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The Aesthetics of Orality in Langston Hughes’s Short Stories The Best of Simple

Christine Dualé
p. 71-91


Langston Hughes livre une restitution particulièrement originale de la communauté noire et de son histoire à travers les aventures d’un personnage phare, Simple, qui va définitivement asseoir sa notoriété d’écrivain. Cet article montre comment Hughes, à travers une apparente simplicité de forme, articule l’oralité de son personnage à l’histoire et à la musique noires américaines, ce que nous nommons « l’esthétique de l’oralité de Hughes ». En analysant l’oralité des histoires de Simple, rassemblées dans The Best of Simple en 1961, nous proposons de lire entre les lignes afin de mettre à jour la vérité artistique de l’écrivain et montrer comment Hughes, influencé par les traditions culturelles et folkloriques noires américaines, créa une autre forme artistique pour mieux transcender la forme écrite traditionnelle.

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Studied authors :

Langston Hughes

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  • 1 In this article, we use the original version: Langston Hughes. The Best of Simple. New York: Hill (...)

1This exchange between the main character, Simple, and the narrator (Boyd) in one of the seventy short-stories of The Best of Simple (1961),1 exemplifies Langston Hughes’s literary use of music through his black hero. Music is one of the central motifs of Hughes’s writing to tackle the personal and social themes of the black community. Music and the spoken language are intertwined in Simple’s stories to create an original narrative form, influenced by the oral tradition. Hughes’s technique serves important cultural functions as they exemplify the writer’s concern with creating an art form vested in the African American experience and with creating “a realistic character whom black readers accepted as one of their own people (Harper 92).” Hughes’s short stories give the illusion of simplicity, yet they illustrate a complex use of language.

  • 2 The Harlem Renaissance (also termed the New Negro Movement) grew out of the changes that had taken (...)
  • 3 In his article entitled “The Need for Heroes” which was published in 1940 in The Crisis, Hughes wro (...)

2The stories of Jesse B. Semple were written by Langston Hughes in 1943, twenty years after the Harlem Renaissance,2 and were collected in 1961 in The Best of Simple, which is ranked among the best books of the twentieth century by the New York Library and is regarded as one of Langston Hughes’s most inspired creations. The 1940s, the period of creation of Simple, “gave Hughes a new era of fame and achievement. Viewing the decade retrospectively in the headnote about Hughes in their anthology, James A. Emanuel and Theodore L. Gross praise the creation of Jesse B. Semple as a major accomplishment in Hughes’s career (Harper 2).” For Hughes, Simple was Harlem’s everyman, an ordinary working man and a representative of the black folk. Hughes uses his character to teach his readers about the Harlem Renaissance and the connection between Harlem and the world but above all, Hughes was praised for creating the most famous black character in black fiction. Simple was meant to give black literature the hero it was lacking.3

3A lot has been written on Hughes’s poetry, however critical works barely mention his aesthetic and oral creation in his Simple’s stories. Thus, in this article we will bring to the fore how Hughes, who is a sort of “unofficial ethnographer” here, intertwines music and oral speech patterns to convert his tale into a valuable document and shows his concern with creating an art form based on the African American experience. We will see how Hughes decodes the language and standard English thanks to his character, who helps him dismantle previous stereotypes and also deconstruct images of the black male.

Orality in Simple’s stories

4In The Best of Simple the vernacular language of Simple contrasts with the educated diction of the narrator (Boyd). The main character speaks in an oral style, while the narrator preserves a standardized diction and acts as a foil to Simple. Social barriers are thus broken down with these two men as they meet on an equal plane (usually in a bar or in the streets of Harlem) and show how Harlem is in fact a world within a world. The intrusion of the vernacular in Simple’s language is one of Hughes’s techniques to give the reader the impression of simplicity and to propose a realistic orientation:

The modern dialect school—if it may so be styled—has developed a simplicity and power unknown to the earlier writers, and has revealed a psychology so much more profound and canny than the peasant types with which we were so familiar (Chapman, ed 532).

  • 4 Hutchinson refers to Margaret Larkin, “A Poet for the People—A Review”, Opportunity 5 (1927):84.

5Hughes was not the first writer to use oral speech patterns and the black vernacular. Joel Chandler Harris (Uncle Remus Stories, 1899), Charles W. Chestnutt (The Conjure Woman, 1899), and Paul Laurence Dunbar (The Sport of the Gods, 1902) among others, had already used dialect stories. Hughes, however, proposed a new “aesthetics of existence and resistence” (Hutchinson 186) or what Hutchinson also calls “social consciousness (187).” Quoting a review of Hughes’s Fine Clothes to the Jew by Margaret Larkin in 1927,4 Hutchinson also underlines:

Capturing the “dialect, speech cadence, and character of the people,” Hughes writes an accessible, socially engaged poetry that expresses the philosophy of the black working class. Poets looking for “native American rhythms” can learn something from his deft use of the blues. Hughes’s work exerts an important counterforce to the elitist philosophy “that art is the precious possession of the few initiate (187).”

6In 1926, Hughes had claimed his aesthetic orientation in “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” and how he connected to a new literature through artistic freedom, experimentation, “music writing,” and the use of the vernacular:

Most of my own poems are racial in theme and treatment, derived from the life I know. In many of them I try to grasp and hold some of the meanings and rhythms of jazz. […] Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing the Blues penetrate the closed ears of the colored near intellectuals until they listen and perhaps understand. […] We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves (Hughes, 1926).

