Zora Neale Hurston

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Zora Neale Hurston 1901?–1960

Black American novelist, folklorist, essayist, short story writer, dramatist, anthropologist, and autobiographer. See also Zora Neale Hurston Short Story Criticism, Zora Neale Hurston Drama Criticism, and Zora Neale Hurston Literary Criticism (Volume 7).

Hurston is recognized as an important writer of the Harlem Renaissance, an era of unprecedented excellence in black American art and literature during the 1920s and 1930s. She is now considered among the foremost authors of that period—having published four novels, three nonfiction works, and numerous short stories and essays—and she is also acknowledged as the first black American to collect and publish Afro-American folklore. Hurston has only recently gained substantial critical attention. Her fiction, which deals with the common black folk of her native southern Florida, was considered obsolete with the advent of the "protest novel" as presented by such writers as Richard Wright and James Baldwin during the 1940s and 1950s. In recent years, however, Hurston's work, particularly her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), has undergone substantial critical revaluation.

Hurston was born in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated black township in the United States and the setting for most of her novels. At fourteen, she left Eatonville to work as a maid with a traveling Gilbert and Sullivan theatrical troupe. In 1923 Hurston entered Howard University. Her first short story was published in Stylus, the university literary magazine. She won a scholarship to Barnard College in New York City in 1925, where she studied anthropology under Franz Boas, one of the most renowned anthropologists of the era. After her graduation in 1928 Hurston continued her graduate studies with Boas at Columbia University. While in New York, Hurston became involved in the Harlem Renaissance, publishing short stories and establishing friendships with many important black authors. Along with Langston Hughes and other black writers, Hurston founded Fire!, a literary magazine devoted to black culture, in 1927. However, the magazine folded after its first issue due to financial difficulties and a destructive fire.

With the assistance of fellowships and a private grant from a New York socialite interested in "primitive Negro art," Hurston returned to her hometown to collect folklore. Mules and Men (1935) is the result of Hurston's anthropological field work and academic studies. The book includes many folktales, which the tellers call "lies." These "lies," which contain hidden social and philosophical messages, were an important part of the culture of that region. Hurston also provides descriptions of voodoo practices and beliefs. Critics of the time praised Mules and Men for its information on folklore practices. However, some black critics, especially Sterling Brown, charged that Hurston ignored racial oppression and exploitation in the South. These accusations recurred throughout Hurston's literary career.

In her first novel, Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934), Hurston combined her knowledge of folklore with biblical themes. Loosely based on the lives of her parents, Jonah's Gourd Vine centers on John Pearson, a respected minister and town leader, and the life and death of his first wife, Lucy Potts. Written in the southern black dialect that Hurston used throughout her fic-tion, Jonah's Gourd Vine received critical attention for her "notable talents as a story teller." In Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939) Hurston successfully utilized data obtained from her studies in folklore and voodoo. Basing her story on the premise that most black Americans view their heritage as similar to that of the Hebrews in ancient Egypt, Hurston wrote Moses as an allegorical novel of American slavery. Moses is portrayed not as a prophet but as a powerful magician and voodoo practitioner. Critics praised Hurston's imaginative...

(This entire section contains 1135 words.)

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depiction of Moses, and some considered her use of black dialect important to the development of the narrative.

Most critics maintain that Their Eyes Were Watching God is Hurston's best work. The novel, now considered by some a classic in feminist literature, tells the story of a woman's quest for fulfillment and liberation in a society where women are objects to be used for physical burden and pleasure. Upon publication, critical opinion of the novel varied. Otis Ferguson contended that the book "is absolutely free of Uncle Toms," while Richard Wright accused Hurston of manipulating white stereotypes of black people to attract white readers. Other black critics at the time attacked Hurston for her lack of racial awareness. Contemporary critics, among them Alice Walker and June Jordan, have refuted these charges, asserting that Hurston was acutely aware of the racial climate of the time and describing the novel as an affirmation of black culture.

Critics generally agree that Hurston's last published novel, Seraph on the Suwanee (1948), is her most ambitious but least successful work of fiction. The novel is thematically similar to Jonah's Gourd Vine and Their Eyes Were Watching God. Seraph on the Suwanee is the story of a neurotic woman's search for self-esteem and her attempt to return the love of her husband. In this book, Hurston's major characters are poor whites instead of the black inhabitants of Eatonville of her previous novels. This radical change prompted some black critics to label Hurston an assimilationist. The absence of the colorful prose that was associated with Hurston's earlier work has also been noted.

In her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), Hurston revealed her stance on race relations in America. She maintained that black artists should celebrate the positive aspects of black American life instead of indulging in what she termed "the sobbing school of Negrohood." Some critics attribute Hurston's early years in Eatonville as the major source for that position, for Eatonville was the first organized effort by blacks at self-government. However, Hurston did acknowledge racial prejudice, and she published essays on the problem in several journals and magazines. Hurston's early play Color Struck! (1925) addresses bigotry within the black community, which favors light-skinned over dark-skinned blacks. Recent critical discussion indicates that the original manuscript of Dust Tracks on a Road included severe criticism of American racial and foreign policy, but these sections were omitted because Hurston's editors felt that some readers might interpret her views as an attack on America's role in World War II.

Many critical studies of Hurston have focused on her private life. Early in her career she depended on white patronage for support and financial assistance. Langston Hughes wrote that Hurston was "simply paid just to sit around and represent the Negro race." Other writers who knew Hurston during the 1920s and 1930s contend that she intentionally portrayed the role of a childlike primitive in order to advance her career. Hurston was caught between the emphasis on the "exotic" aspects of the Harlem Renaissance and the angry voice of black literature during the 1940s and 1950s. Although some people have questioned Hurston's integrity, her work is valued for its knowledgeable depiction of black culture and for its insight into the human condition.

(See also CLC, Vol. 7 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)

Fannie Hurst

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[Hurst, a popular novelist in the 1920s and 1930s, employed Hurston as a secretary-companion during Hurston's first years in New York City.]

Here in ["Jonah's Gourd Vine"] there springs, with validity and vitality a fresh note which, to this commentator, is unique.

Here is negro folk-lore interpreted at its authentic best in fiction form of a high order.

A brilliantly facile spade has turned over rich new earth. Worms lift up, the hottish smells of soil rise, negro toes dredge into that soil, smells of racial fecundity are about.

As a matter of fact, not even excepting Langston Hughes, it is doubtful if there is any literary precedent for the particular type of accomplishment that characterizes "Jonah's Gourd Vine."

Miss Hurston has penetrated into the complicated lore and mythology of her people with an authority and an unselfconsciousness that has not its equal in similar annals. Even through what might easily be dialectic mists, her negroes emerge on the authenticity of her story-telling. (p. 7)

The author's treatment of whites is as natural and without change of key as it would need to be if she is to succeed in keeping universality the dominant note of her book.

Humor, heartache, ambition, frustration, superstition, fear, cussedness, fidelity and infidelity flow naturally behind white and black pores.

Point of departure between races leaps from the springboard of the teeth rather than from the deeper recesses of the heart, and whatever racial issues are raised are borne out of the grandly natural sources of the power of the author's story-telling.

John and Lucy Pearson, and every inhabitant of the narrative, move against a background embroidered in folk-lore and symbolism, yet themselves so real and so human and so true, that rising above the complicated machinery of color differentiations, they bring the reader to fresh realization that races, regardless of pigmentation, behave like human beings. (p. 8)

Fannie Hurst, in an introduction to Jonah's Gourd Vine by Zora Neale Hurston, J. B. Lippincott Company, 1934, pp. 7-8.

Josephine Pinckney

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["Jonah's Gourd Vine"] is the product of a fortunate combination of circumstances. [Hurston] writes as a Negro understanding her people and having opportunities that could come to no white person, however sympathetic, of seeing them when they are utterly themselves. But she writes as a Negro whose intelligence is firmly in the saddle, who recognizes the value of an objective style in writing, and who is able to use the wealth of material available to her with detachment and with a full grasp of its dramatic qualities. Considering her especial temptations, her sustaining of the objective viewpoint is remarkable. She writes of her people with honesty, with sympathy, without extenuation. The white man is portrayed but little and then without bitterness. This is a novel about Negroes and she is not to be deflected by controversy from her preoccupation with her characters as the stuff of art….

Miss Hurston makes effective use of biblical rhythms in the passages that describe mass emotions quickening and becoming richer as they mount to a climax. John Buddy, the central figure of "Jonah's Gourd Vine," becomes later the Rev. Pearson, and his sermons are poems in Old Testament style, exemplifying that affinity of the Negro for the strong rhythms of Hebrew poetry….

There is some uncertainty in the handling of the narrative. Quarrels, trial proceedings, conflicts occur which are never resolved but merely slip out of the story as though the author had conceived them as links in a progression but had forgotten her intention…. When all is told this background is what lingers most vividly in the mind—a group composed of many deftly-drawn personalities, childlike, shrewd, violent, gay; and all the colors drawn together by the strong ingredient of Negro humor.

Josephine Pinckney, "A Pungent, Poetic Novel about Negroes," in New York Herald Tribune Books, May 6, 1934, p. 7.

Margaret Wallace

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"Jonah's Gourd Vine" can be called without fear of exaggeration the most vital and original novel about the American Negro that has yet been written by a member of the Negro race. Miss Hurston … has made the study of Negro folklore her special province. This may very well account for the brilliantly authentic flavor of her novel and for her excellent rendition of Negro dialect. Unlike the dialect in most novels about the American Negro, this does not seem to be merely the speech of white men with the spelling distorted. Its essence lies rather in the rhythm and balance of the sentences, in the warm artlessness of the phrasing.

No amount of special knowledge of her subject, however, could have made "Jonah's Gourd Vine" other than a mediocre novel if it were not for Miss Hurston's notable talents as a storyteller. In John, the big yellow Negro preacher, and in Lucy Potts, his tiny brown wife, she has created two characters who are intensely real and human and whose outlines will remain in the reader's memory long after the book has been laid aside. They are part and parcel of the tradition of their race, which is as different from ours as night from day; yet Miss Hurston has delineated them with such warmth and sympathy that they appeal to us first of all as human beings, confronting a complex of human problems with whatever grace and humor, intelligence and steadfastness they can muster. (pp. 6-7)

Not the least charm of the book … is its language—rich, expressive and lacking in self-conscious artifice. From the rolling and dignified rhythms of John's last sermon to the humorous aptness of such a word as "shickalacked," to express the noise and motion of a locomotive, there will be much in it to delight the reader. It is to be hoped that Miss Hurston will give us other novels in the same colorful idiom. (p. 7)

Margaret Wallace, "Real Negro People," in The New York Times Book Review, May 6, 1934, pp. 6-7.

H. I. Brock

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[Here, in "Mules and Men,"] is the high color of Color as a racial element in the American scene. And it comes neither from Catfish Row nor from a Harlem with a jazz tempo affected by the rhythm of Broadway to which contribute so many exotic strains newer to that scene than the African. In this book … [Hurston] has invited the outside world to listen in while her own people are being as natural as they can never be when white folks are literally present. This in an environment in the deep South to which the Negro is as native as he can be anywhere on this Western Continent….

[Hurston] has gone back to her native Florida village—a Negro settlement—with her native racial quality entirely unspoiled by her Northern college education. She has plunged into the social pleasures of the black community and made a record of what is said and done when Negroes are having a good gregarious time, dancing, singing, fishing, and above all, and incessantly, talking.

The talk (as those fragmentary memories of long ago come back to remind us) runs on such occasions generally to competition in telling what are unashamedly labeled "lies." These "lies" are woven out of the folklore of the black race in the South—with its deeper African background dimmed by years and distance. It is the same folklore, of course, out of which have been rescued for our nurseries the milder elements—the tales of Br'er Rabbit, Br'er Fox and the rest of the talking animals that children reared in the South had listened to long before Uncle Remus made them classic for the whole country.

But as the feast is spread here it is not always nursery fare. Not by any means. Some of it is strong meat for those who take life lustily—with accompaniment of flashes of razor blades and great gusts of Negro laughter.

The book is packed with tall tales rich with flavor and alive with characteristic turns of speech. Those of us who have known the Southern Negro from our youth find him here speaking the language of his tribe as familiarly as if it came straight out of his own mouth and had not been translated into type and transmitted through the eye to the ear. Which is to say that a very tricky dialect has been rendered with rare simplicity and fidelity into symbols so little adequate to convey its true values that the achievement is remarkable.

At the end you have a very fair idea of how the other color enjoys life as well as an amazing roundup of that color's very best stories in its very best manner—which is a match for any story-telling there is in the two qualities of luxuriant imagination and vivid and expressive language.

H. I. Brock, "The Full, True Flavor of Life in a Negro Community," in The New York Times Book Review, November 10, 1935, p. 4.

Franz Boas

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Ever since the time of Uncle Remus, Negro folk-lore has exerted a strong attraction upon the imagination of the American public. Negro tales, songs and sayings without end, as well as descriptions of Negro magic and voodoo, have appeared; but in all of them the intimate setting in the social life of the Negro has been given very inadequately.

It is the great merit of Miss Hurston's [Mules and Men] that she entered into the homely life of the southern Negro as one of them and was fully accepted as such by the companions of her childhood. Thus she has been able to penetrate through that affected demeanor by which the Negro excludes the White observer effectively from participating in his true inner life. Miss Hurston has been equally successful in gaining the confidence of the voodoo doctors and she gives us much that throws a new light upon the much discussed voodoo beliefs and practices. Added to all this is the charm of a loveable personality and of a revealing style which makes Miss Hurston's work an unusual contribution to our knowledge of the true inner life of the Negro.

To the student of cultural history the material presented is valuable not only by giving the Negro's reaction to everyday events, to his emotional life, his humor and passions, but it throws into relief also the peculiar amalgamation of African and European tradition which is so important for understanding historically the character of American Negro life, with its strong African background in the West Indies, the importance of which diminishes with increasing distance from the south.

Franz Boas, in a foreword to Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd., 1936, p. 5.

Thomas Caldecot Chubb

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[If] "Jonah's Gourd Vine" is a story with a background of sociology, "Mules and Men" is a social study with gusto of a story. Indeed, it is hard to think of anybody interested in the negro whom this new book will not delight. The southern raconteur who justly prides himself upon his large store of stories about the colored man will here find himself beaten on his own ground, but having gained a new supply of tales to tell. The student of folk-lore will find a well-filled sourcebook. And he who loves the negro, or is amused by him, or burns for his wrongs, or thinks he ought to know his place, will find, each of them, as good a portrayal of the negro's character as he is ever likely to see.

