Langston Hughes was one of the most prolific writers of Harlem Renaissance era. Hughes’s works are best known for the sense of black pride they convey and Hughes’s implantation of jazz into his poetry. In 1926, Hughes wrote the critically acclaimed essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” for The Nation magazine. In this essay, Hughes scolds artists who shy away from their racial identity to satisfy fearful Negros and white audiences. Hughes’s message to white audiences recognizes their interest in black art for means of stereotypical entertainment. Some of Hughes’s most powerful poems, including “I, Too” and “Freedom,” serve as keen evidence of the blasphemous behavior of Negro artists and white audiences of his time.In “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Hughes speaks of a young Negro poet who has proclaimed he does not want to be an African-American poet, but instead, just a poet. Hughes associates this comment with the Negro poet meaning he would rather be a white poet and a whiter person. Nina Baym cites the evidence of Hughes’s outspoken protest on this matter, stating, “Early and late, Hughes’s poems demanded that African Americans be acknowledged as owners of the culture they gave to the United States and as fully enfranchised American citizens” (Baym 2027). If this is so, it means that the young Negro poet understands the prevalent issue of racism in the United States at that time. This goes to say that the young Negro poet believes that the work of a white person is more easily accepted than that of a Negro.Hughes wanted African-American artists to show pride in their racial legacy. He recognized that many artists were fleeing from their culture. Most of Hughes’s poems are a result of his own life experiences and encounters with racism. Therefore, Hughes is not ashamed to be an African-American artist writing about African-American culture for an African-American audience. Hughes also uses jazz as a staple of his poems and their connections to African Americans. Hughes states that he writes so many jazz poems because “jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America” (1512). Hughes’s use of jazz guarantees that the artistic elements of the Harlem Renaissance and African-American culture will be preserved despite Negros that are ashamed or fearful of its power.Langston Hughes originally wrote the poem “I, Too” in 1925. At this time, America’s society was racially discriminating and the operation of this particular society was backed by its racist laws. In “I, Too,” Hughes sends a simple but strong message in only 18 lines. Overall, the poem demonstrates the courage and strength of a Negro/slave fed up with the way white people treat him. In the first line — “I, too, sing America” — the speaker clarifies that although he is a Negro, he is American and sings the national anthem just as any white man does. In this poem, Hughes speaks for equality and freedom for the Negro just as he does in “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountains.” The poem “I, Too” is proof that no Negro should be ashamed of his race or the products of his race to please white America.Langston Hughes’s poem “Freedom” was originally entitled “Democracy.” Hughes addressed his views about freedom and democracy in the poem. Hughes states that he does not want to wait for freedom to come to him, and he is bothered by submissive Negros who say, “Let things take their course / Tomorrow is another day.” In his book The Art and Imagination of Langston Hughes, R. Baxter Miller speaks of Hughes’s literary imagination, stating that, “it is the process by which he mediated between social limitation and the dream of freedom” (Miller 2). Hughes was aware of the social limitations placed upon his people, and his poetry became his outlet to have the voice of an activist. “Freedom” and Hughes’s literary imaginations are proof of Hughes’s argument in the “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.”Because Langston Hughes was one of the most popular writers of the Harlem Renaissance era, he used that advantage to speak to his people through his work. He also used his position to raise awareness about the issues of the African-American community and to address those who were afraid of progress. Hughes’s works reflect his life experiences and those of his people, and he believed this to be enough to encourage others that the current social status of the African-American community needed to be changed. Hughes did not shy away from the issues others were afraid to discuss. He even took a shot at white America by informing them and his African-American audience that whites only read African-American literature for stereotypical entertainment. Everything Hughes stood for and against is implemented into his poetry; “I, Too” and “Freedom” are good examples, and these particular poems are evident of Hughes’s argument in “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.”Works CitedBaym, Nina. “Langston Hughes: 1902-1967.” Introduction. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 7th ed. Vol. D. New York: W.W. Norton, 2007. 2026-27. Print.Baym, Nina. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 7th ed. Vol. D. New York: W.W. Norton, 2007. 1512-13. Print.Hughes, Langston. “I, Too.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 7th ed. Vol. D. Nina Baym. New York: W.W. Norton, 2007. 2028. Print.Hughes, Langston. “Freedom.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 7th ed. Vol. D. Nina Baym. New York: W.W. Norton, 2007. 2034-35. Print.Miller, R. Baxter. “Introduction.” The Art and Imagination of Langston Hughes. Lexington (Ky.): UP of Kentucky, 2006. 2. Print.
During the Civil Rights Movement, Langston Hughes and Robert Hayden each wrote poems addressing the future of the movement. Two of these poems, which expressed their hope for the future and for the equality of black Americans, were “I, too” by Hughes, and “Douglass” by Hayden. While both poems address the brighter, better future, they arrive there in different ways. Both poets use very specific tones and voices for their poems, creating two very different experiences for the readers to arrive in the same liberated future. Hughes’ first-person directed poem creates a much more immediate sense of the future, and creating a personal emotional reaction to oppression. The degree of removal in Hayden’s poem, however, allows the poem to be more abstract and passionate, read as an emotional response rather than inspiring emotional responses.Hughes’ poem “I, too” is written in the first person, inviting the reader into the position of the “I”, to experience the emotional journey of the narrator. “I”, who is revealed as the “darker brother” (ln.2), desires a better place in the future. This is not a distant future, but one that he imagines grasping “tomorrow” (ln.8). The immediacy is shown through the seemingly small-scale victories in which the narrator defines this better future. The narrator uses the dinner table as his indicator for having achieved the equality he desires. The smallness of the event also allows for more personalized emotions to seep into the voice of the poem. The narrator is frustrated and angry, as he “dare[s]” (ln.11) anyone to send him away from the table tomorrow, and imagines how “ashamed” (ln.17) those who have been sending him away will feel for having done so. They will feel ashamed, for having denied the “beautiful” (ln.16) and “strong” (ln.7) narrator, Hughes’ black America the right to join them. The narrator’s strength comes from having survived oppression, and it is with this strength that he will be uplifted into equality, using fear and defiance to overcome his oppressors. The poem hopefully continues that hopefully, one day, the narrator will not be seen as an equal through fear and force, but will be accepted as an equal through the sincere regret of others for having oppressed him.In the end, the narrator, and black America, comes full circle, but grows during the journey. When he begins, he “sing [s] America” (ln.1). He yearns for America, and he has the voice of America, a man of the poor, huddled masses. At the end of the poem, his future has not been realized, but he imagines it, he can see it, can almost grasp it. And with this future in reach, this equality and liberty and freedom, he no longer simply yearns for America. He comes to the realization that his struggle, and his power to overcome, means that he “[is] America” (ln.18). Hayden does not use a first person narrator in his poem “Douglass”, but writes his poem like a Romantic outburst of feelings. Since the reader is not given an identity, an “I”, he must imagine being a maybe of an audience whom Hayden is addressing. When Hayden writes “ours” into the first line, he sets up the oratory tone, and immediately creates a distinction between himself and the reader; a distinction which is absent in “I, too”. The “ours” is telling us that this poem is not specifically about us. It is not any single point of view, but it is about a people, a race, claiming liberty for themselves. Unlike Hughes’ poem, “Douglass” is not driven by the actions of the narrator, but it is driven by the passion and emotion of the speaker. “Douglass” is not emotional on the personal level that Hughes’ poem is, but, rather, is emotional in a removed manner. Emotion is conveyed through Hayden’s impassioned definition of equality and liberty. Hayden begins his poem with a definition of what Liberty really is; it is “this beautiful / and terrible thing, needful to man as air, / usable as earth” (ln.1-2); it is only real when it is “truly instinct” (ln.4), as passively present as blood flow, thoughts, and reflexes, unlike Hughes’ liberty, which the narrator imagines can be achieved by force. When liberty becomes second nature, says Hayden, then it is time to thank Frederick Douglass, the abused, oppressed man who envisioned this future when it seemed impossible. The passionate voice of Hayden’s poem is desperate, lost in its need for freedom and liberty. Since the voice is not the singularized voice of Hughes’ “I, too”, we are left struggling with it, fitting it into our own lives in a removed manner, yet feeling just as anxious for liberty. The poem seems to fall over itself with desperation and respect. The prose-like style is complicated by long sentences and abrupt line breaks. Ideas break into each other, as though out of breath and racing to get somewhere where breathing is possible. The chaos of the struggle to understand liberty and understand where the idea of liberated black Americans comes from is communicated through an abundance of commas, semicolons, and colons. The reader tumbles along with them, looking for the real end, given only consolatory pauses, but never the true ending we want. The real stopping point occurs at the end of the first sentence of the two-sentence poem. After racing to tell us about freedom and liberty, to tell us about Douglass, and to tell us about what will happen when freedom is here, we are finally given a period. It is in this period that we are meant to imagine that the chaotic journey toward the future is completed. A single sentence follows: “Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric, / not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone, / but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives / fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing” (ln.11-14). This last piece of the poem, this hindsight from a future where liberty has been achieved, is calm, and reflecting on how to be thankful to Douglass for having given us the idea to dare to dream what seemed an impossible future. The tranquility of this sentence compared to the previous one embodies the idea of what the nature of our thankfulness should be: that the most appropriate thankfulness is simply living in a liberated lives. How a reader’s identity is fit into a poem changes how the poem will affect the reader. When reading and enacting Hughes’ poem in first person, the reader is involved in the actions of the poem, concerned about the seemingly small factors in the allegorical narrator’s life. We experience easy emotional shifts, feeling anger and frustration at simple commands, and satisfyingly defiant in “dar[ing]” (ln.11) our oppressors to attempt to command us again. In Hayden’s poem, the reader is much less involved in the action of the poem, so the emotion is guided by the intensity of diction, structure, and flow. However, despite the difference of the methods of affecting the emotions of the readers, both poems achieve a similar goal: both poems show the reader a potential future of equality and liberty, and both poems make the reader yearn for it. This better future is possible. ‘Here it is,’ say both poems, ‘it is beautiful. This is what you want.’
