Hurston, Zora Neale (Vol. 30)
Zora Neale Hurston 1901?–1960
Black American novelist, folklorist, essayist, short story writer, dramatist, anthropologist, and autobiographer. See also Zora Neale Hurston Short Story Criticism, Zora Neale Hurston Drama Criticism, and Zora Neale Hurston Literary Criticism (Volume 7).
Hurston is recognized as an important writer of the Harlem Renaissance, an era of unprecedented excellence in black American art and literature during the 1920s and 1930s. She is now considered among the foremost authors of that period—having published four novels, three nonfiction works, and numerous short stories and essays—and she is also acknowledged as the first black American to collect and publish Afro-American folklore. Hurston has only recently gained substantial critical attention. Her fiction, which deals with the common black folk of her native southern Florida, was considered obsolete with the advent of the "protest novel" as presented by such writers as Richard Wright and James Baldwin during the 1940s and 1950s. In recent years, however, Hurston's work, particularly her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), has undergone substantial critical revaluation.
Hurston was born in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated black township in the United States and the setting for most of her novels. At fourteen, she left Eatonville to work as a maid with a traveling Gilbert and Sullivan theatrical troupe. In 1923 Hurston entered Howard University. Her first short story was published in Stylus, the university literary magazine. She won a scholarship to Barnard College in New York City in 1925, where she studied anthropology under Franz Boas, one of the most renowned anthropologists of the era. After her graduation in 1928 Hurston continued her graduate studies with Boas at Columbia University. While in New York, Hurston became involved in the Harlem Renaissance, publishing short stories and establishing friendships with many important black authors. Along with Langston Hughes and other black writers, Hurston founded Fire!, a literary magazine devoted to black culture, in 1927. However, the magazine folded after its first issue due to financial difficulties and a destructive fire.
With the assistance of fellowships and a private grant from a New York socialite interested in "primitive Negro art," Hurston returned to her hometown to collect folklore. Mules and Men (1935) is the result of Hurston's anthropological field work and academic studies. The book includes many folktales, which the tellers call "lies." These "lies," which contain hidden social and philosophical messages, were an important part of the culture of that region. Hurston also provides descriptions of voodoo practices and beliefs. Critics of the time praised Mules and Men for its information on folklore practices. However, some black critics, especially Sterling Brown, charged that Hurston ignored racial oppression and exploitation in the South. These accusations recurred throughout Hurston's literary career.
In her first novel, Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934), Hurston combined her knowledge of folklore with biblical themes. Loosely based on the lives of her parents, Jonah's Gourd Vine centers on John Pearson, a respected minister and town leader, and the life and death of his first wife, Lucy Potts. Written in the southern black dialect that Hurston used throughout her fic-tion, Jonah's Gourd Vine received critical attention for her "notable talents as a story teller." In Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939) Hurston successfully utilized data obtained from her studies in folklore and voodoo. Basing her story on the premise that most black Americans view their heritage as similar to that of the Hebrews in ancient Egypt, Hurston wrote Moses as an allegorical novel of American slavery. Moses is portrayed not as a prophet but as a powerful magician and voodoo practitioner. Critics praised Hurston's imaginative depiction of Moses, and some considered her use of black dialect important to the development of the narrative.
Most critics maintain that Their Eyes Were Watching God is Hurston's best work. The novel, now considered by some a classic in feminist literature, tells the story of a woman's quest for fulfillment and liberation in a society where women are objects to be used for physical burden and pleasure. Upon publication, critical opinion of the novel varied. Otis Ferguson contended that the book "is absolutely free of Uncle Toms," while Richard Wright accused Hurston of manipulating white stereotypes of black people to attract white readers. Other black critics at the time attacked Hurston for her lack of racial awareness. Contemporary critics, among them Alice Walker and June Jordan, have refuted these charges, asserting that Hurston was acutely aware of the racial climate of the time and describing the novel as an affirmation of black culture.
Critics generally agree that Hurston's last published novel, Seraph on the Suwanee (1948), is her most ambitious but least successful work of fiction. The novel is thematically similar to Jonah's Gourd Vine and Their Eyes Were Watching God. Seraph on the Suwanee is the story of a neurotic woman's search for self-esteem and her attempt to return the love of her husband. In this book, Hurston's major characters are poor whites instead of the black inhabitants of Eatonville of her previous novels. This radical change prompted some black critics to label Hurston an assimilationist. The absence of the colorful prose that was associated with Hurston's earlier work has also been noted.
In her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), Hurston revealed her stance on race relations in America. She maintained that black artists should celebrate the positive aspects of black American life instead of indulging in what she termed "the sobbing school of Negrohood." Some critics attribute Hurston's early years in Eatonville as the major source for that position, for Eatonville was the first organized effort by blacks at self-government. However, Hurston did acknowledge racial prejudice, and she published essays on the problem in several journals and magazines. Hurston's early play Color Struck! (1925) addresses bigotry within the black community, which favors light-skinned over dark-skinned blacks. Recent critical discussion indicates that the original manuscript of Dust Tracks on a Road included severe criticism of American racial and foreign policy, but these sections were omitted because Hurston's editors felt that some readers might interpret her views as an attack on America's role in World War II.
