The University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Department of English

Langston Hughes, The Big Sea

What is the significance of the title?

I. "Twenty-One"

"Beyond Sandy Hook"

What seems the significance of the opening scene? From what do you think does the speaker wish release? Why does he feel such eagerness at the thought of leaving for Africa?

How do Africans respond to him? (11) Why does this disappoint him?

How would you describe the book's tone and style? What did reviewers think of it, especially black and radical reviewers? Were they right to think it a cheerful book?


What were some features of Langston Hughes' ancestry? What was the importance of his grandmother's marriage to a follower of John Brown? (11-12) Did Langston share any of the traits of his ancestors, in literary or political inclinations? (13, literary interests, 14 mother fought to have him accepted into formerly all-white school)

What were some of his first experiences of racism? (14, chased with stones) What does he say was his attitude toward white people, and why? (some defended him, 14)

What did he remember about his grandmother? What effect do you think her ethic of not expressing grief may have had on him? (17)

What do you think is Langston's attitude toward most people he meets? Would you describe him as tolerant, for example, toward his fellow sailors?

What was his response to the Reeds? Why did he respect them? What effect did their differing views of religion have on him? (18)

What happens when Langston delivers a radical paper?

What are some of the cultural interests of Langston's family? (14, 15)

What happens when he is pressed into attending a revival meeting? Why does he weep afterwards? (19-21) Do you think he blames himself for the situation?

How does he characterize the minister's sermon? (19) What do you think is his attitude toward evangelical religion?

"The Mother of the Gracchi"
To what incident does the title refer? What were his mother's literary interests? 924) Why may he not have liked the poem? (25)

Why do you think he intentionally forgot his poem on the occasion of his mother's visit? (26)

How can you tell of his early interest in literature? (interest in town poet, 22; became class poet, 24) What reason does he give for his selection as class poet? Can this have been the sole reason? Are there ironies in his description of the subject matter of his first poem?

What was the occupation of Langston's step-father? (23) What was Langston's relationship to his half-brother? (23) How does he describe his past? (24, lonely without parents)

What black authors does Langston mention? (26, Paul Laurence Dunbar) Why did he like libraries? (26)

Hughes has a clear style, and is good at giving a child's point of view but with some of the detachment and judgment of an adult.

"Central High"

What did Langston remember about Cleveland? (hard labor, high rents, difficulty in getting loans, 27)

From what did he benefit at Cleveland High School?

What reason does he give for the elections and honors he won in high school? Are some of his comments tongue-in-cheek?

In what activities did he engage? (track, class poet) Who was his closest friend? (30)

What seems the significance of the fact that the school authorities confiscated the books of the family of one of the students? (31) Why was the "Americanism" club founded, and why did it die? (31)

What special lesson about literary fame does he claim to have learned in high school? (that a great writer might be unrecognized at first 31)

What forms of prejudice do his fellow students suffer from? How is his situation different from theirs? (job discrimination, 32)

What were conditions like on the South Side of Chicago? What happened to him when he wandered out of his neighborhood? (33)

Why is he attracted to the works of the French author de Maupassant? (34)

What does he write? What was his audience? (Liberator, Floyd Dell)

"Abrupt Encounter"
Under what circumstances does Langston leave for Mexico? Are his mother's complaints reasonable? (35) What was his step-father's response to the prospect of his going?

What seems odd about his father's letter? What is Langston's attitude toward his father? (36, eager to see him) What emotions characterized their first meeting? (37) What in his father's response disappoints Langston?

What circumstances make his departure for Mexico sad for him?

Why was Langston unhappy in Mexico? How does he characterize his father? (39) What is the latter's attitude toward members of his own race? (40) Towards the poor?

How does Langston respond to his new environment? What are his emotions toward his family? (46)

Why does he consider suicide, and why does he refrain? (47)

How does he react to life with his father? (48, collapses) What emotions does he feel toward him? (49)

"Back Home"
What experiences does he have as he travels home? (50) In what ways were Mexicans treated better than black people? (50) Does he believe that racism was worse in the U. S. than in Mexico?

