript called some of the Hughes verse “tawdry”, The Nation Reviewer thought that Hughes was just trying to change folklore, not writing any type of poetry. The New York Times judged the volume “uneven and flawed.”

The ignorant blasts of the black press were nicely set off when Hughes accepted an invitation from the Walt Whitman Foundation to speak at Mr. Whitman’s home, in New Jersey. In this gathering, Langston told the people that he believed that poetry should be direct, comprehensible and simple, also that it shouldn’t conceal any meanings. Even though he said this, he never really knew or identified the ideas behind his theory.

Although Hughes would place the emphasis in his poetry in a different direction by the nineteen thirties, when he wrote his politically radical verse, he still continued writing about the blues. In the late nineteen forties and fifties he allowed to shape his poetry. He still always applied blues into his poetry. He never abandoned it because to him blues was the best way that he could express that he was black. He was in fact one of the only black poets achieved in adding blues in to their writing. African American poets didn’t really rush to build on his foundation. Most of them were black poets that just wanted to be known as poets. He didn’t want to be known as being black. There were few poets that followed in his way, and tried to write blues and jazz. Very few black poets were successful. There was even a poet among the whites, Elizabeth Bishop, who didn’t accomplish in writing like him. She found out that it wasn’t as simple as it seemed.

However, black poetry had to wait until the late nineteen sixties and seventies to fully capitalize on Hughes historic achievement as a writer. Ironically because of the obscurity in which Fine Clothes to the Jew left behind and because Langston Hughes’ artistic revolution wasn’t as appreciated to the full extent that it was supposed to. Many young black poets are unaware of the history and their honorable connections between their literary and cultural ambitions as blacks, and the language that was compelled on them by history.

In spite of all this hostility, Fine Clothes to the Jew marked Hughes’ maturity as a poet after a decade of writing, and his most radical achievement in language. Some even thought that Fine Clothes to the Jew fell into a category of authentic blues culture and blues emotion. We also see that while his volume of Fine Clothes to the Jew was criticized and commented on, the most out of all his works, there were many positive outcomes. He was well known as a brilliant writer and poet. Many thought of him as an accomplished author. People also viewed him as a public figure to the Black Americans. Some even recognized him as one of America’s cultural heroes. With that I conclude that Langston Hughes was an accomplished author.

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