7Hughes didn’t hesitate to flout literary conventions to advance a social and political message and to experiment the possibilities of blues and jazz in some of his poems. With Simple’s narrative, Hughes reverted to the first choices which had guided his poetry. To Hughes, using oral speech patterns in Simple’s stories aimed at giving authenticity and ordinariness to his character. Authenticity meant grounding the character in the African American experience to enhance cultural traits that directly came from the people. Written first in the format of columns for the Chicago Defender, Hughes created a character that could appeal to most readers of the newspaper; Simple was also a way of creating new spaces “for the development of African American culture (Hutchinson 208),” as well as an approach sensitive to the black working class:

[…] Hughes was holding a mirror to urban, working-class African-American men, he was also smashing the false images of ‘the Negro’ which white society had created. Hughes wanted to show heroism and greatness, and he saw such greatness among the common people (Harper 10-11).

8Simple’s orality shapes the aesthetics of the narrative. Storytelling and music, which are intertwined within a lot of sketches, affect the narration and exemplify a space between print and orality. Hughes’s concern with creating an art form vested in the African American experience reveals, once again, his attempt to challenge white American assumption about African American art and literature as he had evidenced during the Harlem Renaissance. His art form also reveals an aesthetics strongly influenced by oral tradition and folklore. Hughes reverts to this specific technique with Simple to enhance his own relationship to language and history and to give new validity to old forms and social fights. By discarding standard English, Hughes not only shows his own creativity but also the creativity of the black spoken language which is, at times, intertwined with rythms of blues, jazz, or be-bop in an attempt to transcend the written form. As Rouffineau states:

  • 5 My translation of: “Cet effet de style, qui recherche une authenticité qui ne manque pas d’artifici (...)

Such stylisitic effect, which is a way of reaching authenticity, is somehow articificial as it leads to confusion in terms of oral communication. […] The reader is, thus, truly active to be able to understand the meaning (Rouffineau 127).5

9The following examples testify to the creative power of black spoken language:

I tell you, winter is a worriation (“Letting off Steam” 36).
I am glad I am not as ageable as you (“Shadow of the Blues” 166).
You know, white folks would not put up with Jim Crow, if they ever got Jim Crowed themselves (“Duty Is Not Snooty” 198).
Whatever you are talking about with your
see-antics [semantics], Jack, at my age a man gets tired of the same kind of eggs each and every day (“Two Sides Not Enough” 214).

10Hughes’s semantic creations reveal his desire to create a language within the language, a technique which made Hughes’s reputation during the Harlem Renaissance and which is not so far from “minor literature” as defined by philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, namely in Mille Plateaux (1980). As Brinkley puts it:

[The] characteristics of minor literature [is] the deterritorialization of the language, the connection of the individual and the political, the collective arrangement of utterance. Which amounts to this: that “minor” no longer characterizes certain literatures, but describes the revolutionary conditions of any literature within what we call the great or established (18).

11Through his aesthetic technique, Hughes participates in the construction and the definition of a people at the margin (or “minoritarians” to quote the Deleuzian philosophy again). Such characteristics show how the poet appropriates the language of the norm to write from the margin and for the people of the margin. Simple’s orality provides a particular aesthetics leading readers to reconsider all assumptions and to create their own reading and deciphering grids to be able to decode the character’s metaphorical and symbolic codes. Hughes’s technique presents similarities to the style of Zora Neale Hurston described by Trinna S. Frever. As in Hurston’s “The Eatonville Anthology,” Simple’s short stories offer “a recreation of the relationship between author, text, and [readers], realigning the normally individual act of reading with the shared act of listening, and of participating in narrative construction (Frever 3).” Hughes’s oral aesthetics is heightened when we discover Simple’s own language and vernacular. His expression evades the dominant linguistic model where reading becomes the expression of different and multiple interpretations. Hughes offers a language beyond the academic standard English and proposes not only a new character but also a new writing within his national context. By so doing, Hughes creates a form of language grounded in the African American experience and in a culture particularly influenced by the oral tradition. Simple’s black dialect is an illustration:

Here, I ain’t scared to vote (“A Toast to Harlem” 21).
To tell the truth, I has not heard of him at all (“Jazz, Jive, and Jam” 242).
I do not know no place in the country where I am welcome (“Wooing the Muse” 31).
Mens will have girl friends all over the world (“High Bed” 55).

12Simple’s dialect leads to different interpretations and maintains ambiguity. To use irregularities is a way of showing the ignorance of the character and to play on the stereotype that all Black males did not express themselves correctly: I ain’t is often used instead of “I’m not;” I has not heard him instead of “I haven’t heard him;” I do not know no place, instead of “I don’t know any place” and “Mens” whose irregular plural form is “Men,” also appear regularly in the text. These differences with standard English are indeed wrongly seen as incorrect language, since Simple’s language typifies a language within the language, with its own rules and grammar, which is the particularity of black vernacular:

African American Vernacular English as a dialect of English deserves respect and acceptance. It has a degree of regularity and stability attributable to a set of rules of grammar and pronunciation, as with any language. It differs strikingly from Standard English but there is no more reason for calling it bad Standard English than there is for dismissing Minnesota English as bad Virginia speech, or the reverse. [...] AAVE shows that it has certain regular syntactic principles of its own [...]. Languages have many rules and regularities of sentence structure and speakers select from the possibilities in ways that are highly complex (Pullum 45).