"I've Known Rivers"
What honors did he receive at Cleveland High School? (52, class poet, editor of yearbook) What were deterrents to his going to college? (53) Did he wish an education?

During what period did he write a great deal of poetry? (54) What reason does he give for this?

Under what circumstances did he write "The Negro Speaks of Rivers"?

What was his opinion of southern black people up from the south? (55)

What description does he give of his process of composition? (seldom changed poems, 56)

"Mexico Again"

On his second trip to Mexico does he learn Spanish? What does he read? (58, Blasco Ibanez)

What does he do in his spare time? (writes poems)

What does he see on the trip to his father's lands? (59) What does his father wish him to do? (61) What are his own career preferences? (62)


What local dating and mating customs does he notice? What voice does he use to describe the activities of local young people? ("we" voice, speaks of group not self, maintains stance of observer)

"Means of Escape"

What is his means of escape? What kinds of observations does he make about those he teaches?

"Card from Cuernavaca"

What is his response to the overtures of the Mexican lady he teaches? What finally happens to her, and what is his reaction?


What is his reaction to bullfights? (interested, 69, seeks tokens, 70)
With whom does he sympathize, the bulls or the matadors? (tries to write about them, 70, sees them as instances of life playing with death, 71)

"Tragedy in Toluca"

What horrible event occurs in the household of Hughes' father? What are some ironies associated with the murder? What is Hughes' reaction to his survival? (sense of having been spared, a pattern, 77)


What does he remember about the reactions of the Arkansas woman who takes over his class when he leaves Mexico? (79) How does Hughes defend himself?

"Manhattan Island"

What is his reaction on seeing the lights of New York? (80)


What problems occur when he arrives at his Columbia dormitory? (82) Why has he been accepted?


What is his reaction to student life at Columbia? (ostracism, financial problems, pursues his other interests, 84-85)

"On My Own"

Why does Hughes have difficulties in finding work? What is his first job? (89) What motivates his departure? (low wages, dull jobs, decides to travel)

"Haunted Ship"

On what kind of ship does he find work? (mother ship, quite deserted, 91)

Who seeks his company, and why does he avoid them? (Alain Locke, Jessie Fauset of Crisis)

What kind of reading does he do on board? (Heart of Darkness, D'Annunzio)

What motivates him to sleep on the supposedly haunted ship? Are the other sailors willing to follow suit?

"Time to Leave"
What prompts him to leave for Africa? What symbolic act does he perform as he leaves?

II. "Big Sea"


What evidences of colonialism does Hughes find in Africa? (scenes of colonial oppression)

What startles Hughes in the reactions of Africans to his racial identity? (they call him a white man, 103)

What is revealed in the incident of the African boy caught between two cultures?

"Sailor's Holiday"

What is the message of the poem he writes?
What are some of the wrongs he describes? (cheating, 106, "taking advantage"/gang rape of woman, 108)

"S. S. Malone"

What is shown in the scene of the Africans who are refused landing at their proper destination? (scene of anger, as Captain runs after them with a stick, 113)

What is upsetting about the behavior of the Third Engineer? (aggressive racism) What makes Hughes bear with him?

"Burutu Moon"

What is the tone of Hughes' responses to Western Africa? Why is he forbidden to attend the rites of the Ju-Ju? (120) What is his response to being identified as a "white man"?

Why does he feel restless as he listens to the beating drums? Why is the moon described as too sweet for the touch of man?

"Wreck of the Monkey Cage"

What are some humorous aspects to this episode? (monkeys escape, 122) Any sad ones?

"Voyage Home"

What were conditions on the ship's return voyage? What were some lapses on the part of the crew? Were any of these infractions dangerous? How does Hughes narrate all this?

What unpleasant aspects of the Third Engineer's behavior disturbed Langston Hughes? How does he respond, and does his response seem in character?


