Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 490 words.)

Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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.


(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

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.