Langston Hughes’ “On the Road” takes place during the depression and chronicles a homeless black man’s search for a place to stay the night. This man, Sargeant, first attempts to stay at a parsonage, but is turned down by the Reverend. He then sees the church next to the parsonage and decides he will sleep inside of it. The door is locked and no one answers his knocks, so he pushes against the door and he is able to break the door open. As the door breaks open two cops arrive and try to pull him away from the door, but Sargeant grabs onto a stone pillar at the front of the church and refuses to let go. Gradually, the front of the church falls down, and then the whole thing falls onto the cops and onto Sargeant, who is knocked unconscious by the debris. While unconscious, Sargeant has a dream that he is talking to Christ and at the end of the dream, when Sargeant tries to get on a train, he wakes up and realizes that he is in jail. The intimacy of the second person point of view evokes from the reader a sympathy for Sargeant. This is done through the narrator’s use of language, the narrator’s omniscience, and the narrator’s seeming firsthand knowledge of being in a situation similar to Sargeant’s. The narrator uses simple, concise language throughout the story. The uncomplicated prose, along with the second person point of view, allows the reader to feel as if the narrator is a close acquaintance relating the story to him or her. At times, the narrator uses imperfect English, such as “He wasn’t on no train” (495) and this blunt, imperfect language gives more credence to the casual and intimate relationship Hughes wanted to create between the narrator and the reader. The narrator also uses very sympathetic terms to describe Sargeant’s current state: hungry, sleepy, tired, and cold (492-493). The reader then sees these terms and because of the intimate feelings they share with the narrator (and the fact that those intimate feelings lead to a trust in the narrator) begins to feel sympathetic towards Sargeant and his situation. If the narrator were to use less sympathetic terms in describing Sargeant, the reader would not become sympathetic towards Sargeant. This is a result of the reader basing his or her own feelings about the character on the way the narrator describes him, and that is due to the intimacy created by the language and the second person point of view. The narrator’s omniscience is used to look into Sargeant’s mind, and this explains Sargeant and his situation more thoroughly. For example, after the Reverend denied Sargeant entrance and told him to go to the Relief Shelter, the narrator says “Sargeant wanted to tell the holy man that he had already been to the Relief Shelter, been to hundreds of relief shelters…the beds were always gone and supper was over, the place was full, and they drew the color line anyhow” (493). This insight into Sargeant’s past shows that his troubles are not something new to him, that he has been living the life of a vagabond for some time. Sargeant’s dream about Christ, (recounted by the narrator as if it weren’t a dream,) in which Christ is released from the cross by Sargeant after two thousand years (494), is meant to symbolize that Sargeant still has faith, and that Christ does not discriminate against those who believe in him. Sargeant’s thoughts and his dream give a great deal of knowledge to the reader and generate yet more compassion from the reader for Sargeant. Although the identity of the narrator is unknown, it is implied that he (or she) has been in a situation similar to Sargeant’s. When describing the hobo jungle, the narrator says “You couldn’t see them in the dark, but you knew they were there if you’d ever been on the road, if you had ever lived with the homeless and hungry in a depression” (495). From this, one can conclude that the narrator has lived or at the least been through places similar to the aforementioned hobo jungle. It is also likely that the reader assumes the narrator to either be black or someone sympathetic to the hardships black people face. This is shown through the symbolism the narrator employs in telling the story. The colors black and white are prevalent throughout the story, not just in describing the people’s skin, but in other ways such as Sargeant not noticing the snow, even though it was falling white against the black night (492). The snow symbolizes white oppression, and in order to survive Sargeant has to ignore his oppressors. The implication that the narrator has experienced something similar to Sargeant’s situation causes the reader to trust what he (or she) says more; in much the same way someone who has lived through a war is more credible when talking about it than someone who only has read about living through a war. With the intimacy and the additional trust that the reader has with the narrator, the sympathetic feelings for Sargeant increase. Hughes’ told this story from the second person perspective not only to get the reader to sympathize with Sargeant, but to sympathize with all black men. Although this story takes place during the depression years (the early 1930’s), it was written in 1952, a time when the civil rights movement was gaining steam. Hughes had a deep-seated sense of racial pride, and his life was spent trying to win respect for African-American culture. He used Sargeant’s plight to symbolize the similar situations faced by black people. Hughes used the narrator’s point of view to produce sympathy from the reader in the hopes that the reader would then sympathize with black people in real life. “On the Road” was not only a story of one man’s struggles, but a story of the struggles of an entire race. Although much of his work dealt with the issues faced by African-Americans, the sympathy Hughes was able evoke from the reader in this story may not have been matched in any of his other works.
Raymond Smith once wrote, “Hughes attempted to integrate the two facets of double consciousness (the American and the Negro) into a single vision – that of a poet.” Langston Hughes, possibly the most prominent black American poet, incorporates these complementary aspects of consciousness into his poetry on a frequent basis. The concept of a multi-faceted consciousness is exhibited in his poems through the intertwining of the black perspective into the broader American one.As demonstrated in his poem “American Heartbreak”, Hughes describes an American issue using themes more common to African-American art. In this composition, the primary expression is that of the American ideal of freedom. The acknowledgement of the existence of a degree of freedom is significant in that it portrays the ability of blacks to express themselves, much as the author is doing in this poem. Contrary to the prevalent theory that America is the land of equality, the speaker recognizes a number of shortfalls of this proclaimed freedom when put into practice. He believes “Freedom / stumps its toe” on the group of people it ignored throughout American history. Although the idea that an individual group is lacking in freedom is not unique to blacks, it is expressed throughout much of their artwork. Hughes also cites a historical event when he refers to “The great mistake / That Jamestown / Made long ago.” This allusion is referring to the foundation of plantations and the implementation of a system that required the subservience of an entire race. This obviously inhibits the presence of freedom for the subjugated people who were deprived of their basic human rights. As such, Hughes is directing a message to America that declares the need for unhindered liberty and for the reconciliation of past grievances.The poem “Democracy” discusses the lack of freedom and the erroneous methods that were being used to achieve it. He criticizes the fear tactics used to attain democracy by stating, “Democracy will not come… through compromise and fear”. Hughes seems to believe that the governmental system in the United States has been achieved at the cost of the needs and desires of blacks. They have had to sacrifice themselves and their families to build this nation through the subjugating travesty of slavery. The speaker also “tire[s] so of hearing people say, / “Let things take their course. / Tomorrow is another day.”” Essentially, he is condemning those who take a passive approach to the attainment of equality and freedom, both of which are guaranteed to all people by the documents upon which this country is based. He is also promoting the foundation of a true democracy through effort and cooperation between the races. Similar to many blacks, the speaker acknowledges that he does not enjoy the same freedom as other individuals. He makes the plea, “I want freedom / Just as you.” At the time of the composition of this poem, blacks were still feeling the effects of discrimination and oppression. From this, it can be safely assumed that the speaker is a black individual who has experienced this and wishes for equality, as people of all races do. In this manner, he blends the American ideal of freedom with an analysis of it from the African-American perspective.Offering another form of a dual consciousness, “Refugee in America” combines an American perspective with that of an unidentified refugee, who is not necessarily black. This poem celebrates the principle of freedom as exhibited in America. The speaker states, “on my heart-strings freedom sings / All day everyday.” This individual has such a positive disposition as a result in a change in his circumstances. As a refugee, he has sought refuge from tyranny and oppression in America, where he has experienced liberty like never before. This is amplified by the speaker’s proclamation, “If you had known what I knew / You would know why.” This contrast portrays not only the refugee’s joy at having escaped his past, but also a recognition that most people in America take their freedom for granted. Although the refugee is free from his former reigns, he still wishes to inform the population of the atrocities that occur in the rest of the world. This is analogous to the situation of the blacks through their escape from the yolk of slavery and the subsequent Civil Rights movement, which attempted to educate and persuade people to adopt equality in all aspects of life. By creating a parallel between the refugee and an African-American, both of whom have experienced a form of oppression, Hughes further develops his position.Langston Hughes, a lyrical master, has managed to compose poetry that represents the complementary viewpoints of the Negro and the American. This assists in the portrayal of his stance that although there is some level of freedom in the United States, it is lacking for some. Whether by discrimination or a sheer lack of opportunities, liberty is not readily available to all those who dwell under the authority of the American government. Hughes acknowledges this and attempts to make a social commentary through his poetry, which also serves to exemplify the black experience in America.
Why do we mourn humans, but not unrealized dreams? ‘Harlem’, a poem by Langston Hughes, is a lament for the lost dreams of African Americans living in the United States in the first half of the 20th century. Literally, the poem focuses on the decaying process of a deferred dream, while figuratively, it delves into the depth of the consequences of putting a dream on hold due to racist beliefs. The form of the poem follows a stanzaic structure, consisting of four stanzas of varying number of lines. Langston Hughes employs powerful imagery in his poem ‘Harlem’ in order to depict the evolution of black American sentiments in the years prior to the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. The poet utilizes images of rot and decay to explore the process of loss of hope and growth of frustration that black Americans underwent during this time.
Structurally, the poem is significant, as the way each stanza is arranged aids in the creation of a tone of self-restraint that allows for the poem’s powerful culmination to achieve its full impact. The poem’s structure is stanzaic, comprising of four stanzas with differing number of lines. The most significant feature of this structure lies in the spaces between these stanzas. The spaces that antecede and follow the third stanza, where Hughes writes: “Maybe it just sags / like a heavy load.”, for instance, are notable because through them, the poet compels the speaker to a stop. In slowing the narrative, Hughes portrays the speaker’s attempts to calm itself down after an almost violently charged stanza, in which he describes the transformative decaying process of the dream. This has a strong effect on the tone, as it mimics the speaker’s struggle to accepts its fate and bear the burden of having dark skin silently, thus showing the admirable self restraint of black Americans. More significant, however, is the impact this has on the single line of the last stanza. The already powerful meaning behind the words: “Or does it explode?” is made that much more potent by how inevitable it is. Although the speaker clearly tries to remain composed and accepting, it cannot help but pronounce these last threatening words. This is suggestive of the riots, protests and other violent events that took place before the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, which were arguably the unavoidable response of the black American population to decades of structural oppression and suffering. It is most probable that this poem, given the title ‘Harlem’ and the author’s background, refers specifically to the Harlem Riot of 1943, which took place after a white police officer shot an African American soldier by the name of Robert Bandy. This withering ability of the black people of Harlem to remain peaceful in the face of so much injustice is reinforced through the literal and figurative meaning, which reflect on the decomposition of a deferred dream.
