Besides being a poet, playwright, novelist, songwriter, biographer, editor, newspaper columnist, translator and lecturer, Langston Hughes also included in his prolific career earlier stints as a merchant seaman, a chef (in Paris), and a beachcomber (in Italy and Spain). Born in Joplin, Missouri, on February 1, 1902, he lived the first twelve years of his life in Kansas, Colorado, Indiana, and New York State. He graduated from high school in Cleveland, Ohio, where in his senior year he was elected class poet and editor of the yearbook. Hughes' other travels included trips to Europe and Africa, and the character of his adventurous, wandering life was reflected in such works as his novel Not Without Laughter (1930), his short stories, and his autobiography.
Hughes received recognition as a poet when, as a young man working as a waiter in a Washington, D.C., hotel, he showed some of his poems to a guest, the eminent poet Vachel Lindsay. Lindsay enthusiastically introduced the poems to a literary gathering at the hotel and Hughes' first book, The Weary Blues, was published as a result of the encouragement he received from Lindsay.
By 1925, Hughes, together with other African-American writers, had formed a group in the Harlem section of New York City for the purpose of exchanging ideas, encouraging one another, and, eventually, sharing in the triumph created by the sudden popularity of their work. As spokesman for the group, Hughes published an article, "The African-American Artist and the Racial Mountain," which amounted to a public declaration of the intent of Hughes and his contemporaries to break from their literary heritage and to initiate a new trend in Negro literature. For new black writers, Harlem and its people were to provide the inspiration for much of their artistic work.
In later years, Hughes became known as the "O. Henry of Harlem" and wrote countless short stories, a number of volumes of poetry, seven novels, and six plays. In his early volumes of poetry, he successfully caught and projected scenes of urban African-American life, and his sketches in verse with their undertones of bitterness, humor, and pathos became also a form of social protest.
In constant demand as a lecturer, Hughes traveled on speaking tours throughout the United States, to the West Indies, and to parts of Europe and Africa. He received many awards and honors for his writings, which have been translated into more than 25 languages.