Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2220
Hurston, Zora Neale 1901–1960
Miss Hurston was a Black American author associated with the Harlem Renaissance. Her knowledge of folklore added immensely to her fictive exploration of Black tradition and experience.
[Few] of the literary participants in the [Harlem] Renaissance knew intimately the rural South; Hughes arrived from Cleveland and Washington, Bontemps from California, Thurman from Utah and Los Angeles; Cullen was from New York City, Toomer from Washington; the list can go on, but the point is obvious. Zora Neale Hurston represented a known, but unexperienced segment of black life in America. Although it is impossible to gauge such matters, there seems little question that she helped to remind the Renaissance—especially its more bourgeois members—of the richness in the racial heritage; she also added new dimensions to the interest in exotic primitivism that was one of the most ambiguous products of the age. (pp. 194-95)
First in New York [at Barnard College, studying anthropology under Franz Boas], and then in the South as a [folklore] collector, Zora Hurston sought a scientific explanation for why her own experience in the black rural South, despite all her education, remained the most vital part of her life, and further, why the black folk-experience generally was such a source of vitality in literature. Moving between art and science, fiction and anthropology, she searched for an expressive instrument, an intellectual formula, that could accommodate the poetry of Eatonville, the theories of Morningside Heights, and the esthetic ferment she had known in Harlem.
This was a unique intellectual tension complicated by the personal factors of sex, race, and nationality, that whole complex of ambiguous identifications American culture imposes on its members. Hurston struggled with it during the Renaissance, and to some extent throughout her life. (pp. 198-99)
My own opinion is that she never became a professional, academic anthropologist, because such a vocation was alien to her exuberant sense of self, her admittedly artistic and sometimes erratic temperament. A good argument can be made for Hurston's never completely realizing this herself, but if there is a single theme which emerges from her creative effort during the thirties—her five books, her fiction, her essays—it is that eventually immediate experience takes precedence over analysis, emotion over reason, the self over society, the personal over the theoretical. She learned that scientific objectivity is not enough for a black writer in America, and she went on to expose the excessive rationality behind the materialism of American life, the inadequacy of a sterile reason to deal with the phenomena of living. She forcefully affirmed the humanistic values of black life, contrasting them to the rationalized inhumanity of white society, and she asserted early arguments for black cultural nationalism. Beginning with Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934), her writing exhibits a studied antiscientific approach, and in her nonfiction even the most technical data is personalized. Her rejection of the scholarly bias and the scientific form was a process instead of a revelation, forming a chapter in her personal history too complex to detail here. Its cultural context is relevant, however, for Hurston's intellectual experience is in some ways a paradigm for the much debated "Crisis" of the black creative intellectual of the Harlem Renaissance.
I think Hurston was predisposed in favor of an anthropological conception of Eatonville simply because she was a creative writer. Although that sounds paradoxical, it is actually a logical product of the environment of ideas surrounding her. The black writer is especially vulnerable to the prescriptions which an idolatry of western European "high culture" imposes on American artists. He is urged to aspire toward a "raceless ideal" of literature,...
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which technically interpreted has meant that he should not write about race, that he should not create "Negroes" but "human beings"—as if they were mutually exclusive categories. Above all, he must never stoop to "propaganda." Such prescriptions were constantly offered during the Harlem Renaissance, and many of its participants aided and abetted such dubious aims. In fact, prior to the revolution in consciousness attending the current Black Arts Revolution, all black writers were badgered with such advice, the writer's success occurring in direct proportion to his ability to reject it. The attitude which invites the act of this prescribing, as well as the substance of the prescription, is a conception of the black condition as something which must be "overcome," since it is somehow manifestly less than human—a habit of mind institutionalized as American racism. All black American writers confront in some way this attitude and its resultant phenomena: the condition of black people. Thus, the dynamics of the culture make it as natural as breathing for the black artist to confront the issue of race. (pp. 208-10)
What I should like to conclude with is the hypothesis that one reason Zora Neale Hurston was attracted to the scientific conceptualization of her racial experience during the late twenties and early thirties was its prima facie offering of a structure for black folklore. That is, it offered a pattern of meaning for material that white racism consistently distorted into "Negro" stereotypes. (p. 212)
In sum, then, Zora Neale Hurston was shaped by the Harlem Renaissance, but by Boas as well as by [Wallace] Thurman and [Langston] Hughes, by Barnard as well as by Harlem. This should not necessarily suggest that the Boas experience was of a superior quality; in many ways it seriously hindered her development as an artist. Nor should it suggest that the esthetic excitement among the Harlem literati failed to influence her thought. It does mean that the attraction of scientific objectivity was something Hurston had to work through to arrive at the subjective triumphs of her later books. (pp. 212-13)
Robert Hemenway, "Zora Neale Hurston and the Eatonville Anthropology," in The Harlem Renaissance Remembered, edited by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps (copyright © 1972 by Arna Bontemps), Dodd Mead & Company, 1972, pp. 190-214.
Since white America lies outside the Hurston universe, both in fact and in her fiction, you do not run up on the man/the enemy. Protest, narrowly conceived, is therefore beside the point; rhythm or tones of outrage or desperate flight would be wholly inappropriate in her text. Instead, you slip into a total, Black reality where Black people do not represent issues: they represent their own, particular selves in a Family/Community setting that permits relaxation from hunted/warrior postures, and that fosters the natural, person-postures of courting, jealousy, ambition, dream, sex, work, partying, sorrow, bitterness, celebration, and fellowship.
