Langston Hughes: The Black Comedy of a Black Poet
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James Mercer Langston Hughes is best known as one of the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance. Much of his writing addresses the experience of being black at a time when, to use his own words, “the negro was in vogue.” While he is largely remembered for his jazz-poetry, plays, and novels, Langston Hughes was also a prodigious writer of articles (including his coverage of the Spanish Civil War for The Baltimore African-American) and short fiction. With so many praises to sing, it can be easy to overlook the wit and elegance of his prose.
For those of us who are not frequent poetry readers, it's difficult to know where to start with a figure like Langston Hughes. If you are unfamiliar with his writing, there is an almost paralysing volume to choose from, and too often that moment of not knowing where to start can turn people away from an author altogether. In this case, it's hard to recommend anything more highly than his short fiction.
As you might expect from a poet, Hughes’ use of language in his short fiction feels precise and measured, allowing his prose to flow beautifully in short stories. More than that, though, the combination of the two facilitates a kind of easy humour that runs through much of his work.
If, like us, you’re a fan of literary writers writing humour, then you’ll be happy to hear that Hughes was probably at his most deliberately (and consistently) comic when writing about the character of Jesse B. Semple (or, Simple). Originally produced as a series of articles for The Chicago Defender, the series tracks the life, views, and misadventures of Simple. You may have to forgive us if this article is a little heavy on quotes, but it’s very hard to do justice to just how funny Langston Hughes could be without simply using his own words.
In his introduction to the collection, The Best of Simple, Hughes explains that Simple is no real single individual, but a loose amalgamation of different people at different times. Moreover, he comments that, “... 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 facsimiles thereof.” He has, he explains, been introduced to any number of Simples since he began writing about the man.
Where the Simple stories excel is in their ability to present Simple himself in purely comic terms, regardless of the source of his misfortune. Sometimes, the joke is on an apparent (and total) lack of curiosity in the world around him, up to and including things he works on every day.
When the narrator is first introduced to Simple, he asks where he works.
He said, “In a war plant.”
I said, “What do you make?”
He said, “Cranks.”
I said, “What kind of cranks?”
He said, “Oh man, I don’t know what kind of cranks.”
I said, “Well, do they crank cars, tanks, buses, planes or what?”
He said, “I don’t know what them cranks crank.”
Whereupon his girl friend, a little put out at this ignorance of his job, said,
“You’ve been working there long enough. Looks like by now you ought to know what them cranks crank.”
“Aw, woman,” he said, “you know white folks don’t tell colored folks what cranks crank.”
Often, what makes Simple so immediately and genuinely funny is the sense that there is, as in the consistent repetition of the “crank” above, a poetry to his speech. The repetition of the sharp "k" sounds throughout contributes too, somehow. This is hardly surprising, given the extent of Hughes’ own experience in writing poetry, but to see it employed so often for humour is a real and genuine pleasure.
This elegant use of repetition is not reserved for Simple’s observations about the world and people as they relate to him, but also in his portrayal of the details of his own life. Describing the state of his marriage, Simple comments,
“… we had one of the biggest quarrels you ever saw. Our first battle royal–but it were not our last. Every time night fell from then on we quarreled–and night falls every night in Baltimore.”
“Night does,” I said.
The closing sentence, the narrator echoing Simple’s observation as though he were a greek chorus, also serves to illustrate something else that’s immediately loveable about The Best of Simple. Throughout the Simple stories, we see Simple as a man with strange ideas, explaining them to someone who seems frankly more reasonable to the reader. Moreover, our narrator repeatedly acknowledges Simple’s statements using vocabulary vague enough to avoid committing to them either way. The impression that this builds is of a better-educated man who draws out Simple’s views and opinions, without necessarily judging him for his beliefs.
Often, our narrator does little more than supply the necessary facts or grounding for the inevitable Simple punchline, but always in just the right tone. It’s not quite detached, but getting there. Describing his efforts to have his wife pay for a divorce so he can marry another woman, Simple says,
“She says she will not pay for no divorce for another woman unless I am hers beforehand.”