What point is made by Hughes' description of the dispersal of the crew? (127) Is Langston sorry never to see any of the others again?
What efforts does he make to see Eleanora Duse perform? What is his response to her singing? (131)


What is the fate of his monkey? Why does Langston regret his loss? What may his reactions tell us about his emotional life?

"Bad Luck is Good"

What is meant by the title? What ironies appear in the fact that for once racism seems to have benefited him?

"Winter Seas to Rotterdam"

What does he remember warmly about Holland? Why does Hughes leave for France?

"Montmartre," "Work," "La Grand Duc," "Paris in the Spring," "Poem," "Don't Hit a Woman," "Bricktop," "Late Place," "Chief One-Eye."
Why does Langston go to Montmartre to find work? Are his fellow African-Americans helpful to him? How does he finally survive for the first weeks?

What are some ironies or humorous moments in his account of life at the lowest level hotel?

What is his first job, and why does he leave? What are some features, good and bad, of his next employment? What does Langston find attractive about La Grand Duc?

What romance is the subject of "Paris in the Spring"? What causes the end of this relationship? What do you think of Mary's character, from what we learn of her? How does her loss affect Hughes?

What do you make of the scenes in "Don't Hit a Woman"? Are they intended to be comic? sad? complex?

What is his response to the memory of La Grand Duc singers Florence and Bricktop? What is his opinion of his boss, the chef?

On balance, what is the tone and effect of the ten chapters devoted to Paris? What do we learn from it about Hughes' character?

What types of incidents does Hughes emphasize? How would you describe the tone of the narration and its purpose? (humorous, ironic, detached as well as serious) How is it possible to discern the author's views?

"Distinguished Visitor"

Who was the distinguished visitor, and what does he do for Langston? (185, meets him in Paris, introduces him to art collectors)

What role will he later play in his life? What effect does he have on Hughes—and are there signs that the latter may be ambivalent about his learned patron?


Under what circumstances does Hughes go to Italy? How is he received in his friend's village, and why? (188)

What prompts him to visit Venice? How does Langston respond to high cultural Venice? What does he miss from his official tour by Alain Locke? (189) Is he able to find the poor people of Venice he seeks?

What prompts him to leave for Toulon, and what adventure befalls him? (190) Why can't he obtain a new passport? (costs $10, 191)


Why does he get off the train in Genoa, and how does he survive while there? (lives in flophouse, shares with beach hustlers)

What are some of the ways his fellow beachcombers made money? (192-93) How does he support himself? What do you think of the job in which he paints the side of a ship? (dangerous, 197)

What are ironies in his tale of his case of food poisoning after eating a rare meal of meat? (ignores earthquake, 196)

What motivates him to leave for the U. S.? Why doesn't he leave right away? What causes his delay in finding a seaman's job? (had to wait for one with all-Negro crew, 197)


What seems his attitude toward the fighting scene he witnesses?

What happens to him in Spain? (visits brothel, late back to ship, 199, Captain reviles him, 200)

Why do you think he mentions his lost poem about Gibraltar? Why would the topic have appealed to him? (201)

What does he feel on returning to Harlem? Has his trip been a success? What does he have left? (inexpensive, has a nickel! 201 – and poems)

"Washington Society"

He takes his poems to Countee Cullen; Crisis had sent him $20.
Why does he join his mother in Washington, D. C.?

What is his reaction to life with his middle-class relatives? Why can't he live up to their expectations? (they expect him to get a good job; none available, ironic comments on delay. He works in a "wet wash laundry," 203)

What university does he wish to attend, and why isn't this possible? (Howard, where his great uncle had been the first Dean of the Law School, no money available here or from other sources, 204)

Where does he live, and what is his general mood during this period? (shares apartment with his mother, who is a servant, 205; feels depressed, writes poems)

What does he write? (writes poems in manner of Negro blues and spirituals)

Which cultural sanctions in Washington, D. C. bothered him? (city very segregated; couldn't even attend recent theatre productions)

What does he find hurtful about the social attitudes of middle-class Washingtonian Blacks? What are some incidents which affected him? (invited to dinner for New Negro writers, his mother told not to come in case she didn't possess an evening gown! 208)

What does he mock in their pride in lineage? (took pride in being illegitimate children of noted white families, such as those of George Washington)

What does he turn to in reaction? (appreciates life of ordinary Black people on Seventh Street, 209)

What is his reaction to the incident of the "sinner" who falls asleep (210)—enjoys watching religious ceremonies even if he doesn't believe.

