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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 328

Langston Hughes became one of the most well-known African American authors of all time. During his lifetime, he established a solid reputation through his poetry as well as fiction and non-fiction. The Big Sea, the first of his three volumes of autobiography, traces him through childhood and youth to his early adult years, up to a significant turning point that marked his success: the Harmon Award for literary excellence in 1931. He makes it clear, however, that recognition would not end his struggles against racist attitudes, legal barriers, and cultural preconceptions.

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Hughes involves the reader on his journey through locating some significant works at particular life passages. Poetry became part of his life early, and by high school he was writing verse seriously. This fed into severe conflicts with his father, who criticized him constantly. Hughes succeeded in gaining admission to Columbia University. Because this was his father’s goal rather than his own, and discouraged by the racially charged atmosphere, Hughes left college behind to work and appreciate Harlem. Seeking adventure and escape from the confines of U.S. society, Hughes went to sea and lived on the European Continent.

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One compelling aspect of these youthful wanderings—both resembling and differing from Byron’s Childe Harold—are the effect they had of convincing Langston of his fundamentally American identity. The narrative enters more familiar territory when Hughes returns from Paris to Manhattan and takes a place in the burgeoning Harlem Renaissance. The irony of his new location is brought home through the problematic relationship between individual creative identity and the financial aspect of survival. Distancing himself from wealthy white patronage, Hughes redoubled his attention to finding his identity as a writer. Supporting himself through a variety of odd jobs, he built his works around his deepening familiarity with the black American experience outside the rarified literary world. In focusing on his early years, Hughes shows how he came to be considered the voice of his contemporary urban world.

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 490

Langston Hughes’s autobiography, The Big Sea, is divided into three sections that cover his life up to the age of twenty-nine, when he was on the verge of being able to make his living strictly as a writer. The first section is entitled “Twenty-One” and begins as Hughes left New York as a mess boy on a ship bound for Africa. Upon his arrival, the Africans would not believe that he was a Negro. Hughes then traces his family history, which explains why he was not believed, as he had white ancestors and was not darkly colored. His lineage included a white Jewish slave trader from Kentucky, a whiskey distiller of Scottish descent, a white great-grandfather, and a French and Indian grandmother. Hughes states that, in the United States, the word “Negro” meant someone with any Negro blood, while in Africa it meant someone with all Negro blood.

Hughes grew up in Lawrence, Kansas, where he was reared mostly by his grandmother. His father, James Hughes, had gone to Mexico to avoid the barrier of the color line. Hughes says that books became important to him while he was in the second grade in Lawrence; they offered a wonderful world that brought momentary relief from the reality of his own world. Also in Lawrence, Hughes underwent the trauma of “salvation.” In a chapter that is often anthologized in reading texts, he tells of feigning the receiving of Jesus into his life as a young boy.

Hughes moved with his mother and stepfather to Illinois, where he began to write poetry. His grammar school graduating class needed a class poet, and he was unanimously elected, as his white classmates assumed that he would have a sense of rhythm. His long poem praising the teachers and his class was a great success. After moving to Cleveland, Hughes continued to write poems while attending Central High School, and he includes some of these in the autobiography. There is also an interesting description of how he came to write his well-known poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” while traveling on a train to Mexico in order to visit his father. James Hughes was well off financially in Mexico and wanted his son to stay with him and train to be a mining engineer, but Hughes wanted nothing to do with his father’s plan. His father did pay for him to attend Columbia University, but Hughes stayed only one year before shipping out to Africa.

The second section of the book is entitled “The Big Sea” and tells of Hughes’s travels, his early literary successes, and his struggle to make enough money to survive. He was always willing to work at menial jobs, the only kind available to him. The last section, “Black Renaissance,” describes the New York literary phenomenon of the 1920’s. Hughes was a recognized part of that literary circle, but his writing did not yet bring him a living.

Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 390

Published in 1940, the first volume of Langston Hughes’s autobiography, The Big Sea, traces his life to 1931; the second volume, I Wonder As I Wander: An Autobiographical Journey (1956), generally judged to be inferior to its predecessor, took up the saga of the poet’s life and adventures from 1931 to 1938. The Big Sea confines its scope to selected portions of Hughes’s childhood, his youth, and his development as a poet in the Harlem Renaissance or New Negro movement of the 1920’s. Hughes divided the text of his poetic autobiography into three books: “Twenty One,” “The Big Sea,” and “Black Renaissance.” Composed of pithy vignettes, each section focuses the reader’s attention on people and events which made a significant impression on the poet’s life in that period.

Appearing ten years after the end of the Harlem Renaissance, The Big Sea is Hughes’s collage of recollections. In book 1, Hughes details portions of his early life and the tension-laden relationship between himself and his parents—his mother and stepfather, and his biological father, who was by then a resident of Mexico, having fled the United States to escape the color bar. This segment also covers, somewhat summarily, Hughes’s arrival in New York, his brief passage through Columbia University, his first acquaintance with Harlem, and his determination “to get on a boat actually going somewhere.”

Book 2 chronicles Hughes’s life as a sailor and mess boy and his adventures in Africa, France, and Italy. This segment moves from a focus on Hughes to highlight the sailors he knew and the black musicians, entertainers, and performers he encountered in Paris during the early 1920’s.

Book 3 follows Hughes’s return to the United States. It cites his difficulties and success finding work, traces his development and “discovery” as a poet, shows his enrollment at Lincoln University to complete his college education, and concludes by focusing on the excitement generated by the Black Renaissance. Various Black Renaissance figures are introduced, and the atmosphere of the period and the movement are skillfully evoked. Hughes depicts his own activities in the 1920’s and shares his insights about the flavor of the times when, as he puts it, “the Negro was in vogue.” Here he describes how black artists and writers were attempting to capitalize on their newfound ability to capture the attention of white America.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 59

Barksdale, Richard K. “Black Autobiography and the Comic Vision,” in Black American Literature Forum. XV (Spring, 1981), pp. 22-27.

Butterfield, Stephen. Black Autobiography in America, 1974.

Miller, R. Baxter, ed. Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks: A Reference Guide, 1978.

Nichols, Charles H, ed. Arna Bontemps—Langston Hughes: Letters, 1925-1967, 1980.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes: I, Too, Sing America. Vol. 1, 1902-1941, 1986.

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