Not, either, a one-sided portrayal. The gaiety, the poetry, the resourcefulness and the wit are set down, but so also are the impulsiveness, the shiftlessness, the living in the moment only. Short of associating with the negro daily, there is no way you can learn more about him. Indeed, from Miss Hurston you will find out many things that, even if you live surrounded by negroes for a long time, you might never know. For as she says, "the negro, in spite of his open-faced laughter, his seeming acquiescence, is particularly evasive." He tells the white man what he thinks the white man wants to know, or what he feels he ought to know.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part deals with "Folk Tales" and the second with "Hoodoo." I find the second part interesting, but dare not judge it. I am aware that hoodoo plays a great part in the lives of certain negroes, but I have the teasing conviction that it has always been, and always will be over-emphasized because of those who like its appeal to the romantically macabre. The first part, however, is magnificent. (pp. 181-82)

Quite expectedly, most of these stories are humorous, and a large part of what remain are fantastic; but there are a few grim, a few ghostly and a few sardonic. Of the humorous stories, the greater part deal with slaves who outwit "de ole marster," or with animals, representing the negro, who outwit animals representing the white man. For I am sure everybody must now realize that Brer Rabbit is "the brother in black," as is also Brer Gopher when he outwits rather than outruns Brer Deer. Such ugliness as there is, is mainly in the background. (p. 182)

Thomas Caldecot Chubb, in a review of "Mules and Men," in The North American Review, Vol. 241, No. 1, March, 1936, pp. 181-83.

The Times Literary Supplement

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There is nothing in the title to indicate that ["Mules and Men"] is a picture of the negro mind revealed with commendable objectivity by a negro writer with a vivid pen. It is straining the term to call these stories folk-lore, since in themselves they are individual flights of fancy. Yet in sum they project, as it were, a composite image of the American negro's imagination with its whimsicality, its American love of exaggeration, and its under-dog's admiration of victorious cunning constantly pitted against the dominance of the white man. Two-thirds of the book consists of tales of varying degrees of tallness: there are tales of animals, parallel exploits to those of Brer Rabbit, tales telling why the porpoise has his tail on crossways, and how the possum lost the hair off his tail….

The book therefore reads rather like a compilation of stories for after-dinner speakers, but actually it is scientific in intention and in method. This applies also to the chapters on Hoodoo—the magic ritual practised by the Southern negros…. [Here the author] describes circumstantially the superstitious rites involving the slaughter of animals and the usual devices of sympathetic magic which are used to injure an enemy, compose a love dispute, or exert supernatural powers. Here was the scientific mind submitting itself to the most severe discipline in the study of superstition by becoming for the time being superstitious, but emerging with enough detachment to describe its position in a parable of the cat who washed its face and "used its manners" after it had eaten the rat.

A review of "Mules and Men," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 1779, March 7, 1936, p. 200.

Nick Aaron Ford

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[This essay was originally published in 1936.]

[One] can readily see why Miss Hurston's first novel, Jonah's Gourd Vine, was received with small enthusiasm from certain quarters of the Negro race. With a grasp of her material that has seldom been equaled by a writer of her race, she had every opportunity of creating a masterpiece of the age. But she failed. She failed not from lack of skill but from lack of vision. The hero, John Buddy, who rose from an outcast bastard of an Alabama tenant farm to a man of wealth and influence, could have been another Ben Hur, bursting the unjust shackles that had bound him to a rotten social order and winning the applause even of his enemies. But unfortunately, his rise to religious prominence and financial ease is but a millstone about his neck. He is held back by some unseen cord which seems to be tethered to his racial heritage. Life crushes him almost to death, but he comes out of the mills with no greater insight into the deep mysteries which surround him. Such a phenomenon, although not intended by Miss Hurston as a type of all Negro manhood, is seized upon by thoughtless readers of other races as a happy confirmation of what they already faintly believe: namely, that the Negro is incapable of profiting by experience or of understanding the deeper mysteries of life. (pp. 99-100)

Nick Aaron Ford, in a postscript to his The Contemporary Negro Novel: A Study in Race Relations, McGrath Publishing Company, 1968, pp. 94-102.

Sheila Hibben

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[Zora Hurston] is an author who writes with her head as well as with her heart, and at a time when there seems to be some principle of physics set dead against the appearance of novelists who give out a cheerful warmth and at the same time write with intelligence. You have to be as tired as I am of writers who offer to do as much for folks as Atlas, Joan of Arc, Faith, Hope and Charity, Numerology, NBC and Q.E.D. to be as pleased as I am with Zora Hurston's ["Their Eyes Were Watching God"]….

Readers of "Jonah's Gourd Vine" and "Mules and Men" are familiar with Miss Hurston's vibrant Negro lingo with its guitar twang of poetry, and its deep, vivid humor. If in "Their Eyes Were Watching God" the flowers of the sweet speech of black people are not quite so full blown and striking as in those earlier books, on the other hand, the sap flows more freely, and the roots touch deeper levels of human life. The author has definitely crossed over from the limbo of folklore into the realm of conventional narrative.

As a great many novelists—good and bad—ought to know by this time, it is awfully easy to write nonsense about Negroes. That Miss Hurston can write of them with simple tenderness, so that her story is filled with the ache of her own people, is, I think, due to the fact that she is not too much preoccupied with the current fetish of the primitive. In a rich prose (which has, at the same time, a sort of nervous sensibility) she tells the tale of a girl who "wanted things sweet with mah marriage, lak when you sit under a pear tree and think."

If I tried to tell you the plot of "Their Eyes Were Watching God" (an inept enough title, to my mind) I would only make a mess of it, so dependent is the story upon Miss Hurston's warm, vibrant touch. There are homely, unforgettable phrases of colored people (you would know, all right, that a man wasn't fooling if he threatened to kill you cemetery daid); there is a gigantic and magnificent picture of a hurricane in the Everglades country of Florida; and there is a flashing, gleaming riot of black people, with a limitless exuberance of humor, and a wild, strange sadness. There is also death…. Mostly, though, there is life—a swarming, passionate life, and … there is a sense of triumph and glory when the tale is done.

Sheila Hibben, "Vibrant Book Full of Nature and Salt," in New York Herald Tribune Books, September 26, 1937, p. 2.

Richard Wright

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Miss Hurston seems to have no desire whatever to move in the direction of serious fiction. (pp. 22, 25)

Miss Hurston can write; but her prose is cloaked in that facile sensuality that has dogged Negro expression since the days of Phillis Wheatley. Her dialogue [in Their Eyes Were Watching God] manages to catch the psychological movements of the Negro folk-mind in their pure simplicity, but that's as far as it goes.

Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theater, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the "white folks" laugh. Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears….

The sensory sweep of her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought. In the main, her novel is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy. She exploits that phase of Negro life which is "quaint," the phase which evokes a piteous smile on the lips of the "superior" race. (p. 25)

Richard Wright, "Between Laughter and Tears," in New Masses, Vol. XXV, No. 2, October 5, 1937, pp. 22, 25.∗

Otis Ferguson

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It isn't that [Their Eyes Were Watching God] is bad, but that it deserves to be better. In execution it is too complex and wordily pretty, even dull—yet its conception of these simple Florida Negroes is unaffected and really beautiful.

[There is] some very shrewd picturing of Negro life in its naturally creative and unself-conscious grace (the book is absolutely free of Uncle Toms, absolutely unlimbered of the clumsy formality, defiance and apology of a Minority Cause). And when Tea Cake [the central character's husband] swaggers in with his banter and music and rolling bones and fierce tender loyalty, there is a lot more picturing of what we would never have known: Darktown and the work on the Everglades muck, the singing and boasting and play-acting, people living the good life but, in the absence of the sour and pretentious and proper, seeming to live it in a different world. It is the time of the Big Blow in Florida, and though Tea Cake and [the central character] Janie fought through it, the aftermath left the man with hydrophobia, and she had to kill him like a dog. Janie went back to her town after that, her late years to be mellowed with the knowledge of how wide life can be.

If this isn't as grand as it should be, the breakdown comes in the conflict between the true vision and its overliterary expression. Crises of feeling are rushed over too quickly for them to catch hold, and then presently we are in a tangle of lush exposition and overblown symbols; action is described and characters are talked about, and everything is more heard than seen. The speech is founded in observation and sometimes wonderfully so, a gold mine of traditional sayings….

But although the spoken word is remembered, it is not passed on. Dialect is really sloppy, in fact. Suggestion of speech difference is a difficult art, and none should practise it who can't grasp its first rule—that the key to difference must be indicated by the signature of a different rhythm and by the delicate tampering with an occasional main word. To let the really important words stand as in Webster and then consistently misspell all the eternal particles that are no more than an aspiration in any tongue, is to set up a mood of Eddie Cantor in blackface. The reader's eye is caught by distortions of the inconsequential, until a sentence in the supposedly vernacular reads with about this emphasis: "DAT WUZ UH might fine thing FUH you TUH do."

And so all this conflict between the real life we want to read about and the superwordy, flabby lyric discipline we are so sick of leaves a good story where it never should have been potentially: in the gray category of neuter gender, declension indefinite.

Otis Ferguson, "You Can't Hear Their Voices," in The New Republic, Vol. LXXXXII, No. 1193, October 13, 1937, p. 276.

Sterling Brown

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[The following essay was originally published in 1937.]

[Zora Neale Hurston's] short stories "Drenched With Light," "Spunk" and "The Gilded Six Bits" showed a command of folklore and idiom excelled by no earlier Negro novelist. Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934) recounts the rise of handsome, stalwart John Buddy from plowboy to moderator of the Baptists of Florida. But his flair for preaching and praying is exceeded by his weakness for women…. Loosely constructed, the novel presents authentic scenes of timber camps, railroad gangs with the "hammer-muscling men, the liars, fighters, bluffers and lovers," and the all-colored towns of Florida. The folk-speech is richly, almost too consistently, poetic. The characters are less developed than the setting; and the life they live is self-contained and untroubled. Nevertheless, Jonah's Gourd Vine contains the stuff of life, well observed and rendered.

A trained anthropologist as well as a native of Florida, Zora Neale Hurston has made in Mules and Men (1935) the first substantial collection of folktales by a Negro scholar. Zestful towards her material, and completely unashamed of it, she ingratiated herself with the tellers of tall tales…. Miss Hurston's "big old lies" are a delight to read…. Unfortunately, Mules and Men does not uncover so much that white collectors have been unable to get. The tales ring genuine, but there seem to be omissions. The picture is too pastoral, with only a bit of grumbling about hard work, or a few slave anecdotes that turn the tables on old marster. The bitterness that E.C.L. Adams recorded in Nigger to Nigger is not to be found in Mules and Men.

Miss Hurston's second novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) is informed and sympathetic…. There are good sketches of the all-colored town where comic-serious debates and tall tales are told on the mayor's store porch. But the love story and the poetic folk-speech are the chief interests. The people, "ugly from ignorance and broken from being poor," who swarm upon the "muck" for short-time jobs, do not get much attention. (pp. 159-61)

Sterling Brown, "Southern Realism," in his "Negro Poetry and Drama" and "The Negro in American Fiction," Atheneum, 1969, pp. 151-68.∗

Carl Carmer

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Folklore is a spontaneous product of vitality and imagination. It needs a careful interpreter whose reports have these same two qualities. Seldom has there been a happier combination than that of the vivid, fantastic folklore of the West Indies and interpreter Zora Neale Hurston…. [She is] one of the most delightfully alive personalities of our day. She knows what she is talking about and she talks with a zest and a humor and a genuineness that make her work the best that I know in the field of contemporary folklore.

The first part of "Tell My Horse" is a sort of practice walk-around in Jamaica…. Stopping off at that British island to hunt the wild hog, collect proverbs, observe marriage customs, hear the "Night Song After Death" served to let her get her hand in for the big job ahead.

It is when Zora Hurston begins writing about her life and observations among the denizens of the misty mountains of Haiti that she becomes incomparable. A few works on Haitian lore have been too dully sensational, a few have been dully academic. Miss Hurston's book is so filled with the spirit of her subject that the whole feeling of its spine-chilling supernatural grotesquerie encompasses the reader and he has a hard time convincing himself that he is reading the authentic work of an honest, painstaking scholar.

Perhaps because she is herself a Negro, Miss Hurston makes her readers conscious of the deep current of racial poetry that runs beneath the rituals of Haitian life. Her sympathies are so strong that she seems to identify herself with her subject. She is but another folk teller of the tales she has uncovered, even a better teller than those who have preceded her….

Zora Hurston has come back from her visit to the two near islands with a harvest unbelievably rich. Her book is full of keen social comment relieved with constant humor, it is packed with good stories, accounts of folk religions, songs with both music and words as all songs should be reported. There are few more beautiful tellings of a folk tale than "God and the Pintards," the last story in the volume.

Carl Carmer, "In Haiti and Jamaica," in New York Herald Tribune Books, October 23, 1938, p. 2.

Percy Hutchison

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["Moses: Man of the Mountain"] is the story of Moses as the Negro sees and interprets [him]…. None the less reverent in conception than that of the white man, there is one aspect of the work of the great leader of the Israelites which holds particular fascination for the Negro, so that his view becomes especially interesting, and, again always in a reverent way, entertaining. All primitive peoples have an inordinate love of magic, or what appears to be magic, and the African most of all. His descendants in this country may hold that the magic of the radio is more awesome than such relics of voodoo prestidigitation as they may have witnessed or heard about. But even they have traditions that will not die, and one of them, according to Zora Neale Hurston, is that Moses was just about the greatest magician ever in the world. He led his followers out of bondage, because his was better "medicine" than that of Pharaoh's magicians. He talked to God face to face, but he had been singled out by God for this honor because Jehovah recognized the superlative magical power of Moses. Consequently there comes about almost a transposition of Moses and God in the Negro's point of view of their relationship, or so it would seem from Miss Hurston's pages. Moses seems almost to be greater than God. But this is not irreverence, for it is undoubtedly due to the fact that it was easier for a primitive mind to endow a human being with mystical powers than to grasp a purely rational concept of deity. The author's Man of the Mountain is a very living and very human person….

For some reason not apparent the author reduces the dialect as she proceeds, and although a more closely knit narrative is the result, the book loses something in flavor. Moses, rescued by Pharaoh's daughter, is brought up as an Egyptian prince, as the leader of an army; not for a long time is he to be the Mountain Man. According to the Book of Exodus Moses was threescore years of age when he delivered the Children of Israel out of their bondage, but little is told of Moses during the intervening years. It is the legendary Moses whom the Negroes have built that Miss Hurston gives us in the first part of the book, a Moses painted in rich imagination….

It is impossible to say to what extent Miss Hurston has woven many legends and interpretations into one and how often she is making verbatim use of given, but, presumably, only orally extant, tradition. But the narrative becomes one of great power. It is warm with friendly personality and pulsating with homely and profound eloquence and religious fervor. The author has done an exceptionally fine piece of work far off the beaten tracks of literature. Her homespun book is literature in every best sense of the word.

Percy Hutchison, "Led His People Free," in The New York Times Book Review, November 19, 1939, p. 21.

Carl Carmer

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The story of Moses has roots deep in the Hebraic imagination and Jews are proud to call it their own. Their minds have been especially busy with it in the last few years as the old narrative of persecution and injustice has repeated itself.

Now [in "Moses: Man of the Mountain"] Zora Neale Hurston has told the story of the law-giver from the point of view of another race, also once enslaved and persecuted, and it has lent itself so aptly that it has become a fine Negro novel. Miss Hurston has made a prose tapestry that sparkles with characteristic Negro humor though it never loses dignity. With a cunning that never lessens her integrity she has laid a new emphasis here, assumed a different motivation there, and the tale has emerged as honest and as strong as ever—and wholly alien to its racial origin. Naturally a comparison with Roark Bradford's stories of Negro figures in Biblical tales suggests itself, but Miss Hurston's characters are less naive than those of "The Green Pastures." They have much the same humor, the same directness, but they are more sophisticated and more wise—as befits a serious novel. Moses and Aaron and Miriam and Zipporah are characters in whose changing relationships any novelist could well delight.

