Langston Hughes | Critical Review by Veronica Chambers

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Langston Hughes.
This section contains 778 words
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Critical Review by Veronica Chambers

SOURCE: A review of The Sweet and Sour Animal Book and Black Misery, in New York Times Book Review, February 12, 1995, p. 18.

In the following review, Chambers discusses the appeal of Hughes's simple language and life experiences in three books for children.

Langston Hughes (1902–67) was able to turn sophisticated and complex ideas into very simple language. A lifelong fan of jazz and blues, Hughes shared with musicians the gift of flow. His words could ride above you, breeze by or lift you like Aladdin's magic carpet. He often wrote in the AAB style of blues lyricists: the first line repeated for emphasis, the third line providing the payoff or switch. One of my favorite verses from Blues Montage goes:

     Baby, baby, please don't snore so loud.
     Baby, baby, please don't snore so loud.
     You just a lil' bit of woman
     But you sound like a great big crowd.

In the literary world, poetry with simple rhymes is almost always looked down upon. In his lifetime, Hughes was often derided as not holding African-American arts and letters up to "intellectual" standards. Children, however, love a good rhyme. So it seems only natural that at some point in a 40-year career, which produced books of poetry, plays, novels and short stories. Hughes wrote for children, giving them just a simple but seductive taste of the blues.

The Sweet and Sour Animal Book, is an alphabet primer for the very young. A "lost" manuscript completed in 1936, according to George P. Cunningham, a scholar who contributed the afterword, it was rejected by publishers repeatedly and rediscovered only recently among Hughes's papers at Yale's Beinecke Rare Book Library by Nancy Toff, executive editor of children's books at Oxford University Press. From Ape to Zebra, the short poems reflect Hughes's childlike wonder as well as his sense of humor:

     What use
     Is a goose
     Except to quackle?
     If a goose
     Can't quackle
     She's out of whackle.

Always, Hughes's poetry tells children that there is no identity better than their own:

     Newt, Newt,
     What can you be?
     A salamander, child,
     That's me!

This edition of The Sweet and Sour Animal Book is especially charming because of the illustrations by students in the lower grades at the Harlem School of the Arts. Though Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Mo., Harlem was the mecca where he spent most of his adult life.

Hughes's childhood years and his love of Harlem are the subject of Floyd Cooper's book. Coming Home: From the Life of Langston Hughes, which begins with one of Hughes's poems "Hope":

     Sometimes when I'm lonely,
     Don't know why,
     Keep thinkin' I won't be lonely,
     By and by.

Mr. Cooper's illustrations balance the sad stories of Hughes's childhood. The colors are warm and vivid and the artist offers a vibrant picture of the community that surrounds Hughes's family. This is a book that will no doubt touch many young readers, because in the text Mr. Cooper is honest about Hughes's difficult childhood. He grew up in Kansas, living with his grandmother Mary Langston. His father lived in Mexico because he could not practice law in the United States. His mother was an actress who pursued stardom in Kansas City. Throughout his childhood, the young poet-to-be dreamed of living with his parents, a dream that never came true.

His constant search for "home" was somewhat satisfied after he went to live with friends of the family whom he called Auntie and Uncle Reed. Hughes found another "home" in a Baptist church, with its singing and swinging and festive atmosphere. He wasn't particularly religious, but he liked being in that warm, musical place where everyone was referred to as "brother" and "sister."

But above all, Langston Hughes found "home" in Harlem, and the black community there would inspire much of his work. This is the first book Floyd Cooper has written, and his text is as inviting as his illustrations.

Black Misery, the last book that Langston Hughes wrote before his death in 1967, was originally published in 1969. It is the least elaborate of these three books, published in small format and illustrated with simple but beautiful drawings by Arouni, an artist and book designer. But the sharpness of the text, and the way it reverberates event today, will be as powerful to an adult as to a child.

"Misery is when you heard on the radio that the neighborhood you live in is a slum but you always thought it was home … Misery is when you can see all the other kids in the dark but they claim they can't see you."

The language is as skeletal and yet as monumental as a dinosaur's bones. Langston Hughes tells us what black misery is, even while the alchemy of his writing turns that misery into literature.

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This section contains 778 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Veronica Chambers