The Gilded Six-Bits

by Zora Neale Hurston

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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 944

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. Throughout her career, fellow blacks accused Hurston of ignoring the realities of racism. Hurston disagreed, maintaining that a focus on how racism cripples American blacks was too limiting, drawing on her idyllic all-black Eatonville as a model of a rich and un-degraded African-American culture.

From 1925 to 1945 Hurston was one of the most high-profile and acclaimed black writers in the country. In 1943 she appeared on the cover of the Saturday Review of Literature for being the first black author to win the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. But she, like virtually all other black Harlem Renaissance writers, made very little money on her publications, and she had to work at a wide variety of jobs to support herself when white patronage dried up. By 1950 she was working as a maid, her books out of print. Ten years later she died in poverty and was buried in an unmarked grave.

In 1973 African-American novelist Alice Walker visited Eatonville and went on a pilgrimage to Hurston's grave. This period was the beginning of another ‘renaissance’ in African-American letters, this time centering on women writers. Walker wrote about the importance of Hurston's influence, one factor leading to a sudden rush of renewed interest in Hurston's writing. In his introduction to Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives, Past and Present, noted African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., recollects first encountering Hurston's out-of-print work while teaching in 1976. ‘‘An undergraduate student in a seminar at Yale demanded that I add her to our syllabus, and gave me her one dog-eared photocopy so that I could share it with our class.’’ He goes on to say that in 1993, at the time of writing, ‘‘at Yale alone, seventeen courses taught Their Eyes Were Watching God!’’ Hurston fit onto American literature and women's studies syllabi self-conscious about the need to include more diverse authors, as well as in the courses of new African-American studies departments.

The publication of Spunk, in which ‘‘The Gilded Six-Bits’’ appears, can be attributed to the Hurston revival. This volume, collecting some of Hurston's best stories, was published in 1985. Brent Staples of the New York Times describes the book as ‘‘splendid’’ and ‘‘energetic,’’ as well as ‘‘decidedly feminist.’’ He credits ‘‘The Gilded Six-Bits’’ for ‘‘hold[ing] up nicely after fifty-two years.’’

Their Eyes Were Watching God remains Hurston's best-known work and is widely considered her strongest. Most of the considerable scholarly criticism of Hurston centers on this novel, though there is also notable academic interest in her anthropological writings. Many interpretations of Hurston's fiction combine attention to dialect with feminist concerns related to power and voice. Other recent critics refute Hurston's image as an artless folklorist, treating her work in terms of its historical context and political import. In ‘‘Breaking Out of the Conventions of Dialect,’’ Gayl Jones takes this approach in an analysis of ‘‘The Gilded Six-Bits,’’ defending Hurston against accusations of frivolity and discussing Hurston's dilemma—‘‘How does one write of ordinary people without making the story seem trivial?’’—in terms of her unconventional use of dialect.

In her lifetime, Hurston's reputation rose suddenly and dropped precipitously, only to rise to even greater heights after her death, thanks in large part to a new generation of black artists and writers who claimed her as a foremother. ‘‘We are a people,’’ writes Alive Walker in her foreword to Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. ''A people do not throw their geniuses away. If they do, it is our duty as witnesses for the future to collect them again for the sake of our children. If necessary, bone by bone.’’

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