Literally, the poem explores several instances of rot and decay, while figuratively, the poem creates a very strong representation of the consequences of unrealized dreams. The literal meaning of the poem is focused on answering the question posed in the first line of the poem: “What happens to a dream deferred?” through a comparison with different commonplace examples of decomposition. After asking whether this deferred dream dries up “like a raisin in the sun” or “fester like a sore”, Hughes wonders in the fifth line of the second stanza: “Does it stink like rotten meat?”. The poet employs simile to equate deferred dreams with the traditional image of putrefaction of meat that has gone bad. This is relevant, as it suggests that a dream, similarly to meat, once postponed, left out in the open and vulnerable to the world’s corrosion, can never be recovered, as it is now corrupt and beyond repair. The effect this has on the portrayal of the process that led to the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement is significant, as it introduces the depth of the loss of the African American community; they were not only robbed of realizing their dreams and hopes in the present, but also, much more tragically, of the possibility of returning to those dreams and hopes once their current circumstances had changed. Figuratively, the poem furthers the portrayal of the dire results of the deferral of a dream. In lines 1 and 2 of the second stanza, where Hughes writes: “Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?”, the poet describes the consequences of the postponement of a dream through the comparison of deferred dreams with dried up raisins. This simile is notable, as raisins are the product of dried up grapes which are conventional symbols of fertility and prosperity. The effect this comparison has on the thematic axis of the story is significant, as it solidifies the theme of loss that is hinted at in the first line of the poem, and will be further developed later on. By likening deferred dreams to grapes which become raisins in the sun, the poet is arguably referring to the unrealized potential of these dreams, which once could have led to so much. Perhaps the sun is representative of the United States, who instead of taking advantage of the thoughts and ideas contained within the dreams of African American people, rejected them, making it impossible for them to become reality.
Langston Hughes utilizes a collection of images of deterioration to explore the progression of the general black American sentiments, which turned from hope in the years leading up to the Civil Rights Movement era, to frustration and anger. These images are mostly found in the second stanza, and are a response to the opening line, where Hughes puts forward the rhetorical question upon which the whole poem is based: “What happens to a dream deferred?” In lines 3 and 4 of this stanza, Hughes writes “Or fester like a sore / And then run?”, alluding to the sense of sight and tact to create a powerful image of decay. This is notable, as in appealing to the reader’s senses, the author is able to more clearly communicate the arduousness of the process of loss of hope and growth of frustration that African Americans experienced. Readers perceive the inflammation of the wound of racism on a physical level, and are disturbed by the impactful illustration of blood and bruises. The effect this image has on the audience is eye-opening, as they can more easily empathize with the bursting frustration of African Americans who were once so full of dreams, but whose hopes turned rotten because of the way they were treated in the land that had promised them freedom and opportunity. For those who have never been victims to racism, it could prove hard to understand how it feels, but Hughes masterfully manages to overstep this rift between the audience and the speaker by appealing to the universal experience of physical pain.
“Harlem” by Langston Hughes is a powerful poem that delves into the tragic consequences of racism, and masterfully depicts the deteriorating process of a population who has been robbed of the possibility of making their dreams come to pass. The poem is notable in the poet’s use of powerful imagery of rot and decay that aids in the portrayal of the evolution of African American feelings in the years preceding the birth of the Civil Rights Movement. In ‘Harlem’, Hughes has created a poem that not only bears witness to the history of his people, but also compels those who may not have been directly affected by it to experience a semblance of what African Americans suffered.
The core of the American Dream, for many, entails liberty, a value historically represented through New York’s famed amusement park Coney Island. Millions of spectators visited the park as a place of leisure to escape social prescriptions as well as the humdrum everyday life. In reality, the park represented the rapid emergence of consumption through manipulative cooperation with industrial society. Like Coney Island, America’s hegemonic structure is really disguised behind its appeal of autonomy. Forced migrants and immigrants quickly realized that America’s picturesque aesthetics left little to no room for them. According the American Dream, everyone has a fair chance at wealth if the individual is driven and hardworking. This façade, painting the country as the harbor of freedom and liberty, promotes the nostalgia of an America that exists for the “other” only after confronting the dynamics of American’s hegemonic society or conforming to its mass economic culture. This complex reality is notably exemplified through two facets of American popular culture: the transformation of an Eastern European family in Ragtime and the perspective of an African-American poet, Langston Hughes, through “Let America Be America Again.”
The beginning of Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again” complicated the notion that America is the land of the free through the medium of two perspectives. The first three stanzas resonant a voice of privilege and ignorance, in contrast to a learned voice (enclosed by parenthesis) that reveres with personal experience. The first narrator yearns for America to be “America again” (Hughes). This desire in itself suggests two things, one about the country and one about the narrator: that the country has undergone an ideological shift and that the narrator is a conservative who is unhappy about it. The voice continues by describing the America that they want back. Perhaps reminiscent of the early settlements in the New World, the description specifically calls for “the pioneer on the plain [to seek] a home where he himself is free” (Hughes). Such a reference is suggestive of the beginnings of American prosperity, which was at the cost of Native American disenfranchisement. As the parenthetical voice suggests, “America never was America” for everyone (Hughes). While one group gained freedom from “kings connive” and “tyrants scheme,” the other became displaced. Hughes conveys two perspectives that paint two distinct portraits of America (Hughes). The dominant voice describes an America where “opportunity is real, and life is free, [and] Equality is in the air” (Hughes). If not for the parenthetical voice who insists that America has never offered them equality or freedom, the other perspective may hold full dominance and purity to the audience. Through punctuation and position, Hughes gives a sense of authority to the voice of the stanza; comparingly, the parenthesized voice is limited and dependant. The use of parenthesis in this instance makes clear that a different perspective is present but also that this voice is less significant. If performed, the back-and-forth might look like a monologue –focused on one principal character– while the other voice barely whispered in the background. Indeed, the reader may be tempted to skip the insertions altogether. On the other hand, stanzas are poetry’s mandatory vehicles, and the voice of the stanzas places authority and superiority over the parenthesized sentences. Punctuation permits this distinction but so does position where the almost muted parenthesized voice is always placed after the dominant perspective. This placement suggests that the parenthesized voice is merely a response to its counterpart and would not exist without the voice of the stanza.
In the America implicitly described by the first three stanzas, the disenfranchised Americans are inferior to and dependent on “the pioneer” (Hughes). The rise of the now non-parenthesized voice as the narrator taunts the first narrator’s illustration of the America by teasing out ideals of exploitation as a means of privilege. The narrator begins by demonstrating that the “me” in the parenthesized intervals of the past are several interconnected tribes including poor whites, black people, Native Americans, immigrants, farmers, and workers. These people are excluded from the American Dream, yet they constructed it. The narrator confesses that they too had a dream that was quickly disseminated after “bearing slavery’s scars,” being “driven from the land,” being “fooled and pushed apart,” or being pitted against each other (Hughes). Together, as the narrator points out, these overworked individuals made this dream possible for the privileged; they “made America the land it has become” (Hughes). From America’s popular culture down to its industrial society, “every brick and stone” should be credited to “the people” (Hughes). Having constructed the very fabric of America, the narrator says “we, the people, must redeem the land…And make America again” (Hughes). By grouping the often-separated groups of minorities, the narrator has constructed a counterhegemonic structure and hints at moving to hegemonic influence as a way to gain freedom and break the chains of exploitation.
Like Hughes, Mameh, Tateh, and The Little Girl in E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime challenge the notions of freedom within the American Dream. Immediately upon their arrival, the family encountered authoritative figures (immigration officers and judgmental police officers) who imposed a threat upon their hopes of freedom (Doctorow 14-15). Officers pushed them through a mechanical procedure in a “human warehouse” where immigrants were tagged, given showers, and arranged on benches (Doctorow 14). Their first interactions in America commodified them in a way that would soon become all too familiar. Even the narrator of chapter three, limits these individuals to a people who “killed each other casually,” “raped their own kind,” “stank of fish and garlic,” and “had no honor” (Doctorow 14). The family settles in the Lower East Side of New York with jobs and dreams of prosperity. From morning until nights, The Little Girl and Mameh sew knee pants, earning a total of seventy cents per dozen. The father, on the other hand, “made his living in the streets” as a silhouette artist (Doctorow 15). With their combined income, the family can only afford to live in an unsanitary closet-sized tenement. The family is clearly in poverty, but that fact runs contrary to their effort. Like so many other immigrants, America exploits them by capitalizing from their work and returning mere pocket change. Simultaneously, this mechanical system commodifies individuals and strips them of freedom. Any attempts that the family makes to get ahead only pushes them backwards, proving their limitations and further installing their role in America as commodities. The girl’s entry to school signified a loss of revenue for the already-poor family.
Education is a means of bettering oneself; it is a commitment that should yield long-term success. Rather than viewing it this way, “the crisis” left Mameh and Tateh in disarray (Doctorow 16). America’s systematic abuse of their labor made them view themselves as well as their daughter as a commodity. When The Little Girl took sick, Tateh helplessly stood over his daughter; he did not want to leave her alone but also knew that a day without work would cost him (Doctorow 47). Mameh took notice of her value as a sexual commodity and utilized it, which in turn resulted in Tateh driving her away (Doctorow 15). The industrial complex of America takes a psychological toll on its workers. Because work provides such slim earnings, the workers overwork themselves and prioritize work over education, health, and love –commodifying themselves in the same ways that America does. Renaming himself “Baron,” Tateh realizes that he must sever connections himself from America’s working class and conform to the socialite society to achieve the freedom advertised by the American Dream. Doctorow reintroduces Tateh as a new character as he and his daughter vacation in Atlantic City. He introduces himself to Mother as Baron Ashkenazy, a man of the moving-picture business but never mentions his Jewish roots (Doctorow 254). This “new existence,” perpetuating the ills of consumer culture, participated in the capitalism that Tateh had previously observed with disgust (Doctorow 15, 258). Tateh and The Little Girl now wined and dined with privileged families like Mother and Father. Gramsci’s concept of “contradictory consciousness,” as explained by T.J. Jackson Lears, suggests that subordinate groups (like Tateh and The Little Girl who represent Jewish immigrants) may become compelled to identify with the dominant culture, even as they has previously resisted (Lears 576).
