When Langston Hughes received the first copies of his début poetry collection, The Weary Blues, in mid-January 1926, he wrote back to his publisher Alfred A. Knopf, simply, “I like my book.” Throughout that year, other poets, as well as critics, shared their reactions to a poetry collection that would later become both a canonical text from the Harlem Renaissance, as well as an American poetry classic. The following selections are reviews, some of which are excerpted, from contemporary newspapers and literary journals.
Irvin Shapiro, “Langston Hughes a Young Poet of Great Promise: Wardman Park Bellhop Author of Volume of Verse Sponsored by Carl Van Vechten,” Washington Herald, January 31, 1926
Hughes is but 23 years old. Six months ago he was a nobody. Two months ago he was a bellhop at the Wardman Park Hotel. Today he is a poet of such promise that Alfred A. Knopf has brought out a volume of his verse. The introduction to this work is written by Carl Van Vechten and the cover design was drawn by [Miguel] Covarrubias.
We first heard of the work of this young colored poet when Vachel Lindsay in his recital at the Wardman Park read several manuscripts that Hughes (then a bellhop) had handed him.
The poems were rich, powerful, and spontaneous. The musical effects were striking. There was authentic Negro rhythm running through his verse. With all his moods Hughes attempted to bring in a jungle-reminiscence.
The volume is The Weary Blues and receives its name from the Hughes poem, which won a recent contest.
Hughes can forget his race-injustice and be a great poet. It is for this quality that we most admire him […]
Countée Cullen, “Poet on Poet” in Opportunity, Vol. IV, No. 38 (February 1926), pp. 73-74
Mr. Hughes is a remarkable poet of the colorful; through all his verses the rainbow riots and dazzles, yet never wearies the eye, although at times it intrigues the brain into astonishment and exaggerated admiration when reading, say something like “Caribbean Sunset”:
God having a hemorrhage,
Blood coughed across the sky,
Staining the dark sea red:
That is sunset in the Caribbean.
Taken as a group the selections in this book seem one-sided to me. They tend to hurl this poet into the gaping pit that lies before all Negro writers, in the confines of which they become racial artists instead of artists pure and simple. There is too much emphasis here on strictly Negro themes; and this is probably an added reason for my coldness toward the jazz poems—they seem to set a too definite limit upon an already limited field.
Dull books cause no schisms, raise no discussions, create no parties. Much will be said of The Weary Blues because it is a definite achievement, and because Mr. Hughes, in his own way, with a first book that cannot be dismissed as merely promising, has arrived.
Georgia Douglas Johnson, “Book Review,” Pittsburgh Courier, February 13, 1926
Langston Hughes, the author of The Weary Blues, published by Knopf, comes forward with his own rhythmic and strikingly individual note, to swell the poetic concerto now being rendered by the younger writers of a marvelously rich and intricate race.
With his air of “gay valor” transcendently “More winning than grim philosophy,” he tunes in with the ever augmenting orchestra whose music gently modulates from hope’s bright major strains to sobbing minors on and on through rhapsodies, elegies, lullabies and brilliant arias.
Langston Hughes has a thought and then models for himself a form to house it, always subjecting the form to the thought.
“My soul grows deep like the rivers,” a quiet meditative line disclosing deep forests, dark waters. [Samuel] Coleridge Taylor's “Deep River” sounds along this unforgettable line. One is reminded of the author of “[The Song of] Hiawatha” [Henry Wadsworth Longfellow] upon seeing Langston Hughes. There is something of the calm, something of the serenity that both possess to a very similar degree.
With a brave smile Langston Hughes faces the world. With a heart full of sympathy he views life around him […]
The entire book is the song of a soul pulsing with colorful rhythm.
Jake Falstaff, “Pippins and Cheese” Akron Beacon Journal, March 30, 1926
“The unfortunate feature of this recent awakening in interest toward the serious and lively arts of the American Negro is that things which would ordinarily be found too weak for general attention achieve the spotlight and a temporary enthusiasm merely because they are of Negro production. I would class as one of these things Langston Hughes’ [sic] Weary Blues, in which, to my way of thinking, there is hardly enough real poesy to make five good poems. The principal Negro poet is still Claude McKay, with Countee Cullen a far second.”
Jessie Redmon Fauset, “Our Book Shelf,” Crisis, 31 (March 1926), pp. 239
The Weary Blues. A Book of Verse. By Langston Hughes. Alfred A. Knopf. New York. 1926. 109 pages.
Very perfect is the memory of my first literary acquaintance with Langston Hughes. In the unforgettable days when we were publishing The Brownies' Book we had already appreciated a charming fragile conceit which read:
Out of the dust of dreams,
Fairies weave their garments;
Out of the purple and rose of old memories,
They make purple wings.
No wonder we find them such marvelous things.
