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Not So Simple: The "Simple" Stories by Langston Hughes.

Reviewed by

Donald B. Gibson Rutgers University

Though Arnold Rampersad's biography of Langston Hughes is not under scrutiny here, it must certainly be considered when reviewing any subsequent work on that author. Rampersad taught us how to see and to talk about Hughes as a writer. Harper's title, Not So Simple, and her study itself could not have come into being had not Rampersad's biography, detailing how the seemingly uncomplicated life and work of Hughes in general is "not so simple," preceded it. This is to take nothing away from Harper's own groundbreaking work, but I think she would agree that Rampersad opened paths to the understanding of Hughes's work previously blocked by a too simple understanding of who Hughes was as a person and who the people where that he represented in his writings.

Perhaps the chief insight governing Rampersad's sense of Hughes's identity is that Hughes identified with the black masses, considering them (us) as his true and real family. This is nowhere more evident, as Harper makes clear, than in Hughes's relation to his fictional character Jesse B. Semple. It is by no means easy, Harper suggests, to separate the author from his character. We might very easily imagine that the class differences between Jesse and his author are signaled by the usual signifiers of hierarchical class distinction. Frequently in literature, as in life, class differences are seen to signify differences in the relative worth or value of individuals. And often the values, attitudes, and opinions of a character are shown to be favored by their being couched in language that is more standard, less dialectical or vernacular. The contrary may also hold: A character may be revealed to be less favored by language or behavior that reflects an outsider's system of values.

No such "simple" formulas exist in Hughes's treatment of the relation between Jesse B. Semple and the narrator of the Simple stories. Both, of course, are Hughes; and nowhere is the relation between his writing and his sense of his relation to his people more clearly revealed. The narrator speaks language that is closer to standard English, yet Jesse's folk wisdom is as likely as not to be correct, more right than the narrator's.

But there is a balance. It is not as though, as Harper points out, Jesse is simply right and the narrator's standard English and middle-class values are wrong. There is a true tension between the two seemingly diverse systems of value, a tension and also an underlying glue that keeps them from flying apart. The two voices, that of the narrator and of Jessie B. Semple, are a revision of Du Bois's notion of double consciousness, not as it exists in Du Bois's configuration, but as it exists in Hughes's imagining of the two factors existing in relatively harmonious relation. The two elements of consciousness, which Du Bois would see as threatening to tear the psyche in two, stand in no such relation in Hughes's thinking. Let me recall for a moment Du Bois's description of double consciousness:

One ever feels his twoness, - an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

The difference between what Hughes thought and what Du Bois thought lies in the meaning and significance of class in their thinking. Du Bois believed that class allowed a true and real division within the race (signaled by his imagining a "talented tenth" and by his dividing black consciousness into an "American" self and an "African" self), whereas Hughes neither recognized nor admitted any such class division. For Hughes, considerations of race override considerations of class. In families as Hughes conceived them - such as his own (which included all African Americans) - there exists no possibility of singling out a "talented tenth." It is only in an individualistically oriented society where personal success is a major value that an individual and a group can be so divided; a communal society allows no such divisions. Harper's work is informed by such considerations.

The most basic contribution of Harper's study is its simply laying out how Jesse B. Semple began, who he was, and how he developed over the years. We might imagine that Simple simply existed, but the fact of the matter is that he was conceived, he grew, he developed in accordance with various historical exigencies. He needed to assume certain forms at certain times. For example, he could not have been the same Simple when he moved from his Chicago Defender self to his "book" self, when he moved out into a wider audience, when he spoke not only to African Americans but to a wider audience. This particular matter reflects one of the many valuable aspects of Harper's study, which encourages further study by others.

I especially have in mind audience, the suggestion in Harper's study of the extraordinary importance of Hughes's Simple as a vehicle for the study of an immeasurably important subject in general, writer and audience - but more specifically black writer and audience. We know that Hughes when he was writing for the Chicago Defender was specifically writing for a black audience. How many other cases do we have that show a black writer writing specifically for a black audience? There are some, admittedly, but very few. As Hughes moved Simple from African American newspaper denizen to national figure, he reflected his sense of whom he was writing to and how he must address that (or those) audience(s).

Specifically useful and interesting to anyone who would do further work involving Simple are the appendices to Harper's book. Appendix A lists by date and title all of the "Here to Yonder" columns that appeared in the Chicago Defender between 1942 and 1949, the years of its existence, and indicates the subject of each and whether Simple appears in it. Appendix B lists the table of contents of the first collection of Simple stories, Simple Speaks His Mind, and pairs them with the dates of the Defender columns they came from.

Harper's book will have much of the same effect on subsequent criticism that Rampersad's biography of Hughes had on hers: It will undoubtedly inspire other studies as rich as it is. Not So Simple shows a way into deeper and further understanding of Langston Hughes's work.
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Author:Gibson, Donald B.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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