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Analysis Of Langston Hughes And Countee Cullen English Literature Essay

In a time of racial apartheid throughout the United States, two men were able to help unite readers and writers of all races to come to understand the arduous times of African-Americans living within the United States and in particular, Harlem, New York. James Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen were two of Harlem’s most prolific and prominent poets during the early 20th century, a time period known as the Harlem Renaissance. They were both striving for one common goal; racial equality, while also providing people of that time insight into the daily life’s of African Americans residing in Harlem, New York.

Countee Cullen was born in Louisville, Kentucky on May 30, 1903. Cullen’s grandmother Elizabeth Lucas raised him up until she died in 1918. After Cullen’s grandmother’s death he was taken in and adopted by Reverend Frederick Asbury Cullen (Shucard, Alan). Countee went to public schools in New York where he first started to develop his poetry skills, and throughout high school he won many awards for his poetry (Shucard, Alan). Cullen didn’t like his adopted parents fundamentalist views on religion, these views later served as his ambivalence toward religion later on in his life (Shucard, Alan). Cullen finished high school at De Witt Clinton High School on January 26, 1922 and then enrolled in New York University (Shucard, Alan). In 1923 Countee won second place prize in the Witter Bynner Poetry Contest for “The Ballad of the Brown Girl” which introduced a racial theme that would soon become prevalent to his poetry (Shucard, Alan). In 1925 Cullen completed school at NYU and published “Color”, which was his first volume of poems (Shucard, Alan). Countee received amazing feedback about “Color” from poets who acknowledged it as being admirable and insuring (Lumpkin, Shirley). Cullen then attended Harvard University until his graduated in 1926 with a Master’s degree (Shucard, Alan). In 1932 Cullen published his first and only novel, “One Way to Heaven” (Shucard, Alan). Cullen wanted people to see him as just plainly a poet not a African American poet, which shows Cullen’s want to break the racial barrier between blacks and whites (Lumpkin, Shirley). Cullen also loved to dance and also loved jazz and other Caribbean dance music (Lumpkin, Shirley). Cullen became married to Yolande Du Bois on April 9, 1928, the marriage ended quite quickly and abruptly, he later married Ida Mae Roberson on September 27, 1940 (Lumpkin, Shirley). Cullen pretty much quit writing poetry during the 1940s to teach at Frederick Douglass Junior High School, which he did up until his passing from high blood pressure and uremic poisoning on January 9, 1946 (Lumpkin Shirley).

A major theme of Langston Hughes’s poetry was his adventurous years before becoming a poet. Preceding to him being even 12 years of age, Hughes had already resided in six different cities in the United States and before he ever published his original book he had earned a living as a chef, waiter, sailor, and doorman, as well as having lived or visited Mexico, France, West Africa, the Azores, the Canary Islands, Holland, and Italy, these adventures influenced his poetry profusely (“(James) Langston Hughes”). Hughes also liked to incorporate rhythms of jazz and "just a simple but seductive taste of the blues" (“(James) Langston Hughes) into his poetry. Another and possibly most obvious and important theme of Hughes’s poetry was him basically protesting the way that African Americans of that time period were being treated throughout the United States while providing a particularly extensive insight into the racial struggles of the people in Harlem an area that Hughes had grown accustom to. Hughes believed that eventually his people would be including in the “American Dream” and these thoughts were evident throughout his poetic works (“(James) Langston Hughes”). Hughes liked to dig deep into the fundamentals of racial bigotry and demonstrate just how quickly these fundamentals could lead to mental and personal violence (Bevilacqua, Winifred). Langston embraced his African heritage during a time when it was sort of taboo to do so. He had great interest in the dialect and song of the everyday lower-class people and urban African Americans; he used this language in much of his poetry. His love of black culture and desire to see a racially equal world seemed to be his main style in his poems "No one loved Negroes as Langston Hughes did" (“Langston Hughes (1902-1967)”.

Countee Cullen’s style was actually very different from Langston Hughes’s considering that Cullen wrote using rhyme and Hughes wrote using rhythm. Cullen’s use of rhyme makes his poems flow well with his images and views. However they both wrote during the Harlem Renaissance and they both shared very similar themes and motifs. Cullen’s poetry was nearly always about race or religion, and occasionally both. Cullen also sought for racial equally like Hughes while also taking extreme pride in his African heritage which he clearly shows in a poem called “Heritage”, a poem that was also called “the most beautiful poem he knew” (Lumpkin, Shirley) by Langston Hughes. A lot of Cullen’s poetry was influenced by his very religious upbringing; he included many Christian motifs in his poetry. Cullen believed that poetic themes should choose the styles of sonnet, metered couplets, or brief ironic epitaphs since he wanted to control the emotion to express his conception of beauty in his poetry (Lumpkin, Shirley). He was also convinced that traditional verse forms were much better than more modern paradigms. “Cullen continued to be known for poems characterized by beauty and nobility, filled with his favorite image for the goodness and promise of life, spring.” (Lumpkin, Shirley) Cullen also gave insight into the lives of everyday black Americans living in Harlem in hopes that one day that there would be no more racial intolerance, which was something that both Cullen and Hughes had in common. They both wanted people to look at each other as Americans not African Americans nor European Americans, and be proud of their heritage but not discriminate against other people’s heritage.

