Cover image for Not without laughter
Not without laughter
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xvii, 231 pages ; 20 cm.
General Note:
"First published in the United States of America by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1930"--Title page verso.
Introduction / Angela Flournoy -- Storm -- Conversation -- Jimboy's letter -- Thursday afternoon -- Guitar -- Work -- White folks -- Dance -- Carnival -- Punishment -- School -- Hard winter -- Christmas -- Return -- One by one -- Nothing but love -- Barber-shop -- Children's day -- Ten dollars and costs -- Hey, boy! -- Note to Harriett -- Beyond the Jordan -- Tempy's house -- A shelf of books -- Pool hall -- The doors of life -- Beware of women -- Chicago -- Elevator -- Princess of the blues.
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In telling the story of Sandy Rogers, a young African American boy in small-town Kansas, and of his family--his mother, Annjee, a housekeeper for a wealthy white family; his irresponsible father, Jimboy, who plays the guitar and travels the country in search of employment; his strong-willed grandmother Hager, who clings to her faith; his Aunt Tempy, who marries a rich man; and his Aunt Harriet, who struggles to make it as a blues singer--Hughes gives the longings and lineaments of black life in the early twentieth century an important place in the history of racially divided America.


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Our greatest African American poet's award-winning first novel, about a black boy's coming-of-age in a largely white Kansas town

When first published in 1930, Not Without Laughter established Langston Hughes as not only a brilliant poet and leading light of the Harlem Renaissance but also a gifted novelist. In telling the story of Sandy Rogers, a young African American boy in small-town Kansas, and of his family--his mother, Annjee, a housekeeper for a wealthy white family; his irresponsible father, Jimboy, who plays the guitar and travels the country in search of employment; his strong-willed grandmother Hager, who clings to her faith; his Aunt Tempy, who marries a rich man; and his Aunt Harriet, who struggles to make it as a blues singer--Hughes gives the longings and lineaments of black life in the early twentieth century an important place in the history of racially divided America.

For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,800 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.

Author Notes

Langston Hughes, February 1, 1902 - May 22, 1967 Langston Hughes, one of the foremost black writers to emerge from the Harlem Renaissance, was born on February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Mo. Hughes briefly attended Columbia University before working numerous jobs including busboy, cook, and steward. While working as a busboy, he showed his poems to American poet Vachel Lindsay, who helped launch his career. He soon obtained a scholarship to Lincoln University and had several works published.

Hughes is noted for his depictions of the black experience. In addition to the black dialect, he incorporated the rhythms of jazz and the blues into his poetry. While many recognized his talent, many blacks disapproved of his unflattering portrayal of black life. His numerous published volumes include, "The Weary Blues," "Fine Clothes to the Jew," and "Montage of a Dream Deferred." Hughes earned several awards during his lifetime including: a Guggenheim fellowship, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Grant, and a Spingarn Medal from the NAACP.

Langston Hughes died of heart failure on May 22, 1967.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