The most exciting thing about this exciting book is its serious use of Negro speech rhythms to tell the story. That Negro song is the most powerful influence on American music is a truism few deny. Readers have long admired the homely and poetic figures of speech which environment and temperament have inspired in American Negroes. But not many of us are aware of how much our native language has been enriched by the distinctive inflections and sharply defined rhythms of the talk of black Americans. The prose of Miss Hurston, who is an accomplished scholar as well as a sensitive artist, teaches us to realize the contribution her race is making to American expression.

Carl Carmer, "Biblical Story in Negro Rhythm," in New York Herald Tribune Books, November 26, 1939, p. 5.

Philip Slomovitz

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[It] is exceedingly interesting to read a new biography of the Hebrew prophet [Moses] written by an American Negro. Zora Neale Hurston has already acquired fame as a writer, and in Moses: Man of the Mountain she reveals marked ability as a student and interpreter of Negro folkways. It is a magnificent story, but it is weak in its interpretation of the ethical contributions of the prophet and in its treatment of the code of laws handed down by him. For to Jews, Moses is primarily the lawgiver, the great creator of the great code known as the Decalogue. But Miss Hurston presents Moses as a great "voo-doo man," which is the position given him by the Negro. Her distinctive contribution is her brilliant study of the problem of emancipation, done as perhaps only a Negro could do it.

In the introduction, Miss Hurston explains that the reason Moses is revered as he is by her people is because he had the power to go up the mountain to bring down the laws and because he talked with God face to face. She describes the early life of the Hebrews in Egypt, and in the course of conversations she interprets their attitudes, fears, reactions and hopes. There is a discussion, for instance, between Amram and a comrade before the birth of Moses. They speak of Pharaoh and the lack of nerve on the part of the people to deal with him. Amram's comrade says that he hates himself for not trying violence against Pharaoh even if they kill him for it. Amram replies: "That's what I hate 'em for too, making me scared to die. It's a funny thing, the less people have to live for, the less nerve they have to risk losing—nothing." Throughout this study there is alternate defiance and determination. When bolstered up by a leader like Moses, the people gain courage. When their stomachs happen to be empty, they cry for slavery.

Miss Hurston portrays Moses as an Egyptian who had met with displeasure at Pharaoh's court. But aside from this deviation from accepted biblical fact, she adheres to the biblical story.

She is especially effective when she deals with Moses' miracle-producing powers and she ascribes to him extreme strength in his right arm as the producer of miraculous results.

Her Moses knows his people and understands what it means to deal with slaves. When Aaron suggests to him a shorter road than the wilderness of the Red Sea, Moses replies: "I know it, Aaron, but our people are leaving slavery. It takes free men for fighting. The Philistines might let us through without fighting, but it is too much of a risk. If these people saw an army right now they would turn right around and run right back into Goshen."

Equally significant is Miss Hurston's interpretation of Moses' reaction to the report of the spies sent to study the Promised Land. When he finds that they are still dominated by a slave psychology, he decides that the only way out of the difficulty is to keep the Hebrews in the wilderness for forty years until the generation of slaves has disappeared and Israel has become a people of free men.

Miss Hurston has written a splendid study of slave emancipation. From this point of view her biography of Moses is invaluable.

Philip Slomovitz, "The Negro's Moses," in The Christian Century, Vol. LVI, No. 49, December 6, 1939, p. 1504.

Arna Bontemps

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[Zora Neale Hurston's autobiography] "Dust Tracks on a Road" should not be read for its comments on the Negro as a whole. Miss Hurston feels that God made Negroes, as he made all other people, "duck by duck." She says, "That was the only way I could see them." She urges the powerful of the earth to "think kindly of those who walk in the dust." She suggests to the humble ones that they respect those who are not so humble. She invites all to be kissing-friends in the hope that we may breed, please God, hundreds of generations hence, a noble world. Meanwhile, she concludes, if we don't all meet in this world, we may "meet at a barbecue."

Miss Hurston deals very simply with the more serious aspects of Negro life in America—she ignores them. She has done right well by herself in the kind of world she found.

Arna Bontemps, "From Eatonville, Fla. to Harlem," in New York Herald Tribune Books, November 22, 1942, p. 3.

Beatrice Sherman

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["Dust Tracks on a Road"] is a thumping story, though it has none of the horrid earmarks of the [Horatio] Alger-type climb. Zora Neale Hurston has a considerable reputation as anthropologist and writer. When her autobiography begins she was one of eight children in a Negro family with small prospects of making a name for herself. Yet her story is forthright and without frills. Its emphasis lies on her fighting spirit in the struggle to achieve the education she felt she had to have. The uses to which it was put—good uses too—were the fruit of things that cropped up spontaneously, demanding to be done….

Her whole story is live and vivid. Told in gusty language, it is full of the graphic metaphors and similes that color Negro speech at its richest, sometimes in direct quotations from folk stories—those lying sessions at the village store—and sometimes woven in with her own warm style. There is no "hush-mouth modesty" about the book, for Zora Neale Hurston would not "low-rate the human race" by undue expurgation of her story….

[There] are philosophical chapters on books (the Hurston books), love, "My People!" and religion. Then impression simmers down to a feeling that the author regards the Negro race much as she regards any other race—as made up of some good, some bad and a lot of medium. The problems they face are those of any other race, with the disadvantage of being a younger lot. Anyway, her story is an encouraging and enjoyable one for any member of the human race. Any race might well be proud to have more members of the caliber and stamina of Zora Neale Hurston.

Beatrice Sherman, "Zora Hurston's Story," in The New York Times Book Review, November 29, 1942, p. 44.

Worth Tuttle Hedden

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Though "Seraph on the Suwanee" is the love story of a daughter of Florida Crackers and of a scion of plantation owners, it is no peasant-marries-the prince tale. Arvay Henson, true Cracker in breeding, is above her caste in temperament; James Kenneth Meserve is plain Jim who speaks the dialect and who has turned his back on family, with its static living in the past, to become foreman in a west Florida turpentine camp. Neither is it a romance of the boy-meets-girl school. Beginning conventionally enough with a seduction (a last minute one when Arvay is in her wedding dress), it ends twenty-odd years later when the protagonists are about to be grandparents. In this denouement the divergent lines of Miss Hurston's astonishing, bewildering talent meet to give us a reconciliation scene between a middle-aged man and a middle-aged woman that is erotically exciting and a description of the technique of shrimping that is meticulously exact. Emotional, expository; meandering, unified; naive, sophisticated; sympathetic, caustic; comic, tragic; lewd, chaste—one could go on indefinitely reiterating this novel's contradictions and still end helplessly with the adjective unique.

Incompatible strains in the novel mirror the complexity of the author. Miss Hurston shuttles between the sexes, the professions, and the races as if she were man and woman, scientist and creative writer, white and Negro. She is at her best as a man among men objectively portraying Jim and his work-a-day life with such verisimilitude that we never doubt "whatever God neglected, Jim Meserve took care of." A fight in a bar complete with appropriate obscenity, a struggle between a man and a diamondback, between a pilot and the sea, are her meat, and, in the speech of her characters, she do know how to cook it….

With Arvay and domestic routine Miss Hurston is less successful, holding her guilt-ridden seraph too consistently in the cloudy sky of the emotions. She knows every intimate detail of Arvay's physical self and reveals it to the point of absurdity, but she has to construct a visible Freudian fretwork to give us understanding of her psychic self. On the other hand, only a woman could animate the adolescent and adult Arvay, now going her wishy-washy unhappy way, now facing facts and courageously burning her past when she burns her house….

The generic life of the Florida Cracker from the cradle to the grave is so documentary in the dramatization of mores and language it seems incredible that one not born to the breed, even though a neighbor and an anthropologist, could be its biographer. Miss Hurston knows her Florida Negro as she knows her Florida white and characterizes them with the same acumen, but she gives them no more attention than the plot demands. In Jim's relation with the colored workmen whose know-how has helped him get rich, in Arvay's petulant jealousy of them, in her triumph over her past when she sits at the table with Titty-Nipple and Cup-Cake, the old southern adage that the aristocrat is the darky's best friend is symbolically italicized….

Reading this astonishing novel, you wish that Miss Hurston had used the scissors and smoothed the seams. Having read it, you would like to be able to remember every extraneous incident and every picturesque metaphor.

Worth Tuttle Hedden, "Turpentine and Moonshine," in New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review. October 10, 1948, p. 2.

Darwin T. Turner

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A study of Zora Neale Hurston, writer, properly begins with Zora Neale Hurston, wanderer. In her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road—in her artful candor and coy reticence, her contradictions and silences, her irrationalities and extravagant boasts which plead for the world to recognize and respect her—one perceives the matrix of her fiction, the seeds that sprouted and the cankers that destroyed.

Contradictions in the autobiography reveal that the content was prepared with concern for its appeal to readers, especially white readers. By reporting her father's frequent warnings that her impudence would cause her to forget to remain in the docile, subservient position to which Southern society assigns Afro-Americans, Miss Hurston created a self-image as a fearless and defiant fighter for her rights. In actuality, however, even white acquaintances were astonished by her apparent indifference to her own dignity or that of other blacks. (pp. 90-1)

In contrast to her affable reactions to the white people in her book are her violent rivalries and antagonisms toward other blacks. Obviously envious of her father's attention to her sister, she unnecessarily reminded readers that the sister did not become famous. She insisted that her brother used her as his wife's slave. She wrote vituperatively about a jealous, "old, fat, black" servant who caused her to be fired and about another "jealous hussy" who tried to kill her. With obvious relish she reported the details of a fight with her stepmother, whom she hated…. [Years afterward] she searched for her stepmother, hoping to resume the battle; but, after finding her, Miss Hurston pitied the aged woman's infirmity. It is psychologically impossible that any human being who would want to kill so many members of her own race should never have resented members of another race. Such a dichotomy of blacks and whites cannot exist except to myopic vision.

Two causes for the myopia suggest themselves. One, the desire to sell her book caused Miss Hurston to conceal her resentment of white Americans. Two, she genuinely enjoyed the paternalism of her white friends.

If the first hypothesis is true, Miss Hurston was a hypocrite; if the second is true, she was immature and insecure. Either hypothesis dissuades one from expecting any perceptive appraisal of the interrelationships of the races in her autobiography, and none is to be found. (pp. 93-4)

The Zora Neale Hurston who takes shape from her autobiography and from the accounts of those who knew her is an imaginative, somewhat shallow, quick-tempered woman, desperate for recognition and reassurance to assuage her feelings of inferiority; a blind follower of that social code which approves arrogance toward one's assumed peers and inferiors but requires total psychological commitment to a subservient posture before one's supposed superiors. It is in reference to this image that one must examine her novels, her folklore, and her view of the Southern scene.

Despite the psychological limitations which color her works, her novels deserve more recognition than they have received. While publishing more books than any Afro-American woman before her—four novels, two collections of folklore, and an autobiography—she was one of the few Southern-born Afro-American writers who have consistently mined literary materials from Southern soil. Gifted with an ear for dialect, an appreciation of the folktale, a lively imagination, and an understanding of feminine psychology, she interwove these materials in deceptively simple stories which exhibit increasing artistic consciousness and her awareness of the shifting tastes in the American literary market.

Her relative anonymity may be blamed on two causes. First, during her most productive period—the 1930s—widespread poverty limited the sale of books. Second, her tales of common people form a seemingly quiet meadow overshadowed by commanding, storm-swept hills on either side. To the rear, in the twenties, stands the exoticism of the Harlem Renaissance—Claude McKay's lurid depictions of Harlem, Wallace Thurman's satirical invective, Langston Hughes's jazz rhythms, and Countee Cullen's melodious chauvinism. On the other side, in the forties, stands the lusty violence of Richard Wright, Frank Yerby, Ann Petry, and Willard Motley. Most of Zora Neale Hurston's stories, in contrast, seem to be quiet quests for self-realization.

Ironic, psychologically perceptive stories first brought her to the attention of Charles S. Johnson and various other editors. "Spunk" and "The Gilded Six-Bits" typify this early work. (pp. 98-9)

Miss Hurston revealed the same talents in her novels. The simply narrated tales, the credible, likable characters, and the colorful dialogue evoke tenderness and amusement. But in the greater length of the novels, she showed weaknesses. She caricatured less important figures, exaggerated the language, and sacrificed structure for the sake of folktales.

Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934), her first novel, is based on the lives of her parents. Written after she had collected the folktales subsequently published in Mules and Men (1935), the novel exemplifies both her strengths and her weaknesses. (p. 100)

Although Miss Hurston delineated her protagonists credibly, she exaggerated minor figures. Because she hated her stepmother, Miss Hurston caricatured Hattie, John Buddy's second wife, as a vituperative, ignorant, immoral, vindictive monster. Miss Hurston designed a black girl, Mehaley, as a comic foil for Lucy. Whereas Lucy is intelligent, educated, affectionate, and relatively obedient to her mother's rigid morality, Mehaley is slothful, sensual, and amoral. The contrast reaches a farcical climax in the difference between Lucy's marriage and Mehaley's. Lucy marries John Buddy in a simple, decorous ritual performed with the reverence customary for a sacrament of the church. Mehaley's wedding is delayed first by the tardiness of the bridegroom. It is further delayed by her father, a self-appointed preacher, who refuses to permit an ordained minister to perform the ceremony. After the father prevails and after the bridegroom again imprisons his aching feet in his new shoes, the marriage vows are recited by the illiterate father, who pretends to read the words from a book which he believes to be the Bible but which is actually an almanac. That evening, the bride postpones consummating the marriage until she has satisfied her craving for snuff. (pp. 101-02)

Exploitation of the exotic weakens the dialogue, which constitutes both the major strength and the major weakness of the novel. Effectively, Miss Hurston created a dialect, or dialects, which, if not authentic, nevertheless suggest a particular level of speech without ridiculing the speaker. The language also exhibits the rural Southern blacks' imaginative, vivid use of metaphor, simile, and invective…. The verisimilitude of the language is intensified not merely by the dialect and idiom but even by words, such as "lies," "jook," "piney wood rooters," which require definition in the glossary.

But exploiting the appeal of this language, she piled up metaphorical invective to a height difficult for any mortal to attain…. (pp. 102-03)

In the novel, Miss Hurston experimented with symbols with varying degrees of success. The image of "Jonah's gourd vine" does not seem to represent John effectively because no Jonah exists. The fact that John Buddy is created by God and is smitten by God furnishes merely a strained analogy. Miss Hurston, however, used a railroad train more effectively. One of the first objects which John sees after he has crossed the creek, the railroad locomotive impresses him as the most powerful, potentially dangerous force he has ever known. More than a machine or even an agent for transportation, however, it symbolizes his sexual awareness. Coming into his consciousness when he first enters a world of heterosexual relationships, it dominates his thoughts and finally destroys him.

Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) is artistically superior to Jonah's Gourd Vine, perhaps because it centers upon a protagonist with whom Miss Hurston could identify fully. (pp. 104-05)

Although Miss Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in seven months, she demonstrated considerable improvement in her skill as a novelist. Feeling no compulsion to compensate her protagonist for suffering, she developed the story logically. Unfortunately she weakened the story by the highly melodramatic conclusion alleviated only by the romantic sentiment that Teacake still lives in Janie's memory.

