Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 641
In The Big Sea, Hughes tells an intimate story not only of a struggling writer but also of an individual striving to overcome racial barriers to success. Thus, the book provides young readers with an important study of American cultural and social conditions in the first two decades of the twentieth century. This autobiography was not specifically written for young adults, but Hughes’s prose style and sense of detail make the work readable, relevant, and informative for that audience. Without being self-serving, the book contains an inspiring story tinged with social criticism.
Through his autobiography, Hughes shows the hardships of being African American in the United States. The tone of the book is not bitter, but Hughes occasionally comments on the stupidity and injustice of the color line. For example, after telling about the trouble that he had obtaining a dorm room at Columbia University despite the fact that his father had paid the deposit well in advance, Hughes comments that through his life he often experienced “that strange astonishment on the part of so many whites that a Negro should expect any of the common courtesies and conveniences that other Americans enjoy.” Hughes also makes it clear that racial barriers forced his father to go to Mexico, where he could practice law and build a business on his own merits.
The portrait that Hughes paints of himself is of a person always willing to work for what he needs but always determined to do what he wants. He worked in menial jobs to survive, but he was still able to travel and see the world, including Africa, Holland, and Paris. His was a relatively adventurous life. Hughes seemed most fascinated, however, with Harlem. When he enrolled at Columbia, it was because his father was paying his way; what he really wanted, though, was simply to live and work in Harlem. Upon leaving Columbia after one year, he wrote to his father that he would not need any more money from him, and that was the end of their relationship. He was on his own.
Being on his own meant constant financial struggles. After leaving his ship in Rotterdam on his third voyage overseas as a mess boy, Hughes arrived in Paris with only seven dollars in his pocket. It was a month before he could find any job at all, and he discovered the meaning of real hunger. Yet he persisted, finally found work, and experienced Paris. After ten months, he worked for his passage back to the United States and arrived with a quarter and some poems.
Hughes was not stubborn and, except for his father, did allow people to help him. Countée Cullen, Vachel Lindsay, Arna Bontemps, and others used their influence to promote his poetic career. His greatest help as a young writer, though, came from an elderly white woman who lived on Park Avenue. Unnamed in the book, she admired Hughes’s poetry, befriended him, and provided him with an income so that he could work on his novel. It was an unusual experience for him not to have to worry about money. He was grateful for that year, but eventually her patronage became stifling and he had to leave to be on his own again.
The Big Sea ends in 1931, after Hughes had won the Harmon Award for Literature; he had a medal and four hundred dollars, more money than he had ever had. His novel Not Without Laughter had just come out, and two books of poetry had gone beyond the first edition. He was by no means financially secure, but he had determined once and for all to be a writer and to make his living from writing. This first of his two autobiographies ends as he is on the verge of a writing career that would last another forty years.
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