Gertrude Stein on Langston Hughes and The Big Sea

Gertrude Stein on Langston Hughes and The Big Sea
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Gertrude Stein on Langston Hughes and The Big Sea

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Langston Hughes was known as a “poet of the people.”
He wrote poetry that was song; he brought the rhythm of jazz and blues to his writing; his work was moody, soulful, vibrant, and alive.
He was a major voice of the Harlem Renaissance in New York City in the 1920s, and he brought the spirit of this movement with him to Paris.
While Montparnasse was the center of expatriate culture, Montmartre served as a haven for black artists and performers.
Hughes was discovered in a most romantic way. It was 1925, and he was back in the States, working at a hotel in Washington, D.C (now the Marriott Wardman Park, frequent headquarters for many trade conventions). . He recognized the American poet Vachel Lindsay and dropped a few of his poems at his table. Upon reading his work Lindsay recognized his talent and helped promote his work. This was the beginning of Hughes’ career as a poet.
Hughes was a prodigious writer. He wrote volumes of poetry, collections of short stories, two novels, two autobiographical works, and two children’s books. He also wrote satirical essays and a newspaper column under the pseudonym of Jesse B. Semple, or “ Simple,” a figure that represented African American youth of the time. The subject of both his prose in poetry was in the words of Onwuchekwa Jemie " the lives of the common black folk, their thoughts and habits and dreams, their struggle for political freedom and economic well-being…. the “low-down” folks, with their confident humanity, their indifference to white opinion, their joie de vivre amidst depressing circumstances. Jemie notes that
"Hughes’ people are the lower classes, the urban folk: porters, bell boys, elevator boys, shoe shine boys, cooks, waiters, nurse maids, rounders, gamblers, drunks, piano players, cabaret singers, chorus girls, prostitutes, pimps, and ordinary, decent, hard-working men and women. They are the ones who crowd the street corners, stoops, bars, beauty shops and barber shops and churches, hot rented rooms and stuffy apartments all over the black sections of cities…. The “colored middle class” or “black bourgeoisie” rarely appear, and when they do they are “buked and scorned.”
Hughes also wrote protest poetry and became involved in radical politics. His most famous poem in this regard is very likely "A Dream Deferred," lines of which became the title of Lorraine Hansberry’s famous play:
What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust over like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it sags like a heavy load. Or does it just explode?
Hughes also covered the Spanish Civil War as a foreign correspondent and it is said that he befriended fellow correspondent Ernest Hemingway there.
The New York CityPreservation Commission had made his home at 20 East 127th Street a city landmark.
The Big Sea (1940)
Hughes’ published his first autobiographical work, The Big Sea, when he was only 38 years old. Here the poet is a fisher, casting for experiences in the vast sea of life.
“The Big Sea” is the story of a black man who began life as the child of a poor family in the Midwest in the first decade of this century, and who after that was a successful business man’s son and also a teacher of English in Mexico, a night-club cook and waiter in Paris, a mess boy on freighters halfway around the world, a starving beachcomber in Genoa, a laundry hand in Washington, a student at Columbia and Lincoln Universities, and at once a participant in and a clear-eyed observer of Harlem’s “Black Renaissance.”
If we take all the works we have studied together in our Salon, we will have something akin to a cubist portrait of Paris. Each work reflects a different angle and aspect of the city. Taken as a whole, we have mapped out a literary topography of the city. If Hemingway depicted the face of the city (the city streets, cafe life, expatriate culture) and Barnes portrayed the underground (the nightlife, the world of the marginalized), Hughes shows us the inside (life working in cafes and clubs) and the outside (the experience of an African American in Paris).
In many ways, Hughes’ work is reminiscent of Hemingway’s. Like Hemingway, Hughes writes in a direct, understated style. And, like Hemingway, he draws a magical picture of a young writer struggling to make it in Paris.
Let’s look at the style of a few passages:
• “ The more I talked to [the Frenchman] about Paris, the more I wanted to go there – and not just go, but stay long enough really to know the city. I felt sure I would fall in love with Paris, once I saw it”
• “ My ticket and the French visa had taken nearly all my money. I got to the Gare du Nord in Paris early one February morning with only seven dollars in my pockets. I didn’t know anybody in Paris. I didn’t know anybody in the whole of Europe, except the old Dutch watchman’s family in Rotterdam. But I had made up my mind to pass the rest of the winter in Paris.
I checked my bags at the parcel stand, and had some coffee and rolls in the station. I found that my high school French didn’t work very well, and that I understood nothing anyone said to me. They talked too fast. But I could read French.