New York Review of Books Review

for a writer like Langston Hughes, who made a name for himself as a poet before the age of 21, his debut novel, "Not Without Laughter," feels like an effort to stake out a bigger claim on his abilities, to create artistic and thematic breathing room. Arna Bontemps, celebrated poet and friend to Hughes, described "Not Without Laughter" as the novel Hughes had to write, coming on the heels of two well-received poetry collections, "The Weary Blues" (1926) and "Fine Clothes to the Jew" (1927). Hughes published these collections while a student at Lincoln University, and he released "Not Without Laughter" in 1930, shortly after graduating. "By the date of his first book of prose Hughes had become for many a symbol of the black renaissance," Bontemps writes. The stakes were high, then, for the young man born in Joplin, Mo. He had to deliver. "Not Without Laughter" crystallizes some of the themes in Hughes's early poetry and examines in detail subjects he would return to throughout his career, among them the experiences of working-class blacks, the importance of black music to black life, the beauty of black language and the trap of respectability. It begins as a tale of family life, following the Williamses - the matriarch, Aunt Hager; her daughters, Harriet, Annjee and Tempy; and Annjee's husband, Jimboy - in the small Kansas town of Stanton. After establishing the conflicts and desires of the adults, the narrative becomes a bildungsroman. Here it finds its true purpose: chronicling the upbringing of Sandy, the son of Jimboy and Annjee, as he struggles to forge an identity outside of the boxes the white and black worlds have put him in, and seeks stability within his increasingly unstable home. Each family member provides an example of how Sandy might navigate his world. Sandy's father is a blues man, a guitar picker with an itch for traveling, who leaves his wife and his son for months on end. Sandy's mother works long hours as a domestic for an exacting white woman and comes home so exhausted and lovesick that she doesn't have much attention to spare for her young son. Soon enough she leaves Stanton for good, determined to stay by Jimboy's side and find happiness in their reunion. Hager is Sandy's primary caretaker, and it is her grandson in whom she invests all her hopes for her family: "I's gwine raise one chile right yet, if de Lawd lets me live - just one chile right!" In an unkind light Hager can be read as a Mammy, a former slave who chose to stay by her mistress's side for several years after emancipation rather than "scatter like buckshot," as most freed people did, and who now washes the clothes of white people and tends to their illnesses when called. Hughes takes care to flesh out Hager's motivations, which prove more complicated than unblinking servitude. Hager finds solace in forgiveness, in assuming the best in people too ignorant to reciprocate. Her benevolence provides existential armor. Hate "closes up de sweet door to life an' makes ever'thing small an' mean an' dirty," Hager insists. Her beliefs stand in stark contrast to those of many other Negroes, including her own children. Hager's youngest daughter, Harriet, is beautiful, with a voice made to sing the blues. She gives her mother and Annjee's way of life a chance - working at a country club where old white men make passes at her - but ultimately opts out, hoping to escape Stanton altogether. She runs away with the carnival, then returns and dabbles in sex work before finally getting a break as a singer. Her story begins as one of classic teenage rebellion but ends as an example of fierce determination. In his famous essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," Hughes expresses fondness for "the lowdown folks, the so-called common element." Poor African-Americans made up a majority of the black population but were rarely depicted as fully realized characters in the serious literature of the day. "They furnish a wealth of colorful, distinctive material for any artist because they still hold their own individuality in the face of American standardizations," Hughes writes. A writer who extols a group based on any demographic denominator runs the risk of flattening his characters, but in the face of popular novels about middle- and upper-class black experiences, such as those by his contemporary Jessie Redmon Fauset, Hughes's call for nuanced consideration of working-class black people was noteworthy. The early 20 th century was also a period when "color mania" was part of day-to-day black life, with lighter skin seen as correlating with increased romantic prospects and upward mobility. Hughes's focus on characters with darker