Monday, January 28, 2019

sometimes life makes its own books - they do if you're Langston Hughes - his memoir The Big Sea

Another memoir, The Big Sea (1940) by Langston Hughes.  It covers his childhood, his time as a sailor and in Europe, and the Harlem Renaissance, to break it into rough thirds.  These are interesting subjects.  If Hughes had never written a poem, but somehow had still written some version of this book, a version with fewer poems, it would still be a good book.  Hughes lived an interesting life.

Hughes’s mode is conversational and humorous.  Not exactly plain; not fancy.  Here is Hughes in Paris, where he is finally doing alright, working as a busboy in a black nightclub:

That room was right out of a book, and I began to say to myself that I guess dreams do come true, and sometimes life makes its own books, because here I am living in a Paris garret, writing poems and having champagne for breakfast (because champagne is what we had with our breakfast at the Grand Duc from the half-empty bottles left by unsuspecting guests, in their ice buckets – thanks to their fleet removal by the waiters). (II, “Paris in the Spring,” 136)

I am trying to learn something about the 1920s, so this book was perfect, maybe even essential.  “At the height of the Negro Renaissance I was a student at Lincoln University, spending my week-ends and holidays in New York” (III, “Lincoln University,” 212), meaning that Hughes has some healthy distance from whatever is going on in Harlem, yet he gets a good dose of everything – the personalities, the music, the parties, the eventual collapse along with the stock market and the economy.

But that is always his position, the writer’s position.  He is not quite in the middle of things.  Maybe just one step away.  He is always aware of what is going on around him, or so he makes it appear in retrospect, but I will bet it was true.

Hughes’s work as a sailor, up and down the western coast of Africa and in the Atlantic, was never as bad as what was portrayed in B. Traven’s crazy novel The Death Ship (1926), but it was definitely in the same general world.  That Traven novel, now there is another interesting book about the 1920s.  Do not lose your passport!  Hughes has enough trouble when his is stolen in Italy – “I got as hungry in Genoa as I’ve ever been in my life (except in Madrid, years later, during the Civil War)” (II, “Beachcomber,” 155).  But at least he does not end up on a death ship.

I will have to read the sequel, I Wonder as I Wander (1956), to see what Hughes does in Spain.

Page numbers are from The Collected Works of Langston Hughes, Volume 13.


  1. I'd never heard of this, but now I want to read it!

    So are you going to read Passing soon? Man, I love that book.

  2. This is an eminently readable book.

    Larsen, yes, that one and Quicksand, soonish. Soonishish.

  3. This memoir sounds pretty great, but I'm hoping to dip into some of Hughes' poetry again after a long absence from it - the horror! Do you happen to have any recommendations (collections, anthologies, whatever) along those lines? Thanks in advance for any suggestions.

  4. Hughes's Selected Poems (1958) is the obvious choice, but The Weary Blues (1926) especially is worth reading as a whole.

    His "blues" poems are no longer the revelation they were at the time - we are used to the blues - but still.