“That would be bigamy,” I said, “married to two women at once.”
“It would be worse than that,” said Simple. “Married to one woman is bad enough, but if I am married to two it would be hell!”
“Legally it would be bigamy.”
“Is bigamy worse than hell?”
“I have no experience with either,” I said. “But if you go in for bigamy, you will end up in the arms of justice.”
“Any old arms are better than none,” said Simple.
In this steady interaction, if in nothing else, Langston Hughes is reminiscent of postmodern novelist Flann O’Brien (also known as Myles na gColpaleen, Brian O’Nolan, and others), whose own regular columns have strong tonal resoances with The Best of Simple. Where Hughes settles on “Simple” as his continuous companion, O’Brien settled instead on “the brother,” whose many misadventures would be catalogued in a similar fashion.
For the most part, the conversations between Myles na gColpaleen and “the brother” are presented second-hand, as shown below.
Oh indeed begob it doesn’t. It certainly does not. Because your other man gets up very early too. It wasn’t yesterday or the day before your other man came up.
He has undoubtedly certain qualities of adroitness.
Of course, the brother looks at it the other way. He is all for your man and never had any time for your other man. Says no good could ever come out of the class of carry-on your other man has been at for the last ten years. There’s a lot in that, of course. The brother certainly put his finger on it there. But it’s not all on the wan side. Your man was up to some hooky work in his time too.
For anyone fond of Simple, O’Brien’s collected columns, appropriately named The Best of Myles, could almost be read alongside The Best of Simple as a kind of sister book, despite the gulfs between them otherwise. The Best of Simple has shades too of A. A. Milne’s Once a Week, another truly excellent collection of columns from a writer not often remembered for them.
For those who have already had the simple pleasure of The Best of Simple (and who don't feel like just jumping into The Return of Simple and the rest of the Simple series), moving on to read some of Langston Hughes’ more serious short fiction if a natural next step. The Ways of White Folks is a collection of short stories whose subject matter you can probably guess from the title, and which maintains a familiar air of comedy, though here it is more undertone than overtone.
Some of these stories, like "Cora Unashamed," are tragic, while others, like “Slave on the Block,” are laugh out loud funny in their relentless lampooning of the fetishisation of black culture (or more accurately the white impression of black culture) by a wealthy white couple. Even where there is humour though, the whole is often undercut by a sense of melancholy at best and hopelessness at worst. It is a peculiar and almost discordant humour that serves only to underscore the sense of despair that permeates some of these stories.
Indeed, this sense of a darkly comic examination of hard life experiences crops up time and time again. Often, this is simply in smooth asides to otherwise unspeakably bleak situations. Moreover, it is often difficult to nail down precisely why a given line manages to be funny, given the harshness of the context.
In description of Cora’s father in “Cora Unashamed,” Hughes wrote,
What little money he made from closet-cleaning, ash-hauling, and junk-dealing he spent mostly on the stuff that makes you forget you have eight kids.
Similarly, in description of a generous and successful man’s life falling into ruin in “A Good Job Gone,”
“I should of told Mr. Lloyd she didn’t mean him no good. But I was minding my own business, and I minded it too well.”
If you take only one thing from this post, it should be that Langston Hughes is another of those wonderful writers whose name conjures some very specific associations, and amid those associations we somehow lose a sense of their ability to just have fun with their prose. It seems almost unjust that Hughes is part of that rank of writers that includes Kafka, Dickens and Eliot, whose work is so profound and influential that to describe them “funny” seems dismissive, despite the fact that they are so evidently hilarious. The result is that, while undoubtedly influential, there are many who could happily make their way through life without ever knowing that Langston Hughes was an excellent humorist.
For those of you who feel cheated that there has been so little poetry in this article about a man who is best known as a poet, then we apologise, and leave you with “Little Lyric (of Great Importance),” a short Langston Hughes poem with the same sense of humour in the face of despair as much of the above…
I wish the rent was heaven sent.