Consistently his attitude is that of a sympathetic, ironic observer.

"Vachel Lindsay"

How does he obtain the job of working for Carter Woodson, the Black historian? What is Woodson's project? (211)

Why does Hughes quit the job? Did this surprise you?

At the Wardman Park Hotel he meets Vachel Lindsay, an American writer of the 20s. How does Hughes gain Lindsay's attention? (places poems beside his plate)

What does Lindsay do to help him? (reports his existence to newspaper reporter; he is interviewed, 231, gives him gifts and advice) How does Hughes remember him? (with gratitude, a kind and great man, 213)

"Poetry is Practical"

Why does Hughes quit his job at the Wardman Park? (customers ask to see him, 214) What seems his attitude toward publicity? From what inner tensions may he have been suffering?

What do you make of the fact that he stays in bed for 10 days? (214) Since his mother won't feed him, how does he survive without working? (student feeds him)

What incident cheers him? (given a prize by Opportunity magazine, 214) For what poem does he receive the prize? ("The Weary Blues") What are some effects of the award? (meets Black authors at banquet, 215-18; among these are James Weldon Johnson, a poet who wrote spirituals and work songs in a mode similar to Hughes' early style, and Zora Neale Hurston, his later collaborator. He also meets Carl Van Vechten, who helped him publish with Alfred A. Knopf.)

What is his next job? (oyster house) What does he tell us about his habits of writing during this period? (throws away many poems, 217)

As a result of these awards and contacts, to whom is he introduced? (Amy Spingarn, who had donated money for prize he was awarded; the Spingarns are active in the NAACP.)

Who offers to send him to Lincoln University, and what is his response? (He does not mention her name, but this is Charlotte Mason, an elderly woman with a lifelong interest in anthropology and "primitive" cultures, including Native American.) (he is delighted and proud, 219)

III. "Black Renaissance"

"When the Negro Was in Vogue"

What are some ironic implications of the title? Does Hughes feel satisfaction at the success of Harlem entertainers? (yes, with some qualifications, 224)

What were some disadvantages for Black people themselves of the new fashion among whites for observing African-American mores and entertainment? (forbidden their former meeting places, 224, 225)

What marks the passing of an era? (226) How did Black people compensate? (open invitation parties, 224) What are some features of the invitations he reproduces?

Does Hughes believe the essential features of Black life have changed? To what does he attribute an underlying feeling of bitterness? (226)

How much of the fiction written about Harlem was by Black authors? (mostly white authors, 228)

"Harlem Literati"

Who was Wallace Thurman? What motivated them to start a magazine, Fire, and who were its contributors? (included distinguished writers and artist Aaron Douglas, 235)
What fate befell Fire? With what tone is the incident recounted? (savaged by Black establishment critics, 237, leftovers literally burned up!)
What are some of his memories of Zora Neale Hurston (239) and Randolph Fisher (241)?

"Gurdjieff in Harlem"

What ironies does this chapter explore?
What prominent African-American writer was associated with Gurdjieff? (Jean Toomer, 241) Why did the cult of Gurdjieffian meditation fare ill in Harlem? (241-42)
What tone does Hughes adopt in speaking of the problems of his fellow writers? (mixed respect and irony, 242)
What does he feel about Jean Toomer's choice not to be included in anthologies of Negro poetry? (243)


What kind of parties does he describe? (Jessie Fauset; A'Lelia Walker, Walker's funeral) What was his attitude toward the parties of Jessie Fauset? (247, both respectful and mocking; recounts how he took guest out to clubs afterwards)
Who are some of the Black intellectuals he mentions from this period? (Aaron Douglas, Arna Bontemps, 248; James Weldon Johnson, 249)


Hughes attended a lot of parties! (250-51) He meets Jake Baker and Josephine Herbst, a leftist writer (250).

