Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 834
In writing Mules and Men, Hurston not only found a way to make a crucial bridge between her anthropological and literary ambitions but also created a lasting treasure of stories that captured the authentic voices of southern black storytellers in the late 1920’s. The book is divided into two parts. The first part details her collecting of folklore in Florida, the second part in New Orleans. The order in which the tales are related is ostensibly random, simply the order in which people told them to her, but as her biographer Robert Hemenway points out, and as inspection of the text reveals, the clusters of the stories are, to some extent, thematic.
Though there are a few stories about men and women in the first part of the book, most of the earlier stories deal with the days of slavery and with competition between the races in general. In the tales of slavery, the most common character is John, sometimes called Jack, who is often introduced as “Ole Massa’s” favorite slave, though he inevitably ends up tricking the slave owner somehow or another. John is a consummate trickster figure who, though he will often engage in hard physical labor, always triumphs through the power of his wits, and occasionally, good luck.
Sometimes John’s triumphs are smaller than at others—sometimes he merely survives—but at times, when he has been attacked brutally or viciously, his revenge is brutal indeed, as in “Ah’ll Beatcher Makin’ Money,” in which he tricks Massa into killing his own grandmother, then into being drowned. John shows his proudest, most dignified, side in the story Hurston calls “Member Youse a Nigger,” in which he works extra hard for a year to arrange a banner crop for his master, on the condition that he be freed at the end of the year. Ole Massa does indeed keep his side of the bargain but shows his true self when, as John leaves, he keeps calling to him, “Member John, youse a nigger.” John replies to him after every call but keeps walking until he gets to Canada.
Many of the other stories are talking animal stories, similar to the ones Joel Chandler Harris had collected in his Uncle Remus stories some years earlier. In many of these, the animals are clever stand-ins for blacks and whites, such as the story “What the Rabbit Learned,” in which Brer Rabbit knows enough to keep away from Brer Dog, despite Brer Dog’s protestations that dogs have all agreed to be friends with rabbits. Perhaps the most important of these stories is the story “The Talking Mule,” in which an old mule called Bill, after years of doing plowing for the man who owns him, one day speaks up and refuses, which so startles the old man that he runs away as fast as he can. The encoded message, preaching resistance to oppression, could not be clearer.
Part 2 of Mules and Men has an entirely different feel to it. In part 1, it is clear that Hurston is collecting stories with which she is often already familiar, in an area that, though she occasionally stands out as citified, she basically considers to be home. Part 2, however, takes her to New Orleans, where she sets about collecting the lore of Hoodoo, which she argues is a suppressed religion. Whereas in the first part, Hurston herself is often as important as the stories she is collecting, in the second part, she removes herself more to the background, usually playing the role of student to the people she writes about.
Part 2 is written as series of profiles of individual Hoodoo doctors. Luke Turner, one such doctor, tells Hurston the legend of Marie Leveau, a famous nineteenth century Hoodoo doctor; Anatol Pierre is a Catholic who also claims to have learned from Leveau. Dr. Duke is a root doctor, who uses herbs and roots he gathers from the swamps. Hurston is very careful about detailing the initiation ceremonies that different doctors make her undergo as well as the elaborate rituals they use to get rid of people, to get people back, and even to kill them. With Kitty Brown, the last Hoodoo doctor profiled, Hurston herself participates in a ritual to cause the death of a man who left one of Kitty Brown’s clients. When the man begins, several days later, to feel a pain in his chest, he returns to the woman he left, who quickly has the curse canceled. It becomes very plain in these stories that Hurston takes these rituals seriously indeed.
One of the complaints some reviewers had about Mules and Men was its general reluctance to show the economic realities of the southern blacks about which Hurston was writing. To some extent, this seems to have been the result of a deliberate choice by Hurston to emphasize the qualities she most cherished. The South that Hurston records in this volume of folklore is one fiercely alive with humor, irony, and mystery.