Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Moses, Man of the Mountain retells the Exodus story of the Hebrew Bible as an allegory for African American history and culture. While keeping to the broader brush-strokes of the biblical account (from the Torah books of Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), Hurston places the Moses story in a much broader mythological, theological, and political context. By doing so, she creates her own Moses legend, unique in its structure and content. As she asserts in her introduction to the novel, Moses legends are not confined to the biblical literature of Judaism and Christianity, but they are “all abroad in the world,” especially in Africa: “Then Africa has her mouth on Moses. All across the continent there are legends of the greatness of Moses.”

Hurston uses this African cultural context, as well as the linguistic patterns of African American vernacular, to set up an extended mythological meditation on the nature of racial identity, leadership, political power, class, and freedom. Written in 1939, the novel allegorically sets these issues in the context of early twentieth century African American culture.

As the novels opens, Amram and Jochebed, a Hebrew slave couple in Egypt, struggle to save their newborn son from the Egyptian police, who are under orders from the pharaoh to kill all male Hebrew babies. The worried parents send the baby boy down the Nile river in a floating basket, watched over from the riverbanks by his sister Miriam. Miriam falls asleep and loses track of the basket. Although she does not see where it goes, when later confronted by her hysterical mother, she frantically constructs a tale...

(The entire section is 669 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Zora Neale Hurston wrote most of her novels and nonfiction works during a period in African American literary history sometimes referred to as the Harlem Renaissance. In the years following World War I, many African American writers in New York and other cities explored literary forms ranging from folktale to naturalism as they recovered and/or constructed black experience through literary art. Hurston’s work was widely read during the period between the 1930’s, when she published her first novels (Jonah’s Gourd Vine, 1934; Their Eyes Were Watching God, 1937), and the early 1950’s. As many literary historians have noted, however, Hurston’s work and life faded into obscurity during the late 1950’s. After winning many awards and much acclaim in her early career, she died in poverty in 1960, alone and unrecognized by the public for her achievements as a writer.

Alice Walker, author of Meridian (1976), The Color Purple (1982), and The Temple of My Familiar (1989), embarked on a deeply personal journey in 1973 to find Hurston’s grave and write about the legacy of Hurston’s work for later African American women writers. As a result of Walker’s famous essay “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” (1975), Hurston’s place as a central figure in African American literary history was reclaimed and redefined. Hurston’s influence on subsequent women writers and her body of work have been energetically...

(The entire section is 521 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Awkward, Michael, ed. New Essays on “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Essays by Robert Hemenway and Nellie McKay on the biographical roots of the novel, and by Hazel Carey on Hurston’s use of anthropology. Rachel Blau DuPlessis provides a feminist perspective in “Power, Judgment, and Narrative in a Work of Zora Neale Hurston.” Includes an introduction and bibliography.

Baker, Houston A., Jr. Workings of the Spirit: The Poetics of Afro-American Women’s Writing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991. Baker situates Moses, Man of the Mountain as a conjure book, emphasizing Hurston’s familiarity with hoodoo through her work as an anthropologist. He characterizes Moses as a practitioner of hoodoo, that is, a conjurer, and he attributes most of Moses’ miracles to magic rather than Judaism.

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

Carby, Hazel V. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Carby discusses Hurston’s choice to write of African American rural folk rather than of urban city dwellers. She concludes that Hurston’s choice did not fit well into the mainstream of the Harlem Renaissance and that the choice probably damaged her career.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., ed. Reading Black, Reading Feminist. New York: Meridian, 1990. This collection includes critical essays on black...

(The entire section is 685 words.)