Although the death of the protagonist, John Buddy, ends Jonah's Gourd Vine and the grief of the protagonist, Janie, concludes Their Eyes Were Watching God, neither novel overwhelms a reader with a sense of tragedy. A lighter mood develops, not so much from Miss Hurston's emphasis upon a philosophic acceptance of grief as from her frequent admixtures of comedy and her tendency to report dramatic incidents rather than to involve the reader with the emotions of the characters.

In her second novel Miss Hurston improved her characterization by caricaturing less frequently and by delineating minor characters more carefully. In fact, Nanny Janie's grandmother, is one of Miss Hurston's most effectively drawn characters. Feeling that life cheated her by enslaving her, Nanny vows that her granddaughter will enjoy the happiness she herself has never known. But seeking to realize herself through her granddaughter, she fails to allow for Janie's personality and aspirations. (pp. 105-06)

Despite her general improvements, however, Miss Hurston continued to exhibit defects evidencing her inability to complete her transformation from a short-story writer into a novelist. She weakened the plot by a careless shift of point of view and by digressions. (p. 107)

Miss Hurston committed her most serious structural blunder in chapter six. In the first four chapters she developed the poignant relationship of Janie and Nanny, lyrically explored Janie's personality, and described the brief course of Janie's marriage. In chapter five Miss Hurston altered her tone by abandoning the serious, contemplative dialogue of the earlier chapters in order to imitate the impudent, jovial chatter of the Eatonville folk who spy upon the newcomers, Janie and Joe Starks. In chapter six, however, the longest in the book, Miss Hurston interrupted the narrative in order to include folktales and amusing sketches of local inhabitants. Digressive and unnecessary, the chapter merely suggests that Miss Hurston did not know how to integrate the folk material which she considered essential for local color. She weakly justified the inclusions as illustrations of the kinds of tales which Janie wishes to hear more often. Later in the story, Miss Hurston introduced similar materials more plausibly as a part of the banter between Teacake and Janie and as the evening or rainy day diversion of the workers with whom Janie and Teacake live.

Either personal insensitivity or an inability to recognize aesthetic inappropriatenesses caused Miss Hurston to besmirch Their Eyes Were Watching God with one of the crudest scenes which she ever wrote. While Joe Starks is dying, Janie deliberately provokes a quarrel so that, for the first time, she can tell him how he has destroyed her love. During the early years of their twenty-year relationship, Joe Starks jealously sheltered her excessively; during the later years he often abused her because he resented her remaining young and attractive while he aged rapidly. But in a quarrel or two Janie repaid him in good measure by puncturing his vanity before the fellow townsmen whose respect and envy he wished to command. Never was his conduct so cruel as to deserve the vindictive attack which Janie unleashes while he is dying. For Janie, the behavior seems grotesquely out of character. It is characteristic, however, of Miss Hurston's continual emphasis upon intraracial and intrafamilial hatred. Probably no other Afro-American fiction maker before Richard Wright so fully and frequently described violence within black families.

The thought of Their Eyes Were Watching God is more persuasive than that of Jonah's Gourd Vine. Through Nanny, Miss Hurston denounced slavery and the wives of slave owners; through Teacake she ridiculed the Southerners' habit of selecting certain blacks as their pets while abusing the others; and through Mrs. Turner she ridiculed Negroes who hate their race. She succeeded best, however, in delineating perceptively a woman whose simple desires mystify the men in her life. Janie merely wishes to live and to love, to laugh and to joke with people. But her husband and her first lover fail to understand that her happiness depends upon love. Because she does not love her first husband, she feels insulted because he wants her to prepare his breakfast, chop wood, and plow in the fields. As long as she loves Joe Starks, however, she is willing to clerk in his store. When she no longer loves him, she resents his wanting her to continue to work. Because she loves Teacake, she works beside him in the fields after he has confessed his loneliness without her. All Janie wants is to love, to be loved, and to share the life of her man. But, like the witch in [Geoffrey Chaucer's] Wife of Bath's tale, she first must find a man wise enough to let her be whatever kind of woman she wants to be.

Miss Hurston's most accomplished achievement in fiction is Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939), which provided a format in which she could best utilize her talents for writing satire, irony, and dialect. (pp. 107-09)

If she had written nothing else, Miss Hurston would deserve recognition for this book. For once, her material and her talent fused perfectly. Her narrative deficiencies are insignificant, for the reader knows the story. Her ridicule, caricature, and farce are appropriate. The monstrous Hattie of Jonah's Gourd Vine and Mrs. Turner of Their Eyes Were Watching God reappear aptly in the jealous, accursed Miriam, who actually becomes a sympathetic figure after she has been cursed with leprosy. Finally, attuned to folk psychology, Miss Hurston gave the Hebrew slaves an authenticity that they lack in the solemn Biblical story. (pp. 109-10)

The chief art of the book is the abundant comedy. Humor emerges even from the mere contrast of the bombastic speech of the Egyptians, the realistic speech of the educated people, and the credible dialect of the slaves. But a good joke, at best, is merely a joke. Miss Hurston's joke entertains readers but does not comment significantly on life or people.

In her final novel, Seraph on the Suwanee (1948), Miss Hurston for the first time focused upon white protagonists, in a work so stylistically different from her earlier efforts that it reveals her conscious adjustment to the tastes of a new generation of readers. Although Seraph is Hurston's most ambitious novel and her most artistically competent, its prolonged somberness causes many readers to yearn for the alleviating farce and carefree gaiety of the earlier works. (p. 111)

Although Seraph is not a black story in white face, it significantly parallels the earlier novels in most respects. For instance, despite differences of dialect and ambition, the protagonists of Seraph have their prototypes in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Like Janie, Arvay Henson, a woman of the lower caste of Southern society, is searching for love. Like Teacake, Jim courts charmingly and boldly; like Joe Starks, he dedicates himself to providing comfort for his mate. Even the familiar vituperative caricatures recur—in Arvay's slovenly sister Larraine and her husband, Carl Middleton.

If the differences in race are ignored, Seraph is distinguished from the earlier novels chiefly by Miss Hurston's emphasis upon the protagonist's psychological dilemma, more specific and more realistic descriptions of locale, more lurid details in the accounts of sexual relationships, and the omission of farcical incidents and of folktales. Each of the first three heightens the dramatic or at least the melodramatic quality of the story, therefore, the absence of the exotic charm of the humor, the language, and the folklore seems the only possible basis for a complaint that this novel is less interesting than earlier ones.

To defend Seraph against the unwarranted objection, however, is not to imply that the novel is Miss Hurston's most successful. Even though Miss Hurston structured the novel more competently than any other, she betrayed her intention by her thought, and she betrayed her ability by her tone. A writer who proposes a psychological study must do more than describe a behavior pattern and report or dramatize neurosis; he must interpret the relationship of the two in such a way that a reader recognizes that the action is a manifestation or a result of the emotional state. In other words, the author must comprehend psychological complexity sufficiently that he not only supplies an objective correlative but also demonstrates that it actually is a correlative. Because Miss Hurston was herself impulsive rather than rational and because she approached people intuitively rather than analytically, she failed to control her materials. (pp. 113-15)

Furthermore, [Miss Hurston] betrayed her talent by adopting a new tone. To write a best seller for the forties, she added sex and sensation to her usual fare. In her earlier works, by restrained emotion and detachment, she had made the griefs pathetic but bearable; in Seraph, however, she plunged readers into the deep and bitter emotions of a sick world. Doubtlessly, she proved to be a competent guide to that world. But since many other writers can guide such tours, it is regrettable that Miss Hurston did not restrict her tours to the world of the healthy.

Although an examination of her novels is the chief focus of this study, no consideration of Zora Neale Hurston would be complete without an appraisal of her work as folklorist. Mules and Men (1935) and Tell My Horse (1938), as well as her autobiography, clearly evidence Zora Neale Hurston's talents as a reporter and her weaknesses as a scholar. (pp. 115-16)

Although Mules and Men is interesting, it is disappointingly superficial for the reader who desires more than entertainment. Miss Hurston repeatedly identified herself as an anthropologist, but there is no evidence of the scholarly procedures which would be expected from a formally trained anthropologist or researcher in folklore. Instead of classifying or analyzing tales, she merely reported them in the chronological order and the manner in which they had been told to her. Furthermore, she failed to ask or to answer essential questions. For instance, her internship as a witch doctor required her to prescribe charms and cures. Although a reader eagerly wishes to learn some results of her treatments, Miss Hurston dropped the matter after reciting the details of the prescriptions.

It cannot be said in her defense that Miss Hurston regarded the folklore with the eye of a novelist rather than a scholar. Although interested in the personalities of the storytellers, the idiom spoken by Afro-Americans, and the banter and the flirtation which accompany and encompass the storytelling sessions, she did not attempt to transform the folktale into art, as Joel Chandler Harris did with the Uncle Remus materials or as Charles Waddell Chesnutt did in "The Goophered Grapevine." Perhaps Miss Hurston neglected these matters because she was overly concerned with her major topic—Zora Neale Hurston…. Nevertheless, despite the superficiality which limits its scholarly importance, Mules and Men is an enjoyable work of competent journalism, which offers valuable insight into a class of people and a way of life.

Tell My Horse (1938) reflects even more disastrously Miss Hurston's regrettable inability to distinguish the important from the unimportant, the significant from the trivial. Although she had proposed a study of the voodoo of Haiti and the West Indies, she produced instead a travelogue of her experience, her reactions to the people, and her descriptions of the country. Such travelogues attain significance only if they have been prepared by political scientists or sociologists capable of evaluating their experiences. Miss Hurston not only lacked such training, but she also proved herself to be irritatingly naïve. (pp. 117-18)

Tell My Horse has value only in Miss Hurston's account of Jamaican and Haitian folktales and voodoo customs, which are more fascinating than those of Mules and Men because they are less familiar to American readers. Especially intriguing are the descriptions of the witch doctors and of Zombies (the living dead). Miss Hurston even included a photograph purported to be that of a Zombie. Tell My Horse reveals Miss Hurston's usual talent for gathering material, her skill in reporting it, and her characteristic inability to interpret it.

Because of her simple style, humor, and folklore, Zora Neale Hurston deserves more recognition than she ever earned. But, superficial and shallow in her artistic and social judgments, she became neither an impeccable raconteur nor a scholar. Always, she remained a wandering minstrel. It was eccentric but perhaps appropriate for her to return to Florida to take a job as a cook and maid for a white family and to die in poverty. She had not ended her days as she once had hoped—a farmer among the growing things she loved. Instead she had returned to the level of life which she proposed for her people. (pp. 119-20)

Darwin T. Turner, "Zora Neale Hurston: The Wandering Minstrel," in his In a Minor Chord: Three Afro-American Writers and Their Search for Identity, Southern Illinois University Press, 1971, pp. 89-120.

Addison Gayle, Jr.

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Despite structural and formal defects, Jonah's Gourd Vine is most important for its depiction of the character of the black woman. Lucy is far from being completely developed as a character. She does, however, contain elements seldom seen in fiction by men which feature black women. Moreover, Miss Hurston, in her portrayal of Lucy, has begun early to deal with the conflict between black men and women, which receives fuller explication in Chester Himes's Lonely Crusade and John Williams' Sissie later in the century. The conflict centers around two victims of the same oppressive society. Take John and Lucy as metaphors of black men and women. John, unlike his stepfather, the former slave, is set free in a world which denies him the normal route for the pursuit of manhood. According to Miss Hurston, therefore, he must prove his manhood by having sexual relationships with women other than his wife. He has discovered, in other words, that the black man's route to manhood lay in the exploitation of black women. For no other men in the Euro-American society is this true.

It is not too far wrong to suggest that despite Miss Hurston's fondness for John, in him she has substantiated the theses concerning the black man's overt sexuality; if not more sexually potent than other men, he is assuredly more promiscuous. Thus, John, the metaphor of black men, remains, for Miss Hurston, essentially a creature of appetite, insatiable even though offered such a delectable morsel as Lucy Pearson. Her loyalty, perseverance, and love border upon the messianic. What her husband lacks in courage, strength, and initiative, she more than compensates for. The conflicts, therefore, given such personalities can be resolved only when black men correct the defects in character. That this was the author's implicit commentary upon black men might be attributable to her distorted conception of them. The chances are, however, that she was less interested in John Pearson than in Lucy, less interested in the men of her novels than in the women, who receive more multidimensional treatment.

In Jonah's Gourd Vine and Their Eyes Were Watching God, she views them as modern women, patterned upon paradigms of the past, those of the courage and strength of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. Far from being the images of old, the willing copartners of white men in the castration of black men, her women are, instead, the foundations of a new order, the leavening rods of change, from whose loins will eventually come the new man. Past stereotypes aside, therefore, her women need only search for greater liberation, move even beyond the stoiclike devotion of a Lucy Pearson, move toward greater independence and freedom. Put another way, black liberation meant burying the old images and symbols that had circumscribed black women along with black men. (pp. 143-44).

Much of her second novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), centers around the theme of the liberated black woman. In Jonah's Gourd Vine, Lucy Pearson, though an improvement over women in previous black novels, is, nevertheless, still the picture of loyalty and devotion. She is a woman hovering always near rebellion and assertion of individuality, yet she lacks the determination or, perhaps, desire to break completely with past mores and folkways. Janie Starks, the central character of Miss Hurston's second novel, has no such problem. She is a more completely developed character, and like her male counterparts in the fiction of [Claude] McKay and [Rudolph] Fisher, capable of moving outside the definitions of both black and white imagists. (p. 144)

In rebelling against the definition of black women and moving to assert her own individuality, Janie must travel the route of tradition. The ending of Their Eyes Were Watching God, therefore, is in the beginning, and the novel, which gains its immediacy through first-person narration, merges past and present through use of flashbacks. In the opening pages of the novel, Janie, the outsider, returns to tell her own story. She left the town of Eatonville with Teacake, happy-go-lucky gambler and part-time worker who, said the townspeople, was "too young for her." For them, such an act constituted rebellion against old and accepted standards of conduct. For Janie, however, rebellion has brought about a dignity and stature unknown before, has transformed her from a dreamer to an activist, has enabled her to participate in experiences unusual for women of her time. (p. 145)

Their Eyes Were Watching God, a novel of intense power, evidences the strength and promise of African-American culture. Miss Hurston, like Fisher, [Jean] Toomer, [Langston] Hughes, and McKay, went to the proletariat to seek values, to create and recreate images and symbols that had been partially obliterated or distorted through years of white nationalist propaganda. Her characters were outsiders in America because they were the inheritors of a culture different from that of others…. They remain, however, oblivious as well to the gods of the Euro-Americans and are thus nomads in a world where identity for black people is founded upon the theology of such modern-day saints as Vachel Lindsay and Carl Van Vechten.

