Critical Overview

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Fire!! received a critical review of mild disinterest. Hurston’s biographer Robert Hemenway explains that the editors planned, even hoped, for Du Bois to dislike it because he had previously condemned the notion of apolitical writing and his disfavor would confirm that the magazine was indeed ‘‘pure.’’ But Du Bois’s NAACP journal simply ignored Fire!!, aside from a bland endorsement, leaving the editors actually brainstorming for ways of making the magazine more offensive. Hemenway writes that Benjamin Brawley, ‘‘a pillar of the black literary establishment,’’ disliked it intensely. Alain Locke only bothered to censure the magazine’s ‘‘effete echoes of contemporary decadence’’ but later praised its ‘‘anti-Puritanism.’’ This critical response was the final factor, after all of the difficulties in publication, that led to the magazine’s collapse: It was not received as controversial enough to procure any heated condemnation or acclaim.

‘‘Sweat’’ itself received no major critical attention until Hurston’s revival by black feminist writers over fifteen years after her death. All of her writing was very highly regarded during the Harlem Renaissance, and she was thought to be one of the most prodigious writers in her generation, but Hurston rapidly lost her fame and even the ability to publish her works. By the end of her life, she was almost completely ignored by the literary community, in part because of her old-fashioned politics on issues such as segregation. Black feminist writer Alice Walker was one of the first to champion Hurston’s talent, placing a gravestone on the field where Hurston was buried in an unmarked plot and writing about her rediscovery, in essays such as the forward to Hemenway’s literary biography of Hurston.

The black feminist criticism that dominated Hurston’s revival largely focused on her most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, but critics have also discussed the intersection of race and gender in ‘‘Sweat’’ since the late 1970s. Hemenway discusses ‘‘Sweat’’ as a ‘‘remarkable work, her best fiction of the period,’’ portending the ‘‘unlimited potential in Hurston’s folk material when an organic form grew from the subject matter.’’ John Lowe discusses the sexual and racial politics, as well as the folk roots, of the story in his book Jump at the Sun, and other critics tend to discuss it in these terms as well, always setting it in the context of the political climate of the Harlem Renaissance.

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Essays and Criticism