skin - something we are reminded of throughout - seems like a conscious statement against assimilation and conformity. In reviewing Hughes's first autobiography, "The Big Sea" (1940), Richard Wright recalls Hughes's early poetry being greeted with shock by black readers. "Since then the realistic position assumed by Hughes has become the dominant outlook," Wright observes. Indeed what stays with the reader longer than the plot of "Not Without Laughter" is the frequent, unexpected uses of imagery and language that make the characters and their lives feel real. Sandy recalls Aunt Hager, a woman who frowns on secular dancing - even in her own yard - whirling round and round at a revival in religious ecstasy. During conversations between black characters, the word "nigger" rolls off their tongues often - sometimes pejoratively, sometimes humorously, but more often as a general descriptor - and it's a testament to Hughes's ear for black language that we are never in doubt about the tone. This focus on rendering realistically how black folks behave among themselves, whether or not it would be considered proper in other contexts, is one of the novel's greatest achievements. Like his one-time collaborator and contemporary Zora Neale Hurston, Hughes takes an anthropological approach to setting and character. The town of Stanton is similar to Lawrence, the small Kansas town where Hughes grew up with his maternal grandmother while his father worked in Mexico and his mother lived in Topeka. It was the sort of place where blacks and whites might live in close proximity, but where a black boy would avoid walking by his white neighbor's lawn for fear of having insults - or worse - hurled at him. Hughes, like Sandy, grew up with a largely absent father and an interest in books. Already a budding public figure by the time of the novel's release, Hughes likely saw his own life pulling him farther and farther from the smalltown Midwestern world that raised him. Reading "Not Without Laughter," one senses that Hughes was desperate to record all of his early memories, from the "sooty gray-green light" that turns to blackness before a tornado, to the possum, peach preserves and yams at a humble Thanksgiving dinner. Sandy is an ideal protagonist for a novel so interested in place and culture - an observant boy able to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. He listens intently during warm nights on the porch with Aunt Hager. He overhears grown black folks parsing the psychology of whites who want to keep blacks nearby - nursing their children, preparing their meals - but always beneath them, and withholds his own judgment, wise enough to know he doesn't know enough. As a teenager Sandy sweeps up at a neighborhood barbershop, "filled with loud man-talk and smoke and laughter," and gets a crude sexual education from the conversations of customers and barbers, as well as lessons in playing the dozens - "the protective art of turning back a joke." He inhabits this new space the same way he inhabits every other one, simultaneously attuned to its peculiarities and set apart. A poet who writes fiction can imbue his prose with considerable magic. For Hughes, this comes from the lyrics and rhythms of jazz and blues. "Not Without Laughter" includes lyrics to songs that are mournful, bawdy, vengeful and downright silly. They underscore the importance Hughes felt they played in black life. One gets the sense that Sandy's upbringing has been shaped as much by these songs as by Aunt Hager's teachings. As the novel progresses, Sandy's thoughts are rendered in musical streams of consciousness, turning from anticipation to curiosity to anger to desire. The result is a realistic portrayal of the rhythms of a young man's inner life: Sandy lies in bed at night and riffs on his own past and future. "Not Without Laughter" is a debut in the best of ways: It covers uncharted territory, it compels its readers to see part of the world anew, and it prizes exploration over pat conclusion. Hughes accesses the universal - how all of us love and dream and laugh and cry - by staying faithful to the particulars of his characters and their way of life. With this book the young poet from Joplin, Mo., manages to deliver something more valuable than simply an admirable debut - he gives his readers a guide for careful consideration of the lives of everyday black people. Such a guide is still useful today. Perhaps more than ever. ? angela FLOURNOY'S novel, "The Turner House," was a National Book Award finalist in 2015. This essay is adapted from her introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of "Not Without Laughter," by Langston Hughes, which will be published this month.

