Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) and Langston Hughes (1902-1967) were American originals–two innovative writers who probably never met–but whose paths crossed and whose careers followed the same arc, beginning with the spark of early fame and ending with the slow fizzle of a once popular author who has fallen out of favor.

     They each hailed from hard, diverse backgrounds–authentic sons of Twentieth Century America. Of French-Canadian ancestry, Jack grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts, where his father was a printer and his mother worked in a shoe factory in that drab mill town.

     Even as a boy, Jack had curiosity and imagination. His creativity was honed on radio serials, especially “The Shadow.” a detective drama, and he lost himself in spinning tales, and reading books, the early Saroyan with his rolling style and the sprawling novels of Thomas Wolfe who drew ordinary people in epic proportions. Both would influence Jack’s writing.

     A flashy halfback in high school, Kerouac was recruited to play in the backfield by Columbia University. On Morningside Heights, Jack ran afoul of Columbia’s famous football coach, Lou Little, who disapproved of the freshman’s casual approach to team practice.


     Jack left after freshman year; however, he continued to hang around the campus in the company of Allen Ginsberg, an aspiring poet, and William Burroughs, a jaded intellectual and sometime morphine addict who shared his knowledge of Spengler and the dark corners of literature.

     Through another Columbia student, Hal Chase, Jack met a young reform school graduate from Denver, named Neal Cassady, whose love of jazz and prowess with women captivated Kerouac.

      Though some early New York friends, like Gerd Stern, dismissed Neal as a fast talking con man, Jack idealized him as an “Adonis from Denver." After shipping out as a merchant seaman, and then following Neal around the country, notebook in hand, Jack spun out his second novel, On the Road, which celebrated his friend’s carefree life style as he crisscrossed America in a 1949 Hudson Commodore. The book made Jack an overnight celebrity, hailed by a generation that rejected the staid world of 1950s Eisenhower America.

     Langston Hughes’s journey also took him to Columbia University which he left after a year. A solid student, he was put off by the isolation he experienced as an African American undergraduate in the 1920s; and, like Jack, shipped out as a merchant seaman, lured by his heritage to visit the coast of Africa. The people, he would later write, were “black and beautiful as the night.” (Langston Hughes, The Big Sea, Hill and Wang, 1993 ed.)


          Langston’s father was an unusual man, the grandson of a Jewish slave trader in Kentucky. Driven and self-educated, Hughes, Sr. moved to Mexico to escape segregation in the American South. He grew wealthy looking after the property of “gringos” who had been expelled by the Revolution.

     But Hughes’s father had a disdain for his own race that his son didn’t share; in fact, Langston took great pride in his heritage, and at 19 wrote his moving poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” with its imagery of black history and pain, on a train crossing the Mississippi into St. Louis.


     In the Twenties and Thirties, Hughes immersed himself in Negro American life. He visited churches that played gospel with a jazz band, heard Bessie Smith sing in Macon, Georgia, and reveled in the wild night life of Harlem with its crazy balls and men dressed in velvet evening gowns. “Gay or sad,” Hughes would write of African American life of that era, “you keep on going and you keep on living.”

     Like Kerouac, Hughes wove the life around him into his writing, and his poetry and later, plays, captured the world of pawn shops, numbers players, and house rent parties that made up pre-World War II uptown life.

     Langston’s well-received poetry collections included After Hours and Shadow of the Blues. His “God,” biographer Arnold Rampersad noted, was “...poetry and the black folk, two elements seen by him as virtually one and the same.” (Arnold Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes: I, Too, Sing America, Vol. I: 1902-1941, Oxford University Press, 1986, trade paper ed.)

    In 1936, Hughes’s comic play, “Little Ham,” about an enterprising Harlem bootblack with an eye for the ladies, brought critical and financial success. Arnold Rampersad commented that the play allowed “...the black urban masses, though sometimes stereotyped, to display and express themselves with a freedom seldom seen in American theater.”

