Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces The Big Sea Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1595

The Big Sea concludes with a postscript paraphrasing the poem which precedes the volume: “Literature is a big sea full of many fish” into which the poet has let down his nets and pulled. Readers too can find in this first autobiographical volume a “sea” of information. Yet they may have difficulty in assessing the overall value of the catch, for despite the autobiographical mandate, Hughes adroitly conceals as much about his life as he reveals. In large part, the autobiography serves more as a travelogue of places, journeys, jobs, and experiences; it is also a chronicle of events, a snapshot album of various people, and a catalog of “who was who” during the Harlem Renaissance. Book 3 captures the excitement of Afro-American artists and writers, who attempted to reflect in their art all aspects of black American life during the 1920’s. It also shows how fascinated many white writers, artists, philanthropists, and socialites were with blacks, particularly those of Harlem, during this period. In this book the reader encounters Hughes as witness and recorder more than as involved participant.

Typically, critics and Hughes scholars have considered The Big Sea a flawed autobiographical narrative because of Hughes’s restrained, almost impersonal stance. He seldom confides the details of his inner conflicts; he reports events but distances himself from them. The revelation of his hatred for his father is a significant exception. James Hughes’s incessant belittling of black people and poor people and his attempts to remold the sensitive young Hughes into an efficient bureaucrat or engineer provoked intense anger in his son, sometimes leading to illness. Hughes provides two graphic illustrations of psychosomatic illness induced by psychological trauma.

The first occurred following a succession of needless orders by his father to “hurry up!” That habitual command, repeated so often by James Hughes, led to a three-week hospital stay for young Langston, who was then in high school, because he could not tell his doctors that he was suffering from acute tension rather than a virus. The second violent reaction to stress occurred when Hughes, in his twenties, parted with his wealthy patron, Charlotte Osgood Mason. Although unnamed in the autobiography, Mason has been identified by scholars as the patron and benefactor Hughes described as an “amazing, brilliant, and powerful personality.” He was “fascinated” by her and he “loved her,” for no one had ever been as considerate of him or as “interested in the things” he wanted to do or as “generous and kind” to him. And yet, when Hughes confessed that he could not write the “primitive” poetry he realized she expected, the link between himself and his patron was shattered.She wanted me to be primitive and know and feel the intuitions of the primitive. But, unfortunately, I did not feel the rhythms of the primitive surging through me, and so I could not live and write as though I did. I was only an American Negro—who had loved the surface of Africa and the rhythms of Africa—but I was not Africa. I was Chicago and Kansas City and Broadway and Harlem. And I was not what she wanted me to be.

Finding his own voice as a writer, despite the demands of his parents, his patron, or older black intellectuals, is the principal issue addressed in The Big Sea. Hughes had begun writing poetry while still a student at Central High School in Cleveland, Ohio. By his senior year, he had accumulated “a whole notebook full of poems . . . and another one full of verses and jingles.”

Hughes endured much pain during these years. He bore the brunt of his parents’ antipathy and repeatedly encountered racism. He faced discrimination with his mother and stepfather in the ongoing search for decent jobs and housing. Yet from this turmoil emerged many of his best-known poems. Of his return to Mexico following his high school graduation, to see his father once more and to elicit financial support for his college education, Hughes wrote:I felt pretty bad when I got on the train. I felt bad for the next three or four years, to tell the truth, and those were the years when I wrote most of my poetry. (For my best poems were all written when I felt the worst. When I was happy, I didn’t write anything.)

“The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” Hughes’s most anthologized poem, came to him during that train trip to Mexico in 1920 and was recorded on the back of an envelope. “The Weary Blues” came approximately three years later, shortly after he ceased attending Columbia University and became a mess boy on a stationary freighter. These two early poems document twin concerns always apparent in the body of Hughes’s poetry—an appreciation for racial history and an interweaving of black culture, urban black speech, and blues and jazz into his art.

“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” first connects black Americans to the Mississippi, and then to other rivers central to the lives of African people. The poem’s speaker announces that he has “known rivers,” that his “soul has grown deep like the rivers.” Then the speaker declares:

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me tosleep.I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids aboveit.I heard the singing of the Mississippi when AbeLincolnwent down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddybosom turn all golden in the sunset.

The poem then returns to its initial universal statement: “I’ve known rivers:/ Ancient, dusky rivers” and closes with the haunting refrain, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”

In “The Weary Blues” Hughes achieves a strikingly original piece, using icons from Afro-American culture to shape the poem’s mood and tone. The Big Sea records that the poem describes a Harlem piano player Hughes had heard while visiting a nightclub on one of his few ventures back to the city from his ship. Some critics have seen the poem as a merger of Hughes’s own sense of isolation with his knowledge of, love of, and wish to celebrate black culture. In volume 1 of a massive biography of Langston Hughes, Arnold Rampersad notes that the poem blends “conventional form” with the “cadences of urban black speech” and the blues lyrics Hughes had heard as a child. The result, argues Rampersad, is Hughes’s “most powerful poem since ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers.’”

The Big Sea is not, however, merely a record of the genesis of every Hughes poem. Rather, it highlights particular experiences. The first segment of book 2 examines the poet’s response to seeing Africa for the first time, observing both the beauty of Africa’s people and their exploitation. It also notes the ironic response of Africans to the young Hughes, who because of his brown complexion was not for them a legitimate black man. In the second segment of book 2, Hughes treats nightlife in 1924 Paris, sketching the fraternity of the dispossessed, the roving cooks and waiters, artists and musicians—black and white—who lived and worked there. Here, as he does throughout the book, Hughes evokes scenes skillfully, creating sharply delineated characters, each with a personal history, within brief vignettes. There is Bruce, the huge, black, one-eyed cook who cannot be fired despite his malevolence toward the nightclub owners; there is the imperial entertainer, Florence Jones, heroically battling all waiters and managers in her defense of the rights of women at the Grand Duc.

Hughes draws book 2 to a close by describing his return to America and his attempts to find work in Washington, D.C., where his mother was then living. Ironically, this period was productive for him, because he “felt bad” in Washington (having been happy in Paris) and thus wrote many poems. In fact, poetry became his way out of what he viewed as a stultifying Washington environment. He won monetary prizes in poetry contests sponsored by The Crisis and Opportunity and subsequently sold several poems, for the first time getting paid for his work. In 1925, through the support of Amy Spingarn, Hughes received financial assistance to attend Lincoln University. This segment concludes with a discussion of Hughes’s “first literary and artistic friendships.” He names the three people he considered most responsible for nurturing and encouraging the development of young Afro-American writers in the 1920’s: “Jessie Fauset at The Crisis, Charles Johnson at Opportunity, and Alain Locke in Washington were the three people who midwifed the so-called New Negro literature into being. Kind and critical—but not too critical for the young—they nursed us along until our books were born.”

Wit, irony, adroit characterization, skillful evocation of place, the summary statement—what Richard Barksdale describes as “comic distancing”—these are all tools Hughes employs throughout The Big Sea. Book 3, “Black Renaissance,” shows Hughes primarily as the cultural historian of the era. He catalogs the “Negro vogue” of the 1920’s, naming the books, authors, African art, music, and dances that gave the period its flair. His Lincoln experience receives a fair portion of his attention, for it was there that he acquired a deeper knowledge of Afro-American culture and there that he wrote the draft of his first novel, Not Without Laughter (1930). Yet, typically, Hughes refuses to dwell to any extent on any one topic. Even his celebrated first literary feud, with Zora Neale Hurston over collaboration on “Mule Bone,” an unfinished folk comedy based on materials Hurston collected but with a plot supplied by Hughes, is compressed to a brief sketch.

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