I went outside the station and saw a bus marked Opéra…. When I got to the Opéra, a fine wet snow was falling”
• “ The elderly French couple who ran the place were good people, and the rent was cheap. It was a quiet, working folks’ hotel, with a little restaurant across the street, and a grocery store on the corner, and a cream and cheese shop next to the grocery”
Stylistically, how do these passages compare to Hemingway’s? What do they have in common? What distinguishes Hughes’ writing from Hemingway’s?
The Big Sea and A Moveable Feast also share a similar open structure that allows each to include a variety of episodes. Hughes uses the metaphor of "The Big Sea" to describe what he feels is the nature of jazz, but when deployed as the title of his autobiography, it can explain the free-style mix of his Paris stories: "Jazz is a great big sea. It washes up all kinds of fish and shells and spume and waves with a steady old beat, or off-beat….There’re all kinds of water. There’s salt water and Saratoga water and Vichy water, Quinine water and Pluto water—and Newport rain. And it’s all water. Throw it all in the sea, and the sea’ll keep on rolling along towadr shore and crashing and booming it into itself again. The sun pulls the moon. The moon pulls the sea. They also pull jazzand me. …and the Most is the It—the all of it."
Let’s consider a number of themes that Hughes and Hemingway share as well:
• Poverty/hunger
“Hunger came, too. Bread and cheese once a day couldn’t keep hunger away. Selling your clothes, when you didn’t have many, couldn’t keep hunger away. Going to bed early and sleeping late couldn’t keep hunger away. Looking for a job and always being turned down couldn’t keep hunger away. Not sleeping alone couldn’t keep hunger away” (151).
• Paris as a promised land
“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)” (163-64).
• Expatriate culture
“As luck would have it, I came across an American Negro in a doorman’s uniform. He told me most of the American colored people he knew lived in Montmartre, and that they were musicians working in the theaters and night clubs…. I spoke to [some colored musicians], and said: ‘I’ve just come to Paris, and I’m looking for a cheap place to stay and a job.’
They scowled at me. Finally one of them said: ‘Well, what instrument do you play?’
They thought I was musical competition.
I said: ‘ None. I’m just looking for an ordinary job.’
Puzzled, another one asked: ‘Do you tap dance, or what?’
‘No,’ I said, ‘I’ve just got off a ship and I want any kind of a job there is.’
‘You must be crazy, boy,’ one of the men said. ‘There ain’t no ‘any kind of a job’ here. There’re plenty of French people for ordinary work. ‘Less you can play jazz or tap dance, you’d just as well go back home’” (145-46).
How does Hughes’ experience of poverty and the city of Paris compare to Hemingway’s? What distinguishes them? How does Hughes’ representation of African American life in Paris compare with the representation of expatriate culture in Hemingway and Stein?
The structure of the book shares elements of Hemingway’s and Stein’s autobiographies as well. It is written in the form of vignettes and has a picaresque quality to it. How does this compare to Hemingway and Stein?
Like Hemingway and Stein, Hughes focuses on expatriates living in Paris.
Hughes also paints a vivid portrait of expatriate culture in Paris. How does he describe the Harlem Renaissance in Paris? Pay particular attention to Hughes’ representation of Le Grand Duc and Bricktop’s nightclub.
In Paris Noir, Tyler Stovall puts forth three visions of African American culture in Paris:
African American life in Paris thus represented different things to different people. To Parisians, it provided a little bit of Africa in France, a living example of the black aesthetic. One could dance to the wild rhythms of black musicians or simply marvel at the exoticism of black faces. For white Americans, the clubs of Montmartre provided a space where one could kick up one’s heels and experience the legendary decadence of Gay Paree…. For African Americans, the community in Paris provided good jobs for those who could play jazz … and a relief from Rayford Logan’s “humiliating experiences.” Moreover, even though blacks were still few and far between, Montmartre provided enough of a community to enable its African American members to escape white American racism without also abandoning black American culture.
What do you think of this vision of the many facets of African American culture in Paris?
For example
• Like many others said, Hughes and Hemingway both share the “American Dream” of Paris—a dream that is still very alive to this day. Some may argue that it is less romanticized, but the aura and the beliefs that Paris is, “The City of Light,” which will illuminate your soul, stays very much alive today. Also, the motif of “hunger” is apparent through both texts. Whether it is hunger to experience something beyond what they know, to reach their ultimate talents, or for food itself, it is a feeling that one can never escape. To even the strongest willed of men, hunger could be the poison to the mind. While reading Hughes excerpt on hunger, I was quickly reminded of A Moveable Fest when Hemingway is laying in bed in the light of the moon thinking that even after his extravagant dinner with his wife, he was still hungry. Both men’s desire for satisfaction at a degree of need stays alive and ravenous with in both of them in all forms of hunger.
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