Moses, Man of the Mountain Essay - Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

Zora Neale Hurston

Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

Moses, Man of the Mountain is Hurston’s fifth full-length work, following the novels Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934) and Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and the folklore collections Mules and Men (1935) and Tell My Horse (1938). At the time Hurston was writing these works, the prevailing attitude among African American authors was that only the protest novel was acceptable as a vehicle for their thoughts. Hurston did not write novels that fit such categorization, and in consequence she lost favor among influential writers and critics of the Harlem Renaissance.

Moses, Man of the Mountain has, however, been read as a veiled protest novel. Because of the close identification of African American slaves with the captive Israelites in spirituals such as “Go Down, Moses,” the parallels are easy to draw. Perhaps, as has been suggested by several critics, any novel dealing with Moses’ story could be seen as a protest novel, simply for the reason stated above. Hurston does not portray the captive people to be without flaws; their occasional pettiness and lack of understanding prevent them from receiving unqualified pity. The humor in the novel prevents it from becoming a serious sociological study of an oppressed race. That the novel does not fit into a prescribed form has caused it to receive both positive and negative critical readings.

The contemporary reviews of Moses, Man of the Mountain were mixed. Since then, many critics have commented on what an ambitious work it is, but most have found it to be flawed.

Hurston published her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, in 1942, and the novel Seraph on the Suwanee in 1948. Amid personal difficulties, her career as a writer ended, although she lived for twelve more years. Her books out of print and her reputation forgotten, Hurston died in a county welfare home and was buried in an unmarked grave.

In the 1970’s, African American novelist Alice Walker rediscovered Hurston’s work. Walker located her grave, purchased a marker for it, and led the revival of interest in her life and works. Her books have been republished, critical acclaim has grown, and Zora Neale Hurston has finally been accorded a well-deserved place in African American literature.