Critical Context (Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)
The Big Sea is a classic of young adult autobiography for several reasons. First, it tells of the beginning of the career of one of the most important African-American writers in American literature. Hughes’s work is widely anthologized on the high-school level. The book is personal, interesting, and moving, as Hughes details the progress of his life and career. Thus, his autobiography is important literary history and remains a key document in studies about Hughes.
Just as important, especially for young readers, is the historical context that The Big Sea furnishes. This work paints a vivid picture of a segment of the United States in the early 1900’s, and the picture is drawn from an African-American perspective. Hughes’s personal history becomes a partial history of culture and society in the United States. Although he emphasizes the prejudice of white Americans, he also shows the snobbishness of upper-class African-American society in Washington, D.C., a society that established class and color lines between itself and African Americans who worked with their hands or who had no college degree. Young readers of all colors and classes could benefit from Hughes’s candid approach to his life and times.
The Big Sea is also simply an uplifting story of the determination and pride that set the stage for an individual’s success later in life. The story of Hughes’s life provides a positive example without being didactic or moralistic. The Big Sea is a valuable resource for students of literary and cultural history.