Many critical studies of Hurston have focused on her private life. Early in her career she depended on white patronage for support and financial assistance. Langston Hughes wrote that Hurston was "simply paid just to sit around and represent the Negro race." Other writers who knew Hurston during the 1920s and 1930s contend that she intentionally portrayed the role of a childlike primitive in order to advance her career. Hurston was caught between the emphasis on the "exotic" aspects of the Harlem Renaissance and the angry voice of black literature during the 1940s and 1950s. Although some people have questioned Hurston's integrity, her work is valued for its knowledgeable depiction of black culture and for its insight into the human condition.
(See also CLC, Vol. 7 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)
[Hurst, a popular novelist in the 1920s and 1930s, employed Hurston as a secretary-companion during Hurston's first years in New York City.]
Here in ["Jonah's Gourd Vine"] there springs, with validity and vitality a fresh note which, to this commentator, is unique.
Here is negro folk-lore interpreted at its authentic best in fiction form of a high order.
A brilliantly facile spade has turned over rich new earth. Worms lift up, the hottish smells of soil rise, negro toes dredge into that soil, smells of racial fecundity are about.
As a matter of fact, not even excepting Langston Hughes, it is doubtful if there is any literary precedent for the particular type of accomplishment that characterizes "Jonah's Gourd Vine."
Miss Hurston has penetrated into the complicated lore and mythology of her people with an authority and an unselfconsciousness that has not its equal in similar annals. Even through what might easily be dialectic mists, her negroes emerge on the authenticity of her story-telling. (p. 7)
The author's treatment of whites is as natural and without change of key as it would need to be if she is to succeed in keeping universality the dominant note of her book.
Humor, heartache, ambition, frustration, superstition, fear, cussedness, fidelity and infidelity flow naturally behind white and black pores.
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["Jonah's Gourd Vine"] is the product of a fortunate combination of circumstances. [Hurston] writes as a Negro understanding her people and having opportunities that could come to no white person, however sympathetic, of seeing them when they are utterly themselves. But she writes as a Negro whose intelligence is firmly in the saddle, who recognizes the value of an objective style in writing, and who is able to use the wealth of material available to her with detachment and with a full grasp of its dramatic qualities. Considering her especial temptations, her sustaining of the objective viewpoint is remarkable. She writes of her people with honesty, with sympathy, without extenuation. The white man is portrayed but little and then without bitterness. This is a novel about Negroes and she is not to be deflected by controversy from her preoccupation with her characters as the stuff of art….
Miss Hurston makes effective use of biblical rhythms in the passages that describe mass emotions quickening and becoming richer as they mount to a climax. John Buddy, the central figure of "Jonah's Gourd Vine," becomes later the Rev. Pearson, and his sermons are poems in Old Testament style, exemplifying that affinity of the Negro for the strong rhythms of Hebrew poetry….
There is some uncertainty in the handling of the narrative. Quarrels, trial proceedings, conflicts occur which are never resolved but merely slip out of the...
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"Jonah's Gourd Vine" can be called without fear of exaggeration the most vital and original novel about the American Negro that has yet been written by a member of the Negro race. Miss Hurston … has made the study of Negro folklore her special province. This may very well account for the brilliantly authentic flavor of her novel and for her excellent rendition of Negro dialect. Unlike the dialect in most novels about the American Negro, this does not seem to be merely the speech of white men with the spelling distorted. Its essence lies rather in the rhythm and balance of the sentences, in the warm artlessness of the phrasing.
No amount of special knowledge of her subject, however, could have made "Jonah's Gourd Vine" other than a mediocre novel if it were not for Miss Hurston's notable talents as a storyteller. In John, the big yellow Negro preacher, and in Lucy Potts, his tiny brown wife, she has created two characters who are intensely real and human and whose outlines will remain in the reader's memory long after the book has been laid aside. They are part and parcel of the tradition of their race, which is as different from ours as night from day; yet Miss Hurston has delineated them with such warmth and sympathy that they appeal to us first of all as human beings, confronting a complex of human problems with whatever grace and humor, intelligence and steadfastness they can muster. (pp. 6-7)
Not the least charm...
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H. I. Brock
[Here, in "Mules and Men,"] is the high color of Color as a racial element in the American scene. And it comes neither from Catfish Row nor from a Harlem with a jazz tempo affected by the rhythm of Broadway to which contribute so many exotic strains newer to that scene than the African. In this book … [Hurston] has invited the outside world to listen in while her own people are being as natural as they can never be when white folks are literally present. This in an environment in the deep South to which the Negro is as native as he can be anywhere on this Western Continent….
