Langston Hughes's first volume of autobiography (1940) covers the years of his life from his birth in 1902 to the spring of 1931. Fundamentally episodic, The Big Sea is a succession of brief chapters, written in deceptively simple prose, that recount various adventures through which Hughes had passed during his formative years in Kansas, Illinois, and Ohio; his extended stays with his father in Mexico; his unhappy year at Columbia University; his discovery of Harlem and his visit to Africa and Europe; a year among the black bourgeoisie in Washington, D.C.; and, at great length, his experiences, good and bad, as a star of the Harlem Renaissance.
The book opens with Hughes's decision in 1923, as he set sail as a messboy on a freighter to Africa, to throw overboard all of the many books he had brought on board. It ends with the collapse of his relationship with the wealthy patron who had pampered then dumped him under baffling, hurtful circumstances in 1930. Both episodes were deeply significant. The first had to do with his intimate search for literary and racial identity; the second transformed him into a radical. Yet both are related with such a constant appeal to humor that they epitomize the spirit of the book, which appears to reflect the same triumph of laughter and art over adverse circumstances that marks the African American art form most admired by Hughes: the blues.
Central to the structure of the book is Hughes's depiction of his father. Cold and materialistic, his father disliked not only poetry but other black Americans, who seemed to him passive and unreliable. In response, Hughes casually, sometimes humorously, inscribed a portrait of his father as almost satanic, a figure who tempts his son with wealth if he would betray blacks and poetry. Thus Hughes quietly underscores what he wishes to be seen as the bedrock of his integrity: his twinned devotions to African Americans, on the one hand, and to writing, on the other.
Although Hughes points out that most black Harlemites had no idea a renaissance was going on, much of the book is devoted to the Harlem Renaissance. This section remains the most detailed firsthand account of the era in existence. Another feature of the book is its silence about Hughes's radicalism. Written as World War II was gathering force and as Hughes began to shift toward the political center, the book avoids almost all references to Hughes's leftist ties. Indeed, the story ends precisely when the avoidance of such references would have been almost impossible.
Although Hughes had high hopes for the book, its reception was disappointing, especially compared to that of Richard Wright's Native Son the same year. Many reviewers saw the charm of the book without recognizing its depth; Ralph Ellison, for one, questioned the appropriateness of its tone to a black American's autobiography. However, it is admired both for its extended commentary on the Harlem Renaissance and as a self-portrait by one of the most beloved and deceptively complex of African American artists.
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Langston Hughes (1902—1967) American writer