Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Hurston’s last extant novel has been viewed as a valiant effort to prove to the white literary establishment that an African American writer was artistically and intellectually capable of transcending the race issue. Other African Americans writing at this time, notably Ann Petry, Willard Motley, and Chester Himes, had achieved moderate success depicting white characters.

Hurston’s own motivations for undertaking this divergent turn are threefold. First, she wished to see one of her novels turned into a Hollywood screenplay. Second, she sought to contest the supposition that African American writers were only capable of dealing with black subjects. Third, she wanted to challenge the assumption that the white and African American experiences in the South were divergently opposed. Her subject matter may be different, but her milieu remained the same.

Granted, the words of the Meserves echo the cadences and musicality reminiscent of Hurston’s more memorable African American characters, reflecting Hurston’s premise that there is no white or black dialect, merely a southern dialect. Even though the characters are white, the themes present in this novel mirror those in her earlier works that had dealt solely with the African American folk experience. Arvay Henson, like other Hurston female protagonists, is searching for fulfillment and love. Women, black and white, in this novel are viewed as lesser creatures than men, creatures whose spirits must be tamed. In addition, Seraph on the Suwanee shares the focus of her other fiction; that is, love, marriage, personal growth, and exploration of the feminine psyche predominate the work.