[Hurston] has gone back to her native Florida village—a Negro settlement—with her native racial quality entirely unspoiled by her Northern college education. She has plunged into the social pleasures of the black community and made a record of what is said and done when Negroes are having a good gregarious time, dancing, singing, fishing, and above all, and incessantly, talking.
The talk (as those fragmentary memories of long ago come back to remind us) runs on such occasions generally to competition in telling what are unashamedly labeled "lies." These "lies" are woven out of the folklore of the black race in the South—with its deeper African background dimmed by years and distance. It is the same folklore, of course, out of which have been rescued for our nurseries the milder elements—the tales of Br'er Rabbit, Br'er Fox and the rest...
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Ever since the time of Uncle Remus, Negro folk-lore has exerted a strong attraction upon the imagination of the American public. Negro tales, songs and sayings without end, as well as descriptions of Negro magic and voodoo, have appeared; but in all of them the intimate setting in the social life of the Negro has been given very inadequately.
It is the great merit of Miss Hurston's [Mules and Men] that she entered into the homely life of the southern Negro as one of them and was fully accepted as such by the companions of her childhood. Thus she has been able to penetrate through that affected demeanor by which the Negro excludes the White observer effectively from participating in his true inner life. Miss Hurston has been equally successful in gaining the confidence of the voodoo doctors and she gives us much that throws a new light upon the much discussed voodoo beliefs and practices. Added to all this is the charm of a loveable personality and of a revealing style which makes Miss Hurston's work an unusual contribution to our knowledge of the true inner life of the Negro.
To the student of cultural history the material presented is valuable not only by giving the Negro's reaction to everyday events, to his emotional life, his humor and passions, but it throws into relief also the peculiar amalgamation of African and European tradition which is so important for understanding historically the character of...
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Thomas Caldecot Chubb
[If] "Jonah's Gourd Vine" is a story with a background of sociology, "Mules and Men" is a social study with gusto of a story. Indeed, it is hard to think of anybody interested in the negro whom this new book will not delight. The southern raconteur who justly prides himself upon his large store of stories about the colored man will here find himself beaten on his own ground, but having gained a new supply of tales to tell. The student of folk-lore will find a well-filled sourcebook. And he who loves the negro, or is amused by him, or burns for his wrongs, or thinks he ought to know his place, will find, each of them, as good a portrayal of the negro's character as he is ever likely to see.
Not, either, a one-sided portrayal. The gaiety, the poetry, the resourcefulness and the wit are set down, but so also are the impulsiveness, the shiftlessness, the living in the moment only. Short of associating with the negro daily, there is no way you can learn more about him. Indeed, from Miss Hurston you will find out many things that, even if you live surrounded by negroes for a long time, you might never know. For as she says, "the negro, in spite of his open-faced laughter, his seeming acquiescence, is particularly evasive." He tells the white man what he thinks the white man wants to know, or what he feels he ought to know.
The book is divided into two parts. The first part deals with "Folk Tales" and the second with...
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The Times Literary Supplement
There is nothing in the title to indicate that ["Mules and Men"] is a picture of the negro mind revealed with commendable objectivity by a negro writer with a vivid pen. It is straining the term to call these stories folk-lore, since in themselves they are individual flights of fancy. Yet in sum they project, as it were, a composite image of the American negro's imagination with its whimsicality, its American love of exaggeration, and its under-dog's admiration of victorious cunning constantly pitted against the dominance of the white man. Two-thirds of the book consists of tales of varying degrees of tallness: there are tales of animals, parallel exploits to those of Brer Rabbit, tales telling why the porpoise has his tail on crossways, and how the possum lost the hair off his tail….
The book therefore reads rather like a compilation of stories for after-dinner speakers, but actually it is scientific in intention and in method. This applies also to the chapters on Hoodoo—the magic ritual practised by the Southern negros…. [Here the author] describes circumstantially the superstitious rites involving the slaughter of animals and the usual devices of sympathetic magic which are used to injure an enemy, compose a love dispute, or exert supernatural powers. Here was the scientific mind submitting itself to the most severe discipline in the study of superstition by becoming for the time being superstitious, but emerging with enough...
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Nick Aaron Ford
[This essay was originally published in 1936.]
[One] can readily see why Miss Hurston's first novel, Jonah's Gourd Vine, was received with small enthusiasm from certain quarters of the Negro race. With a grasp of her material that has seldom been equaled by a writer of her race, she had every opportunity of creating a masterpiece of the age. But she failed. She failed not from lack of skill but from lack of vision. The hero, John Buddy, who rose from an outcast bastard of an Alabama tenant farm to a man of wealth and influence, could have been another Ben Hur, bursting the unjust shackles that had bound him to a rotten social order and winning the applause even of his enemies. But unfortunately, his rise to religious prominence and financial ease is but a millstone about his neck. He is held back by some unseen cord which seems to be tethered to his racial heritage. Life crushes him almost to death, but he comes out of the mills with no greater insight into the deep mysteries which surround him. Such a phenomenon, although not intended by Miss Hurston as a type of all Negro manhood, is seized upon by thoughtless readers of other races as a happy confirmation of what they already faintly believe: namely, that the Negro is incapable of profiting by experience or of understanding the deeper mysteries of life. (pp. 99-100)
Nick Aaron Ford, in a postscript to his The Contemporary...