Library Journal Review

This is another in the new Scribner Paperback Fiction line. Poet Hughes made the jump to fiction with this 1930 first novel of an African American boy's coming of age in a small Kansas town. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



I. Storm Aunt Hager Williams stood in her doorway and looked out at the sun. The western sky was a sulphurous yellow and the sun a red ball dropping slowly behind the trees and house-tops. Its setting left the rest of the heavens grey with clouds. "Huh! A storm's coming'," said Aunt Hager aloud. A pullet ran across the back yard and into a square-cut hole in an unpainted piano-box which served as the roosting-house. An old hen clucked her brood together and, with the tiny chicks, went into a small box beside the large one. The air was very still. Not a leaf stirred on the green apple-tree. Not a single closed flower of the morning-glories trembled on the back fence. The air was very still and yellow. Something sultry and oppressive made a small boy in the doorway stand closer to his grandmother, clutching her apron with his brown hands. "Sho is a storm comin'," said Aunt Hager. "I hope mama gets home 'fore it rains," remarked the brown child holding to the old woman's apron. "Hope she gets home." "I does, too," said Aunt Hager. "But I's skeared she won't." Just then great drops of water began to fall heavily into the back yard, pounding up little clouds of dust where each drop struck the earth. For a few moments they pattered violently on the roof like a series of hammer-strokes; then suddenly they ceased. "Come in, chile," said Aunt Hager. She closed the door as the green apple-tree began to sway in the wind and a small hard apple fell, rolling rapidly down the top of the piano-box that sheltered the chickens. Inside the kitchen it was almost dark. While Aunt Hager lighted an oil-lamp, the child climbed to a chair and peered through the square window into the yard. The leaves and flowers of the morning-glory vines on the back fence were bending with the rising wind. And across the alley at the big house, Mrs. Kennedy's rear screen-door banged to and fro, and Sandy saw her garbage-pail suddenly tip over and roll down into the yard, scattering potato-peelings on the white steps. "Sho gwine be a terrible storm," said Hager as she turned up the wick of the light and put the chimney on. Then, glancing through the window, she saw a black cloud twisting like a ribbon in the western sky, and the old woman screamed aloud in sudden terror: "It's a cyclone! It's gwine be a cyclone! Sandy, let's get over to Mis' Carter's quick, 'cause we ain't got no cellar here. Come on, chile, let's get! Come on, chile! . . . Come on, chile!" Hurriedly she blew out the light, grabbed the boy's hand; and together they rushed through the little house towards the front. It was quite dark in the inner rooms, but through the parlor windows came a sort of sooty grey-green light that was rapidly turning to blackness. "Lawd help us, Jesus!" Aunt Hager opened the front door, but before she or the child could move, a great roaring sound suddenly shook the world, and, with a deafening division of wood from wood, they saw their front porch rise into the air and go hurtling off into space. Sailing high in the gathering darkness, the porch was soon lost to sight. And the black wind blew with terrific force, numbing the ear-drums. For a moment the little house trembled and swayed and creaked as though it were about to fall. "Help me to shut this do'," Aunt Hager screamed; "help me to shut it, Lawd!" as with all her might she struggled against the open door, which the wind held back, but finally it closed and the lock caught. Then she sank to the floor with her back against the wall, while her small grandson trembled like a leaf as she took him in her lap, mumbling: "What a storm! . . . O, Lawdy! . . . O, ma chile, what a storm!" They could hear the crackling of timbers and the rolling limbs of trees that the wind swept across the roof. Her arms tightened about the boy. "Dear Jesus!" she said. "I wonder where is yo' mama? S'pose she started out fo' home 'fore this storm come up!" Then in a scream: "Have mercy on ma Annjee! O, Lawd, have mercy on this chile's mama! Have mercy on all ma chillens! Ma Harriett, an' ma Tempy, an' ma Annjee, what's maybe all of 'em out in de storm! O, Lawd!" A dry crack of lightning split the darkness, and the boy began to wail. Then the rain broke. The old woman could not see the crying child she held, nor could the boy hear the broken voice of his grandmother, who had begun to pray as the rain crashed through the inky blackness. For a long while it roared on the roof of the house and pounded at the windows, until finally the two within became silent, hushing their cries. Then only the lashing noise of the water, coupled with the feeling that something terrible was happening, or had already happened, filled the evening air. After the rain the moon rose clear and bright and the clouds disappeared from the lately troubled sky. The stars sparkled calmly above the havoc of the storm, and it was still early evening as people emerged from their houses and began to investigate the damage brought by the twisting cyclone that had come with the sunset. Through the rubbish-filled streets men drove slowly with horse and buggy or automobile. The fire-engine was out, banging away, and the soft tang-tang-tang of the motor ambulance could be heard in the distance carrying off the injured. Black Aunt Hager and her brown grandson put their rubbers on and stood in the water-soaked front yard looking at the porchless house where they lived. Platform, steps, pillars, roof, and all had been blown away. Not a semblance of a porch was left and the front door opened bare into the yard. It was grotesque and funny. Hager laughed. "Cyclone sho did a good job," she said. "Looks like I ain't never had no porch." Madam de Carter, from next door, came across the grass, her large mouth full of chattering sympathy for her neighbor. "But praise God for sparing our lives! It might've been worse, Sister Williams! It might've been much more calamitouser! As it is, I lost nothin' more'n a chimney and two wash-tubs which was settin' in the back yard. A few trees broke down don't 'mount to nothin'. We's livin', ain't we? And we's more importanter than trees is any day!" Her gold teeth sparkled in the