Gina Berend
Dr. Phil Nel
Children’s Literature and the Left
March 5, 2004

Langston Hughes and the Birth, Life, and Death of Jesse B. Semple

Book Review: Donna Akiba Sullivan Harper. Not So Simple: The "Simple" Stories by Langston Hughes. Columbia and London: U of Missouri P, 1995.

"Literary critics, scholars, and Hughes’s fellow artists have praised Jesse B. Semple as ‘the most famous character in black fiction’ and the Simple stories as ‘Langston Hughes’s greatest contribution to American Culture,’" writes Donna Harper (with quotes from Roger Rosenblatt and Eugenia Collier, respectively) in the introduction to her book Not So Simple: The "Simple" Stories by Langston Hughes (3). In Not So Simple, Harper follows a thread of Hughes’s writings from the beginning of the Simple stories in the Negro newspapers to their publication in five different books and finally to their conclusion which resulted from Hughes ending his career as a newspaper columnist.

Harper begins her summary of Simple’s history in 1942 when the Chicago Defender, a weekly black newspaper, hired Hughes as a columnist. Hughes’s column, "Here to Yonder," typically addressed political and social issues of the time, especially as related to Harlem’s black population. His columns varied in style, but he frequently used unnamed characters to articulate his own message. Thus Harper fittingly identifies Hughes as a "literary ventriloquist" (44). While Hughes’s characters were initially unnamed, eventually My Simple Minded Friend—who would later be renamed Jesse B. Semple—was be created. Hughes used Semple and Boyd, a foil character to Semple, to convey his own ideas and offer commentary on various political and social issues. Harper emphasized this connection between Hughes and his characters; she quotes Hughes as saying, "The character of My Simple Minded Friend. . .is just myself talking to me. Or else me talking to myself" (58). After discussing the creation of Simple, Harper’s history continues with a discussion of the very long and difficult process of transforming the Simple columns into book form. Hughes first considered publishing a Simple book in 1945, hoping that he would be able to merely put his columns together into a publishable work. However, significant changes and many, many rounds of substantial revisions were required before Hughes’s first Simple book was finally accepted by a publisher in 1949. Harper proceeds to highlight the major trends and themes seen within Hughes’s subsequent Simple columns and the following four books. Harper’s history of Hughes’s Simple stories ends when Hughes relinquishes his position as columnist at the New York Post in 1965 and his character of Jesse B. Simple is no longer seen in new adventures.

In discussing Hughes’s background and his aims as a writer, Harper mentioned one of Hughes’s goals: "His early ambition. . .was to be a black professional writer—compromising neither his own ethnicity nor the black characters for the sake of publication" (30). Hughes, while making numerous stylistic and technical changes to his writing, refused to compromise the message that he wanted to convey to his audience—even when his audiences were less than accepting. As mentioned earlier, Harper emphasized that Hughes used the characters in his newspaper columns and stories to express his own views. Not So Simple highlights how Hughes maintained and articulated his strong African-American views when his writings were both challenged and eagerly accepted. While Harper emphasizes the element of race—an element that was most important to Hughes,—there are other elements that clearly seem to have been omitted from Harper’s discussion of the Hughes’s tales. While perhaps not as obvious or prevalent as his views on race, Hughes’s leftist views were also included in his Simple stories (see, for example, "When a Man Sees Red"). In her book, Harper discussed issues of race at length, but she devoted less than two pages to discussing any of Hughes’s more extreme leftist views. These mere paragraphs simply pointed out that Hughes was called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities; however, there was no accompanying discussion of Hughes’s potential adherence to communist ideals, any associations with the communist party, or how these leftist views impacted his stories.

While I was a bit surprised that Harper omitted any substantial discussion of Hughes’s associations with leftist organizations, the fact that she included a comparatively thorough discussion of the female characters in Hughes’s Simple stories was a bit shocking. Harper provides a description and brief analysis of each of the major female characters mentioned within the Simple stories. Harper states that the second of the books, Simple Takes a Wife, "offers broader and more sensitive, honest, and positive images of women in Simple’s life than do any of the other volumes" (150). While Harper’s analysis of the female characters may be useful in understanding the continued development and mindset of our main character, it seems that an exploration of the further connections between the author and character would have been more worthwhile.

Harper’s discussion of Hughes’s Simple stories, while potentially lacking in some areas, is generally easy to read and follow. Harper organizes ideas chronologically, thus telling the story of Hughes’s difficulties and successes with his Simple stories. Harper’s balance of information is excellent. She provides sufficient background information and explanations to allow a reader who is relatively unfamiliar with the Simple stories to follow her discussion without difficulty; however, the information is handled in a graceful manner that would still appeal to readers much more familiar with the life and works of Hughes. Harper’s inclusion of quotes from Hughes himself, his friends, his publishers, and simply readers of his works helps to add depth and credibility to her writing. The appendixes outlining the stories’ order of appearance both within the original newsprint and the book forms proved to be interesting in comparing changes that had been made between the forms of publication.

In conclusion, Harper traces the development of Langston Hughes’s Simple stories to reveal that these stories are anything but simple. The stories have a complex and interesting history and they address many—though not all—of the social and political concerns of the Negro during the 1940s through the early 1960s. In discussing the presumed simplicity of Hughes’s Simple stories, Harper writes, "Hughes’s works possess the illusion of simplicity—a sleight that hides a depth of complex uses of language, psychology, sociology, and history. With his literary illusion, Hughes demonstrates what Richard Wright considers to be a desirable ‘complex simplicity’" (1).