Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces The Big Sea Analysis
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...
(The entire section is 1595 words.)