13Hughes’s aesthetics exemplifies the gap between standard English and the English spoken by the black community of Harlem. Simple, who is the representative of the black community, is also the best example of this oral difference which is assumed through the language he uses. Nevertheless, the difference Simple’s language conveys is not only a matter of oral difference. The antagonism within the black community as well as the social and geographical differences are also translated through orality.

14Simple and his girlfriend, Joyce, illustrate the ideological opposition within the black community in the first half of the twentieth century. During the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes rebelled against the black middle-class ideals and expressed his rejection of the black elite’s literary and cultural orientations. The relationship between Simple and Joyce mirrors such differences and is expressed through Simple’s words. In “Jazz, Jive, and Jam” (239-245) Simple, the Southern uneducated black man, makes the reader laugh but he mainly serves as a foil to Joyce, the emancipated and educated black woman of the North, when she asks him:

Dr. Conboy is smart, says Joyce. Did you hear him quoting Aristotle?
Who were Harry Stottle? I asked.
Some people are not even misread, said Joyce. Aristotle was a Greek philosopher like Socrates, a great man of ancient times.
He must of been before Booker T. Washington then, I said, because, to tell the truth, I has not heard of him at all (“Jazz, Jive, and Jam” 242).

15The cultural and social differences between the two characters are enhanced by the vocabulary and syntactic schemes created by Hughes. By having Simple use an altered language not totally “jive” not totally “negro dialect,” Hughes shows how he deals with standard English to give his character his specific African American identity:

Jess, watch your grammar in public. Don’t say is you, and you is. That is not proper, Joyce says.
I begs your pardon, I says. Forgive my down-home talk.
Down-home or up North, says Joyce, such terms is not correct. You know it. You have been to school.
Colored school, I said. Which is neither here nor there as long as you understand what I am saying (“Once in a Wife-Time” 172).

16With this technique, Hughes is able to subtly question the social system of his country. This form of popular culture is also a means for the character to lessen the racial and social problems he is the victim of and to offer a new appreciation of history and of racial issues. The opposition between Simple and Joyce also mirrors the racial opposition in the United States as a whole:

I am sorry white folks is scared to come to Harlem, but I am scared to go around some of them. Why, for instant, in my home town once before I came North to live, I was walking down the street when a white woman jumped out of her door and said, Boy, get away from here because I am scared of you.
I said, Why?
She said, because you are black.
[...] I got more reasons to be scared of white folks than they have of me (“A Toast to Harlem” 22).

17As his close friend Carl Van Vechten wrote to him in 1945, Hughes “[had] a special aptitude for speaking for the ‘people’ and more and more [he] bec[a]me their official spokesman and more and more [he] told the world what the more miserable members of [his] race [were] seeking (Van Vechten in Bernard 235).”

  • 6 As Daniel Royot states: “Because of their dissemination in the South, slaves could not form ethnic (...)

18Just like the slaves before him, Simple creates his own language and style. His technique points at the oral strategy slaves reverted to in the aim of surviving in a hostile world.6 Simple, indeed, plays the dozens, which he explains to Boyd and indirectly to readers unfamiliar with black culture. To play the dozens means to play an oral game. In this game, two contestants insult each other until one gives up. The game is a way of protection for Blacks against racial tensions and aggressiveness. Simple also speaks the jive, the Harlem dialect. These different forms of language are answers to the inadequate language which is too standardized and does not fit the needs of black people. The jive functions as an intermediate and codified language with no grammar rules. It permits easier communication to insiders. In the 1940s, the Harlem jive was a coded language outsiders could barely decode. Magazines published explanations, as this extract from Esquire (1944), and quoted by Anderson in This was Harlem, shows:

True jive is not the stereotyped jargon affected by the high school ice cream palor crowd and brain-fagged comedians. Jive has etymology, formal rules, a constantly expanding vocabulary currently estimated at over a thousand words and an infinite number of phrase combinations. Burley calls it “language in motion”, and though he often discusses it in the most scholarly terms, he claims you can’t understand the idom unless you understand the people who use it. Jive, he says, is the Negro’s defense mechanism. (316)

19Simple’s jive is full of images and expressions of his own creation: she jumps salty (“Landladies” 5),” “I’m tired of trickeration (“Conversation on the Corner” 13),” “to be jim-crowed (“Temptation” 27),” “What’s on the rail for the lizard this morning? (“Vacation” 34),” “hysterian” for “historian (“An Auto-Obituary” 239).” All these expressions are examples of this typical mode of expression. Body language goes hand in hand with this idom, which is easy to imagine with Simple. Simple’s spontaneous language adds confusion to the meaning of his stories. This is also part of the entertaining quality of the character whose jokes are tied up with the jester figure and discourse. Simple is imbued with such traits and displays a deep sense of humor that readers, especially when he first appeared in The Defender columns, appreciated:

To be shot down is bad for the body, but to be Jim Crowed is worse for the spirit. (“Simple on Military Integration” 81)


I am glad I am handsome instead of wise. (“Jazz, Jive, Jam” 242)

21In another story Simple proposes a far-fetched idea of a “game preserve for Negroes” to point at racism but still with a layer of humor:

I have been up North a long time, but it looks like I just cannot learn to like white folks. […] While they’re making all these laws, it looks like to me they ought to make one setting up a few Game Preserves for Negroes. […] We need protection. […] Congress ought to set aside some place where we can go and nobody can jump on us and beat us, neither lynch us nor Jim Crow us every day. Colored folks rate as much protection as a buffalo, or a deer. (“There Ought to be a Law” 62)