Then one day came “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” I took the beautiful dignified creation to Dr. [W.E.B.] Du Bois and said: “What colored person is there, do you suppose, in the United States who writes like that and yet is unknown to us?” And I wrote and found him to be a Cleveland high school graduate who had just gone to live in Mexico. Already he had begun to assume that remote, so elusive quality which permeates most of his work. Before long we had the pleasure of seeing the work of the boy, whom we had sponsored, copied and recopied in journals far and wide. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” even appeared in translation in a paper printed in Germany.
Not very long after Hughes came to New York and not long after that he began to travel and to set down the impressions, the pictures, which his sensitive mind had registered of new forms of life and living in Holland, in France, in Spain, in Italy and in Africa.
His poems are warm, exotic and shot through with color. Never is he preoccupied with form. But this fault, if it is one, has its corresponding virtue, for it gives his verse, which almost always is imbued with the essence of poetry, the perfection of spontaneity. And one characteristic which makes for this bubbling-like charm is the remarkable objectivity which he occasionally achieves, remarkable for one so young, and a first step toward philosophy. Hughes has seen a great deal of the world, and this has taught him that nothing matters much but life. Its form and aspects may vary, but living is the essential thing. Therefore make no bones about it,—“make the most of what you too may spend.”
Some consciousness of this must have been in him even before he began to wander for he sent us as far back as 1921:
Shake your brown feet, honey,
Shake your brown feet, chile,
Shake your brown feet, honey,
Shake ’em swift and wil’—…
Sun’s going down this evening—
Might never rise no mo’.
The sun’s going down this very night—
Might never rise no mo’—
So dance with swift feet, honey,
(The banjo’s sobbing low)…
The sun’s going down this very night—
Might never rise no mo’.
Now, this is very significant, combining as it does the old Biblical exhortation, “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow ye die,’ Horace’s “Carpe diem,” the German “Freut euch des Lebens” and [Robert] Herrick’s “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” This is indeed a universal subject served Negro-style, and although I am no great lover of any dialect I hope heartily that Mr. Hughes will give us many more such combinations.
Mr. Hughes is not always the calm philosopher; he has feeling a-plenty and is not ashamed to show it. He “loved his friend” who left him and so taken up is he with the sorrow of it all that he has no room for anger or resentment. While I do not think of him as a protagonist of color—he is too much the citizen of the world for that—I doubt if anyone will ever write more tenderly, more understandingly, more humorously of the life of Harlem shot through as it is with mirth, abandon and pain. Hughes comprehends this life, has studied it and loved it. In one poem he has epitomized its essence:
Does a jazz-band ever sob?
They say a jazz-band’s gay.
Yet as the vulgar dancers whirled
And the wan night wore away,
One said she heard the jazz-band sob
When the little dawn was grey.
Harlem is undoubtedly one of his great loves; the sea is another. Indeed all life is his love and his work a brilliant, sensitive interpretation of its numerous facets.
“New Books in Brief Review,” Independent Weekly Review, 116 (April 3, 1926)
[…] This young Negro poet expresses the strange medley of emotions, memories, hopes and fears of his race in modern America. The heavy heritage of slavery, dim racial memories of Africa, the sharp, self-conscious revolt against the scheme of things today—the delirious “escape” from life provided by Harlem, by music, by syncopation and blues, by dancing, by raw drink and wild love—all these elements are woven through his poems. He is very young, but he has lived feverishly. He has the fine qualities of force, passion, directness, and sensitive perception. Time may give more depth and beauty to his work, which is crude in texture and lacking in distinction […]
Robert T. Kerlin, “Singers of New Songs,” Opportunity, 4 (May 1926), pp. 162–64
[…] Mr. Langston Hughes has now for three or four years—he is but in his twenty-fifth year—been transposing into verse some of the rhythms of Negro life. He is the interpreter of jazz and of the life from which it springs. Harlem is his, its theatres [sic] and dance halls, its streets and tenements, its gaieties and “blues.” The poignant note is not long absent […]
All this life of Harlem calls for a poet. No reporter can give it to the world. His most honest story of any event in Harlem would be a lie. Mr. Langston Hughes comes on the scene and we begin to see a new world—one that night only reveals. Here are lyrics that are akin to the deathless ones in all languages—Sappho’s, Horace’s, [Robert] Herrick’s […]
[…] It’s in the lap of the gods whether [Jean] Toomer, Hughes, and [Countée] Cullen will be poets of unfulfilled renown or the creators of an epoch when it will no more seem a marvel “To make a poet black, and bid him sing.”
Suggestions for Further Reading
Dace, Tish, ed. Langston Hughes: The Contemporary Reviews. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
New York Times. “Featured Author: Langston Hughes.” Last modified April 22, 2001. https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/01/04/22/specials/hughes.html#news
Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes: Volume I: 1902-1941, I, Too, Sing America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.