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[Zora Hurston] is an author who writes with her head as well as with her heart, and at a time when there seems to be some principle of physics set dead against the appearance of novelists who give out a cheerful warmth and at the same time write with intelligence. You have to be as tired as I am of writers who offer to do as much for folks as Atlas, Joan of Arc, Faith, Hope and Charity, Numerology, NBC and Q.E.D. to be as pleased as I am with Zora Hurston's ["Their Eyes Were Watching God"]….
Readers of "Jonah's Gourd Vine" and "Mules and Men" are familiar with Miss Hurston's vibrant Negro lingo with its guitar twang of poetry, and its deep, vivid humor. If in "Their Eyes Were Watching God" the flowers of the sweet speech of black people are not quite so full blown and striking as in those earlier books, on the other hand, the sap flows more freely, and the roots touch deeper levels of human life. The author has definitely crossed over from the limbo of folklore into the realm of conventional narrative.
As a great many novelists—good and bad—ought to know by this time, it is awfully easy to write nonsense about Negroes. That Miss Hurston can write of them with simple tenderness, so that her story is filled with the ache of her own people, is, I think, due to the fact that she is not too much preoccupied with the current fetish of the primitive. In a rich prose (which has, at the same time, a sort of nervous...
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Miss Hurston seems to have no desire whatever to move in the direction of serious fiction. (pp. 22, 25)
Miss Hurston can write; but her prose is cloaked in that facile sensuality that has dogged Negro expression since the days of Phillis Wheatley. Her dialogue [in Their Eyes Were Watching God] manages to catch the psychological movements of the Negro folk-mind in their pure simplicity, but that's as far as it goes.
Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theater, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the "white folks" laugh. Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears….
The sensory sweep of her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought. In the main, her novel is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy. She exploits that phase of Negro life which is "quaint," the phase which evokes a piteous smile on the lips of the "superior" race. (p. 25)
Richard Wright, "Between Laughter and Tears," in New Masses, Vol. XXV, No. 2, October 5, 1937, pp. 22, 25.∗
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It isn't that [Their Eyes Were Watching God] is bad, but that it deserves to be better. In execution it is too complex and wordily pretty, even dull—yet its conception of these simple Florida Negroes is unaffected and really beautiful.
[There is] some very shrewd picturing of Negro life in its naturally creative and unself-conscious grace (the book is absolutely free of Uncle Toms, absolutely unlimbered of the clumsy formality, defiance and apology of a Minority Cause). And when Tea Cake [the central character's husband] swaggers in with his banter and music and rolling bones and fierce tender loyalty, there is a lot more picturing of what we would never have known: Darktown and the work on the Everglades muck, the singing and boasting and play-acting, people living the good life but, in the absence of the sour and pretentious and proper, seeming to live it in a different world. It is the time of the Big Blow in Florida, and though Tea Cake and [the central character] Janie fought through it, the aftermath left the man with hydrophobia, and she had to kill him like a dog. Janie went back to her town after that, her late years to be mellowed with the knowledge of how wide life can be.
If this isn't as grand as it should be, the breakdown comes in the conflict between the true vision and its overliterary expression. Crises of feeling are rushed over too quickly for them to catch hold, and then presently we are...
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[The following essay was originally published in 1937.]
[Zora Neale Hurston's] short stories "Drenched With Light," "Spunk" and "The Gilded Six Bits" showed a command of folklore and idiom excelled by no earlier Negro novelist. Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934) recounts the rise of handsome, stalwart John Buddy from plowboy to moderator of the Baptists of Florida. But his flair for preaching and praying is exceeded by his weakness for women…. Loosely constructed, the novel presents authentic scenes of timber camps, railroad gangs with the "hammer-muscling men, the liars, fighters, bluffers and lovers," and the all-colored towns of Florida. The folk-speech is richly, almost too consistently, poetic. The characters are less developed than the setting; and the life they live is self-contained and untroubled. Nevertheless, Jonah's Gourd Vine contains the stuff of life, well observed and rendered.
A trained anthropologist as well as a native of Florida, Zora Neale Hurston has made in Mules and Men (1935) the first substantial collection of folktales by a Negro scholar. Zestful towards her material, and completely unashamed of it, she ingratiated herself with the tellers of tall tales…. Miss Hurston's "big old lies" are a delight to read…. Unfortunately, Mules and Men does not uncover so much that white collectors have been unable to get. The tales ring genuine, but there seem to be...
