Book club

“The Big Sea”: voyages, Paris nightclub fights and poetry

Grace Schutte

More stories from Grace Schutte

May 10, 2023

Photo by Delia Brandel

One of the many joys of studying English is getting to read a wide variety of books you may not have gravitated to if left up to your own discretion. Lord knows my high school English classes are the only reason I can check off all those Western Literary Canon titles. 

But even now as I find myself in my last semester of college, I continue to be wowed and dazzled. I’m taking an American Literature class (ENGL 448 in case anyone was wondering) that centers around Black music and meaning. It is a fascinating class. 

When I enrolled, I didn’t pay any mind to the required texts for the class — I was preoccupied with ensuring I didn’t have any classes earlier than 10 a.m. When I saw the list of five — yes, five — novels, I was surprised and a bit apprehensive. 

Not only is five novels for one class a lot of pages, it’s also a lot of money. Luckily, Thriftbooks saved the day and my wallet. That being said, if you see me on campus with a book falling apart at the seams and loose pages flying in the wind because I chose “acceptable” for quality, no you didn’t. 

The first book in the queue was “The Big Sea,” an autobiography by the world-renowned Black poet Langston Hughes. I finished it a few weeks ago and was stunned by how much I enjoyed this read. 

I had heard of Hughes before, though I admit I didn’t know much about him. I perceived him to be one of the great literary pioneers of the Harlem Renaissance, but that was as far as my knowledge went. 

To be frank, I think I preferred it that way because it made reading about his life all the more fascinating. If you go into the book expecting the unexpected, you will not be let down. As it turns out, Hughes was not only a prolific writer, he was quite the world traveler, as well. 

While he was born and raised in Missouri, upon graduating high school, Hughes spent a year down in Mexico with his semi-estranged father. A few years later after a quick stint at Columbia, he got a job as a seaman on a ship headed for Africa. 

The middle section of the book is full of his travels to Mexico (again), Africa, a lengthy jaunt around Europe and his eventual returns to the U.S. Hughes is the definition of a Type B personality type, the most go-with-the-flow guy you’ve ever heard of. 

Every other chapter he’ll be on another boat headed somewhere new with nothing more than a few dollars in his pocket and a pen to write with. And every time he, without fail, returns home with just the skin of his teeth and stories to tell. 

One of my favorite chapters in the book, “Don’t Hit A Woman,” takes place in Paris, France where Hughes unintentionally gets himself stranded. He’s working as a cooking assistant in a club when a full-on brawl breaks out between the performers, the staff and the customers. 

There’s a little pregnant French lady shouting profanities and the regal Florence Embry Jones throwing punches right by her side. Hughes hides with the knives in the kitchen as orchestra players and esteemed guests duke it out over women’s rights. It is a wild time with a happy ending. 

While I anticipated “The Big Sea” to be an in-depth examination of the Harlem Renaissance, it ended up being so much more. The book is full of adventure and insight, poetry and life — I recommend it to everyone, even if you don’t read biographies in your free time. 

Schutte can be reached at [email protected]