Langston Hughes is best known as a poet, a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and '30s, and one of the first literary artists to realistically portray black American life. Hughes's immense talent, literary output, and social influence, however, extend far beyond the limited stereotype of him as "the bard of Harlem." In this meticulously researched volume, Faith Berry treats Hughes in the context of his time--as "one of the most prolific and versatile American writers of his generation" and a true man of letters. Concentrating on Hughes's development before he moved to Harlem in the 1940s, Berry focuses on the major influences that shaped his life and career--from his rootless childhood and early "addiction" to reading to his world travels (including journeys to Africa, Europe, and the Soviet Union) and relationships with other prominent American intellectuals. A portrait emerges of a shy, self-effacing man who, despite considerable hardship, never lost his determination or his vision of a more just world, and who overcame the racism of his day to become a poet, playwright, translator, librettist, author, and social activist of international stature.
Hughes was an intensely private man, and his own autobiographical works omit many personal facts that Berry discusses here. The volume also reprints more than 60 poems that are not widely anthologized, discussing them in their biographical context. In an appendix to this edition, Berry takes issue with Hughes's "official biographer," whom she believes presents a distorted, sensationalized version of the poet's life. "Truth in biography does not mean everything we ever wanted to know but were afraid to ask," she says, and in her own work she steps back, avoids intrusive psychoanalytic interpretation, and presents a balanced, thoughtful, and often moving look at her subject's remarkable life. --Uma Kukathas