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Folklore is a spontaneous product of vitality and imagination. It needs a careful interpreter whose reports have these same two qualities. Seldom has there been a happier combination than that of the vivid, fantastic folklore of the West Indies and interpreter Zora Neale Hurston…. [She is] one of the most delightfully alive personalities of our day. She knows what she is talking about and she talks with a zest and a humor and a genuineness that make her work the best that I know in the field of contemporary folklore.
The first part of "Tell My Horse" is a sort of practice walk-around in Jamaica…. Stopping off at that British island to hunt the wild hog, collect proverbs, observe marriage customs, hear the "Night Song After Death" served to let her get her hand in for the big job ahead.
It is when Zora Hurston begins writing about her life and observations among the denizens of the misty mountains of Haiti that she becomes incomparable. A few works on Haitian lore have been too dully sensational, a few have been dully academic. Miss Hurston's book is so filled with the spirit of her subject that the whole feeling of its spine-chilling supernatural grotesquerie encompasses the reader and he has a hard time convincing himself that he is reading the authentic work of an honest, painstaking scholar.
Perhaps because she is herself a Negro, Miss Hurston makes her readers conscious of the deep current of...
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["Moses: Man of the Mountain"] is the story of Moses as the Negro sees and interprets [him]…. None the less reverent in conception than that of the white man, there is one aspect of the work of the great leader of the Israelites which holds particular fascination for the Negro, so that his view becomes especially interesting, and, again always in a reverent way, entertaining. All primitive peoples have an inordinate love of magic, or what appears to be magic, and the African most of all. His descendants in this country may hold that the magic of the radio is more awesome than such relics of voodoo prestidigitation as they may have witnessed or heard about. But even they have traditions that will not die, and one of them, according to Zora Neale Hurston, is that Moses was just about the greatest magician ever in the world. He led his followers out of bondage, because his was better "medicine" than that of Pharaoh's magicians. He talked to God face to face, but he had been singled out by God for this honor because Jehovah recognized the superlative magical power of Moses. Consequently there comes about almost a transposition of Moses and God in the Negro's point of view of their relationship, or so it would seem from Miss Hurston's pages. Moses seems almost to be greater than God. But this is not irreverence, for it is undoubtedly due to the fact that it was easier for a primitive mind to endow a human being with mystical powers than to grasp a purely...
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The story of Moses has roots deep in the Hebraic imagination and Jews are proud to call it their own. Their minds have been especially busy with it in the last few years as the old narrative of persecution and injustice has repeated itself.
Now [in "Moses: Man of the Mountain"] Zora Neale Hurston has told the story of the law-giver from the point of view of another race, also once enslaved and persecuted, and it has lent itself so aptly that it has become a fine Negro novel. Miss Hurston has made a prose tapestry that sparkles with characteristic Negro humor though it never loses dignity. With a cunning that never lessens her integrity she has laid a new emphasis here, assumed a different motivation there, and the tale has emerged as honest and as strong as ever—and wholly alien to its racial origin. Naturally a comparison with Roark Bradford's stories of Negro figures in Biblical tales suggests itself, but Miss Hurston's characters are less naive than those of "The Green Pastures." They have much the same humor, the same directness, but they are more sophisticated and more wise—as befits a serious novel. Moses and Aaron and Miriam and Zipporah are characters in whose changing relationships any novelist could well delight.
The most exciting thing about this exciting book is its serious use of Negro speech rhythms to tell the story. That Negro song is the most powerful influence on American music is a truism few...
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[It] is exceedingly interesting to read a new biography of the Hebrew prophet [Moses] written by an American Negro. Zora Neale Hurston has already acquired fame as a writer, and in Moses: Man of the Mountain she reveals marked ability as a student and interpreter of Negro folkways. It is a magnificent story, but it is weak in its interpretation of the ethical contributions of the prophet and in its treatment of the code of laws handed down by him. For to Jews, Moses is primarily the lawgiver, the great creator of the great code known as the Decalogue. But Miss Hurston presents Moses as a great "voo-doo man," which is the position given him by the Negro. Her distinctive contribution is her brilliant study of the problem of emancipation, done as perhaps only a Negro could do it.
In the introduction, Miss Hurston explains that the reason Moses is revered as he is by her people is because he had the power to go up the mountain to bring down the laws and because he talked with God face to face. She describes the early life of the Hebrews in Egypt, and in the course of conversations she interprets their attitudes, fears, reactions and hopes. There is a discussion, for instance, between Amram and a comrade before the birth of Moses. They speak of Pharaoh and the lack of nerve on the part of the people to deal with him. Amram's comrade says that he hates himself for not trying violence against Pharaoh even if they kill him for it. Amram...
