The Big Sea by Langston Hughes Download (read online) free eBook (PDF ePub Kindle)

The Big Sea

Introduction by Arnold Rampersad.

Langston Hughes, born in 1902, came of age early in the 1920s. In The Big Sea he recounts those memorable years in the two great playgrounds of the decade–Harlem and Paris. In Paris he was a cook and waiter in nightclubs. He knew the musicians and dancers, the drunks and dope fiends. In Harlem he was a rising young poet–at the center of t

Langston Hughes, born in 1902, came of age early in the 1920s. In The Big Sea he recounts those memorable years in the two great playgrounds of the decade–Harlem and Paris. In Paris he was a cook and waiter in nightclubs. He knew the musicians and dancers, the drunks and dope fiends. In Harlem he was a rising young poet–at the center of the “Harlem Renaissance.”

Arnold Rampersad writes in his incisive new introduction to The Big Sea, an American classic: “This is American writing at its best–simpler than Hemingway; as simple and direct as that of another Missouri-born writer…Mark Twain.”
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    Cheryl

    May 21, 2015

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    For my best poems were all written when I felt the worst.


    Recall the boom of the 1920s, the one we think about when we remember the splash of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Now think of how those years affected the Harlem Renaissance, an era which brought with it important contributions to American literature, an era we don’t hear about too often. Alongside Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, and others, were: Hughes, Thurman, Fauset, Locke, Hurston, Toomer, McKay, and others. Some were African Am

    For my best poems were all written when I felt the worst.



    Recall the boom of the 1920s, the one we think about when we remember the splash of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Now think of how those years affected the Harlem Renaissance, an era which brought with it important contributions to American literature, an era we don’t hear about too often. Alongside Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, and others, were: Hughes, Thurman, Fauset, Locke, Hurston, Toomer, McKay, and others. Some were African Americans who had migrated from the slave bonds of the American south, so they could live free in the north. Once in New York, they realized that African Americans weren’t allowed to buy homes, and the rent in other places were set extremely high to keep them out of certain neighborhoods, so when Harlem opened its door to free African American slaves, this is where they called home, and this is where they created art; hence, the Harlem Renaissance:

    Put down the 1920s for the rise of Roland Hayes, who packed Carnegie Hall, the rise of Paul Robeson in New York and London, of Florence Mills over two continents, of Rose McClendon in Broadway parts…the booming voice of Bessie Smith…

    Put down the 1920’s for Louis Armstrong and Gladys Bentley and Josephine Baker.

    Langston Hughes says it was de Maupassant who made him want to become a writer. Well, it was Hughes who made me start to appreciate poetry as art and song and language worthy of studying. There I was, sitting in an American Lit II class in undergrad, fuming because I had a headache and my professor was droning, until finally he got to the point and told us to open the text to this Hughes poem; my pulse quickened:

    The Negro Speaks of Rivers

    I’ve known rivers:
    I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
    flow of human blood in human veins.

    My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

    I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
    I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
    I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
    I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
    went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
    bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

    (Note: The proper line spacing format for this poem doesn’t work well with GR)

    There’s nothing I like more than lucid words written with some abstraction, leaving the reader with much to be interpreted, imagery to astound, subtlety that speaks of much more than what is on the surface. Hughes wrote this when he was feeling down: he was headed to live with his estranged father in Mexico, and his mother refused to speak to him or say goodbye because of this. Hughes’ father was a lawyer who was not allowed to get a law license in the American South, because he was a black man, so he migrated to Mexico, where he was able to become a wealthy business man. Disappointed in America and disappointed at his own people, Hughes’ father decided to send for his son so that he could find his way. However, Hughes was drawn to the Harlem Renaissance and its people. He wrote the poem on the ship, as he sat there gazing at the old Mississippi River, wondering what “it had meant to Negroes in the past – how to be sold down the river was the worst fate that could overtake a slave in times of bondage…”

    I liked the simple and direct prose, each chapter has the feel of a short story. However, Hughes didn’t like memoirs, he was pressured into writing this one while in his late thirties and this you sense, for instead of finding the deep waters of a memoirist, Hughes prefers to remain at the shallow end – which can be a bit unnerving. For instance, you insinuate that he and Zora Neale Hurston had an intimate relationship that soured because of him, but he never says this directly. There are many more scenes like this.

    I’m so glad I picked up this memoir because I learned a lot. For instance, I didn’t know that during the war, with Americanism a stressed issue, students were called and questioned in the principal’s office about their belief in Americanism, and police went to some of Hughes’ friends’ homes to take their books away (what type of books, he didn’t say). I didn’t know that Mexicans were served at restaurants in America, allowed in “white only” train carriages, while African-Americans were shooed away. I also learned a lot from accompanying Hughes through his travels in Europe and Africa and the distinctions he drew; like Baldwin stressed in his Notes of a Native Son, Hughes realized how different things were in Europe because each time he returned to America, he was reminded of segregation and “whites only” bathrooms and eateries.

    In Europe people of all races meet and eat and drink and talk and dance and do whatever they are meeting to do without self-consciousness. But here, when there are Negroes and whites present together, there is often an amazing amount of gushing, of blundering, or commiserating, of talking pro and con, of theorizing and excusing, and somebody is almost sure to bring up the question of intermarriage, and then everyone looks intense, interested, and apprehensive.


    Yes, this book deals with race in America, which unfortunately, is still a touchy subject in America, but it is also primarily about literature and the arts – the contributions of classic works by African American writers. By dissecting his twenties as a young, black, up-and-coming poet in Harlem, Hughes’ book is a beacon for understanding the 1920s in America, those memorable years, and what they mean when one considers American Literature.

    Then it was that books began to happen to me, and I began to believe in nothing but books and the wonderful world in books – where if people suffered, they suffered in beautiful language, not in monosyllables, as we did in Kansas. And where almost always the mortgage got paid off, the good knights won, and the Alger boy triumphed.


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