22Hughes wants “to elicit both laughter and serious consideration of the effects of racism in the military—and of the possible solutions. His nonfiction proposals amuse us, but the notions make some sense. […] For Hughes, especially in his Simple voice, the average black man overcomes racism by maintaining his morality and his sense of humor. […] Whether one evaluates the humor as an example of the folk tradition or as political humor, Hughes uses and advocates the use of humor to balance one’s mental outlook (Harper 53, 64).” This tone and timeless humor made the columns a success; it also explains the transition from newspaper to book. In fact, Simple displays the characteristics of the buffoon who can reveal embarrassing truths without fear and thus denounces the social wrongs of his time, when he says, for instance: “If Negroes can survive white folks in Mississippi, we can survive anything” (“Radioactive Red Caps” 213); or “You don’t learn everything in books (“Income Tax” 69).” His position towards life and events allows him to warn the reader but he knows how to keep his distance from all this:

Why, man, I would rock so far away from this color line in the U.S.A., till it wouldn’t be funny. I might even build me a garage on Mars and a mansion on Venus. […] Man, if I had a rocket plane, I would rock off into space and be solid gone. Gone. Real gone! I mean gone!
I think you are gone now, I said. Out of your head.
Not quite, said Simple. (“High Bed” 57)

23Henry Louis Gates defines the figure of the “signifying monkey” as the rhetoric principle characteristic of African American vernacular texts. This principle, which he explains as follows, is part of Simple’s characterization:

The Signifying Monkey exists as the great trope of Afro-American discourse, and the trope of tropes, his language of Signifying, is his verbal sign in the Afro-American tradition. […] The figure of writing appears to be peculiar to the myth of Esu, while the figure of speaking, of oral discourse densely structured rhetorically, is peculiar to the myth of the Signifying Monkey. […] As figures of the duality of the voice within the tradition, Esu and his friend the Monkey manifest themselves in the search for a voice […] (Gates 22).

24The reader must, indeed, be receptive to this form of language filled with double meanings and double entendres. To Hughes, it is a means of “reappropriating” or “redistributing” (redistribuer) the language, to quote Barthes in Le plaisir du texte, and to move between the margin and the norm to inscribe his text in minority writing or minor literature. Hughes constantly manipulates the black vernacular but also reappropriates the literary norm. He merges the African American oral tradition with the Anglo-Saxon literary tradition to achieve an original and successful aesthetic creation which is intellectually stimulating and which helps denounce the social reality of the black community of his time. This manipulation, which shapes the writing, reveals the rebellious character of the writer who was reviled by the dominant black middle-class culture because of his rejection of the literary canon but who ended up being accepted thanks to Simple’s stories.

25In her essay based on the concept of “narrative community,” Sandra Zagarell notes that a “narrative community” means texts “that take as their subject the life of a community, and portray the minute and quite ordinary processes through which the community maintains itself as an entity (499).” Such a process departs from single-protagonist narratives, yet in The Best of Simple, Hughes maintains both processes as he conceives Simple as a character fully participating in the narrative construction and whose individuality functions within the collective framework of the black community of Harlem. Simple’s narrative parallels real-life community. These constant shifts between fiction and reality, the norm and the margin, between simplicity and deceptive simplicity are also inscribed in the character himself “whose name and history represent the illusion of being simple (Harper 1).” Naming is, indeed, important in Hughes’s creative strategy. By giving maximum personality to his character, Simple’s name and nickname and their spelling deserve closer attention, as we shall see now.

Naming in The Best of Simple

26The character’s name (Jess B. Semple) is based on the pun: “Just be simple.” This apparent simplicity hides a complex use of language and beyond that, multiple interpretations to be given to Simple’s stories and to Simple himself who can also be deceptive. His friends and the reader may find him stupid and naïve but is he really so stupid?:

Joyce, after all these years, is you trying to play me for a sucker? If you is, lemme tell you—I might look simple, but I definitely ain’t no fool (“Once in a Wife-Time” 172).

27Simple is no fool and thinks his ancestors were more naïve than he is:

You have to ask my great-great-grandpa why. He must of been simple—else why did he let them capture him in Africa and sell him for a slave to breed my great-grandpa on slavery to breed my grandpa in slavery to breed my pa to breed me to look at that window (“Feet Live Their Own Life” 3).

28However, he admits his friends called him “Simple Simon” when he was a little boy:

I am really Jess Semple—which the kids changed around into a nickname when I were in school. In fact, they used to tease me when I were small, calling me ‘Simple Simon’. But I was right handy with my fists, and after I beat the ‘Simon’ out of a few of them, they let me alone. But my friends still call me Simple (“Simple on Indian Blood” 18-19).

29All these possible interpretations point at the different meanings readers can give to Simple’s words. In this light he is closer to the buffoon whose mission, in European medieval courts, was to make his audience laugh and think at the same time. Simple’s name is multi-layered and can also be understood as “sample,” a sample of the ordinary black man, or Harlem everyman. “Because he love[s], respect[s], and identifie[s] with ordinary African Americans, Hughes [is] able to faithfully represent the attitudes and the speech patterns of the Negro everyman, an ordinary Harlem resident (Harper 9)”:

I cannot truthfully state, as some novelists do at the beginnings of their books, that these stories are about “nobody living or dead.” The facts are that these tales are about a great many people although they are stories about no specific persons as such. But it is impossible to live in Harlem and not know at least a hundred Simples, fifty Joyces, twenty-five Zaritas, a number of Boyds, and several Cousin Minnies or reasonable facsimilies thereof. (Hughes, The Best of Simple, vii)

30This is only the tip of the iceberg, however, since Simple’s first name is also highly symbolic. Indeed, in the Bible, Jesse is King David’s father and is a prominent figure in the Old Testament, and he taught the Torah. In the short stories, Simple plays the same part as he also teaches readers about the social and racial issues of his community throughout history. In this light, Simple can be seen as a jester since his teachings are a means of warning readers and showing them what reality looks like in Harlem, the microcosm of the society of his time.