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[Zora Neale Hurston's autobiography] "Dust Tracks on a Road" should not be read for its comments on the Negro as a whole. Miss Hurston feels that God made Negroes, as he made all other people, "duck by duck." She says, "That was the only way I could see them." She urges the powerful of the earth to "think kindly of those who walk in the dust." She suggests to the humble ones that they respect those who are not so humble. She invites all to be kissing-friends in the hope that we may breed, please God, hundreds of generations hence, a noble world. Meanwhile, she concludes, if we don't all meet in this world, we may "meet at a barbecue."
Miss Hurston deals very simply with the more serious aspects of Negro life in America—she ignores them. She has done right well by herself in the kind of world she found.
Arna Bontemps, "From Eatonville, Fla. to Harlem," in New York Herald Tribune Books, November 22, 1942, p. 3.
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["Dust Tracks on a Road"] is a thumping story, though it has none of the horrid earmarks of the [Horatio] Alger-type climb. Zora Neale Hurston has a considerable reputation as anthropologist and writer. When her autobiography begins she was one of eight children in a Negro family with small prospects of making a name for herself. Yet her story is forthright and without frills. Its emphasis lies on her fighting spirit in the struggle to achieve the education she felt she had to have. The uses to which it was put—good uses too—were the fruit of things that cropped up spontaneously, demanding to be done….
Her whole story is live and vivid. Told in gusty language, it is full of the graphic metaphors and similes that color Negro speech at its richest, sometimes in direct quotations from folk stories—those lying sessions at the village store—and sometimes woven in with her own warm style. There is no "hush-mouth modesty" about the book, for Zora Neale Hurston would not "low-rate the human race" by undue expurgation of her story….
[There] are philosophical chapters on books (the Hurston books), love, "My People!" and religion. Then impression simmers down to a feeling that the author regards the Negro race much as she regards any other race—as made up of some good, some bad and a lot of medium. The problems they face are those of any other race, with the disadvantage of being a younger lot. Anyway, her story is...
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Worth Tuttle Hedden
Though "Seraph on the Suwanee" is the love story of a daughter of Florida Crackers and of a scion of plantation owners, it is no peasant-marries-the prince tale. Arvay Henson, true Cracker in breeding, is above her caste in temperament; James Kenneth Meserve is plain Jim who speaks the dialect and who has turned his back on family, with its static living in the past, to become foreman in a west Florida turpentine camp. Neither is it a romance of the boy-meets-girl school. Beginning conventionally enough with a seduction (a last minute one when Arvay is in her wedding dress), it ends twenty-odd years later when the protagonists are about to be grandparents. In this denouement the divergent lines of Miss Hurston's astonishing, bewildering talent meet to give us a reconciliation scene between a middle-aged man and a middle-aged woman that is erotically exciting and a description of the technique of shrimping that is meticulously exact. Emotional, expository; meandering, unified; naive, sophisticated; sympathetic, caustic; comic, tragic; lewd, chaste—one could go on indefinitely reiterating this novel's contradictions and still end helplessly with the adjective unique.
Incompatible strains in the novel mirror the complexity of the author. Miss Hurston shuttles between the sexes, the professions, and the races as if she were man and woman, scientist and creative writer, white and Negro. She is at her best as a man among men objectively...
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Darwin T. Turner
A study of Zora Neale Hurston, writer, properly begins with Zora Neale Hurston, wanderer. In her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road—in her artful candor and coy reticence, her contradictions and silences, her irrationalities and extravagant boasts which plead for the world to recognize and respect her—one perceives the matrix of her fiction, the seeds that sprouted and the cankers that destroyed.
Contradictions in the autobiography reveal that the content was prepared with concern for its appeal to readers, especially white readers. By reporting her father's frequent warnings that her impudence would cause her to forget to remain in the docile, subservient position to which Southern society assigns Afro-Americans, Miss Hurston created a self-image as a fearless and defiant fighter for her rights. In actuality, however, even white acquaintances were astonished by her apparent indifference to her own dignity or that of other blacks. (pp. 90-1)
In contrast to her affable reactions to the white people in her book are her violent rivalries and antagonisms toward other blacks. Obviously envious of her father's attention to her sister, she unnecessarily reminded readers that the sister did not become famous. She insisted that her brother used her as his wife's slave. She wrote vituperatively about a jealous, "old, fat, black" servant who caused her to be fired and about another "jealous hussy" who tried to kill...
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Addison Gayle, Jr.
Despite structural and formal defects, Jonah's Gourd Vine is most important for its depiction of the character of the black woman. Lucy is far from being completely developed as a character. She does, however, contain elements seldom seen in fiction by men which feature black women. Moreover, Miss Hurston, in her portrayal of Lucy, has begun early to deal with the conflict between black men and women, which receives fuller explication in Chester Himes's Lonely Crusade and John Williams' Sissie later in the century. The conflict centers around two victims of the same oppressive society. Take John and Lucy as metaphors of black men and women. John, unlike his stepfather, the former slave, is set free in a world which denies him the normal route for the pursuit of manhood. According to Miss Hurston, therefore, he must prove his manhood by having sexual relationships with women other than his wife. He has discovered, in other words, that the black man's route to manhood lay in the exploitation of black women. For no other men in the Euro-American society is this true.
