A sympathetic, yet clear-eyed portrait of one of America's most controversial writers that also manages to be a sweeping depiction of the black experience in this country and abroad during the first four decades of the 20th century. Hughes is an ideal subject about which to construct this type of biography-cum-social history; he was at or near the epicenter of much of the cultural, social and political turbulence that marked those years. Rampersad (English/Rutgers) records both Hughes' life and the era's shocks and aftershocks with admirable clarity and a fine sense of their larger implications. During the first 40 years of his life (the period covered here), Hughes came in contact with most of the major figures in both black and white artistic and civil-rights circles--W.E.B. DuBois, Countee Cullen, Alfred Knopf, Carl Van Vechten, Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson, Ernest Hemingway, Arthur Koestler, Richard Wright, among others. Rampersad delineates each of them in vignettes that capture their personalities in a few evocative details. There is his description of an exchange between Hughes and Josephine Baker, for example, in which ""La Bakaire"" falls into a pseudo-Chevalier accent when telling Hughes ""how I. . .have learn zee loop-zee-loop."" ""An English never learned in the slums of St. Louis,"" is Rampersad's straight-faced comment. The locales are equally colorful, ranging from the Congo to Harlem during the ""Renaissance""; from the Paris of ""Bricktop"" to Moscow in the mid-30's; from Loyalist Spain to Hemingway's Cuba; from the South of the Scottsboro Boys to the Carmel of Robinson Jeffers and Vachel Lindsay. Rampersad does not shy away from the ambiguities and ironies in Hughes' life--his possible homosexuality, his refusal to acknowledge the injustices in Soviet society even when confronting them face to face during a trip to Russia, his willingness to accept financial assistance from ""capitalist"" patrons while espousing the socialist cause. Rampersad resolutely refuses to ""beatify"" his subject. And, as might be expected, the author is just as evenhanded in his evaluations of Hughes' writings. Strengths and weaknesses are both pointed out; successes and failures are analyzed with equal care. Neither exposÃ‰ nor hagiography, this is a near-perfect example of the biographer's art, balanced and thought-provoking. One eagerly awaits the appearance of Volume II. Fifty halftone illustrations (not seen) augment the text.