31Simple adds another layer to his surname when he warns the narrator and the readers that he could as well be named Job, instead of Jesse (“Final Fear” 57-61). According to him, this is a more appropriate name in keeping with his ordeals: “‘Suffered!’ Cried Simple. ‘My Mama should have named me Job instead of Jess Semple (60).’” This first name is highly symbolic when referring to Simple. In the Book of Job, Job is portrayed as a good man beset with disasters. Hughes’s reader is made to establish a link between Simple’s plight and Job’s ordeals, particularly when Simple says:

I have been underfed, underpaid, undernourished, and everything but undertaken. I been bit by dogs, cats, mice, rats, poll parrots, fleas, chiggers, bedbugs, grand-daddies, mosquitoes, and a gold-toothed woman (“Final Fear” 60).

32Simple’s sorry plight is a new interpretation of black history and of social issues through the lens of the American society of the 1940s and 1950s. Here, naming is a symbolic process as it allows Simple to claim his own genealogy and to build his own identity, which was refused to his enslaved ancestors. Naming reverts to stating one’s identity, the identity of Black people. Thus, it allows Hughes to inscribe Simple in common and national history and to transcend it through intercultural and transnational references and dimensions. All along his career, Hughes also demonstrated strong bonds to black history and black music by using it in his writing and by appyling the same rhythms as in the blues or jazz to his poetry. In Simple’s short stories, Hughes reverts to this technique from time to time, so that the use of black music shapes the aesthetics of the narrative and reverberates in Simple’s words and stories, much as a bluesman.

Hughes’s aesthetics of musicality

33During the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes became a “blues poet” and “merged the African American oral and written traditions, exploiting conventions, techniques, and the goals of both to achieve a poetry that [was] intellectually stimulating, socio-politically responsible, and aesthetically pleasing both as folk poetry and literature (Tracy 2).” With the Simple stories, Hughes established the continuity with black music he had started to work on as a young poet and reverted to music to tackle the social themes of the black community.

34Just like bluesmen who sing and tell microstories, Hughes uses Simple as a bluesman to create a character accessible to all and whose stories are devoted to the oppressed and marginalized black people:

[…] The blues offer a language that connotes a world of transience, instability, hard luck, brutalizing work, lost love, minimal security, and enduring human wit and resourcefulness in the face of disaster. The blues enjoin one to accept hard luck because, without it, there is “no luck at all” (Baker 188).

35These characteristics appear in Simple’s stories and daily ordeals. Through the pattern of the blues, Hughes incorporates the difficult conditions and living circumstances of the black working class into Simple’s biographical narrative:

The next time I visited Simple, I found him convaslescent, slightly ashy and a bit thinner, sitting up in bed but low in spirits. […]
You talk as though you’ve had a hard time, I said. […]
What’re you talking about? Cried Simple, sitting bolt upright in bed. Not only am I half dead right now from pneumonia, but everything else has happened to me! I have been cut, shot, stabbed, run over, hit by a car, and tromped by a horse. I have also been robbed, fooled, deceived, two-timed, double-crossed, dealt seconds, and mighty near blackmailed—but I am still here (“Final Fear” 57, 60).

36Simple describes his sorry plight and misfortunes and tells the story of a man who tries to pull himself together in spite of what happens to him. His story is reminiscent of the stories recorded in blues and “it seems appropriate—even natural—that the act resulting from such bitter black [urban] circumstances should be expressively framed by blues (Baker 190).” Simple realizes that in fact, he is not so changed by what he condemns (“I am still here!”) and the blues helps him assert his human identity “in the face of dehumanizing circumstance[s] (Baker 190)” just when he says for instance:

And to tell you I am tired of working like a Negro all week in order to live like white folks on Saturday night. What I want is a part-time job with full-time pay, or else a position where you take a vacation all summer and rest all winter. But I am colored, so I know nothing like that is going to happen to me. […] I look in the mirror in the morning to shave, and what do I see? Me. From birth to death my face, which is my race, stares me in the face (“Present for Joyce” 173).

37Simple speaks in an oral style that contrasts with the narrator’s formal and standardized diction. He is both an orator and a story-teller as he says to Boyd: “I can talk, but I can’t write (“Income Tax” 69).” Music is part of his story-telling and if he can easily be compared to a bluesman, he often does not hesitate to transform his language into a sound-moment or a jazz-moment when he tells the narrator of his nights out: “The joint were jumping—rocking, rolling, whooping, hollering, and stomping. It was a far cry from ‘Stardust’ to that spider walking up the wall (“Jealousy” 41).” As Hutchinson quotes: “jazz is a specifically American music that enhances experiences of everyday life […] (Hutchinson 423)” and as it is the case with Simple. As a Southern black man, Simple is deeply attached to black music, be it blues or jazz, which frames his everyday life and he wants Joyce to share his interest:

What’s the matter? Don’t you like blues?
Joyce said, You know, I never did like blues. I am from the North.
North what? I said. Carolina?
I thought this was a refined cocktail lounge. […] But I see I was in error. It’s a low dive. Let’s go downtown […].
No, no, no. No, after all for me, I said. Here we are, and here we stay right in this bar till
I get ready to go… (“Jealousy” 41-42).