Ultimately, assimilation became the rational solution for them. Despaired by the boundaries of America’s work society, Tateh saw no other way out. The American Dream advertises ideals of freedom, liberty, and prosperity but fails to give proper credit to those from which it exploits. Instead, the Americanist superiority complex imposes tools of exclusion and commodification to limit the “other” or “the people,” as Hughes’ refers. Nostalgic views of America then are only applicable to the dominant group while the subordinates only receive a fraction of this freedom, unless they conform. It is the nostalgic appearance of America, though, that continues to lure people in with the sense of false opportunity as Tateh and his family did. This system is a sequence in which the disenfranchised continue to blindly propel the hegemonic structure by remaining complicit in their exploitation or by assimilating with the hierarchies of society and turning their backs on heritage.
Hughes, L. (2004). Let America be America again and other poems (1st Vintage Books ed.). New York: Vintage Books. Doctorow, E. L. (1975). Ragtime. New York: Random House. Lears, T.J.J. (1985). “The Concept of Cultural Hegemony: Problems and Possibilities.” Oxford: Oxford University Press.
In an essay entitled, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” African-American poet Langston Hughes discusses the importance of creating a black voice in a predominantly white America. Hughes strived to do this in his own work, as he used the rhythmic styles of jazz and bebop in his poetry to speak about the African-American experience. His essay is a critique of black artists that do not follow this trend and choose instead to focus on ‘universal’ subject matter‒‘universal’ in this context meaning ‘white.’ Although he does not mention the word ideology, his argument relies heavily on the concept, as he dissects the artistic consequences of “the mold of American standardization” (“The Negro Artist” 55), a mold that is created by ideological beliefs about race. Furthermore, an Althusserian reading of this essay reveals how the African-American population is systematically ‘other-ized’ not only by the white population, but by members within the African-American community as well. Hughes’s poetry, specifically his series Montage of a Dream Deferred, exemplifies his desire to break out of the ideological beliefs constructed to silence his community.
Hughes’s essay begins with his disappointment in a fellow artist who said to him, “I want to be a poet‒not a Negro poet” (“The Negro Artist” 55). Hughes interprets this statement to mean that the writer subconsciously wishes to “be white,” following a logical path that says to want to write like any other poet of the time is synonymous with wanting “to write like a white poet” (Hughes 55). In his essay, it is clear that Hughes is acutely aware of the fact that in order to be a commercially successful artist in the early twentieth century, one must appeal to the white community. He also understands that in order to succeed in this, one must “be as little Negro and as much American as possible” (“The Negro Artist” 55). By writing the word ‘American’ rather than ‘white,’ Hughes is commenting on the bitter reality that to be white is to be ‘normal’ in his society‒an ideological belief that stems from the fact that the white population is in control of education, government, and culture in America. Althusser defines ideology as “the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” (Althusser 693). In the context of Hughes’s argument, the real conditions of existence are that the African-American population is systemically oppressed and underrepresented, while the imaginary relation is the belief that this is due to ‘whiteness’ being seen as “a symbol of all the virtues” (“The Negro Artist” 55). This belief is constantly reaffirmed because of one’s tendency to “[behave] in such and such a way, [adopt] such and such a practical attitude, and… [participate] in certain regular practices… on which ‘depend’ the ideas which he has in all consciousness freely chosen as a subject” (Althusser 696). This means that people choose, sometimes unconsciously, to enact behaviors that trap them within ideology. For example, it is clear that the family of the unnamed poet described in Hughes’s essay chooses to exist within racist ideology:
The father… is the chief steward at a large white club. The mother sometimes does fancy
sewing or supervises parties for the rich families of the town. The children go to a mixed
school. In the home they read white papers and magazines. And the mother often says,
“Don’t be like n-” when the children are bad. A frequent phrase from the father is, “Look
how well a white man does things.” (“The Negro Artist” 55)
By living life in accordance with the guidelines set forth by white Americans, the family is suppressing their African-American roots and, in Hughes’s opinion, stifling their son’s potential as an artist. It is for this reason that Hughes is critiquing those who give in to the “urge within the race toward whiteness,” (“The Negro Artist” 55) since he believes artists are responsible for the creation of a uniquely African-American cultural voice that is independent of the pre-existing dominant white American culture.
By controlling education, white Americans are able to perpetuate their own narrative and continuously reify beliefs that trivialize black culture and black art. That is why Hughes believes that “the low-down folks,” or “the so-called common element” are more likely to produce a “truly great Negro artist” (“The Negro Artist” 56) than middle- and upper-class African-Americans; he reasons that an African-American who has been educated by white American standards is incapable of “interpreting the beauty of his own people” because “he is never taught to see that beauty. He is taught rather not to see it, or if he does, to be ashamed of it when it is not according to Caucasian patterns” (“The Negro Artist” 56). Contrarily, according to Hughes, “common people are not afraid of spirituals, as for a long time their more intellectual brethren were, and jazz is their child” and as a result, “they accept what beauty is their own without question” (“The Negro Artist” 56). Hughes comments on the problematic nature of American education in his poem “Theme for English B.” The speaker of the poem is attempting to write “a page” (“Theme” 3) that is “true” (“Theme” 5) as an assignment for an instructor assumed to be white, and in doing so tackles issues of race in education. He briefly references the issue of underrepresentation in the line, “I am the only colored student in my class,” (“Theme” 10) which was not uncommon in his time as the minority of African-Americans were able to get an education, much less a college degree. In this sense, the speaker of the poem is extremely privileged, even though he is alone in the world of academia. Hughes ironically makes the speaker relatable to all readers by listing interests that are universal, writing “I like to eat, sleep, drink and be in love. / I like to work, read, learn, and understand life,” (“Theme” 21-22), followed by the assertion “I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like / the same things other folks like who are other races” (“Theme” 25-26). In addition, Hughes acknowledges how white ideology permeates education in the lines, “instructor. / You are white‒ / yet a part of me, as I am a part of you. / That’s American” (“Theme” 30-33). Although at first glance it seems as though Hughes is discussing the idea of the American “melting pot,” an Althusserian reading of the poem can also suggest that the white professor and his ideals are becoming ingrained in the black student.
One of the most prominent themes of the Montage of a Dream Deferred series, as well as of the “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” essay is that of African-American culture and its relation to white America. For example, in the poem “Dream Boogie,” Hughes uses the rhythm of the uniquely African-American bebop style of music while discussing the issue of voicelessness. The upbeat tone of the poem is a reference to minstrel culture perpetuated by the white community, as African-Americans were encouraged to be larger-than-life performers with exaggerated movements and facial expressions in order to entertain white audiences. In order to discuss the problematic nature of this arrangement, Hughes ironically pairs the happy rhythm of bebop music with lines like, “Good morning, daddy! / Ain’t you heard / The boogie-woogie rumble / Of a dream deferred?” (“Dream Boogie” 1-4). He also uses dashes in order to signify interruptions in speech, as African-Americans were discouraged from voicing their complaints regarding their status within the greater American culture. For example, an interruption in the black cultural narrative can be seen in the lines, “Listen to it closely: / Ain’t you heard / something underneath / like‒ / What did I say?” (“Dream Boogie” 5-9). The italicized lines show a resistance towards voicing concern and a stifling of one’s thoughts, which is representative of black America as a whole. These lines are immediately followed by the stanza, “Sure, / I’m happy! / Take it away!” (“Dream Boogie” 15-17), which signifies a continuation of a performance regardless of the fact that it facilitates voicelessness. In this piece, the performance represents the continuation of a complacent existence within white ideology.
Furthermore, “Dream Boogie” is paired with several others in the series, which is symbolic of the seemingly endless and inescapable ‘performance’ that the African-American community must participate in in order to be accepted. In “Boogie: 1 A.M.” Hughes repeats the introduction of “Dream Boogie” almost exactly, with only a few adjustments, as he writes, “Good evening, daddy! / I know you’ve heard / The boogie-woogie rumble / Of a dream deferred” (“Boogie: 1 A.M.” 1-4). Appearing later in the series, this poem is used to express the notion that, by this point, the complaints of the African-American community have finally been heard. However, no action is taken to rectify them yet, as the bottom half of the poem is another perpetuation of the performance: “Trilling the treble / And twining the bass / Into midnight ruffles / Of cat-gut lace” (“Boogie: 1 A.M.” 5-8). There are no consequences for ignoring ‘the dream deferred’ until the poem “Nightmare Boogie,” in which the speaker gets a glimpse of a black culture in “a dream” (“Nightmare Boogie” 1) where he says he sees “a million faces / black as me!” (“Nightmare Boogie 3-4). However, the repercussions of ignoring the dream deferred appear in the following few lines, as the dream transforms into “A nightmare dream,” (“Nightmare Boogie” 5) in which, “Quicker than light / All them faces / Turned dead white” (“Nightmare Boogie” 6-8). By attempting to live as a black person within a white-dominated culture, the speaker is denied the experience of existing within a community of like-minded and supportive individuals. This poem is a continuation of an assertion that Hughes makes in his essay:
To my mind, it is the duty of the younger Negro artist, if he accepts any duties at all
from outsiders, to change through the force of his art that old whispering “I want to be
white,” hidden in the aspirations of his people, to “Why should I want to be white? I am a Negro‒and beautiful!” (“The Negro Artist” 59)
In both his essay and his poetry, Hughes is attempting to call to action the black artists of his time and to convince them to participate in the creation of an African-American identity, free of white ideology.