Yet the novel functions as an antithesis to [Van Vechten's] Nigger Heaven. For Miss Hurston's characters, sex, atavism, joy, and pleasure do not constitute the essence of a people who must continually wage warfare for their very existence. The Lasca Sartorises and the Scarlet Creepers are revealed not only as vicious stereotypes when measured against Teacake and Janie but as cruel figments of the white imagination, created in order to enslave men anew. In addition, the novel also repudiates the values and images bequeathed black literature in the works of [James Weldon] Johnson and [Jessie] Fauset. Fidelity to Euro-American values, to prosperity and status, are equally as enslaving and debilitating…. (p. 147)

Janie Starks, however, is not the completion of the new paradigm, but only evidence of an important beginning. After returning to the town from which her search for freedom began, she remains an outsider and yet is not able to continue her rebellion beyond the immediate present. Like Teacake, she, too, is dead to the realities of the world in which she lives. For though the white world remains more symbol than actuality for her, it is in actuality that it is oppressive. Thus the questioning, restless spirit which led to rebellion against the tradition that circumscribes her, due to race and sex, must lead her to challenge the equally restrictive patterns that deny physical freedom. This was the task of writers more talented and more angry than Miss Hurston, and that Janie Starks does not measure up in this respect, detracts neither from her importance as a character nor from the importance of Their Eyes Were Watching God. (pp. 147-48)

Addison Gayle, Jr., "The Outsider," in his The Way of the New World: The Black Novel in America, Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1975, pp. 129-52.∗

Theresa R. Love

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[Miss Hurston's goal in her nonfiction] was not merely to collect folklore but to show the beauty and wealth of genuine Negro material. In doing so, she placed herself on the side of those who saw nothing self-defeating in writing about the black masses, who, she felt, are more imaginative than their middle-class counterparts. Consequently, few of the latter are included in her works. Often, her characters work and live in sawmill camps. Some are sharecroppers. Some work on railroads. Most are uneducated and provincial. A statement from her short story, "John Redding Goes to Sea," sums up their way of life: "No one of their community had ever been farther than Jacksonville. Few, indeed had ever been there. Their own gardens, general store, and occasional trips to the county seat—seven miles away—sufficed for all their needs. Life was simple indeed with these folk."… To the anthropologist, their economic and cultural isolation made them the proper source for folk materials in their purest form. (pp. 425-26)

Her decision to write about the ways of the folk necessitated her use of their dialect as a means of achieving verisimilitude. Of course, the careful student of a writer must always remember that the writer's rendition of a dialect may or may not be authentic. Many writers are merely following a literary tradition—that of attributing certain speech patterns to a given social or ethnic group for artistic reasons…. [Most] of Miss Hurston's characters are represented as being speakers of Black Dialect, and … she herself abandons her use of the General Dialect when she pictures herself as a researcher among those who speak the variant dialect…. (p. 426)

[It] would seem that Miss Hurston's use of Black Dialect forms substantiates the theory that she is willing to sacrifice her interest in anthropology—which discipline would emphasize the need for photographic descriptive passages—for the sake of artistic expediency. Otherwise her works might now be facing the same fate as those of Joel Chandler Harris, whose Uncle Remus tales are seldom read because of the difficulty which the modern reader has with the heavy, nineteenth-century Black Dialect in which they are written.

A careful student of Zora Neale Hurston must also distinguish between her use of slang and her use of dialect. In the short story "Story in Harlem Slang," there is Black Dialect, but there is also "black slang."… Interestingly enough,… [slang] terms almost never appear in her novels, in which she is discussing the inhabitants of Florida, or in her books of folklore, but they do appear in this story about two Harlem pimps, who would like to think that they are irresistible to women, especially since they depend on women for a livelihood. They would also like to think that they have become more urbane since they have come north. They are not the simple, naïve men who watch girls from the porch of Joe Clark's store, which is the setting of most of Miss Hurston's works. They are, in the common vernacular, "hip." The writer thus gives them an appropriate vocabulary and thereby shows how skillfully she can combine her learning and her artistic abilities. (pp. 427-28)

The frequent religious and moral flavor of the myths and legends of black people might be taken as an indication that religion plays a strong part in their lives, and, certainly, the works of Zora Neale Hurston would seem to suggest that she thought so herself. Any discussion of her attitude toward the religious practices of blacks must, however, take into account the fact that she makes a distinction between those who practice true Christianity and those who are hypocrites….

In Miss Hurston's fiction, few examples of … devout love can be found among those characters who profess to be Christians, for she depicts many of them as being full of greed and malice. (p. 433)

[The] churchgoers in Jonah's Gourd Vine are additional examples of Miss Hurston's attack on the belief that all blacks are basically religious, for she draws a fine line between those who profess adherence to the principles of Christianity and those who practice them…. [The] deacons of Zion Hope, the Reverend John Pearson's church in Jonah's Gourd Vine, are conniving and treacherous. They are entirely without mercy as they gossip about their pastor's illicit relations with women. These middle-class churchgoers are as malicious as the spiteful Miriam and the other Israelites whom Moses leads to freedom in Miss Hurston's novel, Moses, Man of the Mountain. Thus the novelist shows that, while it is true that many blacks profess Christian leanings, they differ greatly in the quality of their religious practices.

Zora Neale Hurston is so well known as a folklorist that her work as a novelist and as an essayist is often overlooked. Yet it is necessary to go to her novels and to her essays to recognize that she is also a philosopher who believes that personal and social happiness depends upon the practice of the central Christian virtue, love. The treatment of the minister in Jonah's Gourd Vine is an example of the sorrow and hurt which result from one who is incapable of love. (p. 434)

[John Pearson] betrays a woman who loves him, as well as a spiritual flock that looks to him for guidance. In utter despair, he drives onto a railroad track and is killed by a train, an act symbolic of his destruction by the worm which has continued to nibble away at his honest desire to be a good preacher and a faithful husband and father. Thus Miss Hurston … pictures his fall as the result of his inability to love.

The belief that love is a necessary ingredient in personal and social happiness may be seen in other novels and stories written by Miss Hurston. In the short story "The Gilded Six Bits" Joe continues to love Missy May, his wife, although she has been unfaithful to him, just as Jamie, in Their Eyes Were Watching God, continues to love her husband, Tea Cake, even though he has stolen a rather large sum of money from her. Conversely, in Seraph on the Suwanee, Miss Hurston's only novel in which the main characters are white, Arvay, an uneducated woman, is incapable of returning the love of Jim Meserve because he comes from an antebellum Georgia family of wealth and status. Frustrated because he cannot convince her of his good intentions, he leaves her. Thus, whereas the marriages of the two black couples hold fast in the face of adversity because of their love for each other, that of the white couple disintegrates because of the lack of it.

In the novel, Arvay is symbolic of persons who harbor prejudices of one kind or another…. [It] is not until Arvay is able to love her fellow men, without consideration of social and racial differences, that she is able to experience personal love.

Finally, Zora Neale Hurston has a special message for her people. Acknowledging that they have suffered many injustices, she insists that they turn from bitterness to hope. In one of her essays, "High John De Conquer," she recounts the legend of the African spirit who was brought to America by African slaves. A good spirit, he was always near when they needed him. Thus, when mothers were bereft of their babies by greedy slave traders, when scalding salt was poured on their backs which were trenched by strong leather straps, and when neither they nor their parents nor their parents before them could remember the royal-blue African skies, they endured because John the Conqueror was always there to give them hope. Some of Miss Hurston's friends told her that he went back to Africa after emancipation, since his work was done. Other said that he fused himself into a root where he waits to help the downtrodden, the needy, and the lovelorn. All they have to do is to find his hiding place, carry it in their pockets, or bury it in their hair, and immediately he will begin working.

Zora Neale Hurston never believed that "High John De Conquer" has gone back to Africa. Nor did she believe that he resides in some kind of root. She believed that he lives in the hearts of black men and that all they have to do is to call upon him. He will then bring them hope. Soon thereafter, they will find that they have love, and laughter too. Then they will overcome, which is the sum of her hope and aspirations for her people. (pp. 435-37)

Theresa R. Love, "Zora Neale Hurston's America," in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 12, No. 4, Fall, 1976, pp. 422-37.

Robert E. Hemenway

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Folklore, Hurston said, is the art people create before they find out there is such as thing as art; it come from a folk's "first wondering contact with natural law"—that is, laws of human nature as well as laws of natural process, the truths of a group's experience as well as the principles of physics. These interpretations of nature, called "unscientific" or "crude," often turn out to be wise and poetic explanations for the ways of the world. The parable of the hog under the oak tree—he eats and grunts but never looks up to see where the acorns are coming from—teaches less about the laws of gravity than about the importance of looking for the sources of good fortune…. The folklorist learns to respect these wondering beliefs as artistic expressions which teach one how to live, and Hurston had learned a good deal about both art and life…. (p. 159)

She was faced, however, with a scholarly problem: what was her responsibility in explaining the lore? What stance should she take in relation to the folk? How could she make others see this great cultural wealth? The final answers came in Mules and Men. Not published until 1935, the book was largely completed between March, 1930 … and September of 1932…. By the time readers shared in her discoveries, some of her ideas were six years old, and Hurston had gone on to a career as a novelist and dramatist. As she organized her field notes during 1930–32, she conceptualized black folklore, exploring the ways black history affected folk narratives, hypothesizing about racial characteristics in traditional communication. This mature conception of folklore changed only slightly over the years, and it antedates her best work as an artist. Even though her first novel was published prior to Mules and Men, it was written after she had completed the folklore research. In a sense, her career as a folklorist ended when she finished with her field notes, and after the fall of 1932 she usually conceived of herself as a creative writer—even when writing about folklore. (pp. 159-60)

The intimacy of Mules and Men is an obtained effect, an example of Hurston's narrative skill. She represented oral art functioning to affect behavior in the black community; to display this art in its natural setting she created a narrator who would not intrude on the folklore event. A semifictional Zora Neale Hurston is our guide to southern black folklore, a curiously retiring figure who is more art than life. The exuberant Zora Hurston who entertained the Harlem Renaissance is seldom in evidence in Mules and Men. In her place is a self-effacing reporter created by Hurston the folklorist to dramatize the process of collecting and make the reader feel part of the scene. (p. 164)

It is easy to overlook Hurston's craft as she mediates between self and material in this presentation; yet she shaped Mules and Men in somewhat the same manner in which Henry David Thoreau created a unified experience in Walden. His two years of residence at Walden Pond were condensed into a book structured around one year's seasonal cycle. Hurston condenses a two-and-a-half-year expedition into one year and nine months, with a one-year segment (Florida) and a nine-month segment (New Orleans). Her two return trips to Eatonville in 1927 and 1928 are telescoped into a single dramatic homecoming. (p. 165)

Hurston had to provide a frame for the adventures and insights of a complicated experience; she had to select from a multitude of situations and personalities. One way to unify could have been, like Thoreau, to stress the personal significance of the various encounters. Yet Mules and Men is ultimately a book very different from Walden precisely because Hurston did not choose the personal option. Her adventures go purposely without analysis. While Henry David Thoreau embarks on a voyage of spiritual discovery, Zora Neale Hurston always remains close to the shore, her description directed away from the inner self toward the words of her informants.

The scholarly folklorist of the thirties was expected to subordinate self to material in the interests of objectivity. The intent was to leave the emphasis on the folklore texts that were being added to the "body of knowledge." After describing the corpse, the folklorist could perform an autopsy in order to learn how the living organism functions. The cold text, isolated on the page for scientific study, implied the living folk, but the folk themselves were secondary to the artifact collected…. Much of Mules and Men is a simple reporting of texts…. Yet Hurston also breathed life into her narrative by presenting herself as a master of ceremonies, a transitional voice. Instead of observing a pathologist perform an autopsy, the reader keeps in sight a midwife participating in the birth of the body folklore. The effect is subtle and often overlooked. Mules and Men does not become an exercise in romantic egoism; it celebrates the art of the community. Where the reader of Walden comes away with visions of separating from society in order to gain spiritual renewal, the reader of Mules and Men learns a profound respect for men and women perpetuating an esthetic mode of communication; the impulse is not to isolate oneself, but to lose the self in the art and wisdom of the group.

From the very first pages Hurston creates a self-effacing persona inviting the reader to participate in collective rituals. She arrives in Eatonville knowing … [her college degree means] nothing to the loafers on the store porch, for they will define their community in their own terms, identify people according to kin. They are like African griots who preserve the genealogy of a tribe which has not developed a written language. Hurston portrays herself as a town prodigal returned to collect "them big old lies we tell when we're jus' sittin' around here on the porch doin' nothin." She is an educated innocent whose memory of the village folklore has been diminished by her urban experience and academic study; she must renew community ties.

Yet Arna Bontemps testified that many of the Mules and Men tales were a vivid part of Hurston's storytelling repertoire when she arrived in New York, well before she ever studied or collected folklore…. The Zora Neale Hurston of Mules and Men, then, is deliberately underplaying her knowledge of Eatonville so that the reader will not feel alienated. Because she saw from a dual perspective, both from within the community and from without, Hurston the writer could select those experiences which would attract the reader and let the folk speak for themselves. Hurston the narrator admits only to a desire to hold a microphone up to nature. (pp. 165-67)

There is an ambivalence here that has sometimes been criticized. Is Mules and Men about Zora Hurston or about black folklore? If the former, the self-effacement makes the reader want to know more about what was going on in her mind, more about her reaction to the communities that embraced her. If the latter, there is a need for folklore analysis. Are hoodoo candles a form of fire worship comparable to the use of fire in Christian ritual? What is the cross-cultural structure of the folktale? These deficiencies are the price Hurston paid for her two-fold purpose. On the one hand, she was trying to represent the artistic content of the black folklore; on the other, she was trying to suggest the behavioral significance of folkloric events. Her efforts were intended to show rather than tell, the assumption being that both behavior and art will become self-evident as the tale texts and hoodoo rituals accrete during the reading.

Hurston presents the artistic content in the communication by stressing how "facile" is the "Negro imagination." The participants in a tale-telling session are all capable of verbal adornment…. A story-teller is someone who can "plough up some literary and lay-by some alphabets." The scholar never steps in to stress the ingenuity of a particular metaphor or the startling effectiveness of an image. She wants to reveal, in her words, "that which the soul lives by" in a rural black community; although there was a need for a transitional voice, only by stepping to the background could she allow unhampered expression. She did not want her readers reminded too often that a folklorist was there to take it all down…. [Hurston's technique] was to become one of the folk, a position which did not allow for the detachment of the analytical observer.

This deliberate lack of analysis places a special responsibility on the reader. The tales of Mules and Men are not quaint fictions created by a primitive people. They are profound expressions of a group's behavior. (pp. 167-68)

Mules and Men is not all folktales and hoodoo. It also contains many sayings, fragments of songs, rhymes, and legends. There is little explanation, however, of how all this folklore assumes any significance beyond the immediate entertainment…. Rhyme as a creative response to a prosaic world goes unanalyzed. Brer Rabbit is not discussed as an allegorical figure symbolizing black cunning. Hoodoo as an alternative science with a worldview as valid as any other goes unexplored. The universality of trickster figures like John goes unanalyzed. There is deliberately no cross-cultural reference, although many of the tales also appear in other cultures. There is no reference at all to the scholarship in the field.