  • 7 Leroi Jones says on the origin of the blues: “The emergence of classic blues and the popularization (...)

38The blues is the expression of Simple’s Southern roots, of the sufferings of his people, and as such of the African American experience.7 Simple’s blues frame his stories but also the history of his people:

[...] In this life I been abused, confused, misused, accused, false-arrested, tried, sentenced, paroled, blackjacked, beat, third-degreed and near about lynched (“Final Fear” 60).

39Simple’s blues also expresses his sorrow after his girlfriend’s rejection. Like the bluesman, he is vulnerable and at a loss. To talk of his frustration is a way of liberating himself and getting rid of his deep dissatisfaction:

I phoned her seventeen times. She will not answer the phone. I rung her bell. Nobody will let me in. I sent her six telegrams, but she do not reply. If I could write my thoughts, I would write her a letter, but I am no good at putting words on paper much. The way I feel now, nobody could put my feelings down nohow. I got the blues for true. I can’t be satisfied. This morning I had the blues so bad, I wished that I had died. These is my bitter days (“Blues Evening” 88).

40Simple, who often plays with women and is not always loyal, is here a victim. As in some blues, the accumulation of negative forms underlines the victimization of the character and ensures the dynamism of the writing; the very short sentences also add to the dynamism of the writing and to the sense of urgency proper to blues text. Just as in blues songs, death appears as the right conclusion to end Simple’s misfortune. Simple’s blues are not only the expression of a state of mind, they also are a way for him “to laugh to keep from crying” and to keep his problems and ordeals at a distance. After recovering, he says later to Boyd about his girlfriend:

She better let me know where she’s at by Monday morning, said Simple. If she do not drop me a line at once now, she will find herself dropped. Joyce is embarrassing me. F.D. thinks I know all about womens, and here I don’t even know where my own woman is at (“Boys, Birds, and Bees” 156)

41The blues pattern also provides Simple with a means of expressing his concern about racial relationships and to move away from it at his convenience:

There is also one more resolve I have resolved. Believe it or not, buddy-o, and that is this: To let the Race Problem roll off my mind like water off a duck’s back—pay it no attention any more. I have been worrying as long as I have been black. Since I have to be black a long time yet, what is the sense of so much worriation? The next time I read where they have lynched or bombed a Negro, I will just shrug my shoulders and say, It wasn’t me […] (“Tied in a Bow” 182).

  • 8 Mamie Smith (1883-1946) was nicknamed the “mother of blues.” Mamie Smith recorded Crazy Blues in 19 (...)
  • 9 Bessie Smith (1894-1937) was nicknamed the “Empress of the blues.” She became popular thanks to Ma (...)
  • 10 Clara Smith (1895-1935) was also a praised blues singer.

42Framing Simple’s stories with the blues is not only a way of expressing the character’s vision of life as a black man; it is also a way of paying tribute to this style of music and to great singers. By regularly mentioning or hinting at blues singers like Mamie Smith,8 Bessie Smith,9 and Clara Smith,10 the motif of the blues is regularly maintained in the writing and in Simple’s stories. Simple shows how fond he is of these women and of the music they sing and play when he says:

  • 11 Victoria Spivey (1906-1976) was an American blues singer and songwriter. She started her career by (...)

Since I’m busting this dollar, I might as well put a quarter in the juke box. What would you like to hear?
If they’ve got any old-time blues on it, play them.
Will do, said Simple. But there ain’t no Bessie these days. Do you remember Bessie Smith?
I certainly do. And Clara?
I bet you don’t remember Mamie?
Yes, I do—all three Smiths, Bessie, Clara, and Mamie. […] Speaking of blues singers, how about Victoria Spivey?
11 […]
I just recall my Uncle Tige had one of her records when I were born which he used to play called “The Blacksnake Blues”. I almost disremembers it (“Shadow of the Blues”

43The titles of some short-stories are also reminiscent of the blues and of black music in general as: “Blue Evening (83-89),” “Bop (117-119),” “Shadow of the Blues (165-168),” and “Jazz, Jive, and Jam (239-245).” The blues is about the sorrows and pains of Blacks’ daily lives; it is about their loneliness and weaknesses too. Just like the bluesman he personifies, Simple can go through ups and downs (“High Bed” 52-57; “Final Fear” 57-61) and when he is described, the narrative voice takes up the style of the blues as we saw in “Final Fear”.


  • 12 “Le blues fonctionne sur un schéma d’affirmation et de conclusion qui donne le plus souvent à l’aff (...)

44Interestingly, the pattern of Southern blues is based on “assertions and conclusions to give irony or unexpectedness to the assertion. [The blues] almost always suggests a call to real social changes. […] Such anticlimax is highly subtle in Hughes’s writing […]” (Sylvanise 63, my translation)12 Simple’s stories are built on the same pattern when he says, for instance, “I am trying to figure out how to stay alive until I die” (“Sometimes I Wonder” 183) or also when he states: “Sometimes I wonder what made me so black (186).” In “Two Sides Not Enough,” we find another proof of Sylvanise’s assertion and of the blues pattern which Hughes adapts to Simple’s story-telling when Simple starts his story with:

A man ought to have more than just two sides to sleep on. Now if I get tired of sleeping on my left side, I have nothing to turn over on but my right side. […] Also if I sleep on my left side, I am facing my wife, then I have to turn over to see the clock in the morning to find out what time it is. […] A human should have not only a left side and a right side, but also a port side and a starboard side (“Two Sides Not Enough” 213).

