Critical Overview

In 1933, when Hurston was a rising star of the Harlem Renaissance and an impoverished drama instructor at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona, Florida, she showed her story, ‘‘The Gilded Six-Bits,’’ to an English professor there. He liked it so much that he not only read it to his writing class, but took it upon himself to submit it to Story, a well-known literary magazine. Bertram Lippincott, a New York publisher wise to the black folk-art trend, then took it upon himself to write to Hurston, expressing interest in publishing any novel she might be working on. This led Hurston to begin and quickly finish her first novel, Jonah's Gourd Vine. Thus ‘‘The Gilded Six-Bits’’ was pivotal to her professional development as a fiction writer. (She was already on her way to establishing herself in the field of anthropology under the mentorship of notable anthropologist Franz Boas).

Hurston seemed to effortlessly charm and impress white mentors, and these mentors were some of the same people who wrote or influenced early reviews. Her reception in the mainstream American press was by and large very positive, while her black peers tended to be more critical. For example, a 1934 review of Jonah's Gourd Vine written by Martha Greuning for the mainstream New Republic cites Hurston's ‘‘zest and naturalness,’’ calling her an ‘‘insider’’ who ‘‘shares with her hero the touch of ‘pagan poesy’ that made him thrill his hearers when he preached,’’ and the New York Times's Margaret Wallace calls the novel ‘‘the most vital and original novel about the American Negro that has yet to be written by a member of the Negro race.’’ In contrast, Estelle Felton of the black periodical Opportunity says that ‘‘Hurston has not painted people but caricatures,’’ and Andrew Burris of The Crisis deems the book a failure, claiming that ‘‘she has used her characters and the various situations created for them as mere pegs upon which to hang their dialect and their folkways.’’ Black writers of an earlier generation found her fiction too crude and risque, while her peers wondered whether she capitulated too easily to white fantasies of happily humble black life....

(The entire section is 944 words.)