Two themes dominate The Big Sea and I Wonder as I Wander: Hughes’s personal odyssey and evolution as a black writer and his personal investigation into the color line around the world. As Hughes writes in The Big Sea, it was the works of Guy de Maupassant that first convinced him to become a writer; he was reading de Maupassant in French when “all of a sudden one night the beauty and the meaning of the words . . . came to me. I think it was de Maupassant who made me really want to be a writer and write stories about Negroes, so true that people in far-away lands would read them—even after I was dead.” Hughes was always very clear about his function as a writer. “I try,” he wrote, “to explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America.”
Hughes’s development as a writer exemplifies the second major theme in his autobiographies: bigotry and prejudice. As he wrote in the closing pages of The Big Sea, when the stock market crashed, the lush days of the Harlem Renaissance crashed as well. Black actors went hungry; magazines politely turned down articles and stories on black themes. White writers who had written novels nowhere near as good as his were employed in Manhattan or were on their way to Hollywood. While he was in Haiti, he began to figure out how he could earn a living from the kind of writing he wanted to do, even in the face of prejudice.
He became a student of race relations and...
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