moonlight. "'Deed so," agreed Hager emphatically. "Let's move on down de block, Sister, an' see what mo' de Lawd has 'stroyed or spared this evenin'. He's gin us plenty moonlight after de storm so we po' humans can see this lesson o' His'n to a sinful world." The two elderly colored women picked their way about on the wet walk, littered with twigs and branches of broken foliage. The little brown boy followed, with his eyes wide at the sight of baby-carriages, window-sashes, shingles, and tree-limbs scattered about in the roadway. Large numbers of people were out, some standing on porches, some carrying lanterns, picking up useful articles from the streets, some wringing their hands in a daze. Near the corner a small crowd had gathered quietly. "Mis' Gavitt's killed," somebody said. "Lawd help!" burst from Aunt Hager and Madam de Carter simultaneously. "Mister and Mis' Gavitt's both dead," added a nervous young white man, bursting with the news. "We live next door to 'em, and their house turned clean over! Came near hitting us and breaking our side-wall in." "Have mercy!" said the two women, but Sandy slipped away from his grandmother and pushed through the crowd. He ran round the corner to where he could see the overturned house of the unfortunate Gavitts. Good white folks, the Gavitts, Aunt Hager had often said, and now their large frame dwelling lay on its side like a doll's mansion, with broken furniture strewn carelessly on the wet lawn--and they were dead. Sandy saw a piano flat on its back in the grass. Its ivory keys gleamed in the moonlight like grinning teeth, and the strange sight made his little body shiver, so he hurried back through the crowd looking for his grandmother. As he passed the corner, he heard a woman sobbing hysterically within the wide house there. His grandmother was no longer standing where he had left her, but he found Madam de Carter and took hold of her hand. She was in the midst of a group of excited white and colored women. One frail old lady was saying in a high determined voice that she had never seen a cyclone like this in her whole life, and she had lived here in Kansas, if you please, going on seventy-three years. Madam de Carter, chattering nervously, began to tell them how she had recognized its coming and had rushed to the cellar the minute she saw the sky turn green. She had not come up until the rain stopped, so frightened had she been. She was extravagantly enjoying the telling of her fears as Sandy kept tugging at her hand. "Where's my grandma?" he demanded. Madam de Carter, however, did not cease talking to answer his question. "What do you want, sonny?" finally one of the white women asked, bending down when he looked as if he were about to cry. "Aunt Hager? . . . Why, she's inside helping them calm poor Mrs. Gavitt's niece. Your grandmother's good to have around when folks are sick or grieving, you know. Run and set on the steps like a nice boy and wait until she comes out." So Sandy left the women and went to sit in the dark on the steps of the big corner house where the niece of the dead Mrs. Gavitt lived. There were some people on the porch, but they soon passed through the screen-door into the house or went away down the street. The moonlight cast weird shadows across the damp steps where Sandy sat, and it was dark there under the trees in spite of the moon, for the old house was built far back from the street in a yard full of oaks and maples, and Sandy could see the light from an upstairs window reflecting on the wet leaves of their nearest boughs. He heard a girl screaming, too, up there where the light was burning, and he knew that Aunt Hager was putting cold cloths on her head, or rubbing her hands, or driving folks out of the room, and talking kind to her so that she would soon be better. All the neighborhood, white or colored, called his grandmother when something happened. She was a good nurse, they said, and sick folks liked her around. Aunt Hager always came when they called, too, bringing maybe a little soup that she had made or a jelly. Sometimes they paid her and sometimes they didn't. But Sandy had never had to sit outdoors in the darkness waiting for her before. He leaned his small back against the top step and rested his elbows on the porch behind him. It was growing late and the people in the streets had all disappeared. There, in the dark, the little fellow began to think about his mother, who worked on the other side of town for a rich white lady named Mrs. J. J. Rice. And suddenly frightful thoughts came into his mind. Suppose she had left for home just as the storm came up! Almost always his mother was home before dark--but she wasn't there tonight when the storm came--and she should have been home! This thought appalled him. She should have been there! But maybe she had been caught by the storm and blown away as she walked down Main Street! Maybe Annjee had been carried off by the great black wind that had overturned the Gavitts' house and taken his grandma's porch flying through the air! Maybe the cyclone had gotten his mother, Sandy thought. He wanted her! Where was she? Had something terrible happened to her? Where was she now? The big tears began to roll down his cheeks--but the little fellow held back the sobs that wanted to come. He decided he wasn't going to cry and make a racket there by himself on the strange steps of these white folks' house. He wasn't going to cry like a big baby in the dark. So he wiped his eyes, kicked his heels against the cement walk, lay down on the top step, and, by and by, sniffled himself to sleep. Excerpted from Not Without Laughter by Langston Hughes All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Angela Flournoy
Introductionp. ix
Not Without Laughter
I Stormp. 1
II Conversationp. 10
III Jimboy's Letterp. 20
IV Thursday Afternoonp. 26
V Guitarp. 35
VI Workp. 44
VII White Folksp. 51
VIII Dancep. 61
IX Carnivalp. 76
X Punishmentp. 86
XI Schoolp. 92
XII Hard Winterp. 98
XIII Christmasp. 108
XIV Returnp. 118
XV One by Onep. 124
XVI Nothing but Lovep. 133
XVII Barber-Shopp. 139
XVIII Children's Dayp. 146
XIX Ten Dollars and Costsp. 153
XX Hey, Boy!p. 157
XXI Note to Harriettp. 164
XXII Beyond the Jordanp. 173
XXIII Tempy's Housep. 178
XXIV A Shelf of Booksp. 184
XXV Pool Hallp. 189
XXVI The Doors of Lifep. 195
XXVII Beware of Womenp. 201
XXVIII Chicagop. 210
XXIX Elevatorp. 221
XXX Princess of the Bluesp. 225