Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was fully involved, at least artistically, in the radicalism of the 1930s. His poetry from the period is strongly sympathetic toward the Soviet Union and the cause of international socialism. It shows a lack of patience with failure of American society to adequately address either the racial oppression or the economic degradation and exploitation of the period both at home in the Depression and abroad in European colonialism.
This engagement, and the poetic virtuousity by which it was expressed, belie the "shallowness" for which critics have somestimes rerided Hughes's work (Tracy 4). For critic Steven Tracy, Hughes's "simplicity" is a conscious positioning within an American tradition of "plain style" and a counter to both the obfuscations of the High Modernists and also to the pretension and racism that denied the value of the "African American dimension of the American experiment" as well as the value of folk culture and the "common people" generally (Tracy 14-18).
Hughes first came to prominence in the "Harlem Renaissance", the period of flourishing African-American culture that occured in New York City at the beginning of the last century, and his literary reputation remains strong today.
Hughes's career followed a varied path; he wrote prose fiction as well as poetry. He collaborated with visual artists and musicians. Within his poetry there is a great deal of variety as well.
A number of poems express a jazz or a blues rythm and aesthetic, while others engage in experimental or more traditional forms. Most often, he wrote short lyrics with short clipped lines, but again, there are poems that pour out across the page, as witness "Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria" in this collection. This experimental poem mimicks the language and pagination of a full-page ad for a newly opening hotel, but in the midst of the braying announcements of the hotel's virutes come choruses of various groups of the dispossessed. The poem builds to a cresendo until the "Christ child of the Revolution" is born to a starving prostitute in Waldorf-Astoria, as it's "best manger we've got."
Though Hughes's corncern with political radicalism and the injustices of the age is strong in his work, it is not exclusively his subject. In poems such as "Pennsylvania Station" Hughes explores the search for meaning in life through the image of the Pennsylvania Train Station in New York City which "is like some vast basilica of old / That towers above the terror of the dark / As bulwark and protection to the soul."
In all its incarnations, Hughes's poetry seeks and attains the expression of personal meaning and while reclaiming the values of, and engagement with, communities and groups previously neglected and oppressed.