45Simple tries to understand why things are the way they are and his speech, jive, and blues “carry him toward some newly expressive work (Baker 135)” that produce a reading of black life through a narrative proper to Hughes. His usage of black music and of the blues transforms Simple’s story-telling into moments bearing clues and interpretations intrinsic to that type of music:

Did you know who my father was, Cousin Jess?
F.D. asked me last night, because I never even as much laid eyes on him.
I knowed the Negro, I said. I met him once when I were home on a visit before I settled permanent in the North. He were a big black handsome man. Folks called him John Henry because he worked on the railroad and were just passing through with the construction (“Kick for Punt” 147).

46John Henry is, indeed, a central character of the blues songs and by mentioning his name, Hughes makes a symbolic use of blues. Thus, as Frever puts it in her analysis on Hurston’s style, we can assert that Hughes’s “fiction forces the reader to reconsider language and textual construction through the moment of orality [and musicality] in the narration (Frever 6).” By doing so, Hughes creates a flowing language style that asks the reader to participate in the appreciation of history and of the social and personal issues Simple depicts. To Simple, the pattern of the blues helps him fight against social injustices and racial violence. It is a way of transcending and evading the harsh reality and capturing his frustrations.

47Be-Bop is another way to pay tribute to famous black musicians. Like the blues, it expresses the pains and wounds Blacks articulated through music:

  • 13 Dizzy Gillespie (1917-1993): a jazz trumpet player. He participated in the creation of Be-Bop.
  • 14 Thelonius Monk (1917-1982): a pianist and a jazz composer. He was an important figure in modern jaz (...)
  • 15 Tad Dameron (1917-1965): a jazz pianist whose style was inspired by be-bop. He worked with Dizzy Gi (...)
  • 16 Charlie Parker (1920-1955): a saxophonist, whose improvisations made him famous. He also interprete (...)
  • 17 Simple refers to Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981), a pianist and jazz composer. She worked with Dizzy (...)

Be-Bop music was certainly colored folks’ music—which is why white folks found it so hard to imitate. But there are some few white boys that latched onto it right well. And no wonder, because they sat and listened to Dizzy,13 Thelonius,14 Tad Dameron,15 Charlie Parker,16 also Mary Lou,17 all night long every time they got a chance, and bought their records by the dozens to copy their riffs. [...]
It all sounds like pure nonsense syllables to me.

Nonsense nothing! Bop makes plenty of sense. […] You must not know where Bop comes from. […] From the police beating Negroes’ heads. […] Every time a cop hits a Negro with his billy club, that old club says, ‘bop! Bop! …Be-Bop! … Mop! … Bop!’ […] Old cop just keeps on ‘Mop! Mop! … Be-bop! … Mop!’ That’s where Be-Bop came from, beaten right out of some Negro’s head into them horns and saxophones and piano keys that plays it. Do you call that nonsense? (“Bop” 118)

48As with the blues, Hughes’ weaves sadness and joy in his writing and speaks for every Black man. Here, Simple uses be-bop to liken its rhythms and sounds to the police violence against Blacks and thus points at a very intimate interrelation between musical experience and oppressive measures against black people. The uses and functions of both orality and musicality are tied up with the character of Simple and his streetwise assessment of the lives of African Americans in the urban North.

49Hughes’s writing and aesthetics were his instruments to create linguistic and musical moments reminiscent of the blues, the jazz, and be-bop. Orality and musicality “allowed Hughes to enhance the folk tradition, converting the telling of the tale into a written document that becomes a unifying tool for social change (Blake 168).” He defied the language system by creating his own words that brought to life a black realistic hero whom black readers accepted as one of their own and whom white readers identified as someone they knew. Through Simple the blues motif is a way for Hughes to express Simple’s story and the history of his community:

Music explains things better than words and everybody in all kind of languages could understand it then. My music would say everything my words couldn’t put over, because there wouldn’t be many words anyhow. The words in my song would just say a black man saw a star and followed it till he came to a stable and put his presents down. But the music would say he also laid his heart down, too —which would be my heart. It would be my song I would be making up. […] It would be the kind of song everybody could sing, old folks and young folks. And when they sing it, some folks would laugh. It would be a happy song (“Christmas Song” 180).

50Beyond Hughes’ aesthetics, “the actual saga of Simple shows that the translation of folk characters and vernacular narration into universally celebrated fiction required both talent and tenacity on the part of the author (Harper 17).” In one of his letters to Hughes, Carl Van Vechten congratulated Hughes for his writing of Simple’s stories which he described as “a sane approach to real insanity (Bernard 268);” Hughes was a spokesman for Blacks and Simple embodied this role perfectly. All along his career, Hughes created an art form transcending the written form and remained influenced by African American cultural traditions and folklore that eventually led him to recognition and acceptance by the American canon.


Anderson, Jervis. This Was Harlem. A Cultural Portrait, 1900-1950. New York: The Noon Press, 1981. Print.

Baker, Houston A. Jr. Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature. A Vernacular Theory. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984. Print.

Barthes, Roland. Le plaisir du texte. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1973. Print.

Bernard, Emily. Remember me to Harlem. The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten. New York: Vintge Books, 2002. Print.

Blake, Susan. “Old John in Harlem: The Urban Folk Tales of Langston Hughes,” Critical Essays on American Literature. Ed. Mullen Edward J. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1986, 168-75. Print.

