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 about his people. He nevertheless carries doubts and fears within himself. The book, furthermore, is peopled by Hughes’ many friends, including Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, and others involved with the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes’s publisher, Blanche Knopf, thought that the references were excessive, but Hughes convinced her to retain them. Consequently, The Big Sea is perhaps the best chronicle of the Harlem Renaissance.
The second autobiography, I Wonder as I Wander , received less favor than its predecessor, although Hughes thought that his second autobiography was more important to his future as a writer. Knopf rejected the book, claiming it was “pretty weighted . . . and not a book.” Covering his life from 1929 to 1950, it includes his...
(The entire section is 545 words.)