BOOK REVIEW: The Big Sea by Langston Hughes

Publisher : Hill & Wang (1993)

Original Publishing Date: 1940



I was able to meet Langston Hughes last week. No, really the real Langston Hughes.   Not the legendary, bigger than life, iconic 1920s, Langston Hughes, but the struggling poet with a heart for the everyday Negro. The hardworking seaman that traveled the world which included places like Paris, Africa, Italy and more not because he was the well published, highly sought after premier poet of his time but because he chose to drop out of college and live a wayward vagabond lifestyle meandering through travel adventures that led him to becoming well published, well liked and highly sought after.

In The Big Sea Langston Hughes chronicles his life’s story with detailed precision. Hughes introduces readers to dates, places, time periods and people that are known and unknown. The real on the 1920s is reported in stark contrast to its lofty reputation. His memory seems photographic and at times does resemble a census report more often with facts and figures than the expected lyrical rhythms of prose.

What I remember of the Langston Hughes life I learned was totally different than the Mr. Hughes I was able to meet in The Big Sea. My how- history and memory can distort and translate truth into total fiction. I always thought or was taught Langston was this prolific, profound, elite socialite, that oozed the gift of poetry and writing. However in The Big Sea, readers discover that he was tormented by writing like so many are; and out of his most depressing moments of poverty, lack and racial victimization he honed his craft and developed his character. His hatred for his father, constant concern for his mother, and love for everyday people shaped his artistry into what we know of it today.

Hughes writes in his postscript, “I had never had a job that paid more than twenty-two dollars a week. Nor had I sold any of my poems or articles for more than seventy five dollars (the top price paid once for a group of poems). Mostly I had received no income at all from my poetry (since I gratefully gave it away to anybody who would publish it) and very little from the few stories or articles I had written. Nevertheless, I’d finally and definitely made up my mind to continue being a writer -and to become a professional writer, making my living from writing. …I had always worked at other things: teaching English in Mexico, truck gardening on Staten Island, a seaman, a doorman, a cook, a waiter in Paris night clubs or in hotels and restaurants, a clerk, a bus boy… But those things were ended now. I would have to make my own living again-so I determined to make it writing I did. Literature is a big sea full of many fish. I let down my nets and pulled.”

I am glad to have met Mr. Hughes and look forward to meeting him again through more of his works.

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