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.
Point of departure between races leaps from the springboard of the teeth rather than from the deeper recesses of the heart, and whatever racial issues are raised are borne out of the grandly natural sources of the power of the author's story-telling.
John and Lucy Pearson, and every inhabitant of the narrative, move against a background embroidered in folk-lore and symbolism, yet themselves so real and so human and so true, that rising above the complicated machinery of color differentiations, they bring the reader to fresh realization that races, regardless of pigmentation, behave like human beings. (p. 8)
Fannie Hurst, in an introduction to Jonah's Gourd Vine by Zora Neale Hurston, J. B. Lippincott Company, 1934, pp. 7-8.
["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 story as though the author had conceived them as links in a progression but had forgotten her intention…. When all is told this background is what lingers most vividly in the mind—a group composed of many deftly-drawn personalities, childlike, shrewd, violent, gay; and all the colors drawn together by the strong ingredient of Negro humor.
Josephine Pinckney, "A Pungent, Poetic Novel about Negroes," in New York Herald Tribune Books, May 6, 1934, p. 7.
"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...
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[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...
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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...
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[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.
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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...
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[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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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,...
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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,...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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[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...
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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...
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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...
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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."...
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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...
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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...
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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)
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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...
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