Langston Hughes was just twenty-four years old when his debut poetry collection The Weary Blues was published in 1926. After its publication, the book won several awards, and the prize money allowed Hughes to complete his college education in Lincoln, Pennsylvania. The Weary Blues went on to become an American classic; it was reissued most recently in 2015 by its original publisher Knopf with a new introduction by Kevin Young.
In The Weary Blues, Hughes began to address the preoccupations that carried through his later work. The poems progress at a self-assured and lyrical pace—partly because Hughes expected them to be performed with musical accompaniment in the famous Harlem clubs of that era. He announced his poetic philosophy of speaking not only for himself, but also the whole African American population. The book, which was originally prefaced with an introduction by Harlem Renaissance patron Carl Van Vechten, is split into seven thematic sections: The Weary Blues, Dream Variations, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, A Black Pierrot, Water Front Streets, Shadows in the Sun, and Our Land.
Hughes experimented with forms and the gray area between narrative and lyric in this volume. Three of the most widely anthologized poems from this first book include “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” “Dream Variations,” “Mother to Son,” and the title poem, in which Hughes inhabits various voices, adding to the collection’s cast of characters. In “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” dedicated to W. E. B. Du Bois, Hughes addresses the depth and strength of the black soul; “Mother to Son” offers a mother’s lessons to her son about the difficulty of life and her own endurance; while the title poem uses musical rhythms to describe the fatigue of an aging blues singer.
Contemporary criticism of the book varies, with some heralding the arrival of a significant new voice in poetry, while others either dismissed Hughes’s debut or fetishized the book’s jazz themes.
Hughes listed his influences as Paul Laurence Dunbar, Carl Sandburg, and Walt Whitman. In the tradition of those great American poets who were interested in the daily rhythms of the public and of work, Hughes has influenced generations of writers of all races. His poems still reverberate with a clarity of emotion and capture the commotion of life in tandem with the anticipation of rest, as when he writes in the poem “Dream Variations,” “Dance! whirl! whirl! / Till the quick day is done.”