    By the 1960s, however, Langston Hughes had fallen out of fashion, criticized by James Baldwin for having “done so little” with his talent and derided by young militants for being out of touch with black aspirations. His critics ignored the years Hughes had spent speaking out against racism and overcoming the snubs of white America to gain recognition for black artists. On one occasion, Allen Tate, a poet and Vanderbilt University professor, refused to attend a poetry reception for Hughes because of his race.

    To support himself, Hughes wrote lively sketches of a fictional Harlem character, Jesse Semple, for the Chicago Defender, a black newspaper, while his white counterparts, Updike and Cheever, published their bland humor in The New Yorker. Jack Kerouac, too, was out of step with the times; his rebellion had always been poetical, rather than political, and his reworking of On the Road themes in later novels found few new readers.

    A musician named David Amram, who knew Jack and Langston, stayed in touch with both writers and sometimes carried encouraging messages from one to the other. According to Amram, Jack admired Langston’s poems; and Langston paid Jack the ultimate compliment of including his work in an anthology of Negro poets he edited with Arna Bontemps.

    In the early 1950s, Amram took part in several jazz poetry readings with Jack and provided the score for Pull My Daisy, the Robert Frank-Alfred Leslie film that was (more or less) based on a script Jack wrote and that featured narration by Jack and appearances by Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Amram himself (as a jazz musician named Mezz McGillicuddy).

    David Amram also collaborated with Langston Hughes who provided the narration for a musical work. In 1965, their cantata, “Let Us Remember: A Requiem for Martyrs,” was premiered at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco.

    The performance was directed by Gerhard Samuel; Edward G. Robinson narrated. Jack was then living with his mother in St. Petersberg, Florida, but Ginsberg attended, and the irrepressible Cassady showed up dressed in “a kind of Western outfit, like a Texas oilman,” in the company of two beautiful women.

    The side Amram saw of Kerouac was maybe the side he wanted to see: St. Jack, the mystical Catholic, who opened his heart to everyone and avoided parochial literary quarrels.

    “I love America, Davey,” Amram quoted Jack as saying in Off Beat, his story of their friendship, "Our country created jazz. It gives a place to come for the wretched of the earth to seek a haven. All our families came here to join the Indian people in their great circle.”

    In later years, Amram achieved notable success. He served as the composer in residence at the New York Philharmonic under maestro Lenny Bernstein and composed the film score for Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass.

    Here, in an exclusive interview for American Legends conducted by telephone in 2014 with Ron Martinetti, David Amram recalls two friends, Jack Kerouac and Langston Hughes:


AL: You knew both Jack and Langston. Were they alike?


DA: They both wrote from their lives and life experiences and what they believed in. They weren’t part of the whole post modern cynical idea that everything was just a big hustle and that art was a waste of time. Langston wanted to educate and inspire people. His whole life he had a belief in something besides staring at himself in the mirror. He was extraordinary gifted and very unself-serving, and Jack was as well. Neither of them sought celebrity or notoriety They were both concerned about really writing well.



As a youth, Langston was considered radical. In the early Fifties, he was even summoned before the McCarthy committee where Roy Cohn, the chief counsel, expressed curiosity about the meaning of some of his poems. But by the Sixties, Hughes was not trusted by the left.


He and Jack committed the greatest crime possible in American culture. They fell out of fashion. Langston used to say, “I have worked for my people way before [his critics] from the time of the Harlem Renaissance and segregation,” yet he knew he was accused of being old fashioned and not radical enough. He had moved back to Harlem and had an office where I went to work on our cantata. He had a bunch of young African Americans there. Langston was trying to show them the long difficult path of what it means to be a writer. He was trying to help and inspire people in his own community in a low-keyed way, not trying to get press for himself.


AL: Did Langston talk about pre-war Harlem?

