Zora Neale Hurston had, and maintained, an interest in folktales since her early childhood. When she was a child, she would recreate the stories (or “lies”) she had overheard from others with her dolls. Later she made up her own characters and created tales in a similar vein. It is clear that these memories imparted onto her a strong sense of her roots, and her field research reflects a desire to record these tales as part of her culture. In Mules and Men she states that she wants to record this folklore “before everybody forgets.” This urgency reflects the times, since African-American artists of the day were more concerned with the present struggle for equality than the collection of folklore.
Folklore collections at the time were sparse and incomplete. Furthermore, many of these works were written by white scholars, whom Zora felt looked down upon the material and were unable to gain a true understanding of its nuances. Zora felt that these scholars were too easily spotted as outsiders and could not get accurate accounts from cautious subjects. Zora’s mentor, the anthropology professor Franz Boas, encouraged her to pursue her studies in African-American folklore on its own terms rather than through the window of perceived white American superiority. The financial backing of Charlotte Mason also allowed Hurston to explore her field research, albeit with strict restrictions on both her expenses and final creative control over her material.
Hurston spent about five years collecting the material which would later become Mules and Men. At first, Hurston seemed unsure of what to do with the material that she gathered during these trips. Her first attempt at presenting her research in an artistic form was a play she wrote with Langston Hughes in 1930 called Mule Bone. Their collaboration was marked with creative differences which reached a pinnacle when Hughes suggested bringing in a third collaborator. Hurston responded by sending the play to the copyright office seeking credit as the sole author. The resulting split ended their friendship, and their acrimonious parting led Hurston to lose favor in the eyes of her peers. Hurston experimented with the structure of Mules and Men many times before deciding on the proper form for her material. Her publisher then suggested that she incorporate the material from her article on hoodoo into Mules and Men, to which Hurston agreed. The book is still read today as it was read in its original published form in 1935; no changes have been made since.
Clearly, Hurston’s optimistic vision of life did not correspond with the many African-American authors at the time who used writing as a political tool. To many of her contemporaries, Hurston’s interest in folklore and use of Southern dialect in her works were seen as a step backward. During Hurston’s lifetime, she did not receive much credit from African-American critics because her apolitical stance was seen as naive and unrealistic. At the same time, white critics of the time used her work in order to criticize more political works by African-American authors. Only relatively recently have Hurston’s works been interpreted outside of the political context of a struggle for equality, and, as a result, her talents have become much more appreciated by American audiences.
Despite the lack of attention paid to the book during its release, Mules and Men was “the first book to record black folklore exactly as the people said it.” The book has certainly enjoyed newfound success due to Hurston’s renewed popularity, and has remained to this day the definitive collection of African-American folklore.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Davis, Arthur P. From the Dark Tower: African-American Writers 1900-1960. Howard University Press, Washington, D. C., 1974.
Hemenway, Robert E. Zora Neale Hurston, A Literary Biography. University of Illinois Press, Chicago, 1977.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Dust Tracks on a Road. Harper Perennial, New York, 1942.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Mules and Men . Harper Perennial,...
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