Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)
The mixture of voodoo, folklore, and black dialect found in Moses: Man of the Mountain reflects Hurston’s cultural heritage and experiences. Born in the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida, she grew up surrounded by the poetic speech rhythms and dialect that she recorded in the novel. During her college years, she developed an interest in anthropology, studying under the renowned Franz Boas of Columbia University. Later, on a fellowship, she traveled to the Southern United States and to Haiti to collect folktales, which resulted in a well-regarded volume of folklore, Mules and Men (1935).
Moses: Man of the Mountain was an ambitious undertaking: Hurston attempted to make the tale of Moses and the Hebrews speak for enslaved people everywhere. To a certain extent she succeeded, but the novel’s allegorical intent resulted in generally weak, stereotyped characters and a certain ambivalence displayed toward them. As noted above, the first time that Moses parts the Red Sea, Hurston presents the event as a natural occurrence, but the second time, she treats it as a miracle. The text clearly shows that Moses is Egyptian-born, but later Moses himself has doubts. Because of the satire aimed at the enslaved race, Hurston has been criticized for writing about the black situation for a white audience. It was her intention, however, to go beyond racial issues and to treat universal themes such as the effect of enslavement, the use and misuse of power, and the necessary qualities of a leader. While Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) will remain the most successful of her novels, Moses: Man of the Mountain should not be discounted.