“Night Funeral in Harlem” was a poetic work written by Langston Hughes that shows his usage of the blues in his works. This poem is mainly set in the second person point of view, which can be seen by the lines “Where did they get Them two fine cars?” and “insurance lapsed the other day”(“Night Funeral in Harlem”), if the speaker was one of the mourners then he wouldn’t have to ask where the cars arrived from, plus the speaker knows the family well enough to know that the insurance had fallen through but not well enough to know how exactly the family and friends were paying for the extravagant funeral. In the third stanza the speaker reveals that the dead boy is black, this could be a way of Hughes expressing to his audience his disgust of something that shouldn’t occur yet does occur so often in Harlem, which is the death of a presumably young possibly teenage black boy although he doesn’t ever say if the boy was killed however that can be inferred considering most teenagers don’t die of natural causes. This stanza also sort of criticizes religion by saying that “Old preacher man Preached that boy away--Charged Five Dollars His girl friend had to pay” (“Night Funeral in Harlem”) which implicates the preacher as being a greedy cold hearted man. However in the fourth stanza the speaker realizes that the funeral was important and that was made it grand was the boy’s family and friends coming together to pay for it.

“Yet Do I Marvel” is a poem written by Countee Cullen that is a first person monologue using iambic pentameter while also using religious reflection that stems largely from the involvement of Christianity in black American life and culture. This poem starts off saying that “I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind”, but then asks the question of how a benevolent deity could accept such horrid circumstances such as disabilities and death. He then wonders if there is an actual explanation to the mole’s natural blindness, the mortification of Tantalus and Sisyphus, or the mortality of humans. He then concludes that only God could be the one to have such an explanation. The final couplet reveals that the poet is black and now becomes the most unbelievable action of God for the poet to rationalize, how God created him as both black and a poet. This shows Cullen’s want to be recognized and remembered as a poet not an African American poet that is what is central to this poem (“Shucard, Alan). Also important to realize is that Cullen compares being black to the mole’s natural blindness and the torture of Tantalus and Sisyphus, which one could interpret as him saying that basically it is tough to be black in America especially during the time period in which he lived.

To conclude, Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen both had somewhat similar biographies, and lived somewhat similar lifestyles. However they’re styles differed immensely, Langston Hughes wrote in rhythm while Countee Cullen wrote in rhyme. Nevertheless they both used extremely similar themes in their poetry, the main one of course being the move toward racial equality and a much more peaceful society. Cullen also tended to include certain aspects of Christianity in his poetry, while Hughes generally wrote poems about his own personal experiences traveling to very exotic places and working many different jobs. All in all, Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen are and will always be two of the most exceptional poets during the time known as the Harlem Renaissance.

Primary Sources

Cullen, Countee. “Yet Do I Marvel”. PoemHunter.com. 27 Mar 2011

<http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/yet-do-i-marvel/>

Hughes, Langston. “Night Funeral in Harlem”. PoemHunter.com. 27 Mar 2011.

<http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/night-funeral-in-harlem/>

Secondary Sources

“(James) Langston Hughes”. Contemporary Authors Online. 2003.

Literature Resources from Gale. Palm Beach County School District, West Palm Beach, FL. 22 Mar 2011.

Bevilacqua, Winifred. “(James) Langston Hughes”. American Short-Story Writers, 1910-1945

First Series. 1989. Literature Resources from Gale. Palm Beach County School District, West Palm Beach, FL. 22 Mar 2011

“Countee Cullen (1903-1946)” Georgetown University Web Hosting. 27 Mar 2011

<http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/bassr/heath/syllabuild/iguide/cullen.html>

“Langston Hughes (1902-1967)” Georgetown University Web Hosting. 27 Mar 2011

<http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/bassr/heath/syllabuild/iguide/hughes.html>

Lumpkin, Shirley. ”Countee Cullen”. American Poets, 1880-1945: Second Series, 1986.

Literature Resources from Gale. Palm Beach County School District. West Palm Beach, FL. 22 Mar 2011.

Shucard, Alan. “Countee Cullen”. Afro-American Writers from the Harlem Renaissance to 1940.

1987, Literature Resources from Gale. Palm Beach County School District, West Palm Beach, FL. 22 Mar 2011

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