These remarks are not necessarily criticisms, for Hurston makes Mules and Men a very readable folklore book. But the subordination of Hurston the scholar to Hurston the narrator can cause the reader to miss her attempts to provide the data for scholarly study. There is a consistent and subtle attempt, for example, to demonstrate how traditional tales are perpetuated. A small boy is encouraged to speak, then praised for the "over average lie" he contributes to the lying session. Presumably he will grow up a storyteller. When Joe Wiley asks if anyone has heard the story about "Big Talk," the reply is, "Yeah, we done heard it, Joe, but Ah kin hear it some 'gin." When a man says he will tell a tale for his wife, his listener responds, "Aw, g'wan tell de lie, Larkins if you want to. You know you ain't tellin no lie for yo' wife. No mo' than de rest of us. You lyin' cause you like it." There is psychic satisfaction in the repetition of narratives. (pp. 172-73)

[Hurston] had written earlier about the dramatic properties of black expression. She saw drama permeating "the Negro's entire self" and felt that "every phase of Negro life is highly dramatized. No matter how joyful or sad the case there is sufficient poise for drama. Everything is acted out."… (p. 174)

Mules and Men, for all her attempts to indicate a context for each tale and to hold together the disparate experience, left out much of the drama. The storyteller gestured, postured, winked, and laughed during the story; yet it was difficult to present these actions without distracting from the texts themselves. At the time, Hurston considered the presentation of texts her primary responsibility. (p. 175)

The immediate reception of Mules and Men was mixed. The nature of both the praise and the dissatisfaction came to characterize Hurston's public reputation for the next twenty years. Reviewers liked the book and recommended its lively stories. The Saturday Review called it "black magic and dark laughter," stressing the "entertainment" value. But Zora had not intended the book as light reading, and some reviewers accepted her invitation to a more serious interpretation. Written by a black author, about black people, it was assumed to reveal "what the Negro was really like," a subject of immense fascination to whites and of obvious vested interest to black readers…. Henry Lee Moon of the [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] reviewing the book in the New Republic, urged a larger meaning. Zora had not presented the life of the race as he lived it in New York City, but he was willing to assert that "Mules and Men is more than a collection of folklore. It is a valuable picture of the life of the unsophisticated Negro in small towns and backwoods of Florida."

Discussed on this basis for a few months, the book finally drew the public attention of Sterling Brown. (pp. 218-19)

Brown stressed Zora's academic training and praised her rendering of the tales. He disliked some of the "sensationalism" in the hoodoo section, but on the whole found it worthy. He was less certain than Moon about the book's value as a portrait of black life. It was authentically done as far as it went, but the portrait of the South was incomplete; missing were the exploitation, the terrorism, the misery…. He concluded, "Mules and Men should be more bitter; it would be nearer the total truth."

Many black intellectuals believed that books by black authors needed to tell the "total truth" to white America. Books about the race should aim to destroy the absurd beliefs and racist fantasies of the suppressing culture, and such books would necessarily at times be bitter. But even if Hurston had consciously tried to avoid bitterness, Brown's criticism was important. She had not been writing for pure entertainment—although publisher's demands may have veered Mules and Men in that direction—and she had offered a portrait of the race meant to be taken as a behavioral example. Her preface promised access to the interior of the black mind, a report on what blacks deliberately kept from whites. But if this was her purpose, why had she excised the sharper edges, the harsher tones, of her rural informants? (pp. 219-20)

Mules and Men has a disembodied quality about it, as if it came from a backwoods so far to the rear that American social history of the twentieth century had not touched its occupants. At a time when the Communist party was recruiting large numbers of black people, primarily because it was the only political party in America advocating an end to segregation, and when Richard Wright and Langston Hughes were creating a proletarian literature, Zora Hurston had deliberately chosen not to deal with the resentment of the black community. Why?

The reasons were strategic and philosophic, although she later admitted that publisher's restrictions also played a part. Hurston had a conception of the black image in the popular mind, and she felt that it derived largely from a mistaken notion of the black folk. The total truth was relative, making the class struggle seem less important than the need for an altered perception of black folklore…. She once complained about the "false picture" created by black writers dwelling on the race problem, producing writing "saturated with our sorrows." This picture was false because it distorted: "We talk about the race problem a great deal, but go on living and laughing and striving like everybody else." By leaving out "the problem," by emphasizing the art in the folkloric phenomenon, Hurston implicitly told whites: Contrary to your arrogant assumptions, you have not really affected us that much; we continue to practice our own culture, which as a matter of fact is more alive, more esthetically pleasing than your own; and it is not solely a product of defensive reactions to your actions. She felt that black culture manifested an independent esthetic system that could be discussed without constant reference to white oppression.

The price for this philosophy was an appearance of political naïveté and the absence of an immediate historical presence…. Zora's approach was oblique and open to misinterpretation. She chose to write of the positive effects of black experience because she did not believe that white injustice had created a pathology in black behavior…. (pp. 220-21)

Zora had begun collecting folklore in the twenties with the conscious intent of celebrating the black folk who had made a way out of no way, like their folk heroes. She liberated rural black folk from the prison of racial stereotypes and granted them dignity as cultural creators. A black social scientist trying to destroy racial stereotypes held by the majority culture, she simultaneously urged black people to be proud of the folk heritage. This may sound commonplace today, but it was unusual then, since a common tactic for destroying white stereotypes was to document black literacy, cite the number of black college graduates, and describe the general black movement into the middle class. (The other side of the coin was to document all the discriminatory practices that denied equal opportunity and kept the black middle class from growing larger.)

Zora was concerned less with the tactics of racial uplift than with the unexamined prejudice of American social science. She became a folklorist at a time when white sociologists were obsessed with what they though was pathology in black behavior, when white psychologists spoke of the deviance in black mental health, and when the discipline of anthropology used a research model that identified black people as suffering from cultural deprivation. Hurston's folklore collections refuted these stereotypes by celebrating the distinctiveness of traditional black culture, and her scholarship is now recognized by revisionist scientists questioning the racial assumptions of modern cultural theory. (pp. 329-30)

[Hurston's collections] defiantly affirmed the cultural practices manifest in the folkore of "the Negro farthest down." She provided, as [John] Szwed has suggested, an alternative view to the pathological theories, even before some of them were formulated. Because she was not a formal theorist, and because her books were meant for a popular audience, her theoretical assumptions about the distinctiveness of Afro-American culture were often masked, and did not receive the attention they deserved. Zora's method was presentational. She saw black Americans as cultural creators, and she documented the creation, not by amassing statistics for behavioral studies, but by presenting examples of oral tradition that expressed a behavioral system. Her attempt to distinguish black culture from white forecast the direction of much subsequent research; in the last thirty years the social sciences have begun to systematically collect the data that Zora Hurston indicated was there all along. We now have a body of "scientific" literature that provides evidence for the existence of a number of distinctive Afro-American cultural domains, including that domain of black esthetics which so interested her. (pp. 330-31)

Robert E. Hemenway, in his Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography, University of Illinois Press, 1977, 371 p.

Sherley Anne Williams

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Hurston's evocations of the lifestyles of rural blacks [in Their Eyes Were Watching God] have not been equaled; but to stress the ruralness of Hurston's settings or to characterize her diction solely in terms of exotic "dialect" spellings is to miss her deftness with language. In the speech of her characters, black voices—whether rural or urban, northern or southern—come alive. Her fidelity to diction, metaphor, and syntax—whether in direct quotations or in paraphrases of characters' thoughts—rings, even across forty years, with an aching familiarity that is a testament to Hurston's skill and to the durability of black speech. Yet Zora's personality and actions were so controversial that for a long time she was remembered more as a character of the Renaissance than as one of the most serious and gifted artists to emerge during this period. She was a notable tale-teller, mimic, and wit, confident to the point of brashness (some might even say beyond), who refused to conform to conventional notions of ladylike behavior and middle-class decorum. To one of her contemporaries, she was the first black nationalist; to another, a handkerchief-head Uncle Tom…. [To] others of our generation, Zora was a woman bent on discovering and defining herself, a woman who spoke and wrote her own mind.

Something of the questing quality that characterized Zora's own life informs the character of Janie—without, of course, the forcefulness of Hurston's own personality. In this and other instances, the character is more conventional than the author, for despite obvious idealizations, Janie operates in a "real" world. Her actions, responses, and motivations are consistent with that reality and the growing assertiveness of her own self-definitions. Where Janie yearns, Zora was probably driven; where Janie submits, Zora would undoubtedly have rebelled. Author and character objectify their definitions of self in totally different ways. Zora was evidently unable to satisfactorily define herself in a continuing relationship with a man, whereas such definition is the essence of Janie's romantic vision and its ultimate fulfillment provides the plot of the novel. But in their desire and eventual insistence that their men accord them treatment due equals, they are one. (pp. ix-xi)

Sherley Anne Williams, in a foreword to Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Novel by Zora Neale Hurston, University of Illinois Press, 1978, pp. v-xv.

Roger Sale

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[Their Eyes Were Watching God] is not a great novel, or anything like that, but it is one of those books about which it can be said that if it had not been written, there would be something that most of us would not know; it belongs on Randall Jarrell's wonderful list of books that are very good and unimportant. Its chief problem is a language problem, one easily illustrated by a passage like this:

"'Taint no use in you cryin', Janie. Grandma done been long uh few roads herself. But folks is meant to cry 'bout something' or other. Better leave things de way dey is. Youse young yet. No tellin' whut mout happen befo' you die. Wait awhile, baby. Yo' mind will change."

Nanny sent Janie along with a stern mien, but she dwindled all the rest of the day as she worked.

The black talk itself takes some getting used to, since few black writers use it so unabashedly, so it sounds more like Joel Chandler Harris than Richard Wright. One not only gets used to it, though, but comes to love it as Hurston herself did, as its own kind of English. The real difficulty is the shift from "Youse young yet" to "stern mien," and Hurston's standard English never quite loses its literariness, even when it is being used to say something interesting or important. (p. 153)

The one standard English paragraph the book unquestionably needs is the second, on the first page: "Now, women forget all those things they don't want to remember, and remember everything they don't want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly." So Janie, the child of a rape, is told in the passage above by her grandmother that she'll be best off marrying a responsible older man with sixty acres; she does, but reluctantly, and the marriage never takes, and Janie soon runs off with Joe Starks, an ambitious young man who has heard of Eatonville and is going there to make his fortune. He succeeds, too, by opening the town's general store, then by getting himself elected mayor, but he also succeeds in drying up Janie's affection for him by insisting she become Miz Mayor, a pretty object, who can help with the business only by obeying his orders and who is to stay out of men folks' business. After almost twenty years together, Joe dies, leaving Janie reasonably well off, and then Tea Cake, a man in every respect as terrific as his terrific name, enters. Tea Cake is the perfect image of a shiftless nigger, a gambler and a migrant farm hand, but he wins Janie the night they meet by asking her to play checkers, and, when she says she doesn't know how because her husband would never let her learn, he teaches her, and insists they play by the rules. A feminist man, really, or at least the perfect lover. (pp. 153-54)

[Tea Cake is] marvelous, good on every page; no man written about by a woman, this side of [Jane Austen's Darcy in Pride and Prejudice and George Eliot's Lydgate in Middlemarch] maybe, seems to ring as true as he does. Alice Walker says there is no book more important to her than Their Eyes Were Watching God because of the ways it allows her to identify with Janie; not caring to do that, I can only conclude there is much here for anyone, and I hope lots of people find this novel…. [It shows] that Zora Hurston was that kind of person which my students claim almost anyone is—but which few truly are—unique. (p. 154)

Roger Sale, "Zora," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXXII, No. 1, Spring, 1979, pp. 151-54.

Alice Walker

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A friend of mine … [told] me that she and another woman had been discussing Zora Neale Hurston and had decided they wouldn't have liked her. They wouldn't have liked the way—when her play Color Struck! won second prize in a literary contest at the beginning of her career—Hurston walked into a room full of her competitors, flung her scarf dramatically over her shoulder, and yelled "COLOR..R. R STRUCK..K. K!" at the top of her voice.

Apparently it isn't easy to like a person who is not humbled by second place.

Zora Neale Hurston was outrageous—it appears by nature. She was quite capable of saying, writing, or doing things different from what one might have wished. Because she recognized the contradictions and complexity of her own personality, Robert Hemenway, her biographer, writes that Hurston came to "delight" in the chaos she sometimes left behind.

Yet for all her contrariness, her "chaos," her ability to stir up dislike that is as strong today as it was fifty years ago, many of us love Zora Neale Hurston. (p. 1)

We love Zora Neale Hurston for her work, first, and then again (as she and all Eatonville would say), we love her for herself. For the humor and courage with which she encountered a life she infrequently designed, for her absolute disinterest in becoming either white or bourgeois, and for her devoted appreciation of her own culture, which is an inspiration to us all.

Reading Their Eyes Were Watching God for perhaps the eleventh time, I am still amazed that Hurston wrote it in seven weeks; that it speaks to me as no novel, past or present, has ever done; and that the language of the characters, that "comical nigger 'dialect'" that has been laughed at, denied, ignored, or "improved" so that white folks and educated black folks can understand it, is simply beautiful. There is enough self-love in that one book—love of community, culture, traditions—to restore a world. Or create a new one.

I do not presume to judge or defend Zora Neale Hurston. I have nothing of finality to say of Hurston the person. I believe any artist's true character is seen in the work she or he does, or it is not seen. In Hurston's work, what she was is revealed. (p. 2)

Is Mules and Men racist? Or does it reflect the flawed but nonetheless beautifully creative insights of an oppressed people's collective mythology? Is "The Gilded Six-Bits" so sexist it makes us cringe to think Zora Neale Hurston wrote it? Or does it make a true statement about deep love functioning in the only pattern that at the time of its action seemed correct? Did Zora Neale Hurston never question "America" or the status-quo, as some have accused, or was she questioning it profoundly when she wrote phrases like "the arse-and-all of Democracy"? Is Janie Crawford, the main character in Their Eyes Were Watching God, light-skinned and silken-haired because Hurston was a colorist, as a black male critic has claimed, or because Hurston was not blind and therefore saw that black men (and black women) have been, and are, colorist to an embarrassing degree?

Is Hurston the messenger who brings the bad news, or is she the bad news herself? Is Hurston a reflection of ourselves? And if so, is that not, perhaps, part of our "problem" with her?

I think we are better off if we think of Zora Neale Hurston as an artist, period—rather than as the artist/politician most black writers have been required to be. This frees us to appreciate the complexity and richness of her work in the same way we can appreciate Billie Holiday's glorious phrasing or Bessie Smith's perfect and raunchy lyrics, without the necessity of ridiculing the former's addiction to heroin or the latter's excessive love of gin.

Implicit in Hurston's determination to "make it" in a career was her need to express "the folk" and herself. Someone who knew her has said: "Zora would have been Zora even if she'd been an Eskimo." That is what it means to be yourself; it is surely what it means to be an artist. (pp. 2-3)

It has been pointed out that one of the reasons Zora Neale Hurston's work has suffered neglect is that her critics never considered her "sincere." Only after she died penniless, still laboring at her craft, still immersed in her work, still following her vision and her road, did it begin to seem to some that yes, perhaps this woman was a serious artist after all, since artists are known to live poor and die broke. But you're up against a hard game if you have to die to win it, and we must insist that dying in poverty is an unacceptable extreme.