It is not too far wrong to suggest that despite Miss Hurston's fondness for John, in him she has substantiated the theses concerning the black man's overt sexuality; if not more sexually potent than other men, he is assuredly more promiscuous. Thus, John, the metaphor of black men, remains, for Miss Hurston, essentially a creature of appetite, insatiable...
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Theresa R. Love
[Miss Hurston's goal in her nonfiction] was not merely to collect folklore but to show the beauty and wealth of genuine Negro material. In doing so, she placed herself on the side of those who saw nothing self-defeating in writing about the black masses, who, she felt, are more imaginative than their middle-class counterparts. Consequently, few of the latter are included in her works. Often, her characters work and live in sawmill camps. Some are sharecroppers. Some work on railroads. Most are uneducated and provincial. A statement from her short story, "John Redding Goes to Sea," sums up their way of life: "No one of their community had ever been farther than Jacksonville. Few, indeed had ever been there. Their own gardens, general store, and occasional trips to the county seat—seven miles away—sufficed for all their needs. Life was simple indeed with these folk."… To the anthropologist, their economic and cultural isolation made them the proper source for folk materials in their purest form. (pp. 425-26)
Her decision to write about the ways of the folk necessitated her use of their dialect as a means of achieving verisimilitude. Of course, the careful student of a writer must always remember that the writer's rendition of a dialect may or may not be authentic. Many writers are merely following a literary tradition—that of attributing certain speech patterns to a given social or ethnic group for artistic reasons…. [Most] of...
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Robert E. Hemenway
Folklore, Hurston said, is the art people create before they find out there is such as thing as art; it come from a folk's "first wondering contact with natural law"—that is, laws of human nature as well as laws of natural process, the truths of a group's experience as well as the principles of physics. These interpretations of nature, called "unscientific" or "crude," often turn out to be wise and poetic explanations for the ways of the world. The parable of the hog under the oak tree—he eats and grunts but never looks up to see where the acorns are coming from—teaches less about the laws of gravity than about the importance of looking for the sources of good fortune…. The folklorist learns to respect these wondering beliefs as artistic expressions which teach one how to live, and Hurston had learned a good deal about both art and life…. (p. 159)
She was faced, however, with a scholarly problem: what was her responsibility in explaining the lore? What stance should she take in relation to the folk? How could she make others see this great cultural wealth? The final answers came in Mules and Men. Not published until 1935, the book was largely completed between March, 1930 … and September of 1932…. By the time readers shared in her discoveries, some of her ideas were six years old, and Hurston had gone on to a career as a novelist and dramatist. As she organized her field notes during 1930–32, she conceptualized...
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Sherley Anne Williams
Hurston's evocations of the lifestyles of rural blacks [in Their Eyes Were Watching God] have not been equaled; but to stress the ruralness of Hurston's settings or to characterize her diction solely in terms of exotic "dialect" spellings is to miss her deftness with language. In the speech of her characters, black voices—whether rural or urban, northern or southern—come alive. Her fidelity to diction, metaphor, and syntax—whether in direct quotations or in paraphrases of characters' thoughts—rings, even across forty years, with an aching familiarity that is a testament to Hurston's skill and to the durability of black speech. Yet Zora's personality and actions were so controversial that for a long time she was remembered more as a character of the Renaissance than as one of the most serious and gifted artists to emerge during this period. She was a notable tale-teller, mimic, and wit, confident to the point of brashness (some might even say beyond), who refused to conform to conventional notions of ladylike behavior and middle-class decorum. To one of her contemporaries, she was the first black nationalist; to another, a handkerchief-head Uncle Tom…. [To] others of our generation, Zora was a woman bent on discovering and defining herself, a woman who spoke and wrote her own mind.
Something of the questing quality that characterized Zora's own life informs the character of Janie—without, of course, the...
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[Their Eyes Were Watching God] is not a great novel, or anything like that, but it is one of those books about which it can be said that if it had not been written, there would be something that most of us would not know; it belongs on Randall Jarrell's wonderful list of books that are very good and unimportant. Its chief problem is a language problem, one easily illustrated by a passage like this:
"'Taint no use in you cryin', Janie. Grandma done been long uh few roads herself. But folks is meant to cry 'bout something' or other. Better leave things de way dey is. Youse young yet. No tellin' whut mout happen befo' you die. Wait awhile, baby. Yo' mind will change."
Nanny sent Janie along with a stern mien, but she dwindled all the rest of the day as she worked.