Perhaps the poem that most accurately depicts the tendency to remain within the confines of an oppressive ideology is Hughes’s “Motto.” The speaker represents the majority of African-Americans and depicts the harsh realities of navigating life as a black person in a white America. The poem reads like a life lesson, as the speaker explains, “I play it cool / And dig all jive / That’s the reason / I stay alive” (“Motto” 1-4). Although Hughes is criticizing this lifestyle, he is simultaneously acknowledging its importance, as choosing whether or not to subscribe to the white ideology of the time period was quite literally a life-or-death decision. The final lines of this poem, “Dig And Be Dug / In Return,” (“Motto” 5-9) are a timeless justification for ideology that remains relevant in modern times, as oppressed groups are constantly encouraged to take the path of least resistance, even in the face of blatant discrimination.
Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” Literary Theory: An Anthology.
Ed. Michael Ryan and Julie Rivkin. 2nd ed. N.p.: Blackwell, 2004. 693-702. Print.
Hughes, Langston. “Boogie: 1 A.M.” Montage of a Dream Deferred. Holt, 1951.
Hughes, Langston. “Dream Boogie.” Montage of a Dream Deferred. Holt, 1951.
Hughes, Langston. “Motto.” Montage of a Dream Deferred. Holt, 1951.
Hughes, Langston. “Nightmare Boogie.” Montage of a Dream Deferred. Holt, 1951.
Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” Within the Circle: An Anthology
of African American Literary Criticism from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present. Ed.
Angelyn Mitchell. Durham: Duke UP, 1994. 55-60. Print.
Hughes, Langston. “Theme for English B.” Montage of a Dream Deferred. Holt, 1951.
In “The Weary Blues”, Langston Hughes uses negative language to create a generally discouraging atmosphere. The relentless dark imagery makes the reader overlook an underlying message, as the poem actually encourages its readers to push against any obstacles in their way. Rather than being beaten down by one’s problems, one should rise up and continue to resist the slow slide to depression. Through such ideals, Hughes focuses on instilling hope in African Americans, his primary audience.
In the beginning of the poem, Hughes depicts a struggling musician with a weak handle on his problems. The poem begins with, “Droning a drowsy syncopated tune” (1), a simple line with a plethora of information woven in to it. As the first line of the poem, it establishes a melancholy tone, while retaining an oddly rhythmic aspect. The presence of syncopation changes the meaning of the beginning of the line. It adds a sense of hope, a sort of light at the end of the tunnel. The subject of the poem rocks “back and forth to a mellow croon” (2) he plays. Despite the drowsy, drab scene, music continues to pour from the piano. The man contently swaying to his tune, which overflows with negativity, shows the gilded qualities of the race. From the surface, one describes them as successful and joyful, yet once you reach the heart of the matter, the situation changes. A muddled and wavering core contrasts the gleaming scab surrounding it. This negative portrayal is the baseline from which the subject slowly loses his grip.
As the poem progresses, the reader gains a better understanding of the musician’s mental process. The speaker specifies the subject playing the melody as an African American, but places no positive or negative connotation along with it. “I heard a Negro play.” (3), an objective statement, disconnects the speaker from the situation. This negates any bias of the speaker to the subject and makes the reader trusts the speaker more. The speaker continues to describe the scene, saying he saw the musician “Down on Lenox Avenue the other night”. (4) Lenox Avenue, a major thoroughfare in the middle of Harlem, places the subject in a hot bed of African American art and creativity. The reference to the New York street connects Hughes’ poem to the Harlem Renaissance and adds sub-surface meaning. The basis of the cultural movement was the aptitude and skill of African Americans; it takes talent to make the old, beat up piano play the smooth, mellow tune. The poem takes a different turn here: rather than exploring the good things about African Americans, the speaker adds to the scenery. The man played “By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light”. (5) The shady aspect contrasts the brightness and excitement of the Roaring Twenties in America. The outdated gaslight, used and gloomy, could not compare to the new electric lights of the time. “He did a lazy sway… /He did a lazy sway…” (6-7), emphasizes the man’s simple rock as he plays. Repeating the line adds to the rhythm of the stanza and makes the meaning of the line more evident. Hughes continues compiling the man’s misfortunes, but adds a glimmer of uniqueness and a sense of pride as he writes in the blues form.
The Blues is a uniquely African American art form. Hughes uses it to identify with his subject and his intended audience. Reflecting the title, the speaker describes the man as swaying “To the tune o’ those Weary Blues. / With his ebony hands on each ivory key/ he made that poor piano moan with melody” (8-10). Not only does the poet introduce the Blues connecting the syncopated tune to the syncopated poetry of the time, but also the subject’s “ebony hands on each ivory key” (9). This contrast shows the cliché “black man in a white world” and shows the man playing the world like a piano and creating melodious music from it. Using stereotypes of the day, the author contrasts the pianist’s situation with his accomplishments. This emboldens others to do the same and overcome their adversities with their abilities.
Much like the dull lamp, the tottering stool increases the burden on the pianist’s shoulders. The man is “Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool” (12). The unsteady base is a reference to the man’s shaky past, yet it still supports him and the man is successful. Even with second-rate equipment, the musician “played that raggy tine like a musical fool. Sweet Blues!” (13-14) The man doesn’t care that he plays on a beat up piano rather than in a private club in an upper class neighborhood. Music is seen as indifferent to race and situation. It, like other art forms, allows one to express themselves on an even plane. Showing more of the musician’s connection to his piece, the speaker describes the music as “Coming from a black man’s soul.” (15) Rather than being a product of the musician, his song becomes a part of the man. The sad song he plays is now even more connected to him personally. The metaphorical gray cloud over the man’s head swells with disheartening rain as Hughes continues describing him.
The situation further deteriorates when the man begins singing. No longer does the man only play a mellow Blues tune, his melancholy lyrics further reveal his condition. Even before the actual lyrics, the reader can imagine the man leisurely letting the words flow from his mouth. “In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—” (17-18), the man and the instrument have a connection to one another. As a unit, the gloomy pair sang “Ain’t got nobody in all this world, Ain’t got nobody but ma self” (19-20). This first sentence of lyrics isolates the man and his ethnicity from the rest of the world. African Americans feel as if no one but themselves look out for them and that they are quarantined from the rest of humanity. To finish the thought and the stanza, the lyrics say, “I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’ And put ma troubles on the shelf” (21-22). Using ebonic dialect in the lyrics places the man as distinctly African American who does not speak the accepted, “white” English. This distinctive quality among African Americans makes them one with the subject of the poem. Putting his troubles on the shelf, the musician in the poem decides to stop allowing problems to get in his way. He has to rely on his own will to accomplish goals, the man resolves to stop letting difficulties make him miserable and to power through them.
The pianist teeters on the edge of depression after, just lines before, deciding to resist falling into such a state; the man is unstable and contemplates giving up on life. In the beginning of the final stanza, the musician shortly stops singing to stomp the beat with his foot and play intermittent chords before continuing to sing on. “I got the Weary Blues/ And I can’t be satisfied. / Got the Weary Blues/ And can’t be satisfied” (25-28). The man knows of his own glum condition, but determines that there can be no end to his sadness. The previous lyric of placing his problems on a shelf seems only to have led to more problems. These “Weary Blues” seem as if they’ll never go away, yet he continues to play. The last two lines of lyrics are especially dark, “I ain’t happy no mo’ And I wish that I had died” (29-30). Hoping for death is not a productive thought. The man is struggling with whether or not resisting his problems is worth it. Pondering this idea late at night, the man stops and goes to bed. He does this only after “The stars went out and so did the moon” (32). These small, twinkling lights in the sky are his hope, the only thing keeping him going. Once he no longer has hope, there seems no reason for the man to stay awake (33). “The singer stopped playing and went to bed”, is a slower, less flowing line. It makes the reader stop and pronounce each word, breaking the easy current of the Blues form. Throughout the poem, the poet followed traditional Blues form and rhythm, but at the end, Hughes plays with the form to disturb the reader. The last three lines of the poem rhyme, the last two being “While the Weary Blues echoed through his head. / He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.” These lines express the seriousness of the man’s early claims of wanting to die. The dark, mysterious ending, when related to the rest of the poem, shows the man fighting against a will to die. The situation and position the musician is in drove him to suicidal thoughts, the moon and stars keeping him hopeful, he played long into the night. When his hope fell away, he went to sleep, not a dead sleep, but a deep one; the man had his troubles on his mind while he lied down to sleep. Earlier in the poem, he’d agreed to put them on a shelf and not to worry about them. As his syncopated tune fades, the issues return. The man has run out of reasons to fight, he reaches for anything to pull him from the emotional chasm.
The man’s descent from playing mellow tune to a depressing death-wish type song brings the story of the musician and the African American race full circle. Sleeping like a rock, the man is as good as dead, but he will rise the next morning to play the same beautiful, depressing song once again. Waking allows the man to once again place his complications on a shelf and hope the stars and moon never go out. Hughes is showing the reader no matter the negatives, there is a reason to wake up every morning.
James Mercer Langston Hughes was a Harlem Renaissance leader who is revered to this day as a columnist, playwright, activist, novelist, and poet of incredible contributions to American literature, and he is now considered one of the foremost commenters on the Harlem Renaissance and a pioneer of Jazz poetry. In his autobiography, Hughes famously wrote about the Harlem Renaissance that “Negro was in vogue,” which coined a cliché when David Levering Lewis’s paraphrase of the quote was used as a title for his 1981 book, When Harlem Was in Vogue (Francis 28). Hughes’s writings have experienced the same treatment and retroactive perception that he claimed the Harlem Renaissance experienced in real-time because people often only think about “vogue” pieces of his like specifically “Mother to Son.” This discussion seeks to broaden the perception of Hughes by comparing “Mother to Son” to the vast range of writing styles that four of Hughes’s short stories use to make different commentaries with different tones, and this is intended to put the “vogue” poem in a context that makes it relative to the many other modes he wrote in. This paper will review “Mother to Son” and four short stories to illustrate the range of Hughes’ writing—from straightforward, reliable narration to complex, unreliable narration. This range suggests that Hughes’ writing is suitable for college level study.
