A young Langston Hughes stands outside his high school in the snow.

Poet Langston Hughes’ Novel “Not Without Laughter”

The Novel You Need to Read

You probably know of Langston Hughes’ poetry, but did you know that he also wrote prose?  It isn’t nearly as well known as his poetry, but as I recently discovered, Langston Hughes’ novels and stories are definitely worth a read.

The way I found this book proves the importance of not relying on computers alone to find books; I found this one while browsing around the “new books” section at my local branch library.

Not Without Laughter is a semi-autobiographical story about a boy, Sandy, growing up in small town Kansas early in the 20th Century with a focus on his grandmother, who mostly raises him, along with his parents and two aunts.  His grandmother has grown up as an enslaved person and later left the South after struggling with the White residents of her hometown. 

Sandy grows up watching his parents’ generation, as the first born into freedom, struggle to create a path for themselves amidst entrenched institutional racism, even in Kansas. 

Langston Hughes’ Novel is a Tough but Honest Book…but not in the way you think

Even without checking the book’s background online, I could see why this book has not been in the forefront of African American literature. It’s so honest and forthright in its depiction of African American life that I think it’s probably hard for a lot of people to read, and certainly it could add “fuel to the fire” for people who are looking for excuses to be bigots.

The language rings almost brutal to a 21st Century consciousness: It is rampant with the “n” word and other racial epithets I haven’t heard in a long time and many people might not have ever heard at all, such as “jigaboo”.  The thing is, however, in this book, it’s almost always the way Black people talk to and about each other rather than White racism, although that is clearly in the book as well.

There is a lot of discussion of why Black men don’t work, and what kind of work and in what conditions they do, when possible.  There is even one memorable speech when Sandy’s grandmother talks about slavery: “They talks ‘bout slavery time an’ they makes out now like it were the most awfullest time what ever was, but don’t you believe it, chile, ‘cause it weren’t all that bad…. Cours’ I ain’t sayin’ ‘twas no paradise, but I ain’t going say it were not hell either” (134).  She goes on to say that maybe it’s because she always lived in the house, and never worked in the fields, but still…I was shocked.

Don’t Let Your Emotions Trick You

The characters in Langston Hughes’ novel represent people trying to figure out the world they best they can and make their way in it.  The book does show how some people dealing with racial prejudice sort of mentally checked themselves out in order to deal with realities that made no sense and were beyond change, but it also shows characters changing what they can, and always looking for that loophole or opportunity, that helped them become successful in surprising ways.

Sandy sees struggle and failure, but he also sees Black people making accomplishments that are exceptional for anyone, let alone for people with the limitations they face.

There are no tragic figures in this book.  Maybe that’s why it hasn’t been read, but to me the real story is in the lives of the everyday people.  Stories about people on the fringes may be more dramatic, but that doesn’t make them better from an artistic perspective.

Many years ago, I realized that it’s easy to make someone feel emotion about tragic circumstances. Readers mistakes their emotional responses to the actions as responses to the literature.  But to make someone laugh. To make someone see the heroism in the mundane. That takes real genius.

And there are moments in the book where Langston Hughes, the poet, breaks through Langston Hughes, the novelist, to describe scenes that allow you, as the reader, to experience “the sublime and beautiful”, not to mention the ironies, in scenes that might otherwise seem squalid and depressing.

Hughes is honest about his experiences, but doesn’t mean he is without affection. 

Don’t Let the Slow Beginning Discourage You

Don’t be put off by this book’s seemingly beginning.  It is…apparently original reviews of the book agree with me…but about a third of the way through the pace quickens, and this book is worth the wait.

Is Langston Hughes’ novel Not Without Laughter a good Book Club pick?

Aside from its slow beginning, Not Without Laughter is a short, quick read at about 225 pages.  Unlike a lot of African American literature of this period, it isn’t violent, but because of Hughes’ nuanced treatment of the subject matter, it might be hard to discuss.

More by Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes is a famous poet for good reason. He’s definitely not overrated, and he’s more than just a famous representative author of the Harlem Renaissance.

Don’t get me wrong…I’m a fan of Harlem Renaissance literature…but even among such esteemed company, Langston Hughes stands out because his themes and ideas transcend his time and place. Many of his poems do speak directly to the African American experience, but even those poems have ideas that apply to all of us, and many poems have topics that go way beyond that framework.

The Dreamkeeper

Like many poets, most of Hughes’ work is now available in larger collections, which might seem exciting but can also be overwhelming. The Dreamkeeper is a classic that is available as an original collection, with classic artwork.

Selected Poems

If you do want to read more of a selection.

The Ways of White Folks

More of Langston Hughes’ prose, short stories this time.

The Big Sea: Hughes’ autobiography

Keep an eye out over the next few years as Hughes’ work starts to enter the public domain over the next few years in the U.S. One work is already available, The Mule-Bone, a play that Hughes wrote with Zora Neale Hurston.

If you are interested in reading more prose from the Harlem Renaissance, check out this often overlooked (and stunning) classic, Nella Larsen’s Passing.