DA: He had a wonderful relationship with all people including people in Harlem. That was a real community until heroin came in. It was like a plague. There was a time in the 1930s and 1940s when it was really hot in the summer that people would go in groups and sleep in Central Park where it was cooler. Everyone looked out for everyone else. There were block parties, bring your own bottle and put a little money in a jar to pay rent. Langston told me that during the Harlem Renaissance that was done all the time.



Later in his career, Langston’s work was criticized by James Baldwin, and he was dismissed by Melvin Tolson as “a folk poet.” Did he carry any grudges?



Langston appreciated almost everybody. I never heard him bad mouth another writer. He was out there, as were the great jazz musicians, people who were part of the world they lived in. They prided themselves on speaking to anybody and everybody in the audience, encouraging young musicians and being nice to musicians who were older and maybe not getting that many gigs. Langston was aware of and part of that, and Jack appreciated it and understood where it was coming from.



In the 1960s, the literary world was driven by writers who turned into celebrities.



Langston Hughes’s reputation was not built on sociopathic behavior, groveling on the literary party circuit, or going to Studio 54 where Truman Capote spent the last ten years of his life getting photographed with rock and roll stars. Capote realized you get more attention showing up in public than sitting in a room writing. Langston never got seduced by fame, narcissism, or greed. He was a real old fashioned writer, someone who was very concerned about American society and culture. That was a terrible disappointment to some people because he didn’t have an arrest record or play the role of the artist as stoned out loser, which provided an entertainment for people who never learned to read a book.   


AL: What was Jack’s attitude toward fame and publicity?


Jack didn’t have a clue. He was a private person. What he wanted was to have his work appreciated. After he had written The Town and the City, his first novel, he would sit in these hamburger places all night, quoting Walter Pater: “To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstacy, is success in life.” Or, Keats: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” He would bellow out these mantras as we were eating cheeseburgers or an English muffin, until they told us to leave. It was his way of trying to get New York to appreciate him.


AL: Did Jack and Langston ever meet?



I don’t believe they knew each other, but they admired each other’s work. In 1965, when I was working on my cantata with Langston, he used a line from a Hebrew prayer, the “Yizkor,” a prayer of remembrance, that went: “Let not the oppressed become the oppressors.” Langston loved that line. “Man,” he said, “that was the hippest thing that was ever said.” And it reminded him of Jack who he knew believed in turning the other cheek. Langston told me it was “Jack’s turn to be the oppressor, and he refused to do that because he believed it was wrong.” When I spoke to Jack in Florida, and told him, he said when he went to Mass, he would say a prayer for Langston and our new work.



In the days when you, Jack, and Philip Lamantia gave jazz poetry readings, did Jack have any inclination of the fame that was coming?



Jack and Philip loved each other. That’s why we did that first poetry reading [in 1957]. Just before he died, Philip reminded me of a conversation he had with Jack before On the Road came out. Jack used to refer to it as “my Road Book.” This was not the 1951 scroll version that sat around for years, and was edited against his will. A lot of stuff was cut out. Anyway, I was visiting Philip in San Francisco. He was having a good period. His melancholia had disappeared with medication. Like Jack, Philip was known for his phenomenal memory, and he reminded me of a story I had forgotten. Philip had said to Jack, “I was a prodigy and received a certain notoriety as a teenager. I couldn’t stand it.” Philip was referring to the period in the 1940s when he was taken up by Charles Henri Ford and the surrealists in New York. He told Jack: “The whole scene was too weird. If On the Road does well, be prepared to look out.” And Jack said: “Don’t worry, man. I can handle it.”


(American Legends would like to thank Jerry Cimino of The Beat Museum in San Francisco for helping to arrange this interview. Background material was obtained from: Fay Berry, Langston Hughes, Lawrence Hill & Co., 1983)


Order insightful biographies of American Legends at the

James Dean  | Montgomery Clift  | Jim Morrison  | Jack Webb | 

 | Jack Kerouac  | Ernest Hemingway | 

Bookstore  | Video Store | 

562 Woodland Drive
Sierra Madre, California 91