What does he say of Van Vechten's parties? (251-52) What do you make of the incident in which the woman threatens to kill her husband? (253, no thought of calling police!)
What is significant about the birthday cake served by Van Vechten for three men of different backgrounds? (254)

Harlem Renaissance writers have been accused of being influenced by Van Vechten; what are Hughes' thoughts about Van Vechten's character and unusual role in Harlem?


Hughes records his period of writing lyrics for a musical review for Caroline Dudley (Mrs. Reagan) while at university, and tells stories of Josephine Baker, Jules Blesdoe, and the failure of O'Neill's play about a Black man, The Emperor Jones.
What is notable about the reasons for Harlem's rejection of The Emperor Jones?


Hughes writes poem of Indians in Taos, 260-61, and wins prize poem.
He speaks of origins of "Cross," 262-63.

He explains the titles of the works, Fine Clothes to the Jew and Nigger Heaven—the former contained poems about poor people who had to pawn their belongings—admits it was a bad title, 264. Why was the reaction of the Black press negative? (266; wished race to be presented well, 267)

What forms of irony does he believe middle-class critics failed to understand? (as in poem about Black woman attracting white customers, 266)

What is Hughes' response to the critics who wished him to write more idealized representations of Black life? (continues on his own way, 267)

What later events does he believe justify his type of poetry and his artistic independence? (his poems later used in African-American colleges)

"Nigger Heaven"
What was the ironic meaning of Van Vechten's title? (referred to segregated gallery, 270) Has he been influenced by Van Vechten? What has the latter done for him? (submitted his poems to Knopf, 272)

"Spectacles in Color"

What are some of the spectacles he describes, and what features does he note? (cross-dressing ball, the Rev. Becton)

What is his characterization of the Rev. Becton? ("a charlatan if there ever was one," 245) How does Hughes' description undercut the Rev.'s motives? ("consecrated dime," complete absence of religious references when discussing business—again, use of gentle irony and significant detail)
Why doesn't Hughes take the proferred job? What is the final fate of the Rev. Becton?

"Lincoln University"

What does Hughes remember about his alma mater? What are his basic criticisms? (all white faculty for all Black student body; no fraternization between faculty and students, no Black alumni on Board of Trustees)
What is his account of hazing? (described as "terrific," tells neutrally,

"Flood on the Mississippi"

Hughes spends the summer in the South—what are some of his reactions to Jim Crow laws? (tells joking story of his removing his sunglasses, 287)

Why does he visit the Black flood refugees, and what condition does he find them in? (289) How are the Black and white refugees treated differently?

"New Orleans--Havana"

What are some things he learns in New Orleans? What seems his general impression of the city? (hears blues he uses in his poems, 290)

What prompts him to take a job on a boat to Havana? What does he pick out to describe of what he sees? (depressing brothel, 293)

"Creoles and Conjur"

Hughes stays in New Orleans in August, speaks with Creole gravediggers in town (295); enjoyed company of Blacks and Creoles, though these groups didn't always get along; meets his friend Zora Neale Hurston)

What do he and Hurston do together? (collects folktales with her)

What is her/their reaction to the conjure man whom they visit? Can you tell whether Langston believes this man is sincere?

"Old Hat"

What pun is made by the title of this chapter?

