James Mercer Langston Hughes (February 1, 1902- May 22, 1967) was an American poet, columnist, novelist and short story writer and was one of the earliest innovators of an art form known as jazz poetry. He was a prolific writer and devoted his life to writing and lecturing, he also edited anthologies in an effort to promote African writers. Most of his works were based on the fight against racial prejudice among his fellow black countrymen and the rest of Europe. Among his famous poems are; “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, “Let America be America” and “A New Song”. He died from prostrate cancer at the age of 65.
Tennessee Williams (March 26, 1911- February 25, 1983), born Thomas Lanier Williams, is one of America’s foremost 20th century playwrights and authored more than 70 plays, these included “The Glass Menagerie” (1945) and “The Night of the Iguana” (1961) which received New York Drama Critics Circle Awards and “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947) which received a Pulitzer Prize. Most of his plays dwelt on the frustrations of a society (Infoplease, n.d, Par. 1).
The aim of the paper is to look into the background of Langston Hughes and Tennessee Williams and make a comparison between these two early writers by studying their literary styles.
Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri to Carrie Mercer Langston and her husband James Nathaniel Hughes, both parents being of mixed race. He wad brought up by his grandmother, Mary Langston, because his parents had divorced while he was young. It is the grandmother who instilled a sense of racial pride that would later on influence his works. Hughes later moved to live with his mother in Illinois after the death of his grandmother, it is here that he attended high school and began writing poetry.
Hughes joined his father in Mexico after graduating from high school. His father never thought he would be able to make a living out of poetry and wanted him to study engineering instead. Hughes finally joined Columbia University to study engineering in 1921 but dropped out in 1922 due to racial prejudice within the university but continued writing poetry, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (1926) was his first published poem. He did odd jobs and in 1923 joined the S.S. Malone, traveling to West Africa and Europe, he left the job and worked in England before returning to the US in November 1924 to live with his mother who had moved to Washington DC.
Hughes joined the Lincoln University in Pennsylvania after receiving a scholarship in 1926 and graduated in 1929 with a B.A. In 1943, he was awarded an honorary Lit. D. by his alma mater, He moved into New York in the same year and lived in Harlem for the rest of his life.
Langston Hughes was very creative, his first work was published in 1926, and this was “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”. Hughes not only wrote plays. He also wrote, musicals and operas, short stories and novels and edited anthologies too, anthologies include “New Negro Poets: USA” (1964), “The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers” (1967) and “An African Treasury” (1960). Hughes’ once said that his poetry was influenced by the American poets Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Carl Sandburg and his life and work greatly influenced the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. His main concern was to encourage the black people and his poetry reflected this; confronting racial prejudice and protesting poor working conditions.
Tennessee Williams was born Thomas Lanier Williams in Columbus, Mississippi to Edwina and Cornelius Williams. His father was a traveling salesman for a shoe manufacturing company. He also had an older sister, Rose, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia at a young age and spent most of her life in mental institutions (The Midge, 2008, par.2). Tennessee Williams was very close to Rose and when a prefrontal lobotomy was performed on her which incapacitated her for the whole of her life, he became very lonely and this could have possibly led to his dependence on alcohol and drugs. The family moved to St. Louis, Missouri where he attended Soldan High School. He joined the University of Missouri in the early 1930s, transferring to Washington University and later to University of Iowa where he graduated in 1938.
He moved into New Orleans, Louisiana in 1939 where he wrote for the Works Progress Administration for sometime. “Battle of Angels” became his first professionally produced play and in 1940 but was not widely received. His best known play, “The Glass Menagerie” opened up on Broadway in 1945 and won several awards. Other plays which featured on Broadway include “A Rose Tattoo” and “Camino Real”. “A Hot Tin Roof” and “Orpheus Descending” among others were turned into motion pictures. In the course of his career, William’s collected many awards including Donaldson awards, Tony award, an $11,000 Commonwealth award, an honorary doctorate from Harvard University and was also honored by President Jimmy Carter in 1979. Most of the plays written by William revolved on the conflict between sexuality, society and Christianity.
Tennessee Williams died at the age of 71 with police reports indicating that alcohol and drug use was the probable cause of his death. In late 2009, he was inducted into the Poet’s Corner, which is also shared by William Shakespeare.
A comparison of Langston Hughes and Tennessee Williams
It is observed that Langston Hughes’ early inspiration came from his grandmother, Mary Langston, whom he lived with for most of his childhood. The grandmother instilled a lasting sense of racial pride which would later influence most of his work which were mostly calls on the African Americans to rise up and fight racial prejudice. His poems were about race-consciousness and influenced many local and foreign black writers.
Tennessee Williams found inspiration from his mother who gave him a typewriter when he was young and encouraged him to write, he also used writing to get away from his parents’ conflict. His father repeatedly favored his younger brother and thus he remained aloof, this gave him more time to write and also set the theme for his poems in the latter years; frustrations of the society.
Langston Hughes’ plays were very popular within and outside the United States, notably among the black people. He won admiration for his distaste of the white oppression and was in turn awarded honorary Lit. D. by the Lincoln University, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1935 and a Rosenwald Fellowship in 1940. Tennessee Williams won even more awards; these included Donaldson award, Tony award, an $11,000 Commonwealth award, a Pulitzer Prize, an honorary doctorate from Harvard University and was also honored by President Jimmy Carter in 1979.
Langston Hughes and Tennessee Williams both had similar backgrounds; both had very troubled childhoods. Hughes was largely raised by his grandmother following the acrimonious divorce of his parents. He lived with family friends after the death of his grandmother, later joining his mother in Ohio. He eventually joined his father in Mexico in the latter years after graduating from high school. Tennessee Williams’ father was always absent due to the nature of his job and when he was at home, he repeatedly favored Williams younger brother over him. His father was also a heavy drinker and often beat Williams’ younger brother when drunk. Williams was also handicapped for two years while young and could not walk, it is during this period that he honed his writing skills.
It is this troubled childhood that heavily influenced these two writers later in life.
Langston Hughes and Tennessee Williams were both writers artists in the 18th century with diverse themes but had a common background in their childhood. This childhood influenced their themes in the latter stages of their lives. Although Tennessee Williams received more accolades than Langston Hughes, it is worthy to note that racial segregation was at its toll during this time and access to the mainstream population was more of a challenge. Langston Hughes also wrote to a specific audience; the African Americans.
Infoplease. (n. d.). Williams, Tennessee. Web.
James Langston Hughes. Web.
Famous Poets and Poems. (n. d. ). Langston Hughes Biography. Web.
The Midge. (2008). A brief History of Tennessee Williams. Web.