We live in a society, as blacks, women, and artists, whose contests we do not design and with whose insistence on ranking us we are permanently at war. To know that second place, in such a society, has often required more work and innate genius than first, a longer, grimmer struggle over greater odds than first—and to be able to fling your scarf about dramatically while you demonstrate that you know—is to trust your own self-evaluation in the face of the Great White Western Commercial of white and male supremacy, which is virtually everything we see, outside and often inside our own homes. That Hurston held her own, literally, against the flood of whiteness and maleness that diluted so much other black art of the period in which she worked is a testimony to her genius and her faith….

Zora Neale Hurston, who went forth into the world with one dress to her name, and who was permitted, at other times in her life, only a single pair of shoes, rescued and recreated a world which she labored to hand us whole, never underestimating the value of her gift, if at times doubting the good sense of its recipients. She appreciated us, in any case, as we fashioned ourselves. That is something. And of all the people in the world to be, she chose to be herself, and more and more herself. That, too is something. (p. 4)

Alice Walker, "Dedication: 'On Refusing to Be Humbled by Second Place in a Contest You Did Not Design: A Tradition by Now'," in I Love Myself When I Am Laughing … And Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive by Zora Neale Hurston, edited by Alice Walker, The Feminist Press, 1979, pp. 1-5.

John Roberts

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It is appropriate that Mules and Men and Their Eyes Were Watching God should be reissued almost simultaneously. Both works can rightfully be considered classic studies of Afro-American culture. Zora Neale Hurston—novelist, folklorist, and essayist—wrote about Afro-American culture with an insight and perception shared by few black writers.

Throughout her varied career Hurston tended to combine her two passions, folklore and literature, in interesting and compelling ways. She has often been accused of making her folklore studies too literary and her literary works too folkloristic, a criticism which has some merit. Mules and Men stands as a testament to this inclination in Hurston's treatment of folklore materials. Although the narrative structure of Mules and Men was included because of publisher's objections to printing the straight folklore texts collected by Hurston, it provided her with a unique opportunity to present storytelling context. In the process, she demonstrated a folkloristic sophistication and sensitivity to folklore processes shared by few of her contemporaries. (pp. 463-64)

Although Hurston did not address herself to the theoretical and interpretative questions raised by her collection, there is still much about the volume that suggests caution in approaching it. Despite the generous amount of information included concerning her collecting experiences. Hurston tells us very little of how she was able to get the stories written down, especially during some of the tense moments she describes. There is no mention of either recording equipment or the use of pad and pencil during the sessions. This leads one to question the authenticity of the transcriptions. Did Hurston take the same liberties with the folklore texts that she took with the dialogue? There is good reason to suspect that she did exactly that in order to create the smooth narrative flow of Mules and Men. For some the lack of comparative notes on the tales and hoodoo practices will pose a problem.

Despite the problems this volume presents to the professional folklorist, it remains a worthwhile and extremely useful book in many ways. The experiences which Hurston describes are valuable to any potential collector. The variety of the material and the realistic settings of the storytelling events as well as the interaction between the participants invite comparisons with more recent field collecting experiences. Despite Hurston's inclination to be literary in her presentation of folklore, her understanding of Afro-American culture is impeccable. Also her descriptions of the "jooks" and the activities which occurred within them preserves an important and often overlooked aspect of Afro-American culture. Her ability to capture the rhythms not only of black speech but also of black life is unsurpassed.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is an often overlooked classic of Afro-American literature. Those interested in the use of folklore in literature will find it a rich source for study. It undoubtedly offers Hurston's most mature use of folklore in the novel. (pp. 464-65)

The drama of Janie's existence can be seen as a metaphor for oppression on a grander scale. Hurston's primary symbol for this situation in the novel becomes the mule…. In a stratified society, the black woman is of the lowest stratum. The literal and symbolic uses of the mule throughout the novel suggest not only its importance in the agrarian South of Hurston's time, but it also evokes the folktales which compare its plight to that of the black man. In Janie's case the use of the mule also suggests the tale in which the mule acts as a trickster, causing the black man to be punished for reporting the fact that he can talk. Like the mule, Janie is expected to work for Joe and act as an ornament for his store. Any indication of intelligence is stopped immediately.

That we are expected to compare Janie's plight with that of the mule is further illustrated in the episode with Matt Bonner's mule. Although Matt's mule is given personality traits, he remains a beast of burden, a possession to be used to satisfy Matt's needs in much the same way that she is used by Joe. This is the source of Janie's empathy for the mule. But human beings are not mules. Joe Stark can buy Matt's mule and set it free, but Janie must assert her own will if she is to be free to seek the kind of life she desires. (p. 465)

Teacake is Hurston's major folkloristic triumph in the novel. Through Teacake she translates the blues aesthetic into a character. His approach to life emanates from the blues tradition and the lifestyle associated with it. He is willing to take life as it comes and, most important to Janie, he is willing to allow her the same privilege…. With Teacake, Janie discovers that she does not have a defined role as such. She eases herself into life on the mucks—the card games, the carousing and, of course, the blues. (pp. 465-66)

It is the irony of the novel that Janie finally finds happiness and fulfillment as a woman and human being with Teacake, when happiness had been defined for her all along in terms of social respectability and material possessions. It is Teacake, the bluesman, and the life-style that he represents from which her grandmother and Joe Stark had tried so desperately to protect her. Just as the bluesman finds cathartic relief by immersing himself in the emotions of his songs, Janie finds relief by immersing herself in that aspect of black life that she had been sheltered from.

Mules and Men and Their Eyes Were Watching God demonstrate Hurston's ability to portray black life in its complexity and beauty. The problems of racial prejudice make themselves felt only incidentally in Hurston's works. She chose to focus on the internal black community attempting to discover the universal through the individual experiences of the members of the group. (p. 466)

John Roberts, in a review of "Mules and Men" and "Their Eyes Were Watching God," in Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 93, No. 370, October-December, 1980, pp. 463-66.

Lillie P. Howard

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There is no indication that Zora N. Hurston was ever well known—as a writer or as a person—among the masses during her lifetime. With an impressive group of people—the elitists—on the other hand, she enjoyed brief periods of notoriety…. While a few lampoon her for what they consider her lack of social consciousness, her tendency to transcend racism and prejudices by disallowing them a major role in her works, and for technical and narrative deficiences in her fiction, most praise her for her ability to tell a good story well, for her vivid and unforgettable figurative language, for her staunch individualism, and for the sense of "racial health" that permeates her fiction. (p. 170)

Hurston was undeniably before her time…. [She] was a black nationalist when black nationalists were being discredited and deported. What really made her premature, however, was all the beauty and struggle of Their Eyes Were Watching God where marriage is largely defined in sexual terms; where one mate must remain petal open and honest for the other; where mere sex may take place without consummation of the marriage since consummation only takes place when the right dust-bearing bee comes along; where the quality of one's life counts more than the quantity of it; where poetry is more essential than prose, love more essential than money, sharing paramount to dominating; where one's dream is the horizon and one must "go there to know there." All that and more made Hurston extraordinary; all that makes the beauty of Their Eyes Were Watching God almost unbearable today, makes one wonder if even today the world is ready for Zora Neale Hurston.

Her works are important because they affirm blackness (while not denying whiteness) in a black-denying society. They present characters who are not all lovable but who are undeniably and realistically human. They record the history, the life, of a place and time which are remarkably like other places and times, though perhaps a bit more honest in the rendering. They offer some light for those who "ain't ne'er seen de light at all."

In spite of, if not because of, the mystery which surrounds her, Zora Neale Hurston has become a star of late, steadily twinkling hither and yonder casting her folkloric beams to show her awed followers the way…. She walks brightly among us now. Her truth marches on. (pp. 174-75)

Lillie P. Howard, in her Zora Neale Hurston, Twayne Publishers, 1980, 192 p.

Cheryl A. Wall

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The critical perspectives inspired by the black consciousness and feminist movements allow us to see Hurston's writings in a new way. They correct distorted views of her folklore as charming and quaint, set aside misperceptions of her characters as minstrels caught, in Richard Wright's phrase, "between laughter and tears" [see excerpt above]. These new perspectives inform this re-evaluation of Hurston's work. She asserted that black people, while living in a racist society that denied their humanity, had created an alternative culture that validated their worth as human beings. Although that culture was in some respects sexist, black women, like black men, attained personal identity not by transcending the culture but by embracing it.

Hurston's respect for the cultural traditions of black people is the most important constant in her career. This respect threads through her entire oeuvre, linking the local-color short fiction of her youth, her ethnographic research in the rural South and the Caribbean …, her novels, and the essays she contributed to popular journals in her later years…. Because her focus was on black cultural traditions, she rarely explored interracial themes. The black/white conflict, which loomed paramount in the fiction of her black contemporaries, in Wright's novels especially, hardly surfaced in Hurston's. Poet and critic June Jordan has described how the absence of explicitly political protest caused Hurston's work to be devalued [see CLC, Vol. 7]. Affirmation, not protest, is Hurston's hallmark…. Hurston appreciated and approved the reluctance of blacks to reveal "that which the soul lives by" to the hostile and uncomprehending gaze of outsiders. But the interior reality was what she wished to probe. In that reality, blacks ceased to be "tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences" whose labor whites exploited; they ceased to be mules and were men and women.

The survival of the spirit was proclaimed first and foremost through language. As a writer, Hurston was keenly sensitive to the richness of black verbal expression. Like Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown, she had no patience with theories of linguistic deficiency among blacks; she ignored racist assumptions that rural blacks spoke as they did because they were too stupid to learn standard English. Hurston, whose father was a Baptist preacher, was well acquainted with the tradition of verbal elegance among black people. From her father's example, she perceived how verbal agility conferred status within the community. His sermons had demonstrated as well the power of his language to convey the complexity of the lives of his parishioners. Early in her career, Hurston attempted to delineate "characteristics of Negro expression." She stressed the heightened sense of drama revealed in the preference for action words and the "will to adorn" reflected in the profusion of metaphor and simile, and in the use of double descriptives (low-down) and verbal nouns (funeralize). To her, the "will to adorn" bespoke a feeling "that there can never be enough of beauty, let alone too much." Zora Hurston shared that feeling, as the beautifully poetic prose of her novels attests. The collective folk expression was the soil that nourished the individual expression of her novels. After a lengthy dialogue with her homefolk, Hurston was prepared to change some words of her own. (pp. 372-73)

Mules and Men holds the distinction of being the first collection of Afro-American folklore published by an Afro-American…. Unlike many of its predecessors, it presents the lore not to patronize or demean but to affirm and celebrate. Written for a popular audience, it is highly readable; after nearly half a century, it has lost none of its capacity to delight. Mules and Men contains seventy folktales, but it is more than a transcription of individual texts…. By showing when a story is told, how, and to what purpose, Hurston attempts to restore the original meanings of the tales. Folktales, she understood, serve a function more significant than mere entertainment; "they are profound expressions of a group's behavior." They cannot be comprehended without reference to those whose values and beliefs they embody. Consequently, the tales in Mules and Men are not collected from faceless informants, but from real men and women whose lives readers are briefly invited to share. Sharing their lives more profoundly, Hurston was ultimately forced to confront the role of women in rural black life. Her response, necessarily personal and engaged, gave shape to her most successful fiction.

Hurston met the woman who most informed this response soon after she arrived in Polk County, Florida, in January 1928. The sawmill camp where Hurston settled was an even richer repository of the folktales, worksongs, blues and cries, proverbs, and sermons than Eatonville had been. And of the people who lived there, Big Sweet was the most memorable. Hurston, devoted several pages of her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), to her friendship with this woman; the influence of Big Sweet is highly visible in characters in Hurston's novels. Although Hurston gives few details about her appearance, the woman's name, with its suggestions of physical power and sexual attractiveness, of strength and tenderness, aptly sums up her character…. Though fearsome, Big Sweet is not feared as much as she is respected, because the community draws a distinction between meanness and the defense of one's integrity…. Big Sweet becomes the author's guardian and guide. (pp. 374-75)

A crucial incident recounted in Mules and Men pits Big Sweet against her arch rival, Ella Wall…. Ella Wall enters the camp "jook" (a combination dance hall, gaming parlor and bawdy house) and sends a bold message to Big Sweet's man. The two women exchange verbal insults and then physical threats, until the conflict is halted by the arrival of the white quarters boss. While Ella Wall is disarmed and thrown off the job, Big Sweet stands up to the white man and refuses to yield her weapon…. Big Sweet's increased respect is not earned at the cost of her femininity. Her value as a woman is in fact enhanced by her fierce conduct. After the argument, her lover proudly escorts her home.

Zora Hurston knew that approval of Big Sweet was not shared by the world outside the lumber camp. The life of this hardliving, knife-toting woman was the stuff of myriad stereotypes. And Hurston seemed all too aware of this judgment when she wrote, "I thought of all I had to live for and turned cold at the thought of dying in a violent manner in a sordid sawmill camp."… Passages such as this have caused some critics to accuse Hurston of being condescending and self-serving in her presentation of the poor. She does seem to be playing to her audience here; sordid voices their opinion of the camp and its people. It does not express Hurston's view. Her problem was to legitimize Big Sweet's conduct without defending it or positing sociological explanations for it. (pp. 376-77)

The portrayal of Big Sweet anticipates the process of self-discovery Hurston's fictional heroines undergo. Like her, they must learn to manipulate language. The novels disclose Hurston's awareness that women, like children, are encouraged to be seen but not heard…. It was Big Sweet's talk though that first captured Hurston's attention. Her words were emblematic of her power, for they signaled her ownership of self. The ability to back up words with actions was a second indicator of an independent self. The care Hurston took to legitimize Big Sweet's behavior intimated the expected reaction to an assertive woman. Nevertheless, Hurston believed that individual black women could base their personal autonomy on communal traditions. In so doing, her characters achieved their status as heroines.

Lucy Potts Pearson is such a character. Although her husband John is its main protagonist, Jonah's Gourd Vine traces Lucy's coming of age as well as his. (pp. 378-79)

[John's] greatest fascination is with words. The verbal play of the plantation's children, the ribald ditties of youths, and the prayers and sermons of the elders spark John's imagination. To win Lucy's love, he must learn to speak for himself. Both lovers search for words that can express mutual affection and respect. (p. 379)

Recognizing that Lucy will not be swayed by the charms that capture other girls' affection, John yearns to master her language. Lucy assures him that he can learn recitations better than she, and he enrolls in school. Neither realizes that the needed words cannot be found in textbooks. They can only be learned from a deeper engagement with the folk culture. John achieves this when he spends a time in a work camp, where "next to showing muscle-power, [he] loved to tell stories." Upon his return, he is prepared to court Lucy in the traditional style. This time she is the one who must master a new tongue. (p. 380)

Although her book learning is commendable, Lucy is clearly not sufficiently conversant with the rituals of her own culture. This suggests an immaturity and lack of experience that would render her an unsuitable wife. The situation is saved only when Lucy helps John improvise a new ritual that can substitute for the old. The instrument is a handkerchief out of which John has crafted what Hurston calls "a love knot." The lovers hold opposite ends of it throughout the conversation, and when Lucy misses the riddle, she points John's attention to the knot. Regaining her ground, she asks John to state what is on his mind. Wary, he asks first for a kiss…. The kiss unlocks the poetic power that characterizes John's speech for the rest of the novel…. Their acting out of the courtship ritual predicts a marriage between two active partners, both of whom are able to manipulate language and negotiate respect between themselves and with others. It does not, however, foretell a marriage between equals. The prerogatives of maleness ultimately undo the balance.