Brinkley, Robert. “What Is a Minor Literature? Author(s): Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari.” Mississippi Review, Vol. 11, No. 3, (1983): 13-33. Print.

Chapman, Abraham, ed. Black Voices. New York: Mentor, (1925) 1968. Print.

Deleuze, Gilles. Mille Plateaux. Paris : les Éditions de Minuit, 1980. Print.

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Hughes, Langston. The Best of Simple. New York: Hill & Wang, 1961. Print.

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Sylvanise, Frédéric. Langston Hughes, poète jazz, poète blues. Lyon: ENS Editions, 2009. Print.

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1 In this article, we use the original version: Langston Hughes. The Best of Simple. New York: Hill & Wang, 1961. The original version was illustrated by Bernhard Nast.

2 The Harlem Renaissance (also termed the New Negro Movement) grew out of the changes that had taken place in the African American community since the abolition of slavery. There was a prolific expression of black creativity at the beginning of the twentieth century in Harlem (New York) to which Langston Hughes took part. Many creative projects were launched in Harlem or created by artists who lived and worked in Harlem. This cultural watershed participated in Harlem’s revival and the Harlem Renaissance movement.

3 In his article entitled “The Need for Heroes” which was published in 1940 in The Crisis, Hughes wrote about the need to create black heroes in literature to inspire the young generation: “We have a need for heroes. We have a need for books and plays that will encourage and inspire our youth, set for them examples and patterns of conduct, move and stir them to be forthright, strong, clear-thinking, and unafraid.” (Hughes, in Bernard 189)

4 Hutchinson refers to Margaret Larkin, “A Poet for the People—A Review”, Opportunity 5 (1927):84.

5 My translation of: “Cet effet de style, qui recherche une authenticité qui ne manque pas d’artificialité, introduit une confusion supplémentaire dans la communication. [...] Le lecteur est rendu doublement actif pour appréhender le sens.”. I translated all French quotations into English to avoid any break in the reading. The original quotes are mentioned in the footnotes.

6 As Daniel Royot states: “Because of their dissemination in the South, slaves could not form ethnic groups nor speak a common dialect. Words in English invaded the negro dialect, which became a tool for oral communication.” (Royot 297)

7 Leroi Jones says on the origin of the blues: “The emergence of classic blues and the popularization of jazz occurred around the same time. Both are the results of social and psychological changes within the Negro group as it moved toward the mainstream of American society […]. The term blues relates directly to the Negro, and his personal involvement in America. […] Blues means a Negro experience, it is the one music the Negro made that could not be transferred into a more general significance than the one the Negro gave it initially (Jones 93-94).”

8 Mamie Smith (1883-1946) was nicknamed the “mother of blues.” Mamie Smith recorded Crazy Blues in 1920, it was the first recorded blues album under the Okeh label.

9 Bessie Smith (1894-1937) was nicknamed the “Empress of the blues.” She became popular thanks to Ma Rainey who performed in the same company and guided her first steps. Langston Hughes deeply admired Bessie Smith and probably found inspiration in her blues songs.

10 Clara Smith (1895-1935) was also a praised blues singer.

11 Victoria Spivey (1906-1976) was an American blues singer and songwriter. She started her career by performing in vaudevilles and clubs and then worked with Louis Armstrong and Clarence Williams among other black famous musicians.

12 “Le blues fonctionne sur un schéma d’affirmation et de conclusion qui donne le plus souvent à l’affirmation un sens ironique ou inattendu. […] [Le blues] suggère presque toujours un appel à un réel changement social. […] L’art de la chute chez Hughes est porté à un haut degré de subtilité et d’implicite […].”

13 Dizzy Gillespie (1917-1993): a jazz trumpet player. He participated in the creation of Be-Bop.

14 Thelonius Monk (1917-1982): a pianist and a jazz composer. He was an important figure in modern jazz.

15 Tad Dameron (1917-1965): a jazz pianist whose style was inspired by be-bop. He worked with Dizzy Gillespie and for Artie Shaw.

16 Charlie Parker (1920-1955): a saxophonist, whose improvisations made him famous. He also interpreted be-bop.

17 Simple refers to Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981), a pianist and jazz composer. She worked with Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, and Charlie Parker. She became famous thanks to her performances at Café Society, a jazz club located in Greenwich Village (New York). Along with the lives of Pearl Primus and Ann Petry, Farah Jasmine Griffin depicts Mary Lou Williams’s story in her book: Harlem Nocturne. Women Artists & Progressive Politics during World War II. 2013.

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Christine Dualé, « The Aesthetics of Orality in Langston Hughes’s Short Stories The Best of Simple », Journal of the Short Story in English, 69 | 2017, 71-91.

Référence électronique

Christine Dualé, « The Aesthetics of Orality in Langston Hughes’s Short Stories The Best of Simple », Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 69 | Autumn 2017, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2019, consulté le 25 janvier 2020. URL :


Christine Dualé

Christine Dualé is Associate Professor-HDR at Université Toulouse 1 Capitole. She is the author of Les Noirs et la réussite universitaire aux États-Unis, Paris: L’Harmattan, 2007, and Harlem Blues: Langston Hughes et la poétique de la Renaissance afro-américaine, Paris: L’Harmattan, 2014. A third book, entitled Langston Hughes et la Renaissance de Harlem: émergence d’une voix noire, is forthcoming. Her main themes of research are the Harlem Renaissance and Langston Hughes’s writing in light of the Deleuzian concepts of “margin,” “minor literature,” and “rhizome.”

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