Nifong argues that the most effective way to determine how effective the use of point of view is would be to study the different narrative styles of several separate works and deciding whether or not the author(s) succeed(s) in reaching the desired audience. “In The Ways of White Folks one discovers that Langston Hughes experiments with seven points of view and meets with varying degrees of success” (Nifong 94). It is a testament to Hughes’ writing ability that he published a collection of short stories on his own that collectively makes a wide range of narrative styles, and The Ways of White Folks is one such collection. This discussion includes five short stories from this collection for that reason.
“Mother to Son” is a poem selected for this discussion specifically because of its popularity. It is quoted often, posted on numerous websites, and recited by Tony and SAG (Screen Actors Guild)-Award winning actress Viola Davis. The second and last lines of the poem are the same, and they are so well known that they are often mistaken for the title of the poem in a way similar to how Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” might be mistakenly but frequently called “The Road Less Traveled,” and these lines say, “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair” (Hughes 2, 20). These are some of the things about the poem that can qualify it as Hughes’s archetypal work in comparison to the rest of his writings, but it is important to recognize that Hughes was a very prolific writer and, therefore, had a lot of other works that expressed his thoughts in completely different styles and from vastly different perspectives.
The title, “Mother to Son,” shows a self-explanatory perspective for the speaker. The argument can be made that readers gravitate to this piece because it is a very relatable poem regardless of ethnicity. The lines quoted earlier reference, in the context of the rest of the content, an observation of classism because the fact that the mother has to tell her son that her life has not been a crystal stair suggests that this “crystal stair” really is some people’s experience. She explains her experience and says, “It’s had tacks in it, / And splinters / And boards torn up / And places with no carpet on the floor — / Bare” (Hughes 3-7). This not only paints a literal picture of poverty but also paints a figurative picture of the bad aspects of capitalism because her contrast between the different types of stairs suggests one is for those with power while the other is for those without, explaining why she speaks from a place of struggle.
The Mother basically encourages the Son saying, “So boy, don’t you turn back / Don’t you set down on the steps, / ‘Cause you find it’s kinder hard / […] For I’s still goin’, honey, / I’se still climbin’, / And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair” (Hughes 14-16, 18-20). These are words meant to encourage the Son, but that confirms for the reader that the Mother is definitely saying it is a bad or lesser experience, figuratively speaking, to walk stairs that are ugly or rough, and it suggests that those who have power have pretty stairs. Marxist criticism refers to this as sign value because it is not that the look of the stairs makes them any easier to climb, yet the appearance of the stairs is assumed, at least by the characters, to be an indication of power. That means that Mother’s and Son’s stairs indicate weakness, which is what makes encouragement necessary. In fact, the sign value seen in the absent stairs of the poem also appeals to readers on the basis that an audience of Hughes’s peers would relate to the sense of consumerism without even thinking about it, focusing more consciously on the idea of having an uglier life (lacking sign value) that was difficult for any variety of reasons. The ambiguity of the Mother’s issues and the Black dialect make it that much more relatable.
As easy as readers find it to gravitate to “Mother to Son,” which is its own testament to Hughes’s ability as a writer, it is most definitely one of his more straightforward and more ambiguous works. He diverged from this simple style in other works such as the short story, “Passing.” This story is written as a letter from a son to a mother ironically, and the son talks about certain aspects of his life, which is the unique life of a Black man passing for White. Like “Mother to Son,” it is written in first person, so the reader is placed in the mind of the son, Jack, who is passing for White and, as a result, has an uncommon perspective on race that Blacks who cannot pass might be bothered by. This story is designed to make the reader uncomfortable by portraying an uncommon perspective that far fewer people relate to and getting inside a mind whose ideas about life and society are likely to be much different from the ideas of the intended audience of “Mother to Son.”
Jack says many things in “Passing” that suggest he is aware of racial injustice yet not that empathetic to the issues because he does not seem to realize the severity of it all. As a result, his perspective comes off as a narcissistic and almost childish one despite his being an adult. He begins, “I felt like a dog, passing you downtown last night and not speaking to you. You were great, though. Didn’t give a sign that you even knew me, let alone I was your son” (Hughes location 529). The implication starts out sounding like Jack feels genuine regret for the social standing he has chosen for himself, but it ends with him quickly commending her for how well she acts like she does not know him. It is worthy of commending because it had to be very difficult for her to ignore him the way she did. If the reader takes the time to come out of Jack’s perspective and get into his mother’s perspective, one can only assume it would be hard for a mother to have to refrain from acknowledging her son in public, but she does this for his sake because it is a sacrifice she is willing to make for a son who has an opportunity at having a privileged life.
The way Jack phrases his sentences says as much as the sentences themselves, which is a stylistic element of “Passing” not as prevalent in “Mother to Son.” He says, “But I don’t mind being ‘White’, Ma, and it was mighty generous of you to urge me to go ahead and make use of my light skin and good hair” (Hughes location 536). He says this as though it would have been justifiably selfish of his mother to just expect him to identify as Black if he did not have to, which means it is a given that being Black is a bad way to live. He is quick to make light of problematic issues and return to his perspective after only the briefest consideration for others’ perspective. To say he does not mind being privileged is to describe an advantage as if it was a disadvantage that he should be commended for accepting. One of the differences between “Mother to Son” and this short story is the introduction of irony which complicates what the son Jack is saying. There is no irony in “Mother to Son,” but here, the reader must realize that Hughes is asking him/her to evaluate Jack’s behavior and words rather than simply accept him.
One instance where Jack demonstrates racial prejudice as a problem at all is when he says, “Since I’ve begun to pass for white, nobody has ever doubted that I am a white man. Where I work, the boss is a Southerner and is always cussing out Negroes in my presence, not dreaming that I’m one. It is to laugh!” (Hughes location 536). Laughter is an inappropriate response for someone empathetic to the marginalized experience. He continues, “Funny thing, though, Ma, how some white people certainly don’t like colored people, do they?” (Hughes location 536). He makes it sound like an original idea, belittling the obvious like it could have been missed. Again, Hughes’s use of irony makes the reader even more aware of the irrationality of prejudice.
The contrast between “Mother to Son” and “Passing” is a stark one, but this is the result of the two works having very different objectives, not due to one being better than the other. In the former, the relatable speaker is part of the point whereas, in the latter, the narrator is unreliable and transparent. The Mother in “Mother to Son” gives an encouraging word in a simplistically eloquent way, but there is arguably more depth in bringing the reader into the mindset of someone likely to peeve Hughes’s audience, which is not just Blacks. Whites are intended to read this and many others of Hughes’s works and gain perspective on the Black experience, and one uncomfortable aspect of the Black experience unfortunately is that of Blacks who pass for White as well as how other Blacks feel about the notion of passing at all. It is a nuanced story dealing with a relatively more obscure and complex racial identity problem.
As different as “Mother to Son” and “Passing” seem, though, they still only represent, even in tandem, a relatively small part of Hughes’s range as a writer, and one other work can greatly expand that range in the reader’s perception. “Red-Headed Baby” is a short story with a bizarrely different narrative style from any of Hughes’s other works. The protagonist is a White sailor with red hair named Clarence whose boat docks at the port of a Black town in the vague south in an area that might remind the reader of Louisiana. He looks up a girl who he had sex with the last time he visited this time, and he intends to have sex with her again. What scares him and ruins his plans is that he finds out she has a two-year-old who has red hair like Clarence.
The narration of “Red-Headed Baby” is extremely different from Hughes’s narrative styles in other works because it is full of incomplete sentences that express complete thoughts. This broken speech in the narration is such a divergence from Hughes’s other writings that a reader might even think it was a sort of prose poem at first. Given that this story is told in first person also, style is basically a representation of Clarence’s stream of consciousness, and stream-of-consciousness writing, no matter what narrative style is used, is a legitimate challenge for any writer. This is why Hughes chooses to write in first person with broken sentence structure because it is a more authentic way to write stream-of-consciousness works.
The narration guides the reader through a series of isolated ideas that gradually paint a picture and frame a scenario. For instance, one paragraph reads, “Crossing the railroad track at the edge of town. Green lights. Sand in the road, seeping into oxfords and the cuffs of dungarees. Surf sounds, mosquito sounds, nigger cries in the night. No street lights out here.” The speaker is only giving the reader thoughts about what he observes as he goes. At another point when Clarence, the speaker, discovers the mixed, red-headed child who resembles him, it gives him anxiety, which scrambles his thoughts and causes his sentences to be even more pointed. A red-headed baby. Moonlight-gone baby. No kind of yellow-white bow-legged goggled-eyed County Fair baseball baby. Get him the hell out of here pulling at my legs looking like me at me like me at myself like me red-headed as me.
Another formal element of the writing in “Red-Headed Baby” that might be important to note is that Hughes actually punctuates his complete thoughts in a way that gives the reader a window into Clarence’s anxiety. As his anxiety builds, the sentences begin to run together, and he suddenly starts to use run-on sentences frequently. In fact, he used run-on sentences almost exclusively when he began fighting the realization that the red-headed baby is his son, which is the climactic moment in the story where Clarence’s anxiety is at its peak. What also adds to the anxiety in Clarence’s mind is that, not only do the sentences begin to run together as he gets more anxious, but also the dialogue and narration begin to run together so that the reader is forced to pay very close attention to context clues in order to know who is speaking sometimes.
A reader who is familiar with Langston Hughes’s other works is more inclined to recognize that his broken sentence structure in “Red-Headed Baby” is a stylistic preference that he has chosen specifically for this story and that it must have a purpose because he very clearly did not write this way in other texts. That is why it is necessary to discuss other works before discussing “Red-Headed Baby” because it is so well done that it can convince the reader that Hughes’s writing style may actually be confined to Clarence’s jumbled thought process if the reader has not read other works by Hughes. Having read “Mother to Son” first is helpful in that the poem gives an example of what Hughes considers sufficient dialect. It shows how much he is willing to bend the English language to the authentic sound of a character on a normal basis, so it still highlights the dialect found in “Red-Headed Baby” as an extreme. Having read “Passing” before “Red-Headed Baby” as well, the reader is inclined to notice that the latter is not representative of his normal narrative structure even down to formal details like punctuation. “Red-Headed Baby” also uses more elaborate vocabulary than “Passing” and “Mother to Son.”