Unquestionably, Their Eyes Were Watching God is the prototypical Black novel of affirmation; it is the most successful, convincing, and exemplary novel of Blacklove that we have. Period. But the book gives us more: the story unrolls a fabulous, written-film of Blacklife freed from the constraints of oppression; here we may learn Black possibilities of ourselves if we could ever escape the hateful and alien context that has so deeply disturbed and mutilated our rightful efflorescence—as people. Consequently, this novel centers itself on Blacklove—even as Native Son rivets itself upon white hatred. (pp. 6-7)
June Jordan, in Black World (copyright © August, 1974, by Black World; reprinted by permission of Johnson Publishing Company and June Jordan), August, 1974.
Mules and Men, Zora's first work, is packed every inch with the most accurate humor, primarily because she presents the folk material in a unique way that makes no separation between the teller and the tale. When a mannerism contributes to the story, it is included. The entire setting is naturally Black. (p. 24)
It might first seem natural for a preacher's daughter to meet up with emotional difficulties when moving from Christianity to African-derived Hoodoo. Not so. The Christians in Zora's hometown were no strangers to Hoodoo. One of the characters in Jonah's Gourd Vine says that the Bible is the greatest Hoodoo book….
Jonah's Gourd Vine, published in 1934, even takes its title from the Bible. The main character is a preacher, with many characteristics of Zora's own father. The mother, a small Black woman, resembles Zora's mother. Many incidents parallel Zora's life. (p. 25)
Zora's second novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), is most widely read in universities, in Black Studies classes. A work of joy and love, its positive vibrations are a relief from the grim, death-ridden themes that weight so many novels. Yet it does not ignore realities. It involves death: the main character, Janie Woods, is forced to kill the man she loves. There is a terrible flood, and the slave narrative of a Black woman abused by a white master. But life still dominates this work. Its total impression rests with Zora, whose quick wit and imagination create beautiful passages. This is the first novel of a Black woman in search of joy, love, happiness. In search of people, rather than things. A young Black woman with her eyes on the horizon. (p. 26)
Zora was frequently questioned by men, who did not understand why she should write and think; they felt those were a man's preoccupations. This idea of women as mindless beings is dealt with in many of Zora's novels. (p. 27)
Zora's novel Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939) works well when under the full control of her imagination, but too frequently it follows the Bible story much too closely. There are, however, many nice touches, many quotable lines. First, it is understood that Moses is an excellent Voodoo man. He is associated with the Voodoo god Damballah….
Many details of Voodoo are … uncovered in the Christian text and through her imagination, and Zora reduces the distance and time until we feel the very human qualities of the people: the petty bickerings, Aaron and Miriam wanting more recognition, the people complaining about the food and water, Moses getting tired of the complaints—all hold an air of humor, especially since the dialect is southern Black.
For all her works, Zora wrote the most beautiful endings. Moses, Man of the Mountain is no exception….
In a sense, Moses, Man of the Mountain, can be viewed as a folk tale, elaborately related. The telling is certainly very much in the oral tradition. (p. 28)
Ellease Southerland, "Zora Neale Hurston," in Black World (copyright © August, 1974 by Black World; reprinted by permission of Johnson Publishing Company and Ellease Southerland), August, 1974, pp. 20-30.
Pastoral was the ideal vehicle for authors of the Harlem Renaissance. By keeping them in touch with their folk origins, it could serve as a check on their cosmopolitan aspirations; assuage their guilt for outdistancing the black community; resolve their ambivalence toward the black masses; and in brief, keep them true to themselves as they faced the temptations of upward mobility.
It is Zora Hurston's distinction to have captured the essence of the Harlem Renaissance in her allegorical novel, Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939). (p. 122)
It was not until the Harlem Renaissance that Negro writers were able to embrace the local-color concept with genuine enthusiasm. (p. 139)
The new emphasis on Negritude found its formal embodiment in local color. Thriving on the exotic and the picturesque, local-color fiction was based on the exploitation of distinctiveness for its own sake. (p. 140)
Zora Hurston, a trained ethnologist, relies extensively on singularity and quaintness [for local color] in her stories of the Florida lake country. (p. 141)
To escape from the cramped quarters of her childhood was the central thrust of Hurston's adolescence. This thrust toward freedom, whose literary mode is the picaresque, is dramatized in three early stories, "Drenched in Light," "John Redding Goes to Sea," and "Magnolia Flower." At the same time, a conflicting impulse is apparent in Hurston's early fiction: namely, the urge to celebrate the singularity of Eatonville, the all-black town in Florida where she was born and raised. This local-color strain, which manifests itself in stories such as "Spunk" and "Sweat," flowers ultimately into pastoral. (p. 142)
Eatonville is the roosting place of Hurston's imagination; it is what she counterposes to the modern world…. [When] she abandons this familiar setting she does so at her peril. Hers is an imagination bound to a specific landscape: its people, its folkways, and its pungent idiom. This deep attachment to the Florida lake country accounts for both the strengths and limitations of her art, since what she gains in density of texture she sometimes dissipates in the depiction of a purely surface world….
Her tendency toward parabolic or disguised meanings … can be traced to the folktales which were omnipresent in her culture and which captivated her imagination even as a child. (p. 144)
"The Gilded Six-Bits" … reveals the central core of Hurston's values. In this story, written in the depths of the Depression, she attacks the acquisitive society from a standpoint not unlike that of the Southern Agrarians. For the first time her social conservatism, inherited from Booker Washington by way of Eatonville, finds in pastoral an appropriate dramatic form. At the same time that her values coalesce, her narrative voice assumes a new authority. A mature style emerges whose metaphors, drawn from folk speech, function as a celebration of agrarian ideals. Having discovered her subject and mastered her idiom, she turns to those longer works of fiction where, for the most part, her achievement as a writer lies. (p. 150)
Robert Bone, in his Down Home: A History of Afro-American Short Fiction from Its Beginnings to the End of the Harlem Renaissance (copyright © 1975 by Robert Bone), G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1975.