Visions of The Primitive in Langston Hughes’s The Big Sea Essay examples

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Visions of “The Primitive” in Langston Hughes’s The Big Sea

Recounting his experiences as a member of a skeleton crew in “The Haunted Ship” section of his autobiography The Big Sea (1940), Langston Hughes writes

This rusty tub was towed up the Hudson to Jonas Point a few days after I boarded her and put at anchor with eighty or more other dead ships of a similar nature, and there we stayed all winter.

...[T]here were no visitors and I almost never went ashore. Those long winter nights with snow swirling down the Hudson, and the old ships rocking and creaking in the wind, and the ice scraping and crunching against their sides, and the steam hissing in the radiators were ideal for reading. I read all the ship’s library. (Hughes,
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Moreover, The Big Sea provides a trenchant commentary on writers such as Carl Van Vechten, whose novel Nigger Heaven (1926) promoted the associations of Harlem as an atavistic enclave for a disenfranchised black population.1 Indeed, Hugh M. Gloster describes Nigger Heaven as “a sort of guide book for visitors who went uptown seeking a re-creation of the primitive African jungle in the heart of New York City” (Gloster, pp.113-14). This Manhattan neighbourhood north of Central Park, with its growing population of Southern immigrants, would serve the Nordic author Van Vechten in much the same way that Africa did Conrad or India did Kipling: as an alien territory, forbidden, dangerous yet compelling in its intensity. It is ironic that this very conception of Harlem was one of the key reasons why it was overrun and exploited by sensation-seeking white outsiders. Hughes makes implicit comparisons between the colonial despoliation of African natural resources and the whites’ frivolous engagement with Harlem’s “exotic” cabaret nightlife in the 1920s.

Hughes’s gesture of throwing his own personal collection of books overboard at the start of The Big Sea before embarking for Africa as a merchant seaman on the S. S. Malone offers an immediate and provocative challenge to the
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