Critical Context (Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)
As autobiography, Langston Hughes’s The Big Sea is most appreciated as a “biography of an era,” for its service as a record of the first sustained flowering of Afro-American literature, music, and art in the twentieth century. Despite this focus, readers will be able to take away some sense of the man and the influences which shaped his art during the first decade of a formidable literary career spanning four decades; they will note that while the poet remains modest, he in fact shows himself a diversified talent working within a variety of creative forms—poetry, drama, the essay, and the novel. Yet the strongest impression created in Hughes’s narrative is not so much of his own accomplishments, of his determination to make his living writing, or of even the wonder and excitement he exhibits as he makes his way through a world hostile to “colored” people and incredulous that a Negro should strive to make a living by becoming a writer. The narrative is most successful as a social-historical record, the documentation of a rich period in Afro-American arts and letters from the perspective of a participant. Thus, while The Big Sea allows readers insight into Langston Hughes’s creative imagination and recounts, however briefly, the more significant experiences that helped form his sensibility, it is the book’s firsthand account of the Harlem Renaissance that makes it an indispensable resource.
The Big Sea was well received when published and was widely discussed in various intellectual environments. As late as 1948, an Italian edition of the book was published with a cover illustration by Pablo Picasso. In a letter to Arna Bontemps, Hughes noted that his book had even been well received in South Africa.