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

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

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…[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, 1986, p.95)

Among the books that Hughes finds in the ship’s library is a copy of “Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” (p.95). That Conrad’s novella should be mentioned in this context reveals a playfully comic incongruity: the icy “wide bend of the Hudson” river (p.91) sharply contrasts with Conrad’s fictional rendering of a seething, sinister Congo, and Hughes quite literally goes nowhere marooned on his “rusty tub”, whilst Marlowe embarks on a fraught voyage that will irrevocably reshape his life. However, one of the most compelling sections of The Big Sea focuses on Hughes’s six-month odyssey as a crewmember of the S. S. Malone, a freighter bound for the West Coast of Africa. The apparently casual reference to Heart of Darkness (1899) thus acquires a suggestive resonance in an autobiography that interrogates different constructions of “the primitive”. That Hughes himself may be susceptible to, even complicit in refining these constructions has been insufficiently recognised by critical orthodoxy. H…

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