By now, the three works discussed so far show the variety in Hughes’s writing. He changed his writing style often in order to suit the picture he was attempting to paint at the time, so the fourth work worth discussing at this point is one that can round out his writing style with what could be considered a narrative style closer to his most often used style. In “A Good Job Gone,” Hughes gives readers the perspective of a young, African American male, and the boy serves as a servant in the mansion of a rich, White man named Mr. Lloyd who lives in Riverside Drive. Even though the Black boy is the protagonist of the story, Mr. Lloyd is really the focal point, and the boy is used more as a reference point for observing Mr. Lloyd.
The story of “A Good Job Gone” is told from the perspective of the young, African American boy whose only real concern is having a good job and keeping it, and he is telling this story to a peer, explaining how good he had it. Working for Mr. Lloyd at a Riverside Drive mansion in New York City was actually the best paying job he had ever gotten because Mr. Lloyd regularly paid him twenty dollars a week but would also commonly slip him fives for small things or for when he was leaving for the weekend for nothing at all. The most important point to note about Mr. Lloyd from the boy’s perspective, though, is probably the fact that the man did not have problems with accepting Black people, which is clear based on the fact that he hired the boy with what the reader can assume were no issues.
The story in “A Good Job Gone” is basically one that makes a commentary on White America, and for the most part, this is the purpose of Mr. Lloyd’s character. He is an odd man with unique circumstances. His wife is paralyzed, and he keeps her in a separate house uptown because, though he may genuinely still love her (as evidenced by the fact that he does periodically return to see about her), he cannot have sex with her. He is also struggling with depression, and it is manifesting in his alcoholism and womanizing. He often brings women back to his mansion, some of them consecutive times, but eventually, he always turns his attention to someone else and leaves the previous woman behind. In this depression and this mess of a life he has made for himself, Mr. Lloyd gradually goes insane in the story, and the breaking point for him is the heartbreak he experiences over a Black woman named Pauline from Harlem, which is not terribly far from Riverside Drive.
The depth of the commentary on White America in “A Good Job Gone” is found in the fact that it suggests that only an insane (or borderline), White man is capable of finding comfort with African Americans, and his loss of sanity is meant to lead the reader to a point where the reader wonders if Mr. Lloyd’s fair treatment of the narrator was truly the evidence of his being a good man as the narrator claims. It seems more and more likely as the story draws to a close like Mr. Lloyd is really just a man so desperate for love or companionship that he cannot afford to neglect relationships with Blacks.
He is a White man brought so low despite his wealth that he no longer cares what color his friends or girlfriend are because he cannot afford to. All the women the narrator witnesses Mr. Lloyd with before are White, but when Pauline comes around, Mr. Lloyd becomes happier than he has ever been in the story. He can only feel good about himself in her company despite the fact that she is obviously the same as all the White women he spent time with. All the women he brings home, regardless of color, are really only after his money because they want him to spend it on them. The scene in which Mr. Lloyd and Pauline break up captures the man’s character best. Mr. Lloyd goes to a club in Harlem and finds her with another man, and this man is Black, which the narrator finds particularly amusing. Afterward, they argue while drinking, and Pauline is brutally honest with Mr. Lloyd about the fact that she has no feelings toward him. The speaker says:
I thought Pauline was stupid, talking like that, but I guess she was so drunk she didn’t care.
“Yes, I love that colored boy,” she hollered. “Yes, I love him. You don’t think you’re buying my heart, do you?”
And that hurt the boss. He’d always thought he was a great lover, and that women liked him for something else besides his money. (Because most of them wanted his money, nobody ever told him he wasn’t so hot. His girls all swore they loved him, even when he beat them. […]) (Hughes location 653)
The protagonist actually frames the story much earlier than this scene as evidence that Blacks mess good things up in general. “They’d mess up the Lord if He got too intimate with ‘em” (Hughes 584). The reason he takes this stance is because he feels that Pauline is an example of this. She causes Mr. Lloyd’s depression to spiral out of control, and he is eventually committed to an asylum. As such, the protagonist loses his job, hence the title, “A Good Job Gone.” He is an unreliable narrator, though, because the reader is constantly observing that things are not quite as he describes them. Dialogue is reliable enough, but when the narrator sums up what has occurred, it is not exactly what the reader is likely to have observed.
Any sampling of Hughes’ works can show a wide variety of narrative styles in his writing, and the sampling in this discussion is no exception. “Mother to Son” is a poem that uses the simple, relatable voice, which differs greatly from the ironic and somewhat unreliable voices of “Passing” and “A Good Job Gone.” Different still is the stream of consciousness narration Hughes uses in “Red-Headed Baby,” but the commonality in each of these is the use of first-person narration. This is not to suggest that Hughes restricts himself to first person. In fact, another of his short stories, “Berry,” is written in omniscient third person.
Hughes does seem to prefer the first person perspective most often, but in this story, he narrates in third person. Even so, this third-person narration frames his writing in a way that seems closer to Hughes’s own voice than the other texts discussed here. The prose is very well written, and the organizational structure of sentences throughout can seem recontextualize the narrations of other works like “Mother to Son” or “Red-Headed Baby” because of how well said everything is. For instance, when describing the gossip among nurses about Mrs. Osborne being in love with the married, it reads, “Of course, there wasn’t a word of truth in it, Mrs. Osborn said to herself, admitting at the same time that that Martha Renfield, his wife, was certainly not good enough for the doctor. Anyway, tonight she was not bound on any frivolous errand toward the Doctor’s cottage. She had to see him about this Negro in their midst.”
“Berry” is the story of a home in New Jersey for crippled children. The doctor and the head nurse have a hidden romance despite the doctor’s wife always being around, which serves as a backdrop to the main story. A “kitchen man” quit his job at the home prior to the start of the story, which required Mrs. Osborn, the head nurse, to request a new employee from an employment agency, and the agency sends the home a young, colored boy named Milberry Jones. Everyone at the home is mildly accepting of Milberry, but they take him for granted despite the fact that he is the only employee with a solid work ethic. Dr. Renfield and Mrs. Osborn discuss his pay and deliberately give him two dollars less per hour than they paid his predecessor, and everyone shirks responsibilities just because they know they can make Milberry pick up the slack. Throughout the story, Milberry makes observations about the home that lead him to “[say] to himself, ‘the ways of white folks, I mean some white folks, is too much for me. I reckon they must be a few good ones, but most of ‘em ain’t good—leastwise they don’t treat me good. And Lawd knows, I ain’t never done nothin’ to ‘em, nothin’ a-tall.”
The most significant observation Milberry makes is that the quality of care and work in all areas is only good when the home has a paying visitor. At all other times, the quality of care and work drops considerably, and it is really the children who suffer for this. No one character in the story has an absolutely correct perspective, but that is just one of several reasons why the realism in this story is so noticeable. Another reason is because the story is told in that third person narration to zoom out and show the reader how these characters collide with one another in different ways and how their interactions have positive and negative effects while also speaking to the racial issues represented.
In a similar way to how Hughes said the Negro was in vogue, some of his works can be considered the “vogue” works of Langston Hughes based on which ones usually get the most attention. Few works by Hughes, or by many other authors for that matter, get more attention than “Mother to Son,” which makes it an excellent representation of those so-called vogue works. As great as the poem is, there are so many other works that show the range of Langston Hughes’s abilities as a writer, and reading them analytically, especially in relation to each other and to “Mother to Son” gives readers a much better understanding of why Langston Hughes is a household name.
As Nifong pointed out, The Ways of White Folks in and of itself is an excellent study of point of view. Given that it is a literary study in its own right, it is somewhat remarkable that it should be collection written entirely by a single author. Additionally, the comparison of these works adds depth to what a reader may have gotten from reading the poem, “Mother to Son.” This is why the works of Langston Hughes should be included in college curriculum because they cover such a wide range of English literature.
Francis, Ted. Realism in the Novels of the Harlem Renaissance. New York, Lincoln, Shanghai: Writers Club Press, 2002. Web.
Hughes, Langston. The Ways of White Folks. New York: Vintage Classics, 1933. Kindle.
–. “Mother to Son.” Tnellen. Web. Nifong, David M. “Narrative Technique and Theory in The Ways of White Folks.” Black American Literature Forum, 15 (3): 1981. Web.
In his famous poem “Harlem,” Langston Hughes raises the question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” (line 1), and goes on to offer several possibilities for the consequences of deferring one’s dreams—“Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun? / Or fester like a sore— / And then run?” (Hughes, lines 2-5). John Steinbeck’s 1937 novella Of Mice and Men presents an image that is the epitome of Hughes’ “dream deferred” and works to answer the question of what happens to such dreams. Set in Salinas, California during the Great Depression, the novella centers around the attempts of two farm laborers—George and his mentally handicapped companion, Lennie—to achieve their dream of owning a small farm and “liv[ing] on the fatta the lan’” (Steinbeck 56). Of Mice and Men is frequently read and criticized in the context of the Great Depression, as this is one of the primary forces at work within the story, and is therefore interpreted as a social criticism of both the American Dream and of the broken economic systems that make it impossible to realize. Such a reading is not incorrect; certainly, the Depression and the economic failures that accompanied it play an enormous role in the work. However, to read it only in this light is to overlook a crucially important facet of the story. Of Mice and Men is not merely a tale about the Depression; it is a testament to the human need to dream. In this way, Steinbeck’s novella extends far beyond a social criticism within its specific historical context to offer an image of a shared human tendency to dream, often beyond what is possible, and of the tragic consequences of the conflict between these dreams and social and economic realities.
