(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Jonah’s Gourd Vine is a thinly disguised biography of Zora Neale Hurston’s parents, whose names she barely veils in the novel. The story focuses on John Pearson’s rise from a poor, illiterate Alabama sharecropper to the powerful, well-to-do moderator of the Florida Baptist Convention, to his subsequent fall from power and grace, to his painful resurrection and death.

The narrative opens on a sharecropping farm near the Songahatchee River in Alabama several years after the emancipation. Amy and Ned Crittenden and their three sons, including John, whom Amy had before marrying Ned, live the typically dismal life of the southern black sharecropper—poor, perpetually in debt, ill-fed, ill-clothed, and generally hopeless. These difficulties, coupled with Ned’s heavy drinking and his near hatred of his wife’s mulatto son, make their domestic life a tragedy from which the sixteen-year-old John flees after he knocks Ned down for beating Amy.

John finds employment and an entirely new way of life on the plantation of Judge Alf Pearson, who, readers soon realize, is John’s father. John is given considerable responsibility while in the judge’s employ; he is also given the opportunity to go to school. It is also while at Judge Pearson’s that John becomes involved in several of his many affairs with women.

It is the fiery, petite Lucy Potts whom John vows to marry, which he does eventually, although his numerous extramarital affairs do not stop. During one of these affairs that has kept John away from home...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Boyd, Valerie. Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Scribner, 2002.

Hemenway, Robert. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1977. The most complete study of Hurston’s life and works. Includes biography, textual analyses, and a general wealth of information suitable for any student of Hurston.

Holloway, Karla F. The Character of the Word: The Texts of Zora Neale Hurston. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987. An important study of Hurston’s use of language to delineate and differentiate character. The author provides a number of interesting readings and rereadings of Hurston’s characters.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters. New York: Doubleday, 2002. A collection of more than 500 letters, annotated and arranged chronologically.

Lupton, Mary Jane. “Zora Neale Hurston and the Survival of the Female.” Southern Literary Journal 15 (Fall, 1982): 45-54. Explores an all-important and all-encompassing theme of Hurston’s work. While much of the focus is on Their Eyes Were Watching God, there is considerable information that is useful for the study of all Hurston’s work, including Jonah’s Gourd Vine.

Newson, Adele S. Zora Neale Hurston: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. A valuable resource for scholars of Hurston. This reference book catalogs all the Hurston criticism up to the time of the book’s publication.

Walker, Alice. “Zora Neale Hurston: A Cautionary Tale and a Partisan View.” In In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983. An interesting essay by one of Hurston’s leading champions.