The black talk itself takes some getting used to, since few black writers use it so unabashedly, so it sounds more like Joel Chandler Harris than Richard Wright. One not only gets used to it, though, but comes to love it as Hurston herself did, as its own kind of English. The real difficulty is the shift from "Youse young yet" to "stern mien," and Hurston's standard English never quite loses its literariness, even when it is being used to say something interesting or important. (p. 153)
The one standard English paragraph the book unquestionably needs is the second, on the...
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A friend of mine … [told] me that she and another woman had been discussing Zora Neale Hurston and had decided they wouldn't have liked her. They wouldn't have liked the way—when her play Color Struck! won second prize in a literary contest at the beginning of her career—Hurston walked into a room full of her competitors, flung her scarf dramatically over her shoulder, and yelled "COLOR..R. R STRUCK..K. K!" at the top of her voice.
Apparently it isn't easy to like a person who is not humbled by second place.
Zora Neale Hurston was outrageous—it appears by nature. She was quite capable of saying, writing, or doing things different from what one might have wished. Because she recognized the contradictions and complexity of her own personality, Robert Hemenway, her biographer, writes that Hurston came to "delight" in the chaos she sometimes left behind.
Yet for all her contrariness, her "chaos," her ability to stir up dislike that is as strong today as it was fifty years ago, many of us love Zora Neale Hurston. (p. 1)
We love Zora Neale Hurston for her work, first, and then again (as she and all Eatonville would say), we love her for herself. For the humor and courage with which she encountered a life she infrequently designed, for her absolute disinterest in becoming either white or bourgeois, and for her devoted appreciation of her own culture, which is...
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It is appropriate that Mules and Men and Their Eyes Were Watching God should be reissued almost simultaneously. Both works can rightfully be considered classic studies of Afro-American culture. Zora Neale Hurston—novelist, folklorist, and essayist—wrote about Afro-American culture with an insight and perception shared by few black writers.
Throughout her varied career Hurston tended to combine her two passions, folklore and literature, in interesting and compelling ways. She has often been accused of making her folklore studies too literary and her literary works too folkloristic, a criticism which has some merit. Mules and Men stands as a testament to this inclination in Hurston's treatment of folklore materials. Although the narrative structure of Mules and Men was included because of publisher's objections to printing the straight folklore texts collected by Hurston, it provided her with a unique opportunity to present storytelling context. In the process, she demonstrated a folkloristic sophistication and sensitivity to folklore processes shared by few of her contemporaries. (pp. 463-64)
Although Hurston did not address herself to the theoretical and interpretative questions raised by her collection, there is still much about the volume that suggests caution in approaching it. Despite the generous amount of information included concerning her collecting experiences. Hurston tells us...
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Lillie P. Howard
There is no indication that Zora N. Hurston was ever well known—as a writer or as a person—among the masses during her lifetime. With an impressive group of people—the elitists—on the other hand, she enjoyed brief periods of notoriety…. While a few lampoon her for what they consider her lack of social consciousness, her tendency to transcend racism and prejudices by disallowing them a major role in her works, and for technical and narrative deficiences in her fiction, most praise her for her ability to tell a good story well, for her vivid and unforgettable figurative language, for her staunch individualism, and for the sense of "racial health" that permeates her fiction. (p. 170)
Hurston was undeniably before her time…. [She] was a black nationalist when black nationalists were being discredited and deported. What really made her premature, however, was all the beauty and struggle of Their Eyes Were Watching God where marriage is largely defined in sexual terms; where one mate must remain petal open and honest for the other; where mere sex may take place without consummation of the marriage since consummation only takes place when the right dust-bearing bee comes along; where the quality of one's life counts more than the quantity of it; where poetry is more essential than prose, love more essential than money, sharing paramount to dominating; where one's dream is the horizon and one must "go there to know there."...
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Cheryl A. Wall
The critical perspectives inspired by the black consciousness and feminist movements allow us to see Hurston's writings in a new way. They correct distorted views of her folklore as charming and quaint, set aside misperceptions of her characters as minstrels caught, in Richard Wright's phrase, "between laughter and tears" [see excerpt above]. These new perspectives inform this re-evaluation of Hurston's work. She asserted that black people, while living in a racist society that denied their humanity, had created an alternative culture that validated their worth as human beings. Although that culture was in some respects sexist, black women, like black men, attained personal identity not by transcending the culture but by embracing it.
Hurston's respect for the cultural traditions of black people is the most important constant in her career. This respect threads through her entire oeuvre, linking the local-color short fiction of her youth, her ethnographic research in the rural South and the Caribbean …, her novels, and the essays she contributed to popular journals in her later years…. Because her focus was on black cultural traditions, she rarely explored interracial themes. The black/white conflict, which loomed paramount in the fiction of her black contemporaries, in Wright's novels especially, hardly surfaced in Hurston's. Poet and critic June Jordan has described how the absence of explicitly political protest caused Hurston's...
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