(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

In the opening of Langston Hughes’s first autobiography, The Big Sea, the author recalls how he heaved his books overboard at the start of his first journey to Africa in 1923. The gesture may be seen as adolescent and anti-intellectual, but it suggests the commencement of Hughes’s role as a Renaissance man in Black American letters. The book chronicles the first twenty-seven years of Hughes’s life, from the 1920’s, when he explored the idiom and jazz rhythms of African Americans in his poetry, to the shift to his bitter prose of the 1930’s.

The autobiography is written typically as a confession, but it remains comparatively impersonal. Only three guarded personal accounts appear in the text of The Big Sea. The first concerns a religious revival Hughes attended at age thirteen at which he waited in vain for Jesus. The second describes the morning in Mexico when he realized that he hated his father. The third, at the book’s end, details the break with his patron and mentor, Charlotte Mason. He ties the latter experience to the other two: “The light went out with a sudden crash in the dark, and everything became like that night in Kansas when I had failed to see Jesus and had lied about it afterwards. Or that morning in Mexico when I suddenly hated my father.”

Other than these specific episodes, controversy rarely enters the book. Instead, Hughes presents himself as a man who loves his race and is optimistic...

(The entire section is 491 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Bloom, Harold, ed. Langston Hughes. New York: Chelsea House, 1989.

Miller, R. Baxter. The Art and Imagination of Langston Hughes. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1989.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes: 1902-1941. Vol. 1. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes: 1941-1967. Vol. 2. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.