Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Langston Hughes began his writing career in Lincoln, Illinois, when, as the poet of his eighth grade class, he delivered a sixteen-stanza poem for a graduation exercise in 1916. He was elected class poet, he writes in The Big Sea, because no one in his class looked like a poet, or had ever written a poem; his white classmates, knowing that poetry had to have rhythm, elected him, since they believed that all African Americans had rhythm. Thus Hughes began a writing career that continued for nearly half a century.

The two autobiographies, The Big Sea and I Wonder as I Wander, cover roughly the first thirty-five years of his life, from his birth in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902 to his return to America after he had served as a war correspondent covering the Spanish Civil War for the Baltimore Afro-American. He prefaces The Big Sea with a description of his departure from New York at the age of twenty-one on board a freighter bound for Africa. The first part of The Big Sea, “Twenty-One,” then relates the events of his life from his birth to his departure from New York Harbor. The second part, “Big Sea,” follows him to Africa and recounts his adventures in Europe. Finally, “Black Renaissance” covers the years from 1925 to 1930.

I Wonder as I Wander begins where The Big Sea left off in 1930 and details Hughes’s experiences in Haiti, Russia, California, Mexico, and Spain as he searches for a way “to turn poetry into bread.”

The Big Sea begins with Hughes throwing all of the books that he had read while studying at Columbia University into the sea. He wrote that although throwing his books into the sea may have been a little melodramatic, he felt as though he had thrown “a million bricks” out of his heart. Hughes was twenty-one years old and going to sea for the first time, and the tossing of the books was symbolic of his break with his past: He felt he had rid himself of the memory of his father, the stupidities of color prejudice, the fear of not finding a job, and the feeling of always being controlled by someone other than himself. He wrote that he felt like a man, and that henceforth nothing would happen to him that he did not want to happen.

He recounts how his father, James Hughes, had left Langston and his mother for Mexico, where he could practice law and escape the prejudice and poverty he so hated. As a result, Langston’s mother, Carrie Hughes, seemed continually to be on the move, going from job to job, searching for better employment. Consequently, until he was twelve, Hughes was raised by his grandmother, Mary Langston. Hughes was graduated from grammar school in Lincoln, Illinois, and from Central High School in Cleveland, where the family had relocated.

Hughes discovered that he hated his father when he spent the summer of 1919 with him in Mexico, but he returned to discuss his future with his father in 1921. That same summer, he made his publishing debut in The Crisis with his meditative poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” Although his father wanted him to attend European universities to become an engineer, Langston persuaded him to finance an education at Columbia. After a year, he quit and broke with his father completely.

The second section, “The Big Sea,” chronicles the years 1923 and 1924. Hughes continued writing while working on ships traveling to Africa and to Holland; he spent time working in nightclubs in France and combing beaches in Italy. When he returned home, he worked in the Wardman Park Hotel; there, in December of 1925, he slipped three of his poems on the table of the poet Vachel Lindsay, who announced the next day the discovery of a “bus boy poet.” This was an important break for Hughes, since it gave his work...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Langston Hughes. New ed. New York: Blooms Literary Criticism, 2008. Collection of essays on Hughes’s life and work by notable scholars in the field.

Emanuel, James A. Langston Hughes. New York: Twayne, 1967. Among the best introductory studies of Hughes.

Miller, R. Baxter. The Art and Imagination of Langston Hughes. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2006. This reconsideration of the entire body of Hughes’s work begins with a rereading of the author’s autobiographies and uses them as a key to reinterpreting the rest of his writing.

O’Daniel, Therman B., ed. Langston Hughes, Black Genius: A Critical Evaluation. New York: William Morrow, 1971. Contains a brief biography, an excellent bibliography, and twelve critical essays covering the various genres of Hughes’s work.

Scott, Jonathan. Socialist Joy in the Writing of Langston Hughes. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006. Insists on the importance of the author’s visceral socialist imagination in shaping the course of his work.