Although he continues to profess and feel love and respect for Lucy, John Pearson does not remain faithful to her…. He struggles against his weakness, expresses remorse when he fails, yet lacks all insight into his behavior. A serious flaw in the novel is Hurston's failure to provide a compelling motivation for John's conduct. A reader may infer that John's irresponsibility is, at least in part, a legacy of slavery. (p. 381)

Lucy is, by contrast, a new black woman. Whenever John is irresponsible, Lucy is prepared to compensate. What he lacks in ambition and initiative, she is more than able to supply. She had defied her family to marry him and remains steadfast in her love and loyalty. She even looks with compassion on John's struggle to conquer the "brute beast" within, a struggle that intensifies after he is called to the ministry. John's spiritual call is genuine, but his acceptance of it also permits him to design a self-image independent of the white world. His move to Eatonville has further encouraged this possibility. There he can assume his rightful role as leader, his talents can be given free rein. The canker that galls is his recognition that Lucy deserves much of the credit for his success….

[The] following passage … measures the damage the marriage suffers.

Lucy, is you sorry you married me instid uh some big nigger wid uh whole heap uh money and titles hung on tuh him?"

Whut make you ast me dat? If you tired uh me, jus' leave me. Another man over de fence waiting fuh yo' job."…

John's reaction to Lucy's verbal play is a violent threat; he will kill her if she ever repeats that fanciful remark. He stakes out claims of ownership, vowing to be Lucy's first and last man. Calming himself, he asks why Lucy has said such a thing. Her response is telling: "Aw, John, you know dat's jus' uh by-word. Ah hears all de women say dat." Lucy is answering John in terms sanctioned by the folk culture, terms that allow for her autonomy. She is engaging in the same kind of verbal sparring the courtship ritual required. The "by-word" would permit Lucy to negotiate respect in this exchange too, but John is no longer concerned with Lucy's ability to participate in cultural traditions. He concedes that the expression is a common one, but forbids her to use it.

Lucy continues to be supportive of John's career. Through her maneuvering, John becomes pastor of a large church, moderator of the State Baptist Association, and mayor of Eatonville. He can never accept her assistance as a complement to his gifts…. John's real defense against what he perceives to be Lucy's domination is other women. Of course, she cannot retaliate in kind. Words are her only defense, righteous, chastising words that strike fear in John's heart but fail to make him change his ways. (p. 382)

[Lucy] has mastered the language and absorbed much of the wisdom of her culture. In the end, she apprehends some of its limitations. She hears the silence where the sayings affirming female identity should be. She espies the untaught knowledge that no one can live through someone else and begins to teach it. Without her realizing it, the folk culture through her husband had assigned Lucy Pearson a "place"; she warns her daughter to be on guard against such a fate. Loving John too much, she has acquiesced in her own suppression. At her death, she remains on the threshold of self-discovery. (p. 383)

Published before Mules and Men though written afterward, [Jonah's Gourd Vine] was Hurston's first opportunity to share at length the discoveries of her fieldwork. She incorporated so much of her research that one reviewer objected to her characters being mere pegs on which she hung their dialect and folkways. The objection is grossly overstated, but it does highlight a problem in the book. Too often the folklore overwhelms the formal narrative. The novel is enriched nonetheless by its numerous examples of the Negro's "will to adorn," many of the expressions coming directly from Hurston's notes. She believed resolutely that blacks aspired for and achieved beauty in their verbal expression. With extraordinary care, she sought to reproduce their speech exactly as it was spoken. Given these concerns, John Pearson's was necessarily the key role. As preacher, hence poet, he represented the verbal artistry of his people at its height…. This profound engagement with his culture causes John's struggle to reconcile his physical and spiritual selves to take precedence over Lucy's effort to claim her autonomy. In Hurston's second and most compelling novel, the female quest is paramount. The heroine, through acquiring an intimate knowledge of the folk culture, gains the self-knowledge necessary for true fulfillment.

With the publication of Their Eyes Were Watching God, it was clear that Zora Neale Hurston was an artist in full command of her talent. Here the folk material complements rather than overwhelms the narrative. The sustained beauty of Hurston's prose owes much to the body of folk expression she had recorded and studied, but much more to the maturity of her individual voice. The language of this novel sings. Unlike Lucy, Janie, the heroine of Their Eyes, is a fully realized character. During the twenty-odd years spanned by the plot, she grows from a diffident teenager to a woman in complete possession of her self. Two recurring metaphors, the pear tree and the horizon, help unify the narrative. The first symbolizes organic union with another, the second, the individual experiences one must acquire to achieve selfhood. Early reviewers thought of the novel as a love story, but recent commentators designate Janie's search for identity as the novel's major theme. Following the pattern we have observed, Janie's self-discovery depends on her learning to manipulate language. Her success is announced in the novel's prologue when, as a friend listens in rapt attention, Janie begins to tell her own story.

The action of the novel proper begins when Janie is sixteen, beautiful, and eager to struggle with life, but unable to articulate her wishes and dreams. Her consciousness awakens as she watches bees fertilizing the blossoms of a pear tree…. Janie's response to the scene and her acceptance of its implications for her own life are instructive: "Oh to be a pear tree—any tree in bloom!" Janie acknowledges sexuality as a natural part of life, a major aspect of her identity. Before she has the chance to act on this belief, however, her grandmother interposes a radically different viewpoint.

To Nanny, her granddaughter's nascent sexuality is alarming. Having been unable to protect herself and her daughter from sexual exploitation, Nanny determines to safeguard Janie. Janie must repress her sexuality in order to avoid sexual abuse; the only haven is marriage. Marriage had not been an option for Nanny, who as a slave was impregnated by her master; her mistress had forced her to flee with her newborn infant. Her daughter was raped by a black schoolteacher, convincing Nanny that male treachery knows no racial bounds…. She arranges for Janie to marry Logan Killicks, an old man whose sixty acres and a mule constitute his eligibility. "The vision of Logan Killicks was desecrating the pear tree, but Janie didn't know how to tell Nanny that." So she assents to her grandmother's wish.

Joe Starks offers Janie an escape from her loveless marriage. He arrives just after Logan Killicks, despairing of his efforts to win his wife's affection by "pampering" her, has bought a second mule and ordered Janie to plow alongside him. Perceiving that Killicks's command threatens to reduce her to the status her grandmother abhorred, Janie decides to escape with Joe. Their marriage fulfills Nanny's dreams. Eventually it causes Janie to understand that the old woman's dreams are not her own. Initially though, Joe Starks cuts a fine figure. Stylishly dressed and citified, he is a man of great ambition and drive…. Tempering her reservations that "he did not represent sun up and pollen and blooming trees," Janie resolves, "he spoke for far horizon. He spoke for change and chance."… (pp. 383-85)

It quickly becomes apparent that, like Nanny, Joe has borrowed his criteria for success from the white world. He takes Janie to Eatonville because there, he believes, he can be a "big ruler of things." His ambition is soon realized. He buys property and opens a store which becomes the town's meeting place. He decrees that roads be dug, a post office established, a street lamp installed, and town incorporation papers drawn. Already landlord, storekeeper, and postmaster, Joe runs for mayor to consolidate his power. After his election, he builds a large white house that is a travesty of a plantation mansion, and then furnishes it in the grand manner right down to brass spittoons. (pp. 385-86)

Joe assigns [Janie] the role of "Mrs. Mayor Starks." She must hold herself apart form the townspeople, conduct herself according to the requirements of his position. Under no circumstances must she speak in public. Starks first imposes this rule during a ceremony marking the opening of the store. The ceremony has occasioned much speechmaking, and toward the end, Janie is invited to say a few words. Before she can respond, her husband takes the floor to announce:

Thank yuh fuh yo' compliments, but mah wife don't know nothin' 'bout no speech-makin'. Ah never married her for nothin' lak dat. She's uh woman and her place is in de home….

Joe's announcement takes Janie by surprise. Unsure that she even wants to speak, she strongly resents being denied the right to decide for herself…. Being forbidden to speak is a severe penalty in an oral culture. It short-circuits Janie's attempt to claim an identity of her own, robs her of the opportunity to negotiate respect from her peers. Barred from speaking to anyone but Joe, she loses the desire to say anything at all. (p. 386)

After seven years of marriage, Janie recognizes that Joe requires her total submission. She yields. As she does so however, she retains a clear perception of herself and her situation, a perception that becomes her salvation in the end…. Facing the truth about Joe allows Janie to divorce him emotionally. She accepts her share of responsibility for the failure of the marriage, knowing now that if Joe has used her for his purposes, she has used him for hers. Yet she understands that her dreams have not impinged on Joe's selfhood; they have been naive but not destructive. By creating inside and outside selves, she hopes to insulate the core of her being from the destructive consequences of Joe's dreams. She cannot claim her autonomy, because she is not yet capable of imagining herself except in relationship to a man. Still, she is no longer willing to jeopardize her inner being for the sake of any such relationship.

Janie remains content to practice a kind of passive resistance against Joe's tyranny until he pushes her to the point when she must "talk smart" to salvage her self-respect…. So unaccustomed is Joe to hearing his wife "specify" that he imputes nefarious motives to her words. Ill and suspicious, he hires a hoodoo doctor to counteract the curse he believes Janie is putting on him. No curse exists, of course, but Starks is dying of kidney disease and of mortal wounds to his vanity. As he lies on his deathbed, Janie confronts him with more painful truths. (pp. 386-87)

The attack on her dying husband is not an act of gratuitous cruelty; it is an essential step toward self-reclamation. Moreover, in terms of the narrative, the deathbed episode posits a dramatic break with Janie's past. She is henceforth a different woman. Independent for the first time in her life, she exults in the "freedom feeling." Reflecting on her past, she realizes that her grandmother, though acting out of love, has wronged her deeply. At base, Nanny's sermon had been about things, when Janie wanted to journey to the horizons in search of people. Janie is able at last to reject her grandmother's way and resume her original quest. That quest culminates in her marriage to Tea Cake Woods with whom she builds a relationship totally unlike the others she has had. (pp. 387-88)

[With Tea Cake], Hurston explores an alternative definition of manhood, one that does not rely on external manifestations of power, money, and position. Tea Cake has none of these. He is so thoroughly immune to the influence of white American society that he does not even desire them. Tea Cake is at ease being who and what he is. Consequently, he fosters the growth of Janie's self-acceptance. Together the achieve the ideal sought by most characters in Hurston's fiction. They trust emotion over intellect, value the spiritual over the material, preserve a sense of humor and are comfortable with their sensuality. Tea Cake confirms Janie's right to self-expression and invites her to share equally in their adventures….

[Although Tea Cake is a strongly idealized character, he] has had difficulty accepting Janie's full participation in their life together. Zora Hurston knew that Tea Cake, a son of the folk culture, would have inherited its negative attitudes toward women. She knew besides that female autonomy cannot be granted by men, it must be demanded by women. Janie gains her autonomy only when she insists upon it. Under pressure, Tea Cake occasionally falls back on the prerogatives of his sex. His one act of physical cruelty toward Janie results from his need to show someone else who is boss in his home. In the main though, Tea Cake transcends the chauvinistic attitudes of the group. (p. 388)

The marriage of Janie and Tea Cake ends in the wake of a fierce hurricane that is vividly evoked in the novel. In the process of saving Janie's life, Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog. Deranged, he tries to kill Janies and she shoots him in self-defense. Despite these events, the conclusion of Their Eyes Were Watching God is not tragic. For, with Tea Cake as her guide, Janie has explored the soul of her culture and learned how to value herself…. Having been to the horizon and back, as she puts it, she is eager to teach the crucial lesson she has learned in her travels. Everybody must do two things for themselves: "They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin' fuh theyselves."… This is Janie's text; the sermon she preaches is the novel itself. She has claimed the right to change her own words.

Hurston was never to duplicate the triumph of Their Eyes Were Watching God. In her subsequent novels, she changed the direction of her work dramatically. Moses: Man of the Mountain (1939) is a seriocomic novel which attempts to fuse Biblical narrative and folk myth. Seraph on the Suwanee (1948) is a psychological novel whose principal characters are upwardly mobile white Floridians. Although Hurston's willingness to experiment is admirable, the results are disappointing. Neither of her new settings is as compelling as the Eatonville milieu. Though the impact of black folk expression is always discernible, it is diminished and so is the power of Hurston's own voice. In these novels, the question of female autonomy recedes in importance, and when it is posed in Seraph, the answer is decidedly reactionary. (pp. 388-89)

[In Seraph on the Suwanee Hurston] restates the major themes of Their Eyes Were Watching God, perhaps in a misguided attempt to universalize them. Here the protagonist is Arvay Henson Meserve, who like Janie searches for self-identity. She is hindered in her quest by the deep-rooted inferiority she feels about her poor cracker background. For the wrong reason, she has come to the right conclusion. As Hurston depicts her, she is inferior to her husband Jim and the only identity she can attain is through accepting her subordinate role as his wife…. Early in the novel, Arvay reflects that if she married Jim, "her whole duty as a wife was to just love him good, be nice and kind around the house and have children for him. She could do that and be more than happy and satisfied, but it looked too simple." The novel demonstrates that it is much too simple, but at the conclusion the happiness Arvay supposedly realizes is achieved on exactly these terms. The problem is Hurston's inability to grant her protagonist the resources that would permit her to claim autonomy. Although Arvay "mounts the pulpit" at the end of the novel, she has no words of her own to speak.

Ultimately, Arvay's weakness may be less a personal problem than a cultural one. Though black characters play minor roles in the novel, black cultural traditions permeate the narrative. They influence everyone's speech, so much so that at times the whites sound suspiciously like the storytellers in Eatonville. Jim relishes the company of his black employees, whom he treats in a disgustingly condescending manner; and one of his sons, after being tutored by a black neighbor, leaves home to join a jazz band. Unlike the earlier protagonists, Arvay cannot attain her identity through a profound engagement with the folk culture, because she has no culture to engage. The culture of the people Arvay despises has supplanted her own. Seen from this perspective, Seraph on the Suwanee is not as anomalous or as reactionary a work as it otherwise appears.

From any vantage point, however, it represents an artistic decline. Hurston was at her best when she drew her material directly from black folk culture; it was the source of her creative power. Throughout her career, she endeavored to negotiate respect for it, talking smart then sweet in her folklore and fiction, proclaiming its richness and complexity to all who would hear. Her most memorable characters are born of this tradition. In portraying them, she was always cognizant of the difficulties in reconciling the demands of community and the requirements of self, difficulties that were especially intense for women. The tension could not be resolved by rejecting the community or negating the self. Hurston challenged black people to dig deep into their culture to unearth the values on which it was built. Those values could restore the balance. They could give men and women words to speak. They could set their spirits free. (pp. 391-92)

Cheryl A. Wall, "Zora Neale Hurston: Changing Her Own Words," in American Novelists Revisited: Essays in Feminist Criticism, edited by Fritz Fleischmann, G. K. Hall & Co., 1982, pp. 371-93.


Hurston, Zora Neale (Vol. 7)


Special Commissioned Essay on Zora Neale Hurston, Margaret Earley Whitt