The title of The Big Sea by Langston Hughes, an autobiography detailing his life from his birth through 1931 when he won the Harmon Award for Literature, is derived from one of the most striking sayings of the work: "Life is a big sea full of many fish. I let down my nets and pull." This saying expresses Hughes' zest for experience and knowledge, all of which inform his writing.
Langston Hughes was born on February 1, 1902 to a well educated black family, and brought up mainly in Lawrence, Kansas. His childhood experiences detailed in the book include several experiences of racism, but focus just as much on his growing love for reading and writing and the intellectual heritage of his family.
His father had moved to Mexico, where he said businessmen had more opportunities due to lack of racial prejudice, and Hughes joined his father there when he was 17. His father paid his tuition at Columbia University with the understanding that Hughes would study engineering, but Hughes was more interested in poetry and the emerging Harlem Renaissance than in becoming an engineer. Eventually Hughes dropped out of school to explore the world, supporting himself with menial jobs, visiting Africa, and spending time in Rotterdam, England, and Paris. On his return to the United States, Hughes enrolled in the historically black Lincoln University, graduating in 1929.
In 1921, Hughes published "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," which became one of his most iconic poems, in The Crisis, the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a journal that nurtured the work of many of the leading black writers in the first half of the twentieth century. Hughes described how the publication of his first two books of poetry and his novel Not Without Laughter made him feel that he was firmly on the path of a writing career. As well as describing his own experiences and career as a writer, Hughes also talks about many of the leading African-American writers and intellectuals of his period, providing invaluable insight into the development of twentieth-century African-American literature.