The lives of the story’s two protagonists, George and Lennie, are dictated largely by their social and economic status. The novella’s opening is a demonstration of their need to travel to find work that can sustain them. When the story begins, they are stopping to make their home for the night in a clearing, drinking from a pool of green water and eating canned beans (Steinbeck 3-8). It is clear from the characters’ introduction that the two are barely getting by; certainly, the Depression is a powerful and looming force in both of their lives. Equally strong, though, is the force of the aspiration that motivates them. They fantasize about owning their own farm and having “a little house and a couple of acres an’ a cow and some pigs…” (Steinbeck 14). Lennie in particular is fascinated by this dream, intent on caring for the rabbits they plan to own, and George, who is effectively Lennie’s caretaker, allows him to dwell on and derive joy from this image of their future as a method of maintaining his morale and keeping his actions in line. As Duncan Reith asserts in his article Futile Dreams and stagnation: politics in Of Mice and Men…, George and Lennie’s dream is “both psychologically necessary and ludicrously far-fetched” (Reith), a remark that points not only to the mens’ reliance on this fantasy as a motivation and a goal toward which they can work, but also to the strong likelihood that George and Lennie will never manage to realize this dream.
This sad implausibility of the image on which the two have based their hopes is alluded to throughout the story. As Peter Cash notes in his article, “John Steinbeck (1902-1968) Of Mice and Men (1937),” “there are increasingly obvious signs that these dreamers will be disappointed” (Cash 219), even from the start of the novella. George’s comments about Lennie’s trouble at their previous job and his repeated instruction to come back to this spot in case of trouble are primes examples of this foreshadowing of the tragic events to come. He tells Lennie, “I want you to look around here….if you jus’ happen to get in trouble like you always done before, I want you to come right here an’ hide in the brush” (Steinbeck 15). Here, the information about Lennie’s past is not simply provided in passing as an explanation of the current predicament; it is used repeatedly and in reference to the possibility of further trouble in the future. This, combined with the later incredulousness with which the possibility of actually achieving their dream is met signifies its improbability. It becomes apparent that this ambition seems entirely out of reach even to George; for example, when he talks with Candy about the idea of buying the stake together, he says incredulously “I bet we could swing her” (Steinbeck 60). This remark is preceded by the narrator’s statement that “This thing they had never really believed in was coming true” (Steinbeck 60), revealing that George, despite being the primary perpetuator and presumably the author of this dream, never truly believed in it to begin with. This lack of faith in their own motivating force points to the fact that their fantasy exists as an instinctive coping method for their current situation rather than a reliable image of the future.
In spite of the fact that their hopes of owning land are, as Reith claims, “ludicrously far-fetched” (Reith), and that many of the characters themselves recognize this, the allure of this ambition remains strong. It is this infectious pull—the human reflex to hope for something better—that draws readers into George and Lennie’s struggle. As Dickstein explains in her article “Steinbeck and the Great Depression,” George and Lennie’s relationship seems to be “built on a dream of independence that others around them too soon come to share” (Dickstein 122), pointing to the unifying power of their shared ambition and to the enticing effects this has on the other characters. Although this idea that striving for independence has effectively made the two dependent on each other seems, on the surface, deeply ironic, it ultimately illuminates the reality that their goal is not an economic response to the poverty of the time, but a fundamentally human response to an isolating and oppressive environment. It is, just as Reith asserts, “psychologically necessary,” not as a result of the Depression, although this is the backdrop on which the story hangs, but as a result of the inherent tendency in people to use dreams as an “escape from [a] bleak predicament” (Reith). Reith’s assertion affirms the idea that George allows them to indulge in their vision of the future not because it is likely, but because their otherwise dull existence without any hope for better would be more than either could bear.
The opposition between these aspirations and the crushing reality of an oppressive economic system is the frame on which the story is built and thus serves as a key force in advancing its plot. Despite the fact that the characters’ dreams serve as a method of coping with this reality, the coexistence of the two forces is also a source of major conflict within the story. Dickstein summarizes this central conflict in her remark that, “the fruit of American plenty on the California trees and vines is exactly the fruit that the beleaguered migrants cannot have, the dream that will never be realized” (Dickstein 116). Here, she is expressing the sad truth that George and Lennie’s goal is not only out of reach, but it taunts them in the form of society’s perpetuation of the myth of what Dickstein calls “the American plenty,” and what is more commonly referred to as the American Dream. In this way, George and Lennie’s desire to own their own land simultaneously serves as both a weight and a motivation. On one hand, the fact that the two men have a shared goal binds them together and pushes them to work and save, granting them hope and purpose in the midst of a rather mundane and arduous life. At the same time, however, even operating under the unrealistic assumption that their goal might be attainable, they are left in the meantime with a dream unfulfilled. From this comes a friction caused by living at halfway point between their hopes for the future and the reality of their life—a reality that includes the fact that, though they perhaps have yet to fully admit it, their dreams are being “thwarted by a selfish, competitive, manipulative system” (Dickstein 117).
The effects of this repression are, as Langston Hughes suggests, are all distinctly damaging. The possibilities he presents for a dream deferred include “stink[ing] like rotten meat,” “crust[ing] and sugar[ing] over—like a syrupy sweet” and “sag[ging] like a heavy load” (Hughes, lines 4-8) For George and Lennie, it is most visibly the latter, as the inability to reach their goal if only for the time being forces them to stay in a job that, from the moment of their arrival, seems to be an invitation for trouble. George alludes to this in his remark that he has “never seen no piece of jail bait worse than [Curley’s wife]” (Steinbeck 32) as he warns Lennie to leave her alone. This warning, coupled with the knowledge of Lennie’s past, foreshadows the events to come. George further acknowledges that the farm is not a good place for the two of them in his assurance to Lennie that, “we’ll get out jus’ as soon as we can. I don’t like it no better than you do” (Steinbeck 33). However, Lennie’s handicap in combination with the economic hardship of the time leaves the two with virtually no other options, and thus their dream forces them into a corner that in turn serves as a precursor for the trouble that follows. It soon becomes clear that this sacrifice and suppression on behalf of their dream deferred comes with dire consequences for all involved.
In the meantime, however, the story progresses, and as George and Lennie attempt to move toward their unrealistic goal of “liv[ing] on the fatta the lan’” (Steinbeck 56), the plights of other characters start to become visible. One example of this is Curley’s wife—who, although she is presented as one of the story’s antagonists—is yet another example of the human inclination to dream and of the consequences of suppressing such dreams. In her conversation with Lennie near the end of the story, she reflects sadly on her missed opportunity to become an actress, remarking that, “I coulda made somethin’ of myself… If I’d went, I wouldn’t be livin’ like this, you bet” (Steinbeck 88). This interaction points to her own desire to become more than is allowed by the life in which she has now been essentially been trapped. Where George and Lennie’s dream is merely unrealistic, hers is completely impossible. She is married now, tied to Curley and their ranch, with no opportunity for achieving anything more. The fact that this lost opportunity is what she chooses to talk about in her first real human interaction since George and Lennie’s arrival on the farm speaks volumes about the extent to which this loss of potential weighs on her.
That Curley’s wife is forced to live a life that is less than what she dreamed of continues to produce tension until the end of her life. She is described in Dickstein’s article as a “lonely, seductive, unsatisfied wife” (Dickstein 118), an accurate indication of the restlessness and discontentment that spurs her disruptive behavior on the farm. She flirts with the men and stirs up trouble not out of maliciousness, but out of a sadness that is caused directly by the death of her dreams through her marriage to Curley. As Cash claims, she “has amorous and glamorous ideas above her station” (Cash 222), resulting in a deep dissatisfaction with the state of her life. Although she is both painted by Steinbeck and viewed by the other characters as an antagonistic force, her actions are fueled by the same human desire that fuels the actions of the protagonists throughout the story. Her character affirms this idea of the inherent human tendency to dream; it is not simply a characteristic of George and Lennie, nor a product of the male need to work and provide during the Depression, but a characteristic of human nature itself. That her need to dream has manifested in a vastly different form from the rest of the characters points to the universality of the need itself—no matter the situation, people cannot help but hope for better.
This dream of Curley’s wife is, in the end, her downfall, illustrating the consequences of the repression of ambition. Through her death, it becomes clear that these conflicting forces within the story—the need to dream and the inability to attain one’s dreams—cannot coexist indefinitely. Her “dream deferred,” as Hughes calls it, does not simply die off and vanish; instead, it festers inside of her, preventing her from conforming to social expectations as the rest of the characters would have her do. She meets Lennie—who as a result of his mental illness and lack of social competence is an unencumbered embodiment of their own deferred dream—and their dreams combine in a chemical reaction that ultimately implodes the status quo on the farm and leaves them both dead. Both of these characters are, whether they are aware of it or not, attempting to push beyond the boundaries of what is allowed to them by their station; both are too caught up in the idea of something better to realize and adhere to the behavior demanded from them by society. It is this, then—the intersection of their two dreams deferred—that sparks the flame that, in the end, leads the characters into an irreversible tragedy. As Hughes alludes to in his poem, their dreams deferred to not simply “fester” or “crust over” or “sag like a heavy load” (Hughes, lines 4-10)—instead, they explode.
The image Hughes presents in his poem “Harlem” of a “dream deferred” is one that appears throughout and serves as a driving force within John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. The novel, while it is influenced heavily economic context of the Great Depression, also doubles as a universally relatable depiction of the human instinct to hope and dream. The novella’s tragic ending—the death of Curley’s wife and George’s subsequent decision to shoot Lennie—ultimately answers the central question in Hughes’ poem: “What happens to a dream deferred?” The unfortunate and violent end met by two of the story’s characters suggests that it is exactly as Hughes suggests in his final, looming question: “Or does it explode?”
Cash, Peter. “John Steinbeck (1902-1968) Of Mice And Men (1937).” Use Of English 63.3 (2012): 218. Supplemental Index. Web. 3 May 2016.
Dickstein, Morris. “Steinbeck And The Great Depression.” The South Atlantic Quarterly 1 (2004): 111. Project MUSE. Web. 3 May 2016.
Hughes, Langston. “Harlem.” Heath Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Paul Lauter. 7th ed. Vol. D. Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2014. 2088-089. Print.
Reith, Duncan. “Futile Dreams and stagnation: politics in Of Mice and Men: the American novelist John Steinbeck has sometimes been criticised as a sentimentalist. Duncan Reith uncovers the bleak political pessimism behind his novel of ranch life during the Great Depression, Of Mice and Men.” The English Review 15.2 (2004): 6+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 3 May 2016.
Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. New York: Penguin, 1993. Print.