Langston Hughes died in 1967, over 45 years ago, but he remains a significant figure in African-American literature. The author of plays, many poems, short stories, children's books, nonfiction, two autobiographies, anthologies, biographies, translations, histories and novels, Hughes led a colorful life, travelling extensively to different parts of the world and lecturing to a wide audience. While a young man, he was an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance, the literary and artistic movement that occured in Harlem, New York in the 1920's.
Hughes was born in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri. His parents separated soon after his birth, his father moving to Mexico. Hughes would always have a very troublesome relationship with his father. While he was a child, Hughes lived with his maternal grandmother in Kansas until she died when he was in early adolescence. He then lived with his mother, who moved with him in search for better employment. They eventually settled in Cleveland where Hughes graduated from high school in 1920. A teacher introduced him to the poetry of Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman, two poets who influenced him. Hughes began to write poetry while still in high school and published his works in the school's literary magazine. After high school, he lived with his father for a short time in Mexico, returning to the United States in 1921. He enrolled in Columbia University but left in 1922 , to work in odd jobs. He signed on as a steward on a freighter and sailed to Africa and Spain. He left the ship in 1924 and lived in Paris, where he continued to write. Hughes returned to the United States in 1925. While working in Washington, D.C. he met Vachel Lindsay who was impressed by Hughes's poetry and helped get the poem "The Weary Blues" published in a literary magazine where it won first prize. This award led to a scholarship to attend Lincoln University. Hughes's first book of poetry was published in 1926, three years before he graduated from Lincoln.
Soon after Hughes graduated from Lincoln University, he published his first novel "Not Without Laughter." The commercial success of this book convinced him that he could make a living by writing. During the lean years of the 1930's Hughes supported himself by writing and lecturing both in the United States and abroad-to the Soviet Union, Japan and Haiti. Like several other writers, he was a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War.
Hughes continued to write during the 1940's. "The Big Sea" was published in 1940. He also created a comic character named Jesse B. Semple, aka "Simple." This character would appear in several novels and plays over the years. Hughes used this character, who was popular with his readers, to address black and racial issues. In the late 1940's Hughes finally earned enough money and financial security to buy a house in Harlem.
Hughes continued to lecture and publish as he grew older. He would recite his poetry ( these readings can be found on Youtube). He wrote the second installment of his autobiography "I Wonder as I Wander." He was a well known figure in Harlem and had many friends. In the Spring of 1967, he suddenly grew ill. An operation was performed, which was successful, but an infection took hold and he died of complications of prostate cancer on May 22. He was 65 years old. His home in Harlem is a New York City landmark and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. Many of his works are still in print and are widely enjoyed.