Why does Hughes visit the Georgia plantation on which the old man lived? (supposed site of Cane) Why does he seek to trade his hat for that of the old man? What happens to the hat? (falls apart in safety deposit box, infested with insects)

What ironies or symbolism may be suggested by the fate of the old hat and Hughes' embarrassment? (story emphasizes incongruities of Hughes' life as well as the unexpected turns of fate)

"Interracial Conference"

Who holds the conference and for what purpose? (YMCA's) What hypocrisy is exposed by the conference held at Franklin and Marshall College? (no one at the conference is willing to raise the issue of why this college would admit no Black students)

"Not Without Laughter"

Under what circumstances did he write his novel? (wrote several drafts, worked for two years)

What is it based on? (life of a Midwestern family similar to his own, but idealized—his family had been "different")

What are his goals in revision? (tries to simplify prose)

"Alma Mater"

What survey does he undertake as a student? What are its conclusions? (effect of education at Lincoln was not to "prepare leaders of the race" but to inculcate a sense of inferiority) What were some of the arguments he used for change? (other good Black universities hired Black professors)

What effects did it have on the reputation of the school? (employers were alarmed, pressure put on school to change) Did Lincoln in fact change its employment policies? (yes)

"Extra Page"

What seems the significance of the "extra page" he attached to his survey? (appeal to unity of all parts of life) Does it seem strictly relevant to the subject matter?

"Patron and Friend"

What is the nature of his relationship to his patron, and what was his response to her? (exciting and brought interest into his life)

What were its advantages? (gave him a year to write and enjoy cultural events without economic worries)

Did any aspects of the situation make him uncomfortable? (sense of cultural incongruities, 319-320—e. g. riding in limosine while his friends worked as red caps; life amid wealth as the depression deepens; feels out of place at formal dinners, as in incident of strawberries)

"Not Primitive"

What was the reason his patron ceased to support him, and for their subsequent rupture? (she believes he is not working hard, and disapproves of his current mode of writing,)

Why does his patron disapprove of his most recent writing? (she feels his writing is too political and concerned with contemporary themes, and that he fails to convey the "primitive," 325) Why does Langston Hughes believe he should not aim to express the "primitive"?

What is his emotional response? (deep anger, repressed in her presence)

What do we infer from the chapter's closing descriptions? ("wind in his face as he leaves for Harlem," 326)

Do you think there may be aspects of the situation which he does not care to/is unable to discuss? What may have motivated his discretion? Was theirs an inherently stable situation?


What point is made by the description of his various doctors' responses and diagnoses? Which doctors does he portray with irony, and why?

"Literary Quarrel"

What finally ends his quest for medical remedies? (has had tonsils removed, runs out of money, 333, 334)

Why does he return to Cleveland? What causes his quarrel with Zora Neale Hurston? (she wants to publish their joint work Mule Bone under her name, 332; what part of the whole had been contributed by each?)

On what bright note does the chapter end? What does he think of Alain Locke's suggestion? (accepts older man's advice to back off from situation)
What does he do with the $400 award? (goes to Haiti)

What effect does the trip seem to have on him?


He summarizes his career/life so far. What resolution does he come to? (decides to earn his living as a writer; ends book with a quasi-biblical appeal to the "big sea") How may his recent experiences have nerved him to achieve independence in his own way?

Do you feel his autobiography ends well? Are there any aspects of his life which you would have liked treated in more detail?

How do the three sections of the book complement each other? Is the organization effective?

What are some important features of Hughes' style? Would you describe it as understated? Ironic? Humorous? Subtle?

Is this account closer to a memoir than an autobiography?

What do you think are basic features of Hughes' character, as manifested in his choices throughout the book? What was his attitude toward others?

What were his goals? What kind of relationships were central to his life?

Are there ways in which Hughes may have modified or toned down parts of his account in order to please, refrain from offending, or pay tribute to living persons?

To what extent is he attempting to write a history of a movement and an era?

Would you call this "story of the artist as a young man" a success story? If not, why not?

How does your reading of this autobiography affect your understanding of Hughes's poems and short stories?

  Copyright © 2010 Florence S Boos, The University of